There are some travel destinations that are lovely to visit, and some that change you. As cool as Tokyo was, it paled in comparison to the magic that is Kyoto. Kyoto is the former capitol of Japan and known as “the city of temples”… and despite the fact that it’s a large city with all the modern amenities, it lived up to every preconceived notion I had of Japanese architecture & beauty.
I had a hard time putting this post together because how could a blog post possibly do justice to a place so beautiful that just felt… magical? I guess the answer is: I can’t. But if you have a future trip to Japan on the books I hope this will help you plan your own magical itinerary.
bamboo grove + Okochi Sanso Villa
The Arashiyama bamboo forest is a must see. It’s a beautiful stroll but depending on the time of day, very busy. To really enjoy some peace and serenity I recommend buying entrance to Okochi Sanso Villa. It’s a private residence perched above the bamboo forest, with stunning gardens and breathtaking views. This was (unexpectedly) one of our top experiences in Japan! At the end of the path turn in your ticket for a cup of authentic matcha tea and gaze out over the bamboo forest from above. Cost: 1000 yen
Iwatayama monkey park
A short walk from the bamboo forest is the Iwatayama monkey park. Be prepared for a walk (wear sturdy shoes) because the park is about 20 minutes uphill… but if you’re an animal lover it’s totally worth it. The monkeys here are free to roam among the human visitors which is really a sight to see. If you want to feed them you have the option to step into a human cage and hand them apples & nuts from inside. Cost: 550 yen
The Kiyomizu-dera temple is perched up on a cliff and offers spectacular sweeping views over Kyoto. Besides the view thre are numerous gorgeous little nooks & crannies to discover. Don’t miss the Love Stones, an ancient pair of rocks said to bring you luck in love if you can walk from one to the other with your eyes closed. Cost: 400 yen
P.S. Don’t forget to grab some matcha mochi & ice cream while you’re in Arashayama! Cost: 1000 yen depending on your sweet tooth
I’ll apologize in advance that my photos do the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine absolutely no justice. Prepare to feel like you’ve just stepped back in time or onto a movie set… this is one of the most beautiful places on earth that I’ve had the privilege to see (actually I think experience is a more accurate verb than see). Walk the long path through 10,000 torii gates leading to the inner temple & back. We came in the evening and made it to the top by sunset… despite the rain it was a stunning view (although a slightly scary walk back down in the dark). Cost: free
Nijo Castle (Nijojo) is one of the most amazing examples of feudal Japanese architecture. Here you can actually take your shoes off and walk the same wooden floors as lords did hundreds of years ago. Stroll through at your own pace, learn about the history of the palace and the formality of Japanese high culture all while drooling over the stunning architecture & gilded wall murals. Cameras weren’t allowed inside so you’ll just have to use your imagination 😉 Cost: 600 yen
Hungry? Take a stroll through the famous Nishiki Market, a feast for the eyes (and stomach). I couldn’t try much (dammit dietary restrictions!) but my favorite treat was a hollowed out grapefruit made into a rum cocktail 😉 Kyoto is known for it’s mochi so try all the different flavors, and don’t miss the spectacle of mochi making… it’s an intense process! Cost: entrance is free, food is budget friendly
The formal Japanese tea ceremony actually originated in Kyoto, so I highly recommend attending a tea ceremony class here vs. Tokyo if you have the choice. We went to Tea Ceremony Ju-An which was a short walk from Kyoto station and it was such a lovely experience! Our teacher gave us a full rundown on the history of the tea ceremony, the zen state of mind behind the ritual (very similar to yoga – yoga lovers this experience is not to be missed!), the pomp & circumstance, and even gave us the hands on experience of making our own proper cup of matcha tea. Best of all our host was kind & accommodating, so we were able to enjoy the moment without worrying too much about sitting perfectly or accidentally breaking the rules. Two giant thumbs up from this tea lover! Cost: 2000 yen
Fellow animal lovers, listen up: schedule a full day to hang out in Nara and thank me later. This isn’t actually in Kyoto, it’s a city of it’s own easily accessible via the JR Rail. In Nara deer roam the streets & parks and will happily pose for a photo op or a pat on the head in exchange for some deer cookies. Excuse my goofy grin but I was jumping out of my skin with excitement! Just don’t ask me what’s in a deer cookie, I don’t think I want to know. Honestly I could have just spent the whole day getting in my deer cuddles… but Dan was there to talk some sense into me and after a while we walked down to Tōdai-ji temple, home of the world’s largest bronze Buddha. I couldn’t even capture the magnitude of place (or the entire Buddha) on camera, it was magnificent. Cost: 500 yen + 300 yen for deer cookies
Rent A Kimono
Of course I can’t go without mentioning the kimono experience! Get the full scoop on wearing a kimono in Kyoto and where I rented mine. Cost: appx $45 USD