Bamboo Groves and Temples in Kyoto

We took the time old tradition of riding the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto. The Shinkansen was located in Tokyo station, however it was located in a different wing and different level, so even though we left Shinjuku station two hours before our train departure, we only had about 30 minutes before our train departed (not that much time to get bento!), and I thought it was confusing to find. I would recommend buying your tickets the night before, at any subway station, to save time and stress the day of. 

Another tradition is to get bento boxes for the ride, but by the time we got to the train, we barely had time to pop in a convenience store and pick up a single small bento box.
It took about 2.5 hours to get to Kyoto main station, where we once again used coin lockers to store our lockers and then took a quick metro ride to Arayashima (Saga Arashiyama station), where the famous bamboo grove is. You can keep your Suica card to use on the Kyoto subway system, but you'll lose your 500 yen (around $5) deposit as you can't return your Suica card outside of Tokyo. It's about 15 minutes on the subway, and then another 15 minutes walk from the train station to the bamboo grove.

Walking into the bamboo grove, you definitely feel a sense of magic washing over you. I could imagine kung fu warriors (a la House of Flying Daggers) flying among the bamboo trees and half expected a panda or a monkey to pop out from the trees.

After the bamboo grove, make sure you walk down the main street down to the river where there are a ton of shops and restaurants. I imagine the river would be beautiful now when the trees are all in bloom. There's also the famous coffee shop % Arabica Coffee, which had lines out the door by the river. One thing we missed was the monkey park! It's located across the river from the bamboo grove, so by the time we walked down to the river we ran out of time to cross the bridge and climb the mountain to the monkey park before it closed for the night. 

There's another subway stop right on the main street (Arashiyama) which is on a different subway line however also takes you back into the heart of Kyoto. We took the Keifuku line to the central Nishiki market area. Nishiki market is a huge food market (think outer Tsukiji) but also located in the center of a busy shopping district close to Gion. 

Kyoto is known for its takoyaki (octopus balls)

After browsing the market some, we headed off to the best meal we had in Japan, Matsuzakagyu What's! We were ready for wagyu that night (after tons of ramen and sushi in Tokyo) and while Otsuka Steak in Arayashima was closed that morning, I was determined to eat Japanese beef at least once. I found the restaurant through Trip Advisor and we were lucky enough to be seated right away without a reservation (though you should probably expect a line). We were invited to take off our shoes and whisked off to our private room by a server, who was our own personal "geisha" for the night. The restaurant is located in an 80 year old house, and reminds me of dining in someone's home overlooking a little zen garden. 
We started off with beef tartare, which ended up being my favorite dish of the night. I wish we ordered another! 
A medley of kimchi
The beef they serve is Matsusaka beef, a type of wagyu that rivals Kobe in Japanese beef. 
We grilled it yakitori style on our personal grill--as expected, the beef was melt in your mouth delicious (though I ended up preferring it raw)
After that great dinner, we took a taxi to our Airbnb for the night, a traditional Japanese style river house with the tatami mats on the floor. After traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto and then touring half of Kyoto, I was exhausted and promptly flopped on the floor. Ironically, sleeping on the floor on the tatami mats was the best rest I got this trip!
We woke up to this amazing view, looking straight out onto the river. Even though the walls were paper thin, they were really insulating and surprisingly soundproof. The house was so integrated into the river that it actually felt like we were staying on a boat with the narrow galleyways. 
One of the highlights of the trip was taking the time to sit on the couch, sip our coffee, and stare out the window and eat our breakfast in peace that morning, without rushing to catch a plane or bus. My mom even contemplated dropping it all and retiring here, at least for a second.
Our second day in Kyoto, we decided to take the Kloop Bus (basically a hop-on, hop-off bus, around $18 per person, catch it from Kyoto station) around to many of the city's famous sites, including Nijo Castle, Golden Pavilion (Kinkaju-ji), and Kiyomizu-dera. They had a bunch of other sites on the bus loop like the Silver Pavilion and Nishiki market, but with the way the schedules worked out, we only had time to do 2-3 sites, and so the bus wasn't worth it. Taxis are more affordable in Kyoto than in Tokyo and so if you have more than 3 people, I would recommend just taking taxis around. 
We went to Nijo castle first, but there was a long line out and didn't pay for the admission to go in. We decided to make more time to see our other destinations, including the Golden Pavilion, a temple that is coated in gold foil. This was definitely worthwhile, not just for the famous photo opportunity, but because it's located in a picturesque, extremely well groomed garden, a perfect example of a Japanese zen garden. 

Our next stop was Kiyamizu-dera, a classic Japanese temple with great views from the veranda located at the top of a windy mountain lined with shops and restaurants. Climbing up the hill was really fun as you get to see all the girls dressed up in their kimonos and get to sample the ice creams and desserts.
I definitely debated renting a kimono outfit! But the logistics were complicated and it was too cold so I didn't :(

This was the famous "love stone" mountain, where you're supposed to touch one stone and then find your way blindfolded to the other stone located about 10 feet away, and obviously, find your lover if you succeed. Of course, my mother seized the opportunity and basically pushed me up the stairs!

Excited for our fortunes

Alas our fortunes turned out bad. Guess I was meant to remain unlucky in love forever.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari gates


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