Japan Diaries: A Quick Guide to Kyoto

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Kyoto. How can I POSSIBLY write down everything my heart has to say about Kyoto into a single blog post? I'm not even sure it's possible.

Let's start out with a bit of geography, and what Wikipedia says!

"Formerly the Imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years, it is now the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture located in the Kansai region, as well as a major part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area. Kyoto is also known as the thousand-year capital."

For sure, Kyoto is enormous and once again back to a "district style" set up requiring buses and tube lines to get to your destination of choice, much similar to Tokyo, and very different to Tsumago (If you haven't caught them already, I have my guides to Tsumago HERE, and Tokyo HERE).

The major difference with Kyoto though, is the "city" is almost submerged in tradition and bathed in...well...greenery! A natural metropolis you might say. Throughout the vastness of Kyoto there is a gorgeous dappling of Temples, historical landscapes, alongside museums, malls, department stores.

Our train from Tsumago dropped us off at Kyoto station; an utterly VAST main point station with it's own EVERYTHING. Floors and floors high with shops, food courts, and destination changes.

From there is was a short taxi ride (or bus ride) to our home for the next 4 days (with a break in the middle for a sleep over on Mt Koya, but we'll get into that in another post), and a home we grew to adore: Sakura Ryokan.

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To our delight, the accommodation was once again traditional Japanese style, with a single living and sleeping space with separate toilet/bathroom. Breakfast was included and could be either English or Japanese style (Eggs and sausage vs salmon and rice - simple and perfect!).

So as I have hopefully covered in my Japan transport guide, the best way to travel around Kyoto, we found, was by bus.

Conveniently around the corner there was a bus stop, so it was literally our transport lifeline to getting around as much of Kyoto as possible in what felt like much too short a time (still miss it).

Without further ado, here's a list of my top sights and experiences in Kyoto, listed out in a "Countdown to #1!!!!" fashion!

Starting at...

NUMBER 5: Aeon Mall

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If you’re feeling a little more like you want a bit of a spending spree surrounded by bright lights and a model railway café (we all fancy that from time to time, right?) then you can grab a free mini bus ride to Kyoto’s Aeon Mall, direct from the pickup and drop off spot at the back of Kyoto main station! I wholly recommend visiting this big guy when it starts to get dark out, as the mall area itself has a really fun light display going on outside of an evening.

So it’s exactly what it says on the tin really! Aeon Mall is floor after floor of department stores from fashion, to accessories, to skincare, and food. On the very top floor there’s an absolutely enormous open plan sweet shop full of Japanese candy and treats for a third of the cost us Brits spend when buying them as imports.

A simple thing which really excited my husband Lloyd was the additional fact that the food court housed a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlour. At the time (October) there were a handful of really incredible Halloween themed flavours on offer, in cones of all shapes and sizes. You could even have yourself an ice cream cake made if you were feeling really flipping special.

Free transfer from Kyoto Station. Free entry (obviously). Take plenty of money regardless.

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NUMBER 4: Kyoto International Manga Museum.

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If you’re a fan of manga, comics, art, The Manga Museum is absolutely for you.

Wikipedia says: “The Kyoto International Manga Museum (京都国際マンガミュージアム Kyōto Kokusai Manga Myūjiamu?) is located in Nakagyō-kuKyotoJapan. The building housing the museum is the former Tatsuike Elementary School. The museum opened on November 25, 2006. Its collection of 300,000 items includes such rarities as Meiji period magazines and postwar rental books.”

For a fee of 800 yen (around £6) you can spend the day travelling through different zones within the museum dedicated to historical timelines of publications, and the countries of which specific titles were released in.

At certain times of the day also, you can enjoy a little doodling session with the museum mascot on the ground floor too, and also if you’re lucky enough, you might meet some famous manga artists and writers on visiting days, and get your favourite art signed.

There are vast library sections where you can take off your shoes, sink into a bean bag, and back to back your favourite series or discover a new one.

Be warned that the museum is closed on Wednesdays (or the following day if Wednesday is a national holiday), New Year holidays, and irregular maintenance days.

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If you’re feeling a little peckish after perusing the shelves of literary goodness, I totally recommend stopping by for a bite at either the on-site coffee stop outside (to the left, if you’re facing the main sign for the museum head on, or to the mini-restaurant/eatery to the right. They only serve very basic set meals there (breaded chicken dishes, a huge hotdog, chips, and so on. Quite westernised food), but they’re at affordable prices AND you get to sit surrounded by hand drawn manga masterpieces on the walls, sketched out by some of the top artists around. Be warned, you food may get cold if you want to make sure you sit and take all of them in. Haha.

NUMBER 3: Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)

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"Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond, and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu's former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955."  Japan-Guide.com

At only 400 yen entry (around £3!!) you have this utterly incredible sight to see. If you can, get there for one of the final tours of the day (between 3-5pm) . The gold of the pavilion SINGS in the dusky light (not literally..you know what I mean).

You can't go into the pavilion itself, but you can see it perfectly framed as your trace the pathway all around the grounds. Not only that, there are occasionally some food and craft stands dotted around for souvenirs and tasty treats.

NUMBER 2: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

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One of the most globally famous sites in Kyoto is without a doubt the “Bamboo Forest” in the Arashiyama district. The grove itself is completely free to enter and enjoy, as you follow the guided footpath through the twisty-tall stems of green awesomeness.

As a gust of wind swings by, the haunting lean of the bamboo in unison can make it feel like you’re on another planet, for sure.

Adorably, there were two young kimono clad ladies taking a carriage ride around the grove at the time we went, and enjoyed having their photograph taken by their guide.

Not only that, but the Arashiyama area has a street lined of gift shops, luxury skincare (go figure), and some of the best matcha coffee and ice creams around. Mine even came with a sprinking of corn flakes, you know. Amazing.

In addition, there’s also a station on the central Arashiyama main street which houses a tourist information area, and a cafe selling Gudetama shaped food and plushies (OH THE SQUEE). I can’t guarantee that the Gudetama promotion will still be on now though L It seemed like it was a launch campaign for his recent part in “Sanrio World”.

NUMBER 1: Gion.

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Gion itself deserves a post all of its own for me. Of all the city districts in visited in Japan so far, Gion stole my heart hard.

Wikipedia says: The district was built to accommodate the needs of travellers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan.

The geisha in Kyoto do not refer to themselves as geisha; instead, they use the local term geiko. While the term geisha means "artist" or "person of the arts", the more direct term geiko means essentially "a woman of art"”.

Pretty much sat here blubbing literal tears in memory of my first experience of Gion, here. It was an evening, around 6pm, standing outside the abode of a family of Geiko, waiting for a glimpse of them on their way to work at the local tea house. I learned so much about them from our local guide, and just can’t believe my luck in what I was seeing.

The Geiko are truly, truly the most beautiful women of culture I have ever had the pleasure of seeing, from their immaculate dress, to their elegant and perfected posture, Gion was an oil painting that night, seriously.

Not only was there a saturation of culture, history, and heritage to behold, the streets turn from bright light excitement with shopping and entertainment, to backstreets of homemade ramen, traditional architecture, and lantern lit alley ways.

Watch out for more on Gion later in my diary. There’s just too much to tell to be tagged in on this round up alone.

Oh, going back to Ramen in Gion by the way: If you’re ever hungry, and find yourself there, please seek out “Ramen Muraji” – a tiny soy Ramen specialist tucked away to discover. The dishes are hearty, delicious, and at hardly any cost. English isn’t the first language here if your Japanese isn’t quite up to scratch, but the ladies are more than accommodating and fully capable of delivering to your table the most delicious Ramen you’ve ever tasted in your life, with delectable sides. Again, more on this in my up and coming post all about Gion.

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I could quite happily have spent an entire week in Kyoto to get to know it better. There was so much more to see, but a staggered 4 days to take it in was only surface level stuff. Never the less, onward to Mt Koya, Hakkone, and the long trip then back to Tokyo.

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All photography taken by my husband, Lloyd Morgan-Moore, during our travels. Please give credit and link backs if used. Thank you :)

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