2 days in kyoto

I have my last breakfast at Hostel Kaisu and head over to Tokyo Station. It’s weird not to have Joyce there with me, especially when I stop by a convenience store to stock up on train snacks.

Because Tokyo Station is huge and somewhat overwhelming, I get there 45 minutes before my train is supposed to leave. The Kodama shinkansen, which is the slowest of the shinkansen trains, definitely doesn’t go near the speed of the newest bullet trains. In addition to being cheaper, though, there’s another advantage to the Kodama train: do get to see (and feel) the faster bullet trains whoosh by every couple of minutes. Also, you get to see the scenery (whereas newer shinkansen go so fast, the outside world is a blur).

Four hours later, I arrive at Kyoto station. From there, I take the subway to Karasuma — the closest stop to my hostel. I check in at Kyoto Hostel Zen, where my dorm and bed are quite similar to Hostel Yuyu. I unpack my things, have a quick Facetime with Cyrus (who warns me about the monkeys), and head back outside.

To get acquainted with this new city, I decide to walk from the hostel to the Museum of Modern Art. On the way, I cross a small bridge and pass by a few artisanal shops, including Kohchosai Kosuga, which sells beautifully crafted bamboo products. Cécile would love.

At the National Museum of Modern Art, I see the temporary exhibit entitled “Dress Code: Are You Playing Fashion?”. Featuring pieces by Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanbe, Dries Van Noten, and many other designers, the exhibit is an apt reflection on our individual and collective fashion choices. Each room tackles a different “dress code”, from school uniforms to jeans, and explains their cultural significance. As a sucker for both fashion and a good signifier/signified Barthesian analysis, I’m thrilled. Anyway, here’s an well-crafted excerpt I found on the exhibit page:

“How did you choose the clothes you are wearing today? [...] Fashion is not merely an act of wearing clothing – it is also an act of seeing and being seen. Every culture, society, and group has its own codes. This gives rise to a kind of communication between ourselves and others that resembles a game. Due to the spread of the Internet and social networking, anyone can freely transmit images of their own attire, leading to a new phase in the way in which we engage with fashion.”

I then walk to Gion, an area filled with traditional wood houses with beautiful details. It seems like people come here from all over Japan to get themselves photographed in kimono and geta, those thick flip flops with wooden heels. Even though the area is fairly crowded, it’s relatively devoid of touristy gift shops, and retains much of its charming historical character. Very close to Gion is the Sfera Building, a four-storey design center that includes a gallery, a café and a shop. The shop is absolutely stunning, and actually reminds me of Hawkins in Hudson. The ceramics are very tasteful, but the real highlight for me are the beautifully crafted pet furniture from Sfera’s “DOnG” collection. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll buy Mauve the Windsor bed.

Hostel Zen happens to be extremely close to Nishiki market, also known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”. This market started as a fish market in 1615, and today includes stalls selling all types of delicacies, from Sawawa’s matcha to Kai Sesame’s flavored sesame seeds. And also lots of fishy things. If you continue further east from Nishiki, you’ll end up at the Teramachi and Shinkyogoku shopping arcades. There, I stop at my first Daiso in Japan, as well as Neo Mart, a large store filled with cute stationery, children’s toys, and accessories. Neo Mart is the perfect spot for me to buy a USB-chargeable portable fan for Olympe, who doesn’t do too well in the heat. Every other local has one here, so I figure they must be pretty effective.

If you’re into cooking, I recommend dropping by the luxury cookware shop Akomeya, located on the ground floor of the BAL building. The BAL is also home to a Conran Shop, a MUJI café, and an amazing marketplace-type store called Today’s Special. Today’s Special is probably my favorite store I visited this whole trip (along with T-Site, of course).

For dinner, I try Ain Soph Journey, a vegan restaurant conveniently located right off the Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcade. While the mushroom stew is quite good, I’m really impressed by the matcha ice cream I get for dessert. Ain Soph actually has a few locations in Tokyo, if you’re looking for a solid plant-based meal (I will say it’s a tad pricey for a casual restaurant).

After a quick breakfast at the bakery Heart Bread Antique, I take the train to Arashiyama Monkey Park, which is about half an hour from downtown Kyoto. The hike up to see the monkeys is around twenty minutes, and while the path itself isn’t too challenging, the heat makes it very difficult. Luckily, there’s an air-conditioned resting room toward the top, so you can take a breather (which I do).

There are 120 snow monkeys at the top of the park, and I probably got to see around 20-30. Even though it’s forbidden to get more than 6 feet away to the little creatures (for good reason), I still get to observe them from quite close. If you want to feed the monkeys or see them closer than 6 feet, there’s another air-conditioned room with gated windows, so you can feed the monkeys without the little guys being able to bite or scratch. Otherwise, they’re pretty much roaming freely. I especially enjoy watching the babies interact with their mothers, and vice-versa. The monkey moms always follow their babies around, and sometimes will pick them up to redirect them somewhere else. It’s adorable. Make sure you’re not carrying any food on you when you go!

Going down the mountain takes considerably less time than the climb, and I’m back down in minutes. I cross the Togetsu-kyō Bridge and arrive on the northern side of Arashiyama, where there are many touristy shops and restaurants. I can’t help but spend a few minutes inside the Miffy store, which is attached to a bakery that exclusively sells Miffy-shaped noms.

The sky’s pretty menacing as I make my way to Tenryu-Ji Temple, one of Kyoto’s five greatest temples and a UNESCO world heritage site. Upon entering the temple, everyone has to remove their shoes, which makes me feel like I’m a guest in someone’s super zen home. Even though you can see the interior of the temple from the gardens, I still think Tenryu-Ji worth the experience to walk through the temple itself. Once I’m done visiting the temple, I head over to its garden, which, unlike the temple buildings (which burned down a few times) has survived its original form for over seven centuries. The garden features a central pond that reflects the rocks and lush trees over it. It’s a very peaceful sight, especially with the Arashiyama mountains in the background. Walking a little further out, I arrive at the edge of a saturated green bamboo forest. Suddenly, it starts pouring rain, and I’m lucky to find myself inside a covered resting pavilion, where dozens of other visitors have taken refuge. The torrential downpour is quickly joined by the most intense thunderstorm I have ever witnessed. The storm lasts for over thirty minutes, but I’m grateful I get to spend it facing one of the world’s most beautiful bamboo groves.

I had originally planned to get lunch at one of the vegetarian Budhist restaurants close to the temple, but the two I had in my travel guide both have long wait lines. Instead, I settle for the nearby Cafe Takahashi. Aside from an adorable senior couple, I am the only patron in the restaurant, and get to sit at the counter. The woman who takes my order, who seems to be the café’s owner, is very welcoming. The homemade vegetarian curry turns out simply amazing — it’s filled with soul-warming flavors. Such a comforting meal for a shitty-weather day!

The rain has calmed a little, so I take a chance and take the train back to downtown Kyoto, then transfer to the Keihan Main Line to get to Fushimi Inari. From the Fushimi Inari station, it’s about a five-minute walk to the actual site of the shrine. Fushimi Inari is Japan’s most renowned Shinto shrine. It is the head shrine of Inari, the god of rice and food, amongst other things. The site is known for its spectacular 10,000 red torii gates, which date back to the 8th century. Because it’s so picturesque, Fushimi Inari attracts many, many tourists. While my visit is initially very packed, the further I keep going, the more the crowd dissipates. In fact, by the time I get to the summit of Mt Inari-san, which is 233 meter high, I’m basically alone. The hike takes around forty-five minutes, and I get to see two cats, many shrines, and zero snow monkeys (despite the warning signs) along the way. It’s gotten quite foggy on my walk down, and while this makes for a cool experience, I must admit I get a little creeped out. 

Once I’m back in downtown Kyoto, I do a little more store hopping. My first stop is Media Shop, a bookstore specializing in used and rare art, design and architecture books. I then visit Flying Tiger — even though we have these in the US, I’m intrigued to find out if the products in Japanese stores are any different (they’re pretty similar). Finally, I go to LoFt, an all-in-one home decor shop.

It’s still raining pretty hard outside, and since I’m tired, I decide to get takeout. I grab a vegetarian curry combo at the Nepalese restaurant Yak & Yeti, as well as a bubble tea at Cafe Coppe, and enjoy my second dinner in Kyoto at the hostel lounge.


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