Food Lover’s Guide to Kyoto

date11.12.14

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Let’s look past the fact that I’ve been sitting on this Kyoto jewel for exactly a year. I will flash Kyoto’s beauty to distract you from my tardiness. The fact of the matter is that Kyoto was so incredible that it took me this much time to take our photos from a bazillion to a shareable set. We spent three and a half days of our honeymoon last November taking in Kyoto’s treasures and I’ve spent the past year thinking about how to describe all of it to you beyond “it was our favorite” over and over again.

Because that’s exactly what it was. Our favorite.

Just like we did in Taipei, we planned our days around getting from one restaurant to another, but what happened in between was nothing short of magic. November in Kyoto is the peak of autumn’s fall colors – that, combined with thousand-year-old temples makes it all so majestic.

Kiyomizudera Temple

Here’s a breakdown of our trip. Jump to the bottom for our eat, see, do, shop, and stay Food Lover’s Guide to Kyoto!

Day 1:

We touched down in Kyoto early Tuesday afternoon and immediately caught the bus to Kiyomizudera Temple to take in 180° views of the fall colors. Here’s where our Google Map adventures began; I’m crediting some creative soul at Google with the serene off-the-beaten-paths our pocket-wifi-enabled Google Map took us on.

“Oh, you want to go to this super popular temple? Let me guide you up this empty cobblestone hill, where you’ll see views of the entire city, walk past historic graveyards, and feel like you’ve been transported to another era when the city wasn’t so densely populated.” – Google Maps

We thought maybe November in Kyoto was off-season and we’d be temple-hopping all alone. That is until we reached the top of the hill and discovered an entire middle school lining up in uniform in front of the temple for class photos.

1 point for Google Maps!

Kiyomizudera Temple

KiyomizuderaTemple-4

Kiyomizudera Temple

Kiyomizudera Temple

Kiyomizudera Temple

That’s real. That stream of light is the sky giving us a warm welcome hug after a short rain.

As if the season’s changing colors weren’t stunning enough, many of the temples open up their doors after sun fall in November for an illumination of the autumn hues. Don’t even try to bring a tripod – they’re the only thing explicitly prohibited.

Eikando Illumunation

Upon recommendation from Love and Lemons, we had our hotel concierge book a reservation at Gion Nanba, a small Michelin-rated traditional kaiseki restaurant serving ten seasonal courses all prepared by two chefs in a pint-sized kitchen the length of the bar. We knew the restaurant was down an alley, but once we got there, all the signs were in Japanese and every sliding door looked a bit like you might accidentally walk into someone’s private home. Thanks to a traveler who wrote “it’s the first set of lanterns on the right,” we found the hidden eatery.

Beyond artfully crafting multiple courses in concert without talking, the two chefs also washed all the dishes while they cooked, stacking them in a tiny cupboard that couldn’t even hold my bowl collection. At the end of our meal, the head chef even found time to sneak into the alley to shake our hands goodbye and waved as we disappeared around the corner. The epitome of Japanese hospitality.

Our first dish of the night, pictured below, came to us with the description “fish eggs.” Assuming that orange-colored stuff on top was a bit of roe, we dug into the best dish of the night. Hands down. I’m big on textures and this one was smooth and custard-like with a small bite from the mushrooms.

When we got back from our trip, a friend posted a picture on instagram with the hashtag #codsperm. And that’s when it hit me. Fish eggs were not EGGS at all.

Sperm! I’d eaten fish sperm. And you know what? I loved it. (Put that on a bumper sticker).

A few months later, our fish market had a little bowl labeled shirako (the Japanese word for cod sperm or cod milt). A little old lady walked in and politely asked what it was. I inappropriately snickered as the fish monger squirmed, trying to find just the right words to tell grandma that she could eat sperm if she wanted.

Gion Nanba

Day 2:

With only a few days in Kyoto, we got up early to hit up the iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine with orange gates straddling a pathway up the mountain. This shrine for the patron of prosperity in business dons statues of foxes, the symbol of merchants, all around the grounds.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

These are thousands of paper cranes about the size of a thimble stacked into strands and hung outside the shrine for good fortune.

Fushimi Inari Shrine Cranes

Before our trip, my acupuncturist told me about a moss garden that another patient of hers had recently gone to in Kyoto that was apparently a must-see. Upon looking into it, I discovered they required reservations and to do so, you must send a snail mail letter to Saihō-ji Temple requesting the date you’d like to go, with a blank self-addressed stamped return postcard to where they can mail your ticket. And all of this must happen at least two weeks before you want to go. To complicate things, it turns out you can no longer buy an international stamp from Japan to the US in the US.

On a whim, I e-mailed our hotel concierge to see if they could book the reservation for me. They wrote back almost instantly confirming they’d sent off our request and would have our ticket waiting when we checked in. This is the moment that I realized that hotel concierges are your best friend when planning international travel.

Google Maps took us on a train ride that dropped off about a mile from the temple, with a stroll past a bamboo forest through a residential neighborhood where persimmons hung from all the trees.

2 points for Google Maps.

Our hotel had told us our reservation was about an hour long. Otherwise, we had no idea what to expect other than a breathtaking moss garden. When we arrived, we exchanged our shoes for slippers and were quietly shuffled into the inner temple where we sat cross-legged in front of a 2-foot wide desk on the floor. Someone handed us a two-page sheet of tracing paper with hundreds of Japanese characters, a calligraphy brush, and an ink stone with the verbal instruction “copy.”

Taking a cue from the people sitting next to us, we sat and traced the sutra with the low hum of the sutras chanted in the background for an hour. Lucas took up more than his fair share of space trying to figure out how everyone else was flexible enough to comfortably sit cross-legged. About halfway through, he started grumbling complaints, “Do we have to copy this whole thing?! Are they going to check? How long do we have to do this?” I had no answers, but it was clear he was super anxious we wouldn’t have any time in our allotted hour to see the garden with how long it was taking him. We had no idea what we signed up for.

One-by-one, others would take their painstakingly calligraphied sutras to the altar as an offering, bow, and exit out to the gardens. You heard that right – we didn’t even get to keep all that hard work we’d just done.

Once we stepped into the moss garden, we completely forgot the pain our legs and back endured for the past hour. Anything up to this point was worth it for this. The reservation process and higher admission fee means this temple is less-populated. With only a few others in sight, you’re instantly whisked away into a magical land you’ve only imagined in dreams.

This is my happy place. You can find me here in my day dreams, okay?

Saiho-ji Temple Moss Gardens

Saiho-ji Temple Moss Gardens

Saiho-ji Temple Moss Gardens

Day 3: 

The top two stories of the Golden Pavilion are covered in gold-leaf. Its history includes burning to the ground in 1950 and being rebuilt. I can’t even imagine the price-tag on that restoration.

As the only blonde in sight, a gaggle of middle schoolers on a field trip flocked around me to practice their English, interviewing me about where I was from and what I’d seen in Japan.

Golden Pavillion

Kyoto is known for its tofu, so we had our hotel book us a reservation at Shoraian, an artisan tofu restaurant overlooking the banks of a river. When we got off the train in Arashiyama, Google Maps led us to lunch.

Through the famous Arashiyama bamboo grove and down a cobblestone path along a mountain ridge, where it popped us out in front of this glowing teal river. The restaurant was just a few steps along the river and back up another set of cobblestone stairs up the mountain. I wouldn’t mind if this were my commute every day.

You win, Google Maps. (You like how Google Maps inadvertently became our private tour guide?)

Arashiyama Bamboo  Forest

Arashiyama

Arashiyama

Arashiyama Oi River

Arashiyama

I couldn’t tell you what any of the tofu preparations were or how they made them, but I can tell you I’d travel back to Kyoto just to eat at this restaurant again.

After lunch, we followed Google Maps across the Togetsukyo Bridge to find the Monkey Park. Google Maps tried to lead us up the side of the mountain through a narrow pathway between two yards with a chain link fence on one side. As in, “just walk along through this neighborhood…andddd NOW – turn right through this unmarked path. Do it, trust me. You wore your hiking boots, right?” – Google Maps

About 5 minutes up, we got into a heated debate about whether this was the right way to the monkeys. Lucas was in the trust Google Maps camp, and I was in the “I need to get to the monkeys before the park closes in an hour” camp. I won, and it’s a good thing too, because on further inspection Google Maps wanted us to hike up and over a hill, and then up another hill, where we’d have to illegally scale a barbed-wire fence along the way.

Minus 1 point for Google Maps.

After a deceitfully long hike up, we finally got to the top where dozens of monkeys were just straight chillin’.

They told us to stay 3 meters away from the monkeys, never looking them directly in the eye. They apparently forgot to give the same instructions to the monkeys.

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Don’t even try to use one of those coin-operated binoculars – they’re strictly monkey jungle gyms.

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Arashiyama

The next morning, we hit up a local handicraft flea market outside of a temple that didn’t even need to apologize for setting up camp in the mud while it was raining. Kyoto stole my heart. We’ll be back soon, and not just because we got to fly home on the Hello Kitty airplane that branded everything from my fish cake to my toilet paper with Hello Kitty’s face.

Until we meet again, Kyoto.

Food lover’s guide to Kyoto

Eat

  • Gion Nanba: This traditional kaiseki restaurant in the Geisha district holds one Michelin star. With 10 exquisitely prepared courses, this was one of the best meals of my life. It’s in a small alley across the street from the Starbucks. Once you get into the alley, the restaurant is the first set of lights on the right. Click here for a helpful map. Address: 4-jo Hanamikoji Higashiiru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0073, Japan (Reservations needed).
  • Shoraian: Tofu is one of the Kyoto’s specialities. This restaurant prepares a set menu with multiple tofu preparations that will blow your mind. Shoraian is nestled in a mountain just outside the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, overlooking the teal blue Oi River. This restaurant is one of our favorites from the trip – a must-eat. Address: Kanyuchinai, Sagakamenoocho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 616-8386, Japan (Reservations needed).
  • Giro Giro: This modern kaiseki restaurant provides a nice complement the traditional Gion Nanba. Address: 420-7 Nambacho Nishikiyamachidori Matsubara Sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8027, Japan

See & Do

  • Saihō-ji Temple and Kokedera Moss Garden: If you do nothing else in Kyoto, this is a MUST SEE. You’ll first participate in the temple’s religious activities before taking in the serene moss garden filled with over 120 different kinds of moss. They require reservations made at least a few weeks in advance by mail (we had our hotel do this for us since they need to include a self-addressed stamped envelope for your tickets) and it’s a bit pricier than other temples (~$30), but it also means there are fewer people. With our wifi map, we were easily able to take the train and walk through the neighborhood to get there.
  • Kinkakuji – Golden Pavilion: This temple is just as it sounds – it’s a gorgeous temple covered in gold leaf. The entire structure reflects off the water for a very pretty sight.
  • Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Togetsukyo Bridge: The bamboo grove (see in the first picture) is a forest with tall bamboo shoots all around. I often see it listed on “places to see before you die” guides. The Togetsukyo Bridge (aka Sagano) is a landmark crossing in Arashiyama that connects the side with the Bamboo Grove to the side with the Monkey Park (priorities).
  • Iwatayama Monkey Park: There are monkeys. Do I really need to say more? Located on top of a mountain in Arashiyama just on the other side of the Togetsukyo Bridge of the Bamboo Grove. At the top of the mountain, you can purchase snacks to feed the monkeys from within a caged room (you’re in the cage, not the monkeys), or else you’re free to walk around where there are dozens of monkeys roaming free. Don’t follow google’s instructions there. Cross the bridge and ask someone where to go – when you see a big sign for the monkey park, you’re in the right place.
  • Kiyomizudera Temple: A celebrated Buddhist temple with views of the whole city. Walk up through the entrance on the right (as shown in the second picture above), you’ll avoid the crowds and get to see some of the historic graveyards and other interesting buildings.
  • Nighttime fall color illuminations at Eikan-do: In November, many of the temples open up after dark with nighttime illuminations of the changing fall colors. Be sure to get there right when they open because there will be a long line.
  • Fushimi Inari Taisha: This is the iconic shrine with orange gates that line a long pathway loop up a mountain with lots of sights along the way.

Shop

  • Handicraft Market at Chion-ji Temple: On the 15th of every month. Imagine an enormous flea market of handmade Japanese goods. This was the best shopping we did on our trip and it didn’t even matter that a) it was lightly raining and b) our shoes were covered in mud.
  • Arashiyama: There are a few small shops along the Tenryuji Tsukurimichi-cho from the train station to the Togetsukyo Bridge. In particular, we enjoyed the small home goods shop, Platz.

Stay

  • Hyatt Regency Kyoto: The Hyatt in Kyoto is very nice and moderately prices. We contacted the concierge a month before our trip to make reservations my mail at Saiho-ji Temple and also dinner reservations at Gion Nanba, Giro Giro, and Shoraian, and they were very responsive and took care of it all for us. It’s also conveniently located right near a bus stop and a 10 minute talk to the train.

Travel Tips:

  • See additional Japan travel tips on my Food Lover’s Guide to Tokyo, including ordering a pocket wi-fi, purchasing a JR rail pass before your trip, carrying hand sanitizer, and always knowing your cash and ATM situation.
  • E-mail the concierge of your hotel ahead of time to ask them to book restaurant reservations or even to book reservations for seeing particular sites, like the Saihō-ji Temple. Customer service in Japan is top-notch and they’ll make sure every detail is taken care of for you, including things like pre-ordering which set menu price you’d like at the restaurant, as many of the small restaurants don’t have English options.

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56 Comments

  1. Sarah this is GORGEOUS!! What a beautiful post. You are so talented. Now I seriously want to visit Kyoto, if only to visit that moss garden. I would copy 10 pages of calligraphy to go in there. Oh, and play with monkeys. Awesome!

    • Thanks lady! I want to go BACK for that moss garden. And the food. This is the number one motivation for finishing my dissertation – a trip back! Keep wearing sweaters and cozy socks and you’ll be traveling the world in no time;)

  2. Everything about this looks amazing! It looks absolutely stunning there, and those monkeys are too cute. I love that you planned your trip around eating. Why have I never thought of that? I guess I have a goal for my next trip. Looks like you had an incredible time :)

  3. Alli says:

    Your photos are simply stunning! My husband always likes to plan our trips around the food! Would love to visit Kyoto!

  4. These pictures are amazing!! I am obsessed with that monkey on top of the viewfinder, so stinking cute. Looks like you two had a beautiful honeymoon. xo!

  5. Sarah, everything is so colorful!! I loved to travel to Kyoto some day!

  6. This makes me want to go to Kyoto immediately! (Take me, please) Those nature pictures look like something straight out of fairy land!!!

  7. Shruti says:

    This is a lovely post and the images are mind blowing! Going to Japan has always been my dream and this just affirmed it once again. Your trip seems to have been an unforgettable one, I’m really happy that you enjoyed Japan, a beautiful country =). Have a great day!

  8. oh my goodness, such gorgeous pictures, and I have to say those monkeys are stinking cute!

  9. Kyoto, monkeys, and fish sperm..sounds like a pretty fantastic trip to me! Such a beautiful place. I seriously need to go there someday- all of your pictures are so magical!

  10. Ohhhhh mah goodness, hah! Those monkeys are just killing me! They seem to own the whole place by the way they carry themselves, haha. And the reflections on the water are just magical…..I hope to visit Japan someday. Btw, have you seen Just One Cookbook’s guides? She has awesome Japan guides as well! :) http://www.justonecookbook.com/recipes/kyoto-japan-guide-west-side-kyoto-station-japan-travel-blog/

  11. This is a fantastic post – especially the photography! My bf is the biggest foodie (he fits in well now that we’re in SF!) and is dying to go to Japan, so I sent this over to him. Great blog by the way!

  12. That sounds like a whirlwind of three and a half days! Completely amazing!

  13. What an amazing trip! The photography is beautiful. I took an entire class at SF State about the history of Kyoto. Yes…I know…very specific…and very very bizarre. But it fulfilled a credit requirement I needed, and it was fun to learn about the culture. Plus, it was a nice break from all my math classes. Was so fun see the foody side of Kyoto!

  14. Thank you for sharing these beautiful photos with us! You are so lucky to have gone on such an amazing honeymoon. I hope you will get to go back to visit Kyoto again.

  15. Rachel says:

    LOVE this post. The photos are stunning! Everything looks so serene and I love the architecture over there (not to mention the adorable monkey!!).

    Very excited about seeing the pics and reading this post.

    Rachel
    http:// rachelinflight.com

  16. what an incredible few days sarah!! can’t believe those monkeys. so amazing! the vibrant colors in each photo can’t be beat. you guys are too cute!

  17. WOW, is an understatement. This must have been a trip of a lifetime. I’m so glad you chose to share it, even thought it was last year. Simply beautiful!

  18. Wow! This is breathtaking! Those photos are seriously incredible! Such gorgeous scenery this looks like the trip of a lifetime! And those monkeys! :)

  19. Erica says:

    Oh. My. Gosh. Sarah. I literally just spent like 45 minutes oggling these pictures and reading your amazing recap. SUCH an amazing post! Seriously some of those pictures gave me chills, they are so good! And the monkeys! !!!! !!!! Love love love.

  20. Such incredible photos, looks like you had a wonderful time when you were there! I need to go back to Japan and do everything you did in Kyoto lol. I kept thinking ‘Why didn’t I do this when I went to Kyoto’ but I went to Kobe not Kyoto haha (terrible memory).
    Thanks for the beautiful photos and tips. I love that the Japanese middle schoolers practiced their english on you. So cute!!

  21. Talk about making me want to travel to Kyoto! Your pictures are simply stunning, and I had a full on giggle about the #codsperm, I had no clue either! :)

  22. 1. Japan. Sigh.
    2. Your photos are the best.
    3. Give me all your ramen.

  23. These photos are so gorgeous! And I feel like I just read an insider’s guide to all the best things to see, do and eat in Kyoto – amazing! I don’t blame you for planning to be back :)

  24. Alyssa says:

    So beautiful! I’ve only been to Kyoto in the spring; this makes me want to get on a train RIGHT NOW!

  25. Oh wow, how beautiful!! That looks like an awesome place and the perfect place to go for a honeymoon :) I haven’t been on vacation in far too long and all these pictures are really making me want to book some plane tickets to Kyoto right this minute! The photos are so gorgeous!

  26. Alanna says:

    Dang girl – these pictures!! Too beautiful. I’m especially loving those monkeys. And you know what I’m craving now – Kyoto style mochi from Eiji!! Let’s go!

    • YES PLEASE! Maybe one night next week my mom and I can meet you two for Eiji?! (She’s visiting while Lucas is in China). She’s not a sushi person, I think she could be persuaded for the tofu. Or else we’ll have to wait until next weekend when Lucas returns. Either way: yes. Also, more monkeys at my feet

  27. I am so jealous! What a fantastic trip. I can’t say I’d choose to eat cod sperm, but if I didn’t know what it was first I bet I’d be in the “pro” camp. But now I know what it looks like, soooooo….

    Sometimes the mind wins over the stomach! ;)

    Thank you so much for sharing this amazing trip with us! I’d love to go to Japan someday. I am a sushi fiend, so that’s a dream trip for us!

  28. Um sorta jealous right now. All those amazing places and all that food?! We just went to Mexico for our honeymoon as so relaxation was in need but we did talk about going abroad. Now I am wishing we did!!

  29. Girl, I am in awe of all these stunning photos!!! I am so glad you shared them with us even though you went last year. We visited Tokyo 5 years ago and never got a chance to stop by Kyoto which is still on my Must Visit list one day when our kids are older. I LOVE that you are sharing places to eat and visit because this list is getting printed, laminated and locked up for when we DO GET to visit someday :) This is the BEST!:)

  30. Ah! I finally got a chance to stop by and read this and it was SO worth the wait! Those tiny paper cranes. All the moss! The food! I can just imagine the chef stacking all the dishes in that tiny cabinet. I want to go SO badly!

  31. Lovely! Your photographs are gorgeous!
    I spent a three-day holiday in Kyoto/Osaka when I was studying abroad in Tokyo. Unfortunately, as undergrad student I was more interested in nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) izakayas. I’m definitely going to use your guide when Alex and I go to Japan together! :)

  32. kai says:

    hi. what dates were you in kyoto? just want to know since i can see that it is not yet full autumn colors. planning a trip but not sure what date.

  33. Mina says:

    I am planning my 1st travel to Kyoto and find ur posting and touched on your gorgeous photos! I planned to travel only downtown at first before your post. now I dig into the peaceful places from yours. I am gonna change ma plan! Thanks for lovely posting!:D I enjoyed urs!

  34. Shahanara says:

    Sarah, you’re an absolute kindred spirit! I too, plan all my trips around food. :) I’m flying to Japan in literally one week time and my Kyoto days are basically a replica of yours – you’ve provided such a fantastic guide! Sadly, my group and I couldn’t get our application accepted at Saiho-ji Moss Temple because of peak time (good excuse to return) , but we have managed to get ourselves a reservation at Shoraian. Just curious, what dish did you opt for when you ate there? We’ve been asked to choose which course we would like to reserve and I’m completely overwhelmed with choice.

    • Hi! OH MY GOSH – you have NO idea how jealous I am of you! We ordered the Shoyo JPY 3,800 lunch option and it was UNREAL. Please please tell me how you like it after you go?! (Also be prepared to take your shoes off at the restaurant:)

      Highly recommend heading over to the monkey park after lunch – just over the bridge. Have an amazing trip!

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