We both slept comfortably in our Kyoto machiya and woke up to our 7 AM alarm ready to get going. We fully packed up our backpack and left our Airbnb as we would not be returning to this accommodation. We grabbed some coffee and a pastry at a Tully’s coffee shop on the corner before hopping on the train to Fushimi Inari shrine. Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine famous for the thousands of vibrant torii gates lining its path. There are some offering halls and other typical features, however the neat thing about this attraction is that it is situated on Mount Inari so that you are actually hiking up this mountain through a beautiful forest and some peeks at sweeping views of Kyoto. The trail is 4 kilometers to hike all the way to the top, however after a certain point the density of the torii gates decreases and most tourists turn back around midway. Being on a tight schedule to see as much of Kyoto as possible in one day, we decided to do similarly, hiking upwards just over 1 hour then heading back down. On the way up we saw a few handfuls of tourists, we were still early, having arrived to the shrine around 8:30AM and it was nice to be able to appreciate some of the city views and stretches of nothing but torii gates in either direction without swarms of people. On our way down though we saw dozens and dozens of tourists, the density of visitors was certainly beginning to pick up around 10 AM as we left. We highly recommend visiting Fushimi Inari and definitely recommend doing so early in the morning.
We decided to grab some food at Kyoto station before making our move to another area of Kyoto called Arashiyama. Most of the restaurants weren’t open yet since it was before 11 AM so we didn’t have many options, we saw Gindaco and found out it is sort of like a Japanese version of McDonalds serving fried octopus balls with fixings. For the sake of being good tourists, we decided we should try them out – this was regrettable. We ate most of the fried octopus balls before both establishing that we hated them and they made us feel horrible. Just writing about it is making me nauseous again, our advice would be to steer clear of Gindaco at all cost. Oof, moving on. Ryan had hiked our whole Fushimi Inari visit with the overnight backpack since we’d checked out of our Airbnb, so we found a coin locker at Kyoto station so that we could just pick it up on our way home and enjoy Arashiyama sans backpack. FYI, this is actually a pretty quick, convenient solution if you find yourself between accommodations and wanting to explore without hauling your bags, there are lockers large enough to store a full piece of luggage in most train stations.
In Arashiyama we wanted to see the Tenryuji Temple, a Buddhist temple rebuilt multiple times since its initial establishment in 1339. We didn’t go inside the temple, though the walls are mostly open so you can see the inside, the primary attraction here is the garden. The garden has a large koi pond, some cherry blossoms and surrounding forested mountains. Again, being winter, we could imagine that this peaceful area is even more beautiful in the upcoming Spring and Summer. It was nice to see kimono-clad, Japanese families with professional photographers shooting in the garden; their reverence and appreciation for their nation’s historic attractions helped us appreciate their significance even more. When you exit out the back of the garden you’re on the cusp of the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. The forest is densely packed with tall (30+ ft), skinny bamboo stalks and the narrow path winds through it for 400 yds. This path was semi-crowded to where you never felt alone in the bamboo, but not too crowded to prohibit moving freely throughout.
We had to walk a while from here to get across the Togetsukyo Bridge, we were still in a forested area but could see down to a brilliantly blue river below, so we followed a steep path down to the river bank. It was really nice in the sun along the Katsura River, again, the surrounding mountainsides must look stunning in blossoming spring and colorful fall. We found a small waterside restaurant called Kameyamaya where we grabbed a couple of beers and relaxed on their outdoor seating to people watch. Many people rent bikes and cruise around this area and there is also a river boat available to take in the mountainside views. We continued on our way over the bridge toward the monkey park. We were following Google Maps and realized we we were walking for a while and seemingly into a neighborhood as opposed to a monkey park, we passed a security guard and walked another 200 yards to where the monkey park was on the map – but instead, there was just a sign saying “Attention: Here is not Arashiyama Monkey Park! The Google map is wrong”. Oops, perhaps something Google Maps should look into. We turned back toward the bridge and as we passed the security guard again, he had a shit-eating grin and handed us a map with the actual location of the monkey park clearly marked, thanks bro. We finally found the monkey park and hiked the 20 minutes up to the top of the mountain where the monkeys hang out. The monkey park was a very neat attraction due to the inexpensive admission, monkeys and sweeping views of Kyoto. You can’t touch the monkeys or have a staring contest with them (they hate that) but you can stay up on top of the mountain with them as long as you like. There is an option to feed the monkeys from the feeding room as well, though we opted not to do this. We watched the monkeys play and fight and eat while we took in the view. After 20 minutes or so we decided we were ready to head back down the mountain and on to Tokyo.
We arrived to Kyoto Station around 2:30 PM, almost 24 hours on the dot from when we had arrived to Kyoto Station the previous afternoon. We collected the backpack from the locker, grabbed some rice snacks and 3:20PM Shinkansen tickets and were back to the Shibuya apartment around 6 PM. We agreed that, during our 24 hours in Kyoto, we appreciate more of the nature and scenery than the temples and shrines, but were happy with what we were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. We also agreed that it is possible we would want to return to this city for a more in depth visit in the future but would say if we’d been more budget conscious we might have cut this expense out this time around (Shinkansen + Airbnb wasn’t inexpensive).
After resting and getting cleaned up at the apartment, we found a local Shibuya sushi recommendation online called Shunkashutou. The sign on the establishment was in Japanese symbols only, so we had to match the symbols from the online post with those on the small sign indicating the second-floor restaurant (kind of like that movie Arrival). We were the only Westerners in the restaurant and the English menu was definitely limited compared to the Japanese one. We sat at the sushi bar and picked the mixed sushi set and a couple of sho-chu cocktails. We prefer tuna and salmon nigiri regularly at home, but have found that the mixed sets including tamago (egg), uni (sea urchin), and salmon roe (salmon eggs) are much more tasty and fresh in Tokyo compared to what we’ve had in Houston, TX. While our preference would be copious amounts of tuna and salmon even here in Tokyo, we found it easier and more polite to order off of the set menu. The sushi here was good, not the best we had in Japan, but it was fun to watch a group of local teens giggling over shabu shabu (Japanese hotpot), some business men Indian-style on the floor table introducing their middle-Eastern colleague to their local cuisine, and what might’ve been a Tinder date unfolding next to us at the sushi bar.
After dinner we wanted to find a cool spot to hang out for a little while longer, and what luck when we found a Fushimi Inari torii lined entry leading down to a basement bar after only wandering a couple of blocks from sushi. We do not have the name of this establishment, but the hostess drew out the Japanese symbols of the name and they are in a photo above. The interior was eclectic Japanese décor with pop-culture accents, it had a community table with seating for 15 or so then the traditional low tables with floor seating for individual parties of 2-4 people. We sat at the community table where a young Japanese couple was finishing up eating. We really just wanted some drinks but the menu stated they prefer for everyone to order 1 dish, this is customary at many of the establishments, either a dining requirement or cover charge. We ordered the 2 desserts they had on the menu – a sake gelato and a Yamazaki whiskey pudding. Both desserts were inventive and really tasty. We tried a carafe of local sake and then another carafe of another local sake; we were really impressed with every sake we had in Japan, they were all smooth and flavorful without the alcohol burn of many we’ve tasted at home. We conversed briefly with the owner despite an obtrusive language barrier, though all Japanese seem happy to offer as much English as they’re capable of at any opportunity. He is a super friendly transplant from Kyoto and was thrilled to know that we had visited his home city that same day. He walked us up the stairs and out the exit then bowed and profusely thanked us for visiting his establishment. This bar was a perfect find considering we started our day hiking in Kyoto beneath Fushimi Inari orange and black toriis, now we were ending our day in Tokyo beneath the same iconic toriis.