No place in Japan captures my heart the way Kyoto does. From the architecture, history, temples, gardens, to eating, shopping, wildlife, and traditions – I could spend weeks exploring and not feel complete. There are hundreds of itineraries on what to see and do. However, my third trip was about exploring Kyoto off the beaten path. I still left satisfied with a deep sense of place and culture while avoiding most of the tourist crowds. If you’re an independent traveler, I hope you’ll consider these experiences, in addition to seeing the top destinations.
Getting Around Kyoto Off the Beaten Path
We stayed in a guest house close to the main Kyoto Train Station which made it easy to navigate the city and region. It was about a twenty minute walk from the center of Gion with dozens of Temples and multitudes of dining options in between. Most of the time we walked everywhere, day or night, rain or shine. For further destinations, we took trains. Signs are multi-lingual and train station lines are color-coded, which helps immensely when navigating the large stations in Tokyo and Kyoto.
To get the best discount, JR Passes needed to be purchased before arriving in Japan. I also ordered Suica Cards, which are similar to debit cards, well before we arrived and it was easy to add funds to them at stations. The cards were helpful for smaller stations and vending machines as well.
The biggest help was having a hotspot with on-demand WiFi and I also set up an international day rate for my phone. You can pick up the mobile hotspots from many different vendors in the airport at Narita or order them online before you go to pick up at the airport.
Tenryu-ji and a Temple Lunch
Having a meal prepared by Zen monks in a World Heritage temple was this foodie-leaning fan’s idea of heaven. I made a reservation and on the appointed day took the train out to the Tenryu-ji Temple in the foothill district of Arashiyama, west of Kyoto central. They offer a vegetarian meal to the public at set times. The lunch was sumptuous and delicious but it was also cooked without meat, fish, onions or garlic, so the dishes were subtle bordering on plain. Broths were made from sea kelp, mushrooms, and dried gourd. Rice and pickles along with soybeans, sesame ‘tofu,’ and other delicately prepared dishes adorned small plates. The flavors were enhanced by an array of textures unlike anything I’d encountered before. A bowl full of thick clear broth garnished beautifully was set in front of me. I slipped my spoon in to find a deep layer of smooth sesame puree on the bottom. The experience of swallowing the broth and chewing the noodle-ly texture was a treat.
I found out that the Tenzo (the monastery chefs) create similar meals for special occasions then professional chefs create the daily feasts for guests. We ate at low tables while sitting on the floor in a tatami mat room by ourselves (I asked for a private room to take in the experience without distractions.) Ae shoji screen opened and a temple server entered our dining room several times. She knelt and smiled, swept new dishes onto a tray between us, then swiftly removed any empty ones. The menu offered several variations. It wasn’t our least expensive meal but definitely a once in a lifetime experience. Priceless.
Temple of the Heavenly Dragons
Stepping past the main temple hall inside Tenryu-ji was like entering a Japanese painting done in hyper-realistic relief. A broad pond full of ruddy Koi was rimmed by the most exquisite garden. Ridged boulders sculpted by the elements were placed for maximum effect. Trees and plants rose in ethereal perfection. I think the original gardener, Muso Soseki, would be pleased to see his vision carried on centuries after he first created the garden. He’d admire the reverence that visitors show but wonder about the cell phone posers! Most came and went in hushed reverie.
The Temple was first built in the 14th century but, as with many temples across the country, it burnt down not once but eight times! The today’s buildings are still ancient (rebuilt 1868 to 1912) by Western standards. This was the first Special Historical Scenic Area designated by the Japanese government and in 1994 it was designated a World Cultural Heritage site by the United Nations.
Several photogenic bamboo groves grace the hillsides in the Arashiyama district and there are many ways to visit them. We asked for directions from the main street after leaving the train station and walked towards the river watching for signs. Another entrance is at the end of the Saga-Toriimoto pioneer street where historical homes have been turned into shops. Bamboo has contributed to traditional crafts, cups, mats, baskets and boxes for centuries. Once in the groves, I noticed fenced off work sites where foresters cut and plane the tall stalks. For the me it was like entering an alternative universe with lofty inhabitants peering down at us mere mortals far below.
Wild Monkeys at Kameyama-koen Park
We crossed the Katsura River and passed flat-bottomed tourist boats, mostly empty in the light rain. An irresistible sign beckoned us to visit wild Macaques and in moments we paid a few hundred yen to climb up to the site. Unfortunately, my slick tennis shoes were a poor match for the soggy path and slick stones, so I moved forward slowly. The anxiety and challenging hike was well worth it. As I reached the summit, dozens of wild monkeys of all ages emerged from the forest. Signs outlined appropriate behavior with warnings. Attendants watched the crowds while carefully tossing nuts. The wild animals can be aggressive but I wasn’t intimidated when they brushed past my legs or sat near. They basically ignored us. Peanuts were much more interesting.
The longer I watched the more clues to their behavior emerged. Small monkeys scooted and jumped. Adolescents sparred and retreated, yelping after the Alpha Males batted and bit. They all scrambled for treats from the guides. Inside the low gift shop we could purchase food to pass through a chicken wire mesh to the small palms and fingers reaching through.
Few tourists make it to this area of Kyoto off the beaten path. The monkeys were one highlight but the hilltop views across the city valley were also breathtaking. I was amazed at how far we’d climbed and wished we’d come earlier in the day as there’s much more to see in the district.
Gion After Dark
Most visitors see Kyoto’s magnificent temples and shrines during the day but miss their transformations at night. On earlier trips, we always stayed in our hotel after dark to better appreciate the deep baths and mingle over the amazing dinners. However, on this trip we headed out in the late afternoon to join locals enjoying the changing light, watch birds fishing along the Kamo River near the Shijo-Ohashi Bridge, and admire small groups of girls dressed up as Geishas.
We strode slowly through narrow streets, the glow of red lanterns illuminating our way. Along the main boulevard, small shops stayed open for tourist shoppers, a Kabuki theater lured visitors to performances, and restaurants beckoned. A bright red temple lit with hundreds of bulbs, the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine, drew us near. The view across town from the top of the temple steps was gorgeous.
We walked until we were hungry and fortunately found a noted Izakaya for dinner. The small space was swirling with movement and I stood by the door waiting for a seat without complaint. Behind the counter no less than six cooks and waiters moved in culinary unison. Businessmen slurped noodles at the narrow counter and refilled one another’s sake glasses. A few westerners focused on managing chopsticks. I couldn’t wait to try the fat, grilled oysters and Hokkaido uni. It turned into one of the simplest and most memorable meals of the trip.
Beyond Nishiki – Shopping in Teramachi and Shinkyogoku
The broad and famous Nishiki market is filled with over 100 stalls offering skewers, traditional green tea and mochi sweets, cooking utensils, and souvenirs. Swirling crowds jostle through the packed lanes between 10 am and 6 pm most every day. It was once a center for chefs and family cooks but has fallen prey to its own success. Today there are more souvenirs than foods. Vendors are riddled with photo requests but their frustration that few buy things surfaced on the late afternoon we visited. I was dismayed and hungry – not a good combination.
I spoke with a shop girl while my sister looked over indigo fabrics, and on her recommendation we left the market to enter a nearby Ramen shop (it’s across the street from Starbucks on the main boulevard a block from the Nishiki entrance.) The place was perfect – quiet, inexpensive and promised a great meal. We weren’t disappointed with huge bowls of fresh udon in spicy broth, fresh vegetables and deep steins of Sapporo beer. Fortified, we headed back through the market and out the other side to find two, covered arcades full of shops and interesting bars.
The eastern side of the street, Shinkyogoku, is filled with souvenir shops, gaming paraphernalia and goofy t-shirts. The other side, Teramachi, is very different with art galleries, bookshops, and boutique clothing shops. There are many temples because the district was set up in the 16th century when a warlord tried to control the clergy. He moved many temples into the neighborhood. Teramachi means literally, “Temple Town.”
We wandered the narrow lanes and admired craftsmanship in fabrics, shoes and paper products. In a few steps we emerged from the shadowy avenues onto the main street blazing with department store lights and name brand outlets. It was easy to find a taxi and we returned to our guest house to sip sake and soak in the tub before slipping into our futon beds. Our dreams were filled with visions of Kyoto off the beaten path.
Don’t miss other adventures in my Nihon Journal posts like discovering the best views in Tokyo.