***This is part 9 of my “Fat and Furious” trip report detailing a recent trip to Japan which included stops in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Matsuyama***
2. Star Alliance First Class Lounge at LAX
3. Singapore Airlines Suites Class Los Angeles to Tokyo
4. Conrad Tokyo
5. Eating Tokyo Part 1 – Department Store Hopping in Ginza
6. Funaya Ryokan In Matsuyama
7. Living The Onsen Life In Matsuyama
8. The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto
9. Eating Kyoto – The Search for Matcha and Geisha
10. Kaiseki Dinner at 3-Michelin Star Kikunoi Honten
11. The Peninsula Tokyo
12. Eating Tokyo Part 2 – Maids, Robots, and Cosplay
13. Eating Tokyo Part 3 – Cherry Blossoms and THE BEST STEAK EVER
14. ANA Business Class Lounge at NRT
15. ANA Business Class Tokyo to San Jose
As first-timers to Kyoto we realized that there was a LOT to see and do, and we were going to attempt to cram as much as humanly possible into the next 4 days.
By the time we had settled into the hotel it was early evening, and we headed out to Gion with a couple goals in mind. Firstly, we wanted to find some good food, but we soon realized this was one of the few places where our “tourist trap” radar went off and ultimately decided to eat elsewhere. Secondly, we wanted to go Geisha-spotting, and had heard that around 5-6pm in Gion was one of the best times to do this.
After an hour of walking in circles through Gion we eventually gave up and turned out attention to food. With the help of Yelp we discovered Chojiro Sushi and arrived to find a long line stretching out-the-door. It was filled with a mix of locals and tourists, and the windows of the restaurant were plastered with TripAdvisor signs which is usually a tell-tale sign of a tourist trap.
We ultimately stuck around, mostly because I was starving and didn’t want to move, and the food here turned out to be damn good food and relatively cheap. The best feature was the restaurant’s menu and ordering system – the menu was loaded onto and iPad with detailed descriptions and pictures in several different languages, and everything could be ordered directly from there.
Highlight of the meal was a live mackerel which was filleted on the spot, with the carcass then deep fried afterwards.
Kyoto is well-known for its abundance of matcha, or green tea-flavored food, and after dinner we were on the hunt for dessert. We stumbled into Tsujiri and walked out with this amazing green tea ice cream parfait.
After a fantastic night of sleep at the Ritz-Carlton, the next day we were fully rested and ready for some serious sight-seeing. We started on foot toward Kyoto Station. The weather had been unseasonably cold this year, which meant that the cherry blossom-lined streets had barely started to bloom.
About 30 minutes later we arrived at Kyoto Station along with the morning crowds. First order of business, finding some breakfast.
KFC-flavored chips!?!? Yes, please.
But since I was in Kyoto with a matcha-maniac, my wife’s rule was that every meal had to have something with matcha. So off we were to line up at Manneken for breakfast part II.
The line was particularly slow, which I suspect was due to the fact that each individual waffle that people bought was wrapped beautifully. Like the express-lane at the supermarket, there should have been a separate line for “No Need For Packaging – Eating RIGHT NOW”. But my irritation was soon erased after a bite of those delicious Belgian waffles.
Even though we enjoy walking as much as possible, our abbreviated timeline meant that we were going to need some wheels to help us get around.
Kyoto is extremely bike-friendly, and we loved cruising along the river and the streets. Unlike the San Francisco Bay Area where bikers and cars seem to mix like oil and water, the drivers in Kyoto couldn’t have been nicer and despite our erratic and reckless biking, we didn’t get honked at once.
We joined up with the “Kyoto Small Group Bike Tour” booked via Viator on our first day which took us around to a few of the second-tier sites. While I wouldn’t recommend the tour, it was nice to have a guide give us a crash course in navigating the city which made us more comfortable biking by ourselves later on.
Here’s one of the first stops we made on the tour, the _________ temple [like I said, I wouldn’t recommend the tour and clearly wasn’t paying attention].
While we had been searching for Geisha, we instead had the pleasure of stumbling upon a sumo wrestler.
While 99% of the cherry blossom trees in Kyoto had yet to bloom, that made us appreciate the early-bloomers even more. Each time we saw one we’d stop by to take a closer look.
After the half-day tour we were on our own for the next couple days, and we went on a binge of temples and shrines, starting with Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Temple.
While the temple itself didn’t stand out, the sand art was absolutely stunning.
And a beautiful and serene stroll around through the garden along the water.
Outside each temple there was always an large array of food and shopping stalls, and this was where we did most of our eating during the day. Outside the Silver Temple we started off with some of the freshest mochi I’ve ever had which had been coated in matcha dust.
Then some matcha ice cream to wash it down.
We tried the “special” Kyoto beef bun which wasn’t anything but special, but the fried chicken was delicious.
Next, we biked across town to the Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Temple and with the help of our electric bikes, we were able to make it across town in about 20 minutes. In my opinion, biking is the best way to get around and often times is just as fast, if not faster, than taking the bus or subway especially when taking into account waiting times.
We met up with our friend Haagen-Dazs for a snack.
And then inside to view the Golden Temple, which was pretty darn magnificent. This is probably one of the most heavily visited attractions in Kyoto, and it was wall-to-wall people from the moment we stepped inside.
As we biked back through Gion afterwards, our luck turned and we stumbled upon a Geisha. There were plenty of Geisha imposters around, but my wife who is a self-proclaimed expert in this topic after reading Memoirs of a Geisha confirmed the authenticity of this one.
All along both sides of the Kamogawa there were paths leading down from the street to the river banks. This was by far the best place to bike since there was no traffic and the scenery is just gorgeous. There were a couple stone walkways across the river, including one right by the hotel, and we had some fun hopping across.
We ditched the bikes for part of the day and traveled via subway to Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is one of the signature sites in Kyoto. We thought that the shrine was just going to be a photo op, and didn’t realize until we arrived that it’s actually a serious hike. We only made it about halfway up before turning back since we were ill-prepared, and I’d imagine that it’s at least a 2-3 hour hike to do the full trail to the top of the mountain.
Outside the shrine we grabbed some snacks, including some fresh takoyaki, and a red bean-flavored pancake in the shape of fish that was unfortunately devoured before I remembered to take a picture.
Then onto the other signature site in Kyoto, the bamboo forest. This place is truly magical and pictures really don’t do it justice.
The next day we were on a mission to eat, and the day started with a visit to Daimaru department store where we headed straight for the basement level. There was an impressive Kit Kat storefront featuring some special edition green tea flavors. We regrettably bought some here, and later found the same thing in the Harajuku district of Tokyo for a fraction of the price.
I prefer savory over sweet anytime, so you can imagine my excitement when I spotted this huge vat of braised pork belly, and wanted to stick my face in it like I was bobbing for apples.
Daimaru actually had an outdoor seating area so we grabbed a few things and had a department store picnic. The pork belly didn’t make it in to this picture, since it was devoured en route to the table.
Afterwards, we walked across the street to Nishiki Market which is a huge outdoor food market featuring all types of foods, but seemed to specialize in fish and other seafood products.
One of the first things we got were baby octopus with a quail egg stuffed in the head.
Next up, an assortment of fried and grilled fish.
For a food-lover like myself, to me this was as much of an attraction as the Bamboo Forest and Golden Pavilion. It was incredibly fun soaking in all the sights and smells.
And now, the highlight of our visit to Nishiki Market, matcha kettle corn mixed with matcha ice cream. It was so good that we actually walked back for seconds.
On our way out we passed by this insanely huge and daunting crab statue that subsequently haunted my dreams for the next couple days.
Our last stop in Kyoto was on the way back to the hotel at Ippodo Tea Store. We passed by this pink pig smoker which I thought was cute at first, until I realized the irony of cooking pork ribs inside a pig. Hannibal Lecter would be proud of the cannibalistic symbolism.
Ippodo had a great selection of teas, and some good instructional material for novices like ourselves. After trying no fewer than 10 different types, we settled on some sencha tea.