Tokyo was fantastic, but everyone we spoke to beforehand repeated that we would regret it if we didn’t make it to Kyoto. They were right, Kyoto is beautiful and a very different buzz to Tokyo. To be honest there was more of a mass tourism vibe from certain parts of the city, despite this I really enjoyed the short time I spent there. Here are my thoughts after spending my last two nights in Japan in the city.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare to Latin America, but the hostel we stayed in was the best we’ve seen so far. The wasabi guest house is an old Japanese style house, complete with tatami floors, sliding thin door between the rooms and a Japanese garden with a pond full of koy. The staff were lovely and there was self service tea and coffee all day. Our dorm was a six bed room that looked like something from the set of Kill Bill. They even had a Japanese style bathroom with a deep tub, and shower & stool set up.
Kyoto on Two Wheels
The best thing we did was rent bikes for 24 hours. This gave us freedom to get to and from our hostel with ease, to explore at a bit of pace and enjoy riding a bike for the first time in a while.
The first night we cruised through Pontocho alley and hit the Geisha area of Gion before cycling down to the river bank with a beer, a bottle of sake and a few snacks for our aperitif. It was a great moment mixing the peacefulness of the river with the buzzing masses of tourists above roaming the streets and pouring in and out of the bars and restaurants.
The next day we did a whistle-stop tour starting with the bamboo forests in Arashiyama followed by a jaunt up the hill to see the wild Snow Monkeys. We stopped of for a cold drink in a random cafe and quickly became the centre of attention of the 5 Japanese clientele who were already there. They were very curious, asking us where we were from and very importantly if we had any piercings or tattoos. The language barrier limited the depth of the conversion but it was one of our nicer local moments from the trip. They even gave a great recommendation for a Japanese public bath.
The way back to the city we hit Ninna-ji and Kinkaku-ji temples before needed to refuel at a convenience store. This was where we saw beautiful sites but also felt a bit caught up with the masses of (mostly Asian) tourists. We enjoyed the sites where it was quieter and you weren’t avoiding selfie sticks and stubborn Asian grandmothers.
All templed Out
The first thing you notice about Kyoto is that there are beautiful ancient shrines and temples everywhere. You can’t wander down an alley without stumbling across some ancient Buddhist temple, emperor’s palace, or even just someone’s house with that fantastic Japanese architecture and rooftops. Kyoto didn’t have the earthquake in 1923 and wasn’t bombed during World War 2, so unlike super modern Tokyo, Kyoto’s past is alive in the streets.
Ninna-ji and the other temples we saw were really impressive and we barely scratched the surface. However about five, we started to suffer from temple fatigue. There’s definitely a diminishing return on temple viewing on that scale.
My last night in Kyoto was in a couch surfing next to Toji station with host Shun. He’s setting up a hotel in another old style Japanese house house but before everything is up and running he’s letting couch surfers crash there.
While waiting for Shun we found a dingy yakitori bar, sheltered from the rain and sat at the bar ordering round after round of meat on skewers surrounded by salarymen and a collection of manga. A fitting send of to my first trip to Japan.
Before I knew it my two nights Kyoto were up and I was on a 4:30 AM bus to Osaka airport to catch a flight to Korea. Kyoto was short but sweet. There is a side to it that is a bit too touristy for my tastes but we managed to find a great balance and have the craic but saying goodbye (for now) to Japan.
- Tattoo are not cool in Japan. We were told that historically only gang members (Yakuza) had tattoos. In fact most public baths won’t let you enter if you are tattooed.
- Bike parking is serious in Kyoto. You can’t just leave your bike on the street, it has to be in a designated bike parking.
- Osaka Airport is an artificial island built on the sea. In fact I think I saw it on the discovery channel years ago. Definitely living in the future.
- Kyoto has more post offices per capita than anywhere else in the world (probably).
- Kyoto cyclists can cycle on any side of the road in any direction. Surprisingly chaotic but they don’t seem to notice.
- In an attempt to try every strange snack at the convenience stores I purchased what can only be described as a single tube shaped crisp that tasted like Monster Munch.
- This sign was posted in the seating area of the convenience store. Must be those damn punk Japanese kids studying everywhere.
- Japanese night buses have curtains and dividers in-between seats so you don’t have to acknowledge the person beside you. Success.