Perfect blend of the old and the new

For the keen explorer, Kyoto is a wondrous place. Filled with cheap eats, tourist treats and local surprises, there’s always something new to discover. Kyoto is actually my favourite Japanese city – and you’ll soon see why.

Dom’s top things to experience in Kyoto

A scary place, Kyoto can be; with every step you take, it entices you to plan for a future trip. It’s difficult to walk a few blocks in Kyoto without finding a great place to eat or a new temple garden to see. I miss it every day. Of course, everyone has their top picks. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Golden temple
  • A 100 yen (AU$1) sushi shop
  • Macaques on a mountain
  • A local bar
  • Kiyomizudera, a temple fronted by a unique shopping lane
  • Kaiseki style food

Authentic Temples

The tourism industry in Japan is extremely alive and well, thanks largely to its authenticity, culture and kindness of the locals. Its temples are no exception – they are perfectly preserved in modern times, despite their role as significant tourist attractions, even for locals.  Most temples are well-signed with detailed history for English-speakers.

Golden Temple postcard shot. What do you think?

The golden temple Kinkaku-ji is one such example, looking even more brilliant in person as it does in its photos. This is one of the few temples of which you can’t venture inside, but it’s surrounded by a pristine Japanese garden and well worth a visit overall. There’s also an added bonus for those carrying low denomination coins (eg. 1 yen, ie. $0.01) – the garden has donation pots dotted around for you to try and aim your coins into. Fun! Lastly, for those who have an appetite before or after, there’s a conveniently located 108 yen sushi shop 500 meters down the road! I’ve been there twice, and quite enjoy both the value and freshness of the dishes, which includes desserts. Here’s a map to help you along the way.

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Kiyomizudera is additionally worth checking out – it sports sweeping views of Kyoto within the various seasons. A comprehensive souvenir lane is located right outside, with a collection of Japanese sweets and authentic wares. Most of their products are made locally in Japan – but check with the store owner and any labeling.

Intimate Local Bars

Much like other Japanese cities such as Tokyo, much of Japan’s charm can be found with the locals in their regular watering holes. On my first trip to Kyoto, we stayed at the Yachiyo Garden Ryokan, which is again located next to (surprise!) another great temple and expansive gardens. Just around the corner however, was a quaint bar listed in English as ‘Kick Up’ located just outside the Keage train station (see map). The decor inside was made entirely made of wood, housing a group of merry locals catching up in the mood-lit room. We casually chatted to the bar owner, who told us about the history of her establishment while we listened to the nearby laughter and watched the candles flicker.

This bar is just one of many that welcome foreign visitors with open arms. Most offer very competitive pricing for spirits and local beers, making it a great candidate for a long night of cultural immersion. It’s important that you keep a keen eye out for these establishments however, they’re usually concealed and often form an extension of someone’s home. Ask your accommodation for nearby suggestions.

Sightseeing with Monkeys

If you’re looking for an energising walk with a view, the Kyoto Monkey Park would be the way to go. I quite enjoyed this part of our second trip, which features lush greenery during most seasons and a brilliant view of Kyoto city all year around. The Japanese macaques wander around freely amongst you – just be sure to avoid staring directly at them. If you’re more of a keen observer than a monkey’s plaything, you can watch from safety inside the house at the top of the mountain.

Conveniently, the area around the mountain in Nishikyo-ku is quite picturesque as well, featuring Tori Gates, waterways, antique boats and bridges. You’ll find plenty to keep you busy for a day trip.

Unrivaled Gourmet Meals

Kyoto is particularly famous for its Kaiseki and Shabu Shabu style meals. When dining in Kaiseki form, you receive an onslaught of up to 10 degustation sets, each composed of often unexplored and incredibly tasty dishes. As a famously picky eater, I was surprised how easily I was able to adapt to the different tastes for the first time – a certain testament to the quality and attention to detail of the meal, which ranges from:

  • Fresh sashimi including tuna
  • Tempura vegetables
  • Japanese style egg
  • Cooked sardines and other alternative fish
  • Artistic fresh Japanese vegetables

This isn’t cheap even by international standards – be sure to research beforehand to your liking. Other than Kaiseki, as a much cheaper option there’s also okonomiyaki – a delicious savoury pancake containing your choice of seafoods or otherwise. Generally, in Kyoto you’re certainly spoiled for food choices.

Whether it’s via the food, the attractions or its locals, Kyoto will keep you entertained even after the 10th visit. Here’s my dilemma: the time passes too fast.

What are your thoughts, is there anywhere you would include on your Kyoto must-see list?