kyoto: mochi, temples, and all that zen

So, uh, we got married! And we went on a honeymoon! To Japan! And it finally seems like time to bring this here old blog back to life. So: Kyoto, here we go.

In all honesty, it was a place that was lower on my list. Yes, friends had sworn it was the most lovely city in Japan, and yes, I knew it would have pretty canals and ancient temples, and lots of tea (and yes, I do love tea), but at heart I’m a city girl and, well, it sounded awfully soft.

And truth be told, it is slow (at least outside the booms of the mad packs of tourists). And understated, and frankly it was freezing while we were there. But it was also strangely philosophical, and beautiful, with a thoughtfulness in small touches that made you want to seek more. Beyond the great big sites, there seemed to be a growing community that was focused on the minimal, the original. There were simple luxuries, lots of dark wood, and yes, hushed voices.

So yeah: go. See the canals, eat some mochi, and feel terribly zen about it all.

See:

Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine - One of the most famous sites in Japan. Beautifully vivid orange torii gates with fox imagery everywhere. As you walk from the (close) train station, you’re surrounded by vendors and tourists, but it’s a buoyant crowd and the snacks are solid. Fun fact: each gate is sponsored by a corporation. I’ll let you decide how much to read into what that says about Japan today, but either way - a really fun way to kick off the city.

Gion - Well-known for being an old neighborhood that still plays host to geishas. Today, it’s filled with traditional ryokan inns and insanely designed boutiques. In the area is Shijo Dori Street, packed with shops. A few favorites were Gion Tsujiri, an incredible tea store (with impeccably designed boxes, great for gifts), and further down Ousu-No-Sato, specializing in plum everything, from jams to chiles to pickles.

Day trip to Arashiyama - Sagano Bamboo forest + Saiho-ji

The Sagano Bamboo Forest is lovely, but in peak season, so damn crowded. We arrived mid-morning and frankly, the people-watching outshone the natural wonders (and I say that with affection - if you haven’t seen thousands of people with selfie sticks, looking absurdly delighted by trees, you have not yet lived.). That said, it’s worth wandering through the path and detouring for pretty gardens. Or better yet: if you're an early riser, I'd try to get there pre-8am.

Saiho-ji, or the moss temple, is a gorgeous spectacle, or so pictures tell us. In a comedy of errors, I pulled a New Yorker (“it’s only a 45-minute walk!”) which turned into a pleasant, and only slightly panicked powerwalk through the backyards of local homes, two bus rides (fun fact: enter through the back doors; pay when you get out), and crescendoed with the discovery that the monks require you to write in advance and seek their permission to visit. A fair request, but one I had overlooked. So go! And tell me how it is!

Kinkaki-ji Golden Pavilion - a silly pavilion, not even the original! Yet, sillier not to go and see this 1955 incredibly shiny building. Pop onto the property for 10 minutes, wander through, and pop back out.

Ginkakuji Silver Pavilion - An improvement over gold, with gardens that snake along a hillside. Again, a visit doesn’t require much more than 30 minutes, but it gives you a better sense of those old times.

Philosopher’s path - A beautiful stone pathway lined with cherry trees along a canal in a residential neighborhood. A lovely walk, though note that it’s not particularly well lit in the evening.

Honen-in Temple - By far the most beautiful and serene place we visited. A few steps from the philosopher’s path, it was surprisingly quiet, and a great place to see the small, carefully placed elements of a Buddhist temple - a camellia flower at the mouth of a foundation, a soaring stack of rocks that never fall.

Nishiki Market (9:30-5:30 everyday): A covered market with vendors selling egg-stuffed mini octopi, fermented eggplants, housewares, and everything else you could need. Definitely touristy, but definitely fun. It’s also home to Aritsugu Knives, perhaps the man’s favorite outing in all of Japan. Even I will admit that those knives can cut through cans, and more! (But really: great knives.)

For those who are perhaps less inspired by sharp objects, just around the corner was a lovely woman selling the best homemade mochi we had all trip. The classic beanpaste and strawberry was incredible; the tangerine was mindblowing (a tangerine! In a mochi!) and the seasonal sakura mochi, wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf, was salty and sweet and had umami for days. (To find: look out for a table set out with flat plastic bins - items were not individually wrapped).

Kiyamachi-dori Street in the Pontocho - Spend an evening wandering through, having drinks in small places. In all honesty: we were craving sleep at 8pm so we didn’t take this in the way we could have, but hey, it’s there.

Ryuouen - A tea shop that’s been standing since the 19th century. Matcha is hand-ground on the spot, the room centers around tatami mats, and little English is spoken. Highly recommend.

Stardust - A trek into a residential neighborhood, but actually magical. Vegan sweets, carefully selected linen, a crystal on every table. It should be twee, but instead it's simply graceful. We stopped by for tea and scones, but I’d return to Kyoto just to have lunch.

Next door is Hanaya Mitate, known for beautiful flowers and plants, and a short walk away is the coffee shop Wife & Husband. We sadly landed up there at a time they were closed, but next trip: we will go for the fluffy toast, we will ask for the ‘picnic set’ to take to the canal banks, we will feel like we are in a dream.

Eat:

Hale - An unexpected gem within Nishiki Market. A tiny hallway leads to a dark, quiet space, with seating just for a few. Remove your shoes, enter the darkened dining room and have a set meal, in the style of shojin ryori  cuisine (vegan Buddhist).

Honke Owariya - an ancient soba shop. There are a few locations now, but the original is in a tiny house and very charming. Order the cold soba, which comes in a tiered basket so you can carefully top each bite with just the right mix of tiny shrimps and little egg bits and scallions and sesame seeds and soba sauce, and begin again. The hot yuzu cilantro version was totally surprising and totally delicious. Parsley in Japan!

Monk - Just beautiful. Tiny restaurant along the Philosopher’s Path from a young chef previously at Noma. The centerpiece is a wood-burning oven and the peak of each meal is carefully prepared pizza, with your requested toppings. We went with nori, which was as briny and bright green as you might guess, and unlike anything we had had before. If you’re there on a Sunday, rumor has it he occasionally does brunch which seems like the perfect meal for the style.

Giro Giro - One of those restaurants that comes up on every Kyoto list. It’s a great chance to have kaiseki, or a traditional Kyoto meal of set small courses, albeit with a modern twist. It was good food, though truthfully, less memorable than we hoped.

Musashi - Friends recommended this conveyor belt spot (thanks guys!) and it was a blast. Grab plate after plate, drink a beer, help yourself to the piped in tea.

Hayashiya - little matcha spot in a central area. Head to top floor of building and order tea, cakes, ice creams whatever you can think of, all green and matcha-y. Across the street is Naito Shoten, a tiny broom (!) store from the 19th century. I had to be physically stopped from crating off the sweetest looking bristley version that would've required a suitcase to itself. (And yes: this is what Japan does to you. You find yourself wanting to buy a broom, because it's the most handsome damn broom you've ever seen.)

And we’ve heard…

On my deathbed I will say, “Why, oh why did I not have matcha softserve when I could?”. On every street corner giant ice cream signage beckoned. Matcha! Sakura! Sesame! Other great flavors! And yet, I was cold and sure we had weeks ahead of ice cream consumption. Little did I know that Tokyo does not sport this same frozen obsession. Please. Go. Eat said softserve. And cry tears for me and my shortsightedness.

Awomb - I had seen a few pictures of beautiful platters of fish with a selection of fresh leaves and vegetables and herbs and who knows what colorful things to make your own sushi and thought it sounded lovely. Apparently it is, or at any rate Instagram-worthy, because we waited in line not once, but twice (...when not in NY, apparently our tolerance increases?), and were turned away each time. I gather if you arrive two hours early, and don’t mind being surrounded by the chatter of 20-something ladies, you will have a fantastic time.

Kiyomizu-dera - Had we had an extra day, next on the seeing list would have been this temple, sporting views and a veranda, and said to be surrounded by small Buddhist restaurants.

Pass the Baton - We walked past this coffee and drinks spot along the most pretty stretch of canal we ever did see, and regret not going. Rumor has it they have beautiful treats. (It’s also connected to the Tokyo vintage store of the same name).

Menbou Miyoshi - Famous udon: so many noodles, so little time.

Tiger Gyoza - They say to order the giant banana gyoza. That’s all I’ve got.

Hitomi - Known for yakitori (though you’ll get your fill in Tokyo)

Logistics:

  • Kyoto was a great place to start while we were still jetlagged - it lacks the frenetic nightlife of Tokyo and three or four days seemed like the right amount of time.
  • Trains are easy. The Shinkansen is fast, if not cheap. If traveling from Tokyo, request the Fuji-san side when you buy your ticket at the counter. While the sushi and teriyaki boxes sold near the tracks are actually quite good, take the extra 20 minutes to venture into whatever mall seems to be attached to the station. There will be a food floor with infinite options.
  • Within Kyoto we primarily walked and trained. One of my biggest regrets is not capturing the strange beauty of the local train cars: jewel-toned velvet benches (purples, greens), and the most picturesque Olympic-ring style grips.
  • Most of Japan tends towards cash only, with the exception of a few (pricey) restaurants and bars. While most ATMs are not set up for US cards, 7-11s are everywhere and conveniently do indeed have international ATMs.
  • On the etiquette: Before a meal begins, you're generally handed a warm towel (or a packaged towelette). Clean your hands, then gently fold it and move it to the side so it can be used as a napkin throughout the meal.
  • It was peak season while we were there so we ended up splitting our time between two hotels: Royal Park Hotel The Kyoto and Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa. While the first sports an amazing name and a NYTimes rec for its easy location and great pricepoint, it was honestly not a great experience. Rude staff, dark rooms. The Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa, on the other hand, had an equally great location and a hilariously large lobby with giant tour groups from around the world. The staff was enthusiastic, if not the most ept, and the room was actually quite lovely and light. Great value, and would stay there again for a quick trip.
  • And most importantly: the toilets. Deserving of their own post, they were as amazing as one hears, and even our budget-friendly hotels sported the most excellent Toto models. Most public restrooms also have a friendly English note posted to point to the flusher, but if they don't, look on the top of the control panel and push the leftmost. (Though one of my favorite memories is of a 20-strong tour group of Malaysian women giggling in their scarves as they each went in and out of the three stalls pushing all the buttons, while a pair of Scots loudly declared the problem "IT WON'T FLUSH, DEAR!" "OH DEAR, HAVE YOU TRIED THAT ONE?" "NO DEAR!" Hilarity all around, bathroom humor is universal.)