We visited Kyoto once before, but it was a whirlwind, 24 hours and just long enough to whet our appetite for the old town. We knew we wanted to return and give ourselves plenty of time to explore, so we allotted 3 nights on this trip. We ordered Japan Rail Passes about a month before our trip and they arrived via mail to our home in Houston, TX. We activated the passes at Shibuya Station the day before our Kyoto departure from Tokyo, the ticket agent was able to reserve our shinkansen seats at this time too. Of note, you must have your passport with you to activate the rail pass; also, the shinkansen seats fill up so if you’re on a tight schedule, the earlier you can reserve the better. We took a train around 10am then taxied from Kyoto Station to our Airbnb, arriving to the accommodation around noon. This Airbnb surpassed all of our expectations with its funky, retro décor in the living space, giant sliding window/doors to the terrace over a sakura lined canal, and the picturesque bathroom where Amanda spent most of a rainy-day soaking. Would 100% recommend during cherry blossom season!
We arrived in Kyoto to a beautiful day in the peak of cherry blossom week. We intended to check out Nishiki Market and grab a variety of food stall items, but on a whim opted for a standing sushi joint in the market that ended up being pretty mediocre, though it did the trick. Nishiki Market is interesting to see for a few minutes, but it’s mostly just souvenir type stuff and we couldn’t justify missing a gorgeous, sunny day in the dim, dingy market for that. So after our quick lunch, we snagged a taxi to Honen-in Temple to start along the Philosopher’s Path. The Philosopher’s Path is a stone walkway that follows along a canal lined in cherry blossoms, this path is AMAZING with the trees in full bloom, sincerely a special thing to be a part of with the hanami energy. The lighting at 2pm was not that kind and there were a million people around so the photos are not very good, but we captured excellent mental images that we hope will stay with us forever.
The Philosopher’s Path is conveniently located near many temples and shrines, so we spent about 5 hours eventually winding our way back to the apartment from here. We visited Eikando and Nanzen-ji, the grounds were pretty, but we decided that was enough temples for today. We ended up at a train track covered in cherry blossoms which had crowds of people having their photos done with the blooms. Many people shuffle around Kyoto in kimono and geta, which is not easy on the terrain of this old town, but it does add to the appeal of and reverence for the city. We walked by Shoren-in Temple and through Maruyama Park where a big cherry blossom festival was happening. We are so thankful for such a beautiful day to explore more of Kyoto and appreciate the sakura.
We wanted to relax with some sake on the terrace of our apartment for the evening so we found Sake Store and walked over to grab a couple of bottles. Sake Store has an amazing selection of sake and wine in this shop and the staff is very friendly, they really want to be helpful although they do not speak much English. The lanterns on our canal lit up at dusk to illuminate the trees and provide a perfectly romantic ambiance, I cannot say enough good things about this accommodation or the host. We wanted Yakitori so we found Tarokichi and filled in the last two open seats at the counter. Tarokichi really hit the spot, especially, surprisingly, the fried chicken dish which we ordered at the end after we both had the set course but just wanted a little something more. We finished the night at Nokishita711 which is a funny little cocktail bar with wildly eclectic decor making super inventive gin cocktails. We love the concept of Nokishita711, with a pay-what-you-please policy and incredible attention to detail, though the service tends to be a little slow and the patrons primarily young Americans when we visited.
After a perfect day of sakura in Kyoto, we woke up to cold rain which we welcomed as an excuse to appreciate the amenities of our accommodation – unlimited Nespresso and tea, a luxurious, soaking tub in a heated bathroom, and large windows to take in the cherry blossom lined streets from the warmth and comfort of our home. The weather gave us a craving for warm ramen so we walked over to Ramen Sen No Kaze which we had enjoyed on our previous Kyoto visit in 2017, it was an hour wait this afternoon though, so we “settled” for a nearby shop called Nandattei which does a delicious curry style ramen with thick noodles and the most tender pork chasu, not to mention the extra friendly staff; we were very happy with this meal.
We had a reservation for a 2pm tea ceremony at Ju-an Tea House not far from our apartment, we booked this 7 weeks in advance and our preferred time slot was already full FYI if you have a tight itinerary, reserve ASAP. The session at Ju-an Tea House included a lot of information about the history and tradition of the matcha tea ceremonies and the proper way to partake in this ceremony as a guest. This was a perfect rainy-day activity and we were charmed by the tea master who led our group, would certainly recommend this special activity.
We spent the evening at Liquor Museum Kawaramachi which we really enjoyed. Most whiskies on the menu are 500 yen ($4.50) per dram with some specialty selections at higher priced tiers. The Liquor Museum Kawaramachi manager, Daiki, was a fast friend and we loved getting to know him as well his recommendations for rare (but affordable) tasting opportunities. Daiki seemed genuinely interested to hear about our trip around Japan and insisted we show him photos of sakura along Nakameguro which we were happy to oblige. We tried a Suntory whisky from 1960 which was ridiculously smooth and a discontinued Hakushu 10-year which was great.
Dinner tonight was a booking we’d made the night before for Giro Giro which was right next door to our apartment. Giro Giro is an extremely popular, inexpensive kaiseki restaurant which receives accolades from both locals and tourists alike. The location along the same sakura lined canal as our Airbnb is romantic with the blossoms lit up at night, but because of everything we’d read about the restaurant, we were a little unimpressed, everything was good, but nothing blew us away and the service was a little strangely timed. In the end the meal just kind of ended and we didn’t know what to do – we weren’t sure if there were more plates coming, or a bill, and finally we just asked, and they told use we were meant to go pay downstairs. Maybe sitting at the chef’s counter would’ve added more to the experience, but this dinner did not live up to the hype for us.
We woke up to more rain, which was a surprise as we had previously determined we would wander Kiyomizudera, Ninnen-zaka and Sannen-zaka outdoor attractions. We went ahead with our plan, grabbing a quick onigiri at a convenience store on the short walk over. We visited this area on our prior Kyoto trip, but wanted to check it out during the cherry blossoms. Kiyomizu dera temple is still under reconstruction with part of it behind scaffolding, but it was nice to view the blossoms with the city and the temple. We were glad to have made the effort to stop by before continuing down the blissfully preserved Ninnen-zaka and Sannen-zaka streets. When we arrived to this part of town at 10am there was hardly anyone out, but by noon it was bustling with bus loads of tourists coming in together. We stopped in a shop for a matcha latte before making our way to Kyoto station, we ended up on a back street along a canal where it was, quite literally, raining cherry blossom petals – so magical!
The non-rapid service train from Kyoto to Osaka makes a stop in Yamazaki where we had reserved time in the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery tasting room. We were introduced to Japanese whisky on our first visit to Tokyo in 2015 and wanted to try some of the rare and select options that the tasting room offers. We grabbed lunch at Sanshoutei tempura before our tasting room reservation. We would highly recommend this mom-and-pop tempura shop as it is quick, delicious and affordable. The 80+ year old chef fried up all of the pieces right in front of us as he made charming conversation in broken English about the distillery, the cherry blossoms, baseball and NASA. When we got to Suntory distillery, we walked through the museum portion first to get some interesting history about the Suntory brand then we were pleased to find outdoor seating as it had turned into a sunny, beautiful day. The tickets are free, but you must reserve them in advance online and they do “sell out,” we reserved about a month before our visit. We spent about two hours in the tasting garden and tried 12 different drams between the two of us, including some more expensive pours like Yamazaki 25, Hakushu 25, Hibiki 21 and Hibiki 30, though we still only spent around $100 total. Upon leaving the distillery we walked around Yamazaki a little bit, it’s a cool little town, but we were quickly ready to move on to Osaka.
We caught the train to Osaka (about 15 minutes) where we intended to explore and experience the notorious street food culture of Dotonbori. We walked all around Dotonbori eyeing every takoyaki and okonomiyaki stall, but after tempura lunch and all the whisky, our stomachs unfortunately weren’t committed to fried street food and we opted to return to Kyoto without having tried a single bite in Osaka. The people watching on Dotonbori is great though, and the sheer number of stalls is impressive. Osaka is primarily a business district, though there appear to be a lot of neat areas that would’ve been fun to walk around if we’d been feeling a little more energetic (read – hadn’t drunk 12 drams of whisky) and had more time. Another day trip we considered from Kyoto was Nara which involves more temples, nature and wildlife, with a similarly brief train ride.
Back in Kyoto, we decided we needed some fresh food and found Sugarhill near our apartment, but when we walked over it was full so we went next door to Nishitomiya Croquette Shop. This shop was a neat change of pace as it is run by Japanese people and full of Japanese guests, but it is not serving Japanese food. Nishitomiya Croquette Shop is a hip little joint with a few fresh side options like green salads and fresh veggies, the croquettes themselves are of course fried, but still delicious with a variety of fillings!
The next morning, we headed off to the train station to make our way to Lake Kawaguchi and Mt. Fuji. We loved our stay in Kyoto and were so happy to have returned. A couple of things that we did on our first visit that are must-sees and not included in this itinerary include Arashiyama monkey park and bamboo forest, Fushimi Inari shrine, and barhopping on Pontocho Alley.