Travel seems to be a universal love. Exploring other locales and cultures is inarguably intoxicating. But it’s not a universal pursuit. Many people find themselves restricted by time, money and responsibilities, in any number of combinations. I started traveling while I was in college, and it often required sacrifices in time and comfort to accommodate a minuscule budget. To see as much of the world as I could, I sat through timeshare presentations and slept on trains. And my adventures in lodging have included a middle-of-the-night flooding and relocation to a different hotel (and I confess to using this term rather liberally here).
But the challenges pale in comparison to the experiences and the memories. So despite such calamities as missed connections and lost luggage, I book the next flight and carry on. Justin and I have eased up on our travel schedule recently because our 17-year-old cat, Chloe, can no longer be left unsupervised. But with our families being dispersed all over the map, we still find the need to travel, though we now take turns so that someone is home with Chloe at all times. My recent turn with the compass came in the form of a family trip to Kyoto.
I’ve always been an obsessive planner when it comes to travel, although the tools have improved vastly from my early days. My friends and I used to lug around heavy guide books and giant maps, and today all we need is a smartphone and a good data connection. (In that regard, I can’t recommend Project Fi for eligible Android users enough — my access in Japan was seamless. And no data roaming charges!) We started with Google Maps, where my brother created a personalized map, threw on all the points of interest in Kyoto then shared it with the family. I then started a Google Sheet (Google’s version of Excel), also shared it with everyone, and started plotting out our itinerary using the map as a tool to determine which landmarks were within close proximity of each other.
Google Maps also provided detailed routes to and from our lodging to our destinations, which made it easy to come up with realistic travel time frames. We researched public transportation ahead of time and noted details such as how much the fare was, and that in Kyoto you should board a bus from the rear. Certain things still had to be discovered, such as using the machine at the front of the bus to get exact change for your fare.
Once we had a bare-bones itinerary together, I went to work on dining options. On a previous trip to Turkey we found ourselves dining at very touristy locales out of convenience, which is not dissimilar to eating around Times Square. Quelle horreur. I was determined to right that wrong this time around, so I researched dining guides and food blogs to find some popular dining options, then threw them all on the same Google Map. I also stalked Instagram by location and noted interesting food I might want to try. Reaching out on social media produced some great recommendations. After reviewing the choices, I realized there were a few restaurants that required reservations, so I contacted my MasterCard concierge. If you go this route, it took a few days for them to communicate with their Japan desk, so plan accordingly.
Here are the items from our trip itinerary that I highly recommend on a visit to Kyoto:
We made Nishiki Market a lunch destination, with the full intention of snacking on a variety of foods as we made our way through the extensive market. Nishiki Market is five blocks long, and if you intend to walk the entire stretch I recommend starting at the Takakura-dori entrance and moving east so that at the end of your trip you land on Teramachi-dori. (More on that later.) At Kyoto’s Nishiki Market you’ll find any number of specialties such as soy milk doughnuts and soy milk ice cream, grilled octopus stuffed with egg, the fluffiest tamago wrapped around oyster, a variety of fish cakes… the list is endless. Try as much as your stomach will allow.
At the end of your culinary journey, you should arrive at Teramachi-dori, which runs perpendicular to Nishiki Market. Teramachi-dori is a shopping arcade that offers an eclectic mix of stores. If you can find it, B-Side Label is an awesome sticker shop that also sells pins, posters and postcards with fun, quirky designs. Walk off your lunch checking out the hat shops, beauty stores and other specialty trading posts.
Pair it with:
A kaiseki dinner at Kinmata
Kinmata is a 200-year-old family-run ryokan, or a traditional Japanese inn. You can make reservations just to dine here, and you have the option of tatami seating (on the floor) or table seating. While it definitely qualifies as a splurge, the dining experience was impeccable. We went with a six-course kaiseki dinner, and each dish was presented by the 8th generation family owner (who, interestingly enough, recently returned to Kyoto after living in New York City for several years). Each course was described with immaculate detail, with seasonal ingredients carefully highlighted.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Inari is the god of rice, and is seen as the patron of business. Fushimi Inari-taisha is the biggest Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, and his messenger, the fox. The shrine is made up of thousands of torii gates, and each one is donated by a Japanese business. The gates wind through the hills of Inariyama, and visiting the shrine requires some hiking. The trail spans approximately two and a half miles, but the incline makes it a challenge. There are several stopping points and a decent viewing point midway, which is as far as I got. (By most accounts there isn’t much to see beyond that point, so it just depends on how much you love torii gates, hiking, or both.) My parents found an earlier stopping point, then simply enjoyed the shrines and statues at the base of the mountain.
Pair it with:
Unagi Don at Nezameya
Nezameya is a restaurant that was established in 1540 and was said to have been given its name by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a pre-eminent samurai warrior who had enjoyed a cup of tea there. Today it’s well known for its unagi don. Any location this close to a tourist attraction has to turn its tables quickly, so patrons are expected to order one dish each and encouraged not to linger. Nezameya was closed on the day of our visit (which can happen at random, unfortunately) so we popped into another restaurant along the shrine’s exit. We abated our disappointment with some goodies from the street food vendors.
Kinkaku-ji Temple, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple, and its defining feature is that the exterior of its top two floors is completely covered in gold leaf. The building was home to a shogun from the Muromachi period (1368-1394) but it was converted to a temple by his son upon his death, in accordance with his wishes. Though the Muromachi period was marked by excess, the gold was actually symbolic. It’s meant to ward off negative feelings towards death. Kinkaku-ji is a stunning structure that extends over a pond where its mirror image is cast. The site is a must-see for many, so come early to get a chance at a somewhat unobstructed view.
Ryoan-ji Temple, or the Peaceful Dragon Temple
There is a cluster of temples located in close proximity to Kinkaku-ji, so you could make a day of visiting each one. But keep in mind that each temple has its own admission fee, which can add up. I was fortunate to receive advice that Ryoan-ji was special, so we decided to make that our only other stop. (There are many temples and shrines in Kyoto, and it’s entirely a personal decision as to how many to visit — my family was pretty templed-out by the end of the trip so we weren’t too disappointed about leaving these out. And if we come back, there are still some things to see!)
Ryoan-ji is known for its rock garden, which is considered one of the premier examples of kare-sansui, or dry landscaping. Fifteen rocks of different sizes are carefully arranged in groups amidst the raked pebbles, which symbolize flowing elements such as rivers and creeks. The stones, which in turn symbolize islands or bridges, are carefully arranged so that one can only see no more than fourteen of the fifteen at once from any angle. The zen garden features a clean and simple aesthetic that inspires meditative thinking.
Pair it with:
Lunch at Ajiro
Following all that contemplation, it seems only fitting to enjoy vegetarian fare at Michelin-starred Ajiro. Shojin ryori is a type of cooking commonly practiced by monks. Shojin is a Buddhist term that refers to asceticism in pursuit of enlightenment. Chef Yoshitaka Senoo worked in the kitchen of one of the Myoshinji Hanazono temples prior to opening Ajiro. The meals change with the seasons but each dish employs creative use of Kyoto’s specialty: tofu. There were silken chunks of sesame tofu, soft pieces of yuba, and chewy pieces of wheat gluten that could easily have passed for meat. Note that reservations are required.
Kyoto is pretty magical, so there are few more must-sees. Here’s Part Two of this series!