There’s no other person I would rather be in Kyoto with than my mum. If there was one person who would appreciate the many temples in the city with me, it’s her. If there was one person who would accompany me to explore the many hidden lanes, it’s her. If there one person who would eat as much as I do, it’s her. If there was one person who would allow me to plan an entire itinerary and just come along for the ride, it’s her. We visited Kyoto together in the tail-end of summer in September — and had such an awesome 5 days in the city.
The city of Kyoto is the capital of the Kyoto prefecture in the Japanese region of Kansai. Located in the island of Honshu, the city is a popular tourist destination — along with the nearby metropolitan cities of Osaka and Kobe. Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital for more than a thousand years (before it moved to Tokyo), and is famous for everything that is traditionally Japanese. Think centuries-old temples and shrines, beautifully clad Geishas, traditional machiya and ryokans, ancient arts and crafts, and well-preserved streets and lanes. To read about why I love the city (and if you don’t have 5 days to explore), visit my post here:- Mynn’s Top 10 Reasons Why I Fell in Love with Kyoto.
Most people visit Kyoto on a day trip (and sometimes stay a night or two); but because we wanted to immerse ourselves in this ancient city a little more, we stayed for 5 days. This was our itinerary.
Arriving in Kyoto
Our flight on AirAsia X (from Kuala Lumpur) arrived at the Kansai International Airport in the morning. From there, mum and I got on the Limited Express Haruka that whisked us straight from the airport to Kyoto Station in 1 hour and 20 minutes. We pre-booked our combined ICOCA and Haruka passes online — for JP¥5,200 (US$47), we got a round-trip to and from the airport and Kyoto Station, as well as a JP¥2,000 credit (inclusive of the JP¥500 deposit that is returnable in exchange for the card) on the ICOCA card to use on public transports around Kyoto. You can book and find more info here.
We arrived at Kyoto Station just before noon, and hailed a taxi (there are buses and trains available but we decided to opt for convenience due to our luggage) that dropped us off at our hotel, the Hotel Gracery Kyoto Sanjo in the central Sanjo area of Kyoto.
Day 1: Getting to Know Kyoto
By the time we checked-in to our hotel and freshened up after our overnight flight, it was time for lunch. I chose to stay at the central Sanjo area of Kyoto as it is filled with lots of shopping streets, big malls, and of course — the Nishiki Fish Market! Our first day in Kyoto was mainly to get ourselves acquainted with the city (so we did a little walking around).
Lunch at Nishiki Fish Market
The Nishiki Fish Market was just about a 10-minute walk from our hotel. However, mum and I were both so eager to see the city (and explore all the small shops along the way) that we took almost an hour to get there. However, once we arrived at the market, there was no stopping us! Nishiki Market is the place in Kyoto to get a taste of Japan’s famous fresh seafood; after all, it is the city’s most popular traditional food market and known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”.
The market runs a couple of blocks, and is filled with souvenir shops, food stalls, and most important of all, fresh seafood stalls. Mum and I probably stopped at every single shop we came across — we had baby octopus stuffed with quails egg, tiger prawns, sashimi, barbecued oysters, a whole uni, takoyaki, soft serve ice-cream, and I really can’t remember what else I stuffed myself with. Each meat stick starts at about JP¥500 (US$5) a piece, so I really think we spent a fortune at the market.
It was almost evening by the time we completely devoured all of Nishiki Market. It was time to head to our very first introduction to this temple city, and I wanted to visit the most significant shrine in all of Kyoto on our very first day. From Nishiki Market, we walked towards the Gion-Shiki Station and took the train to the Fushimi Inari Station. Most train journeys around the central Kyoto area range from around JP¥210-230 (~US$2) per way.
Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine
There is nothing quite as gorgeous and impressive as Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine, dating as far back as the 1st century. I was just completely mesmerized by the bright red/orange torii gates that line the pathway of the shrine, all the way to the top of the Inari Mountain. Many locals visit the shrine to pray to Inari, the God of Rice; and many visitors come to explore the mountain trails either in the early morning or the late evening. We didn’t make the climb to the top, but spent our time just admiring and walking through the thousands of torii gates, and the many fox statues around the shrine (believed to be Inari’s messengers). Entrance to this Shinto shrine is free.
Dinner at Matsuba Honten in Gion
We left the Fushimi-Inari Shrine just as the summer sun began to set. We arrived back at the Gion-Shijo Station and decided to walk over to Gion for dinner at Matsuba Honten. The restaurant serves one of Kyoto’s signature bowl of noodles, the Matsuba Nishin-Soba. This dish was first created in Kyoto in 1882 — it consists of soupy soba noodles topped with a sweet stewed mackerel. A bowl costs about JP¥1,300 (US$12), and is a pretty simple yet filling meal.
After dinner, we took a leisurely 20-minute walk (while admiring the night life of Kyoto) back to our hotel for the night.
Day 2: Arashiyama and Northern Kyoto Temples
On the second day of our Kyoto trip, we spent the first half of the day in the beautiful district of Arashiyama; and then headed towards northern Kyoto to visit the many famous temples in the area. I wanted to be one of the first visitors to visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove for the day (cause I wanted to avoid the crowds), so Mum and I both headed out at about 7.30am. We walked to the Kawaramachi Station and took the train to Omiya Station; and then transferred to the Randen tram-line from Shijo-Omiya Station to Arashiyama Station. From there, it is only a 10-minute walk to the entrance of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
We arrived at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove before 9am (opening time 8.30am). It was so enchanting walking through the pathway lined with thick green bamboo stalks reaching up towards the sky. There was almost a greenish glow as the morning sun shone into the grove. It was really very pretty — and even more so because there was hardly anyone around and we almost had the entire place to ourselves. We walked all the way to the end of the grove, taking as many pictures as we could before the crowd arrived.
The Okoshi-Sanso Villa is located at the end of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Now this villa is not a palace or a temple — it is an estate previously owned by the famous film actor Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962). The villa is now opened to the public, and for a fee of JP¥1,000 (US$9), we got to walk around its beautiful gardens, hike to a small hillpoint that overlooks the city, and visit the main Japanese house. If we weren’t on a timed itinerary, we could have gotten lost in this gem of an estate — but I think we rather relished that hour or so we got to soak in the serenity of the place. Especially with that lovely warm cup of macha tea and Japanese sweets we got to savor at the teahouse set in the middle of the villa’s gardens.
After our visit to the villa, we walked back through the bamboo grove (by late morning, it was already filled with people) towards the Tenryu-ji Temple. The bamboo grove connects to the temple via the north gate, so we entered through there. Admissions cost JP¥500 (US$4.5) to excess the garden area, and an additional JP¥300 (US$3) to enter the temple. Mum and I decided to only walk around the garden area — I really just wanted to see the main landscape garden that features a pond with a rock garden and pine trees, blending beautifully into the Arashiyama mountains in the background. The temple was built in 1339, and only the gardens survived the centuries — the buildings were all rebuilt later on.
It was almost noon by the time we left Tenryu-ji Temple, and we took some time to walk around Arashiyama. The main street is lined with small stalls selling local Japanese crafts, souvenirs and snacks, and was filled with tourists. While walking towards the famous Togetsu-kyo Bridge that connects the Hozugawa River; I noticed many classic rickshaw ‘runners’ transporting tourists around the town. The ‘runners’ are mainly muscled macho men in hugging t-shirts and short tights, so they were quite a sight!
Lunch at Yodofu Sagano
Then it was time for lunch. While in Kyoto, I wanted to have a meal of tofu (white soy curd), because the city is famous for all kinds of tofu — pure tofu, yudofu (tofu simmered in hot broth), and yuba (skimmed tofu skin). And the place to have a delicious tofu dish in Arashiyama is at Yodofu Sagano. The restaurant serves yudo, a Buddhist specialty of tofu chunks simmered in clear broth, with a ponzu sauce dip that brings out its light flavors. We ordered the set lunch at JP¥4,000 (US$36) and it was pretty big — so I was glad they allowed mum and I to share. The tofu was soft, silky and delicious; and we enjoyed our meal tatami-style, overlooking the beautiful garden courtyard of the restaurant.
After lunch, it was time to leave Arashiyama and head over to explore the northern Kyoto temples. We took the Randen tram-line from Arashiyama Station to Ryoanji Station. From there, it was about a 15-minute walk towards the Ryoan-ji Temple. One of the main reasons for a visit to Ryoan-ji Temple is to see Japan’s most famous karesansui (rock garden) inside the temple grounds. The rock garden features 15 rocks laid out on a rectangular plot filled with carefully arranged small smooth pebbles. People sit around on the wooden benches to admire the rock garden — for a very very long time. It is said to instill the zen in you; but even though I found the garden fascinating (and sat for awhile), there is only so much idleness that I can take. The vast temple grounds (which includes a large pond) were also lovely to walk around in. Entrance cost JP¥500 (US$4.5).
Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
From Ryoan-ji Temple, we took a very short bus ride to our next stop for the day, the glistening Kinkakuji Temple. Kinkaku-ji translates to the Golden Pavilion, and just like its name, is completely covered in gold leaf. The Zen temple overlooks a large pond and can only be admired from afar. It has a history that dates as far back as the 14th century, though the current structure was re-built in 1955. The temple is undoubtedly magnificent to look at — but because I was there in the mid-afternoon, the number of tourists that swamped the place was absolutely overwhelming. After visiting the main temple, I was pushed by the crowds through the temple grounds — visiting the other shrines and temples, the gardens, the small ponds, and also a teahouse in the vicinity. Tickets to enter cost JP¥400 (US$3.5).
After visiting Kinkakuji Temple, we wanted to head back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner. We took a bus at the entrance to Imadegawa Station; and then the train to the Karasuma Oike Station. A 20-minute walk from the station brought us back to the Hotel Gracery Kyoto Sanjo.
Dinner at Omurice Kyoto Luf
I was craving for some omurice (omelette rice) that night, and because I couldn’t get a place at the famous Kishi Kishi Omurice (it gets booked out in advance, so reserve here) — we ended up at another joint about a 10-minute walk from our hotel, Kyoto-Omurice Luf. The omurice here is fried rice wrapped inside the omelette; and isn’t as video-worthy as the fluffy overflowing omelette that Kishi Kishi is known for — but it was still pretty good. I ordered the RUF omurice and mum had the minced beef one for JP¥860 (US$8) a plate.
Supper at Saryo Tsujiri
After dinner, we took a stroll around the main Gion stretch– and then decided we still had space in our tummies for some dessert. And what better dessert to have when in Kyoto than some matcha (green tea) ones! We have Tsujiri branches in Malaysia, and because the international chain is originally from Kyoto, I just had to visit one while in the city. The Saryo Tsujiri in the Gion area is usually crowded with people; but we were lucky that when we visited, the line was pretty short. I ordered the signature matcha parfait — and I have to say, it was heaven in a glass. I especially loved the matcha cake on top, and both mum and I smacked up every single bit down to the last bite!
That matcha parfait dessert was the best reward after a long day exploring the many temples of Kyoto. We had another temple-hopping day the next day, so we called-in early that night.
Day 3: Higashiyama Sightseeing District
On the third day, we planned to visit the temples in the Higashiyama district of the city — from the northern portion at Ginkakuji Temple, all the way to the southern area of the Kiyomitsudera Temple. The long trail involves a whole day of walking, so I told mum that at any point where she didn’t want to walk anymore, we’d just take a taxi to our next destination. We started the day early, and by 8am, was on the bus from the Kawaramachi Sanjo bus stop (near our hotel) to the Ginkakujimichi stop — just a 10-minute walk to our first stop of the day, the Ginkaku-ji Temple.
It costs JP¥500 (US$4.5) to enter the Ginkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion. The 15th century temple lies along the north-eastern mountains of Kyoto, and despite its name, is not made of silver. The temple has a dark (almost black) exterior, and got its silver name from the silverish glimmer from the black walls reflecting the moonlight. I think that the temple grounds and its beautiful sand garden, moss garden, and the hill overlooking the entire compound and the city beyond, were more impressive than the actual main temple itself. We arrived at Ginkaku-ji just after opening time at 8.30am, so aside from a few visitors crowding around the main temple and the rock garden, the rest of the temple grounds were devoid of people.
The famed Philosopher’s Path begins just outside the Ginkaku-ji Temple, and follows a canal for about two kilometers to the area surrounding Nanzen-ji Temple. The canal is surrounded by cherry blossom trees (so you can imagine the crowds during the season), but because I was there in summer, the area was green, quiet and still. I can imagine why one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, Nishida Kitaro, used it to practice meditation while walking to path daily to Kyoto University — thus giving it its name. There are small restaurants, cafes and boutique shops along the path; and temples like the gorgeous Honen-in.
If there’s one temple in Kyoto that I absolutely fell in love with, it’s Honen-in Temple. Located along the Philosopher’s Path, it was completely empty when I visited — and that made it all the more alluring. There’s a certain magic to this temple, with its moss-covered roofs, sand mounds, quaint bridges, secret grottoes and mossy gardens. It felt as if I had stumbled upon a hidden temple that had not been discovered for a long long time. The main hall is only open to visitors certain times of the year (for a fee) when the flowers bloom or the leaves turn red, but it was closed during my visit. However, I think the real charm of the temple lies in its grounds, which was free to enter.
We walked all the way along the Philosopher’s Path, through the Nanzenji neighbourhood, and into the Nanzenji Temple. Dating as far back as the mid-13th century, the Nanzenji temple grounds are extremely vast, with many temples and subtemples located within its vicinity. Each have their own separate entrance fees, ranging from JP¥400-500 (~US$4), but we decided to skip them all and just roam the grounds that are open to the public for free. Upon entry, we arrived at the temple’s huge Sanmon entrance gate (climb to the top for a fee), as well as the Dharma Hall (no entry). Walking further in brought us to the Hojo (priest’s residence) and the main Nanzenji Temple. If you’re looking for secluded small temples, there are quite a few around the Nanzenji temple grounds to discover.
The most unique feature of Nanzenji Temple, though, has got to be the out-of-place huge brick aqueduct that runs through the temple grounds. It was built during Japan’s Meiji period (1868-1912), and used to carry water and goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa (in Shiga prefecture) as part of a more extended canal system. I guess it was just left there as it was for decades and decades, creating a rare photo-op in an otherwise typical zen temple.
It started raining as we prepared to leave Nanzenji Temple (it was really heavy so we had to wait at one of the subtemples for it to slow down). The initial plan was to continue the walk passing temples like Shoren-in and Chion-in, but the rain hampered all that. So instead, we took a taxi straight to the Gion area. It was about noon by then anyway, and time for lunch (and perfect to escape the rain for a little while), so we dropped in Izuji Sushi for some sushi!
Lunch at Izuji Sushi
Izuji Sushi is located just in front of the popular Yasaka Shrine. The restaurant serves the famous Kyoto-style sushi (kyozushi) and has been around for over 100 years. Kyoto rolls their sushi a little different from the rest of Japan — they are pressed into a wooden box to mould it, and are sometimes made with cured fish (for lack of fresh ones during those days). I really liked the quaint restaurant’s interior of wooden panels and paper walls — it felt like walking into a Japanese home. We ordered the 2-person sushi selection with the restaurant’s most popular dishes for JP¥3186 (US$30) per set. It had the Sabazushi (with big chunks of mackerel), the Makizushi (a traditional omelette sushi) and the Deluxe Hakozushi (perfectly boxed-shaped sushi with prawns, sea bream and eel) — and was really good.
The rain came and went in drizzles throughout the afternoon, but we still managed to walk the rest of the way and took shade whenever the rain came. After lunch, we walked over to Yasaka Shrine, also known as the Gion Shrine. Dating from as far back as the 7th century, the shrine is one of the famous ones in Kyoto and the main location for one of Japan’s biggest festivals, the Gion Matsuri. We walked into the shrine from the main Gion gate and visited the inner sanctuary and the offering hall. I think what stood out the most for me at the shrine is the dance stage that was decorated with hundreds of white lanterns. The shrine is open all year (and all day), and entrance is free.
Just next to the Yasaka Shrine is the Maruyama Park. There wasn’t much going on in the park in summer; but apparently it becomes the most crowded and popular place in the whole of Kyoto during the cherry blossom season. It was also raining during our visit, so we didn’t stay out in the open for too long.
The Preserved Streets of Kyoto
After the park, it was time to explore the many hidden lanes and preserved streets of Kyoto. The area between Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomitsudera Temple is filled with traditional wooden buildings and old machiya (merchant shops), giving us an insight into what Kyoto must have been like centuries ago. The buildings are now occupied by small boutique shops selling clothes, crafts and souvenirs, as well as cafes and restaurants. There are several shrines and temples around the area too.
One of the places I made sure to find was the secluded (blink and you’ll miss it) Ishibei-Koji lane. The short narrow lane twists and turns, and is lined with wooden panels that shield the inns and restaurants from the prying eyes of outsiders. I found it just so traditionally Japanese. After that, we continued south towards the ancient streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, two gently sloping lanes that are one of Kyoto’s best preserved streets. It was pretty crowded with tourists shopping and taking pictures, and visitors dressed in kimonos and yukatas walking around in clogs.
It started to drizzle a little while we were walking the streets. Mum and I wanted to stop by the world’s first tatami-style Starbucks in Ninen-zaka, but it was extremely packed with a long queue; so we opted to head to the Hello Kitty Cafe nearby. We ordered a green tea parfait (we were craving for it after having one the day before), but it wasn’t as good as Tsujiri’s. Still, I guess it was good enough to satisfy the cravings, and to wait out the rain.
Walking up the stairs from Sannen-zaka, and about 5-minutes down the main road — we finally reached our final destination of the day, the Kiyomitsudera Temple. The main temple was also under construction during my visit, but the JP¥400 (US$3.5) fee to enter was still worth it. The view from the wooden platform of the main temple was gorgeous, and I really enjoyed learning about the many rituals practiced at the temple and its subtemples.
Founded in 780 and built without nails, there is an ancient tradition of people jumping off the main temple’s platform for wishes to be granted. That ritual of course, is not practiced anymore. I, however, took part in the love ritual at the Jishu Shrine. There are a pair of ‘love stones’ set 18 meters apart at the shrine, and I successfully walked from one stone to the other with my eyes closed — which meant that I will one day find my true love! There is also the Otowa Waterfall below the main hall that is separated into three streams of water representing longevity, success and love. Visitors are advised to take a cup and only drink from one stream — and I chose love.
It started raining again when we left Kiyomitsudera Temple in the evening, so we took a taxi back to our hotel to freshen up before dinner. I wanted to have dinner at Pontocho Alley that night — one of Kyoto’s most popular dining areas. The alley is lined with a a variety of restaurants from fine-dining to traditional fares — and most restaurants have one side facing the alley, and the other facing the Kamogawa River. During summer, it is popular to dine on the verandah or the platforms along the river, but it was raining that night so we had no choice but to dine indoors.
Dinner at Kotoshi
We ended up at Kotoshi, a restaurant that offered both wagyu beef and Kyoto pork at affordable prices — serving their meat in various styles, which includes shabu-shabu (dipped in a hot pot), sukiyaki (cooked in a pot), sumibiyaki (charcoal grill) and iwayaki (grilled on an oven baked stone). Mum and I ordered the wagyu sirloin (iwayaki) and the Kyoto pork (sukiyaki) that cost us JP¥8,000 (US$75) altogether. It was an absolutely sublime dinner, and the perfect way to end the long day!
Day 4: Kurama and Kibune
After exploring the temples around Kyoto for almost 3 days — on the 4th day, we decided to take a trip a little out of town to the onsen villages of Kurama and Kibune. Tucked in the mountains, these two villages offer serene walks and mountain hikes, and is dotted with historic temples and shrines. It makes a lovely day trip out of the city, especially if you’re looking for some peace and tranquility away from the crowds. Our visit in summer coincided with Kibune’s kawadoko tradition, where people dine on platforms above the river, and fish noodles out of a bamboo pipe of flowing cold water. Kibune is also famous for the Kifune Shrine, dedicated to the God of water and rain.
Most people who visit these two rural villages like to hike the moderate mountain trail from one village to the other, but we decided to take the train instead! Kurama is famous for its impressive 8th century Kurama-dera Temple; but most people visit this village for its onsen (hot-springs) — a must when visiting the village. The myths and legends surrounding the mountains are also pretty captivating. Read more about my day trip here:- Kibune and Kurama’s Onsen, Temples and River-Dining Experience.
Day 5: Gion
On the last night of our trip to Kyoto, we decided to check ourselves into a ryokan — a traditional Japanese house. The city is filled with lovely ryokan for visitors to experience what it’s like living in Japan during the olden times. So imagine beautiful wooden houses with futons on tatami floors, sliding doors made of wood and paper, and pretty gardens in the middle of the house. During our stay at the Izuyasu Ryokan near Kyoto Station, we spent our time soaking in the onsen, walking around in our yukata, and enjoying a kaiseki dinner the night before, and a lovely Japanese breakfast in the morning. Find out more about my ryokan stay:- The Ryokan Experience at Izuyasu.
Geisha and Maiko Makeover
After our Japanese breakfast and checking out of our wonderful ryokan stay — we hopped on a bus that took us to stop that was about a 5-minute walk to my morning’s destination. It was time to experience what I was pretty much looking forward to my entire trip to Kyoto! I had booked a full Geisha makeover experience at Gion AYA at 10am — full white face, big wig, elaborate kimono and all. I ended up choosing to be a Maiko (Geisha apprentice) instead, and it was truly a eye-opening process going through the entire make-up and dressing process of a Geisha/Maiko. After my makeover, I spent lots of time taking photos in and out of the studio; and even got to take home all my photos to commemorate my time in their high clogged shoes. The whole experience took about 3 hours. Read about my makeover here:- My Maiko/Geisha Apprentice Makeover.
Lunch at Kagizen Yoshifuza
I was craving for something sweet by the time I got out of the heavy costume and took off all that thick make-up! A quick walk into the central Gion area brought us to Kagizen Yoshifusa — the best traditional sweet shop in the city with a 300-year history. Kyoto is famous for its traditional Japanese sweets known as kyo wagashi, and this was the place to get some; as well as kuzukiri, a popular summer dessert. Kuzukiri is a noodle dish made of starch powder from the root of a kudzu plant, and is served cold (with ice). The transparent noodles does not have any taste, so it is dipped in light sugar syrup (either brown or clear). While we enjoyed the kyo wagashi, the kuzukiri wasn’t exactly our kind of dessert. However, I can see why its light and cooling taste helps beat the summer heat. A bowl costs JP¥900 (US$8.5).
After all that sugar high, it was time to hit the streets of Gion. It was our final day in the city, and I believe we saved the best place for last. There is something just so captivating about Gion. We walked along the popular Hanami-koji area that is lined with sophisticated looking machiya (merchant houses) that now houses expensive kaiseki restaurants and luxurious ochaya (teahouses) served by Geisha and Maiko. After stopping by Kenninji Temple, we turned back and strolled towards the more scenic area of Shirakawa. This is probably my favorite place in all of Gion — where the willow trees hang above the Shirakawa River, and the ancient machiya houses line the quiet Shinbashi-Dori lane. It is so undeniably beautiful and scenic. I really didn’t want to leave Kyoto at all. I’m sure mum felt the same.
Early Dinner at Kyoto Station’s Ramen Koji
And then it was time to leave the city. By late afternoon, we returned to the ryokan to get our luggage, and walked over to Kyoto Station. But before leaving, we had one more final stop to make! I just had to have a meal of ramen noodles before I left the country, and one of the best places to get a bowl of Kyoto’s version of the ramen is at the Kyoto Ramen Koji (Street) on the 10th floor of the Kyoto Station. The entire floor has 8 small ramen shops with versions from different places in Japan, and we got our taste of the delicious Kyoto version at Masutani.
After our meal, we hopped on the 6pm train on the Limited Express Haruka straight to Kansai International Airport to catch our night flight back to Kuala Lumpur. Mum and I had a wonderful 5 days in Kyoto — a mother-daughter trip that will forever be etched in our memories.