The Filthy Narcissist Guide to Kyoto
Hi guys! I'm so excited to bring you my second official travel guide, this time focused on Kyoto, Japan! Kyoto was one of the places I knew I had to visit during my year abroad and it definitely lived up to the hype. I was especially pleased to get the chance to go in autumn, as the leaves were changing to a beautiful red and the weather was really pleasant. While I did a lot of the typical tourist stuff, I also managed to find some unique places that I think you guys will really enjoy.
Getting to Kyoto was probably the most expensive part of our journey, but also one that I really enjoyed. I opted to take the Shinkansen, AKA the bullet train, which was so convenient. I opted for a non-reserved seat which I think is the best choice as you aren't tied down to any set time. This was perfect as we ended up getting to the station later than we anticipated, but were able to easily just grab the next train. The trains also ran surprisingly often, leaving every 5-10 minutes! This made travel such a breeze, especially with the non-reserved seat, as we could choose when we wanted to go and easily grab the next one if the number of non-reserved seats filled up. The train itself was super clean, which is to be expected here in Japan. The views were also really lovely on the way to Kyoto and definitely helped put me into a more relaxed, country-side mindset as we left the bustling sights of Tokyo behind. The scenery on the way was mostly farms, small towns, and beautiful mountains. I think I spent the entire trip just looking out the window and enjoying some music. I'm not sure how I'm going to return to Amtrak's disastrous ways after such a lovely train journey.
There is another cheaper option to get to Kyoto, which is the overnight bus. Two girls in our group decided to go this route. While it is significantly cheaper, it is also much longer and arrives in Kyoto at 6AM. While this would be fine if your accommodations let you check in that early, ours did not, leaving the girls stuck to wander around Kyoto for almost 9 hours! This is definitely something to keep in mind while you choose which way to go. However, for a budget option, it seemed light years better than the train services in the USA as it was much cleaner and even provided you with a blanket (I'm not sure about you guys, but if a Greyhound or Mega Bus ever provided me with a blanket I don't think I'd touch that thing with a 10 foot pole).
Where To Stay
Since there was five of us, we all opted to stay in an Airbnb and split the costs. This was one of our best decisions as our Airbnb made it much easier for us to all spend time together, prepare breakfasts in the morning to save money, and enjoy a relaxing evening watching Japanese television together after a long day of sightseeing. Our Airbnb even provided us with pocket wifi, which allowed us to all be connected throughout the day on our journeys (this inevitably led to a lot of spam on our Instagram stories). Our Airbnb was located right near Nijo Station, which made getting around to all the sights of Kyoto an absolute breeze. It also was near a supermarket, a 7-11, and a few restaurants and was overall a perfect location. The Airbnb itself was super spacious with really comfortable beds and our host even included things such as toothbrushes and a coffee maker which made the whole experience just so much better and cheaper. The host was really helpful and quick to reply, and even let my friends who came early on the bus drop their bags off before check in. The price split between the 5 of us was also incredibly reasonable, and only a few dollars more than what we would've paid for a hostel. Since we had such a lovely experience at this house, I'm linking it in case any of you guys need a great place for a group to stay in Kyoto!: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/28750461
Day 1: Temples Galore!
Okay, now on to the good stuff: what I did and what I wore!
For my outfit, I decided to go with a very classic autumnal look. Kyoto is known for its beautiful autumn foliage and I kept that in mind when packing. I also wanted something functional for our first day as I knew it was going to be packed with sightseeing. I decided to wear my white button down ASOS shirt, paired with my Alexa Chung denim skirt to make walking around a breeze. Since the weather in Kyoto is a bit cooler, I put on my plaid Theory jacket, and added a red neck scarf for a pop of colour and a touch of warmth. I also decided to bring my beautiful red Gucci bag along as a main accessory piece for the weekend, and it matched perfectly with my outfits as well as the scenery in Kyoto. It was also super spacious and allowed me to carry around all my necessities for the day, including the lovely pocket wifi provided by the Airbnb host.
For our first day, we decided to do the classic Kyoto route and head to Arashiyama. This is a great place to start your trip because there are tons of temples, shops, and the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest all in the same area. It makes for a super productive day of sightseeing and has something for everybody. The temples were absolutely gorgeous, and were all free to enter. There was an additional fee to go into places like the gardens and what not, but we decided to not do this as we wanted to see as many temples and sights as possible rather than spend a whole day in one of them. The temples were also not too crowded considering how many of them were close by, and was a really relaxing way to spend our first day.
As for lunch, we ate on the main street across from all the temples at a soba place called Iwawo. The food was really delicious and fresh, and everyone fully enjoyed their meals. My friend Catherine discovered her new found love of cold soba, which has continued even after we've returned to Tokyo. I personally opted for the hot soba with tempura, which was really warming after a cool walk around. After that, we headed over to the famous bamboo forest. Unlike the temples, the forest was absolutely packed with tourists! It was a bit frustrating trying to push through the slow moving crowds in order to explore but I think the views of the bamboo are worth it. As soon as you began to stray from the main path it cleared up a bit and we were able to explore at our own pace and not bump into people every few seconds. There were also a few little temples up here which were really cute and surrounded by tons of nature. To head back to the main road we decided to avoid the super crowded main area of the bamboo forest and cut through some backroads instead. These roads were all really beautiful and had a gorgeous view of the mountains. I honestly preferred this to the bamboo forest because I think it gave a more genuine feel to what Kyoto was like. I also just love the mountains and being able to see them and all the lovely foliage was really nice. We even stumbled upon a nice lake on the way back, and a little playground nearby where Georgie and I stopped to play on the swings. Overall, it was a really lovely day of sightseeing.
Day 2: The Golden Temple and Shrimp on a Stick
Our first visit of the day was to the famous Golden Temple, also known as Kinkaku-Ji or the Golden Pavilion. This was again something that I had been dying to see in Kyoto and I'm so, so glad I did. It was one of the few places I've been to that really lived up to the hype despite all the crowds and what not because it was absolutely stunning. I'd highly recommend checking it out when you come to Kyoto because I'm sure you won't be disappointed. We were lucky enough to come on a day with beautiful weather as well, and the way that the sun shone off the gold leaf temple was absolutely breathtaking. Pictures can't even do it justice. The grounds surrounding it were also really lovely, but the temple itself is definitely the star of the show.
As for my outfit, I unfortunately paled in comparison to such beautiful sights. However, I was still really into what I wore. I paired my Moussy button down tan skirt with my TinTin shirt, both found here in Tokyo. I added my neck scarf again, this time tied in a classic knot rather than a cowboy-inspired bandana. I threw on my green Opening Ceremony jacket for warmth and finished the look off with my classic Balenciaga red bag. As for accessories, I wore my really cute origami earrings which I think tied in all the red and also gave the look a bit of interest.
After walking around the grounds of the golden temple, we went to Nishiki Market for lunch. It took us a while to get there and I was embarrassingly hangry by the time we did. However, I was lucky because I was completely surrounded by food! To start off, we decided to get a real meal at the udon restaurant Fumiya. Udon is one of my favourite foods and this place did not disappoint. They're best known for their hotpot Udon, which two of my friends got. It contains fresh seasonal ingredients and really delicious things such as savoury mochi that are unique to Kyoto. I enjoyed a chicken udon that again, contained a chicken cooked in a traditional Kyoto fashion. I'd highly recommend this restaurant and it was not crowded at all considering the quality of food and the ease of location. However, we were in a food market so lunch wasn't enough. My friend Catherine and I were eyeing up all the various shrimp on a stick concoctions, including a grilled shrimp and a shrimp tempura. We ended up trying both, because, duh, and while they were both delicious the grilled shrimp was really the star of the show. It was jumbo shrimp, grilled to order, topped with lemon and salt. The shrimps themselves were so juicy and sweet, and the lemon and salt just added a little extra touch of flavour without overwhelming the natural flavour of the shrimp. I also got some mochi tossed in peanut powder, which is a Kyoto speciality and one of my favourite Japanese desserts!
After the food market, we walked around a bit and suddenly stumbled upon one of my all time favourite finds in Kyoto: A bar called Sours, which was dedicated exclusively to making fresh fruit sours. As everyone who's met me here knows, sours are my absolute favourite drink. I'm not sure how I'm going to survive without them in America. They're made with scshochu, fruit (usually lemon), and sparkling water. They're so simple but so delicious. The lemon ones in particular taste like lemonade. Anyway, this sours bar was an absolute heaven. They had all types of fresh fruit sours that were made to order, and had unique flavours like Kiwi and Pineapple. The inside was also so cool, with lots of dried flowers, fun lighting and plants. The logo outside was also amazing, featuring a neon sign with a hand drawn logo on it. This logo is also on their business cards, and I snagged a few to put on my bulletin board at home to remind me of such an amazing place. I really recommend you guys check this place out after heading through Nishiki Market. It's so close by and the bar itself is (unfortunately) not a chain and therefore really unique to Kyoto. It's a great way to relax after trudging through the crowds of the market and just watch the people go by on these fashionable backstreets.
To end our busy day, we headed to an onsen. This was one of our must-dos while in Kyoto, and we were especially pleased with the one we chose. While I unfortunately did not write down the name, there are plenty of onsens in Kyoto and I'm sure you'll be able to find one that suits your fancy. Ours was cheaper than most, but still had an outdoor option which was really nice and allowed us to enjoy the clear night sky in Kyoto. It was super affordable and so, so relaxing! For those of you who are nervous about going to an onsen because of their dress code policy (or lack of it), don't be! Each onsen is split by gender and there are people of all ages, including children who go along with their mothers, which I think just makes it a really inclusive and non-judgemental environment. It may be weird for the first few seconds, especially for those not used to it, but as soon as you settle in it just becomes really relaxing and nice. We were actually too tired to even head out to dinner afterwards so we ended up just eating pizza and watching a movie at home. I actually ended up passing out (after eating a disgusting amount of pizza) at like 9, which is absolutely unheard of for me. It was the perfect end to such a fabulous day of sightseeing.
Day 3: Nijo Castle and Fushimi Inari Shrine
For our last day in Kyoto, we decided to head to Nijo Castle and the famous Fushimi Inari shrine. Our first stop was Nijo Castle, which was really close to our Airbnb. After dropping our bags off at the train station lockers, we headed for the castle. The castle is a really famous example of architecture from Japan's feudal period, and was built in 1603. The start and end of the shogun period took place in this castle, which is super interesting. It also contains the famous nightingale floors, which make noises as you walk through. This was probably the only place we went to that had an admission fee, but it was a very reasonable 600 yen (around $5.50 USD). However, while the history of the castle is incredibly interesting, I found it to be a bit of a let down. The rooms were completely empty and the original paintings on the walls had been taken down and replaced with temporary replacements while we were there. I found it to be a bit disappointing overall. Even the grounds were less interesting than, for example, the ones at the Golden Temple because they were far more manicured and didn't show off Kyoto's natural beauty. Overall, I'd still recommend making the trip to the castle but I wouldn't dedicate much time to it.
After the castle, we headed out for lunch at one of the most outrageous restaurants I've ever been to: Fire Ramen. At first, I thought the name had something to do with the spice level of the ramen or something like that. I was completely wrong: they literally set your ramen on FIRE in front of you. It was so crazy. The man running the place was so friendly and clearly really into what he did, and he even had selfie sticks set up in the back so that you could film your ramen being set on fire. While they keep the process a secret, the fire is definitely not underwhelming and was equal parts terrifying and fascinating to watch. The food itself was also pretty good, and the sides such as fried rice and gyoza were so tasty. Overall, the experience itself was amazing and I'd highly recommend going for a super fun, affordable lunch option! It may not be traditional but it was definitely super unique and we all had a blast doing it as well as sending the videos to friends and family (many who were surprised we still had eyebrows left after the whole ordeal).
After that exciting meal, we headed to the Fushimi Inari shrine. This is the famous red gate shrine that I'm sure you guys have seen all over your Instagram, Pinterest, etc. when looking up pictures of Kyoto or even just Japan in general. The shrine itself is huge, and contains over a 1,000 of these red gates!! They go all the way around the mountain, and being the dedicated tourists we are, we decided to walk the whole route. This was especially nice because it gave us a chance to enjoy the red gates, take pictures, etc. without having the hoards of tourists that you found at the foot of the mountain. The shrine was also filled with cats, who were so friendly and adorable! This was especially a plus for me because I am an absolute crazy cat lady. This was another place that, after you pushed through hoards of tourists, definitely lived up to the hype and was really beautiful. I would recommend saving enough time to walk around the entirety of the mountain. It's not a hard walk, but just a long one. There are also plenty of places to stop, grab some water, and rest on the way. There's also some really lovely viewing spots along the way to sit, relax and enjoy the views of Kyoto. At the top is a shrine where you can make wishes for the future, but don't expect any peak views.
As for my outfit, I knew I had to dress up to take pictures for the shrine visit. While my choice of footwear was questionable considering the literal hike we ended up doing, I still was comfortable and happy with my choice. I wore my black mock neck Topshop dress, my H&M baker boy cap, my Theory plaid jacket, and accessorised with two of my favourite Gucci pieces: the red bag from before and my brand new, lovely sneakers that have a little bee embroidered on them. I especially love how the bee carries in the bug motif on my bag.
I hope you guys enjoyed my guide to Kyoto and I'd love to hear about/see pictures if you guys visit any of the places I recommended (especially the amazing sours bar). Overall, I'd really recommend visiting Kyoto because it's such a pleasant trip away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and shows a much different side of Japan. The scenery and everything is absolutely breathtaking, and we didn't have a single bad meal or experience while we were here. I can't wait to hopefully come back again in spring to be able to see the blossoms as well!