If you had told me during my first trip to Japan that I’d get the chance to go back so soon, I wouldn’t have believed you. But when I received the notification on Thanksgiving in 2019 for $600 roundtrip flights from Atlanta>Tokyo, I couldn’t pass it up. Except this time, my mom was my travel partner. This was her first international trip ever (aside from a couple of Caribbean cruises) – while it was a very big first trip for her, it was my second, so I was relatively familiar with traveling there. Japan would be a very difficult first-international trip so recommend it for people who have traveled internationally before.
So we got lucky when it came to our flights. From getting upgraded to first class on the first leg of the flight, then having an empty seat next to us on the long portion to Tokyo really helped. It was about 16 hours of actual flight time – which was filled with many Netflix episodes, reading, airplane games and sleeping. Oh, and just general excitement.
Navigating the airport
We visited right when COVID-19 was still unknown and beginning to spread on this side of the world so the customs line was moving a little slower, and they were also monitoring for signs of sickness too. After making it through, we swung by the ATM (make sure you bring a debit card) and Airport Bank (or cash to exchange – we found the Tokyo Airport is just easiest and has the best exchange rates) to stock up on Japanese yen (円) and get headed to Kyoto.
Our route to get to the Shinkansen was to take the Keikyo Rapid Limited Express from HND to Shinagawa, and then swap over to the JR East section to pick-up our JR Passes and make way for Kyoto. I always recommend you find maps of the airport and main rail stations before your trip and try to get a general sense of where you need to go. Some signs have the ‘Romanized’ names, but it can be very easy to get lost and difficult to ask. Also check the hours of the ticket offices and allow plenty of time for transfers.
Welcome to Kyoto
Literally one of my favorite parts of my first trip, and still one of my favorite cities in Japan. We stayed in a traditional Machiya flat in the Historic Higashiyama district – super close to bus lines and the Tozai line (東西線, Tōzai-sen), walking distance to many of the spots to see, and close to a FamilyMart super market (and ATM). Check Airbnb for these types of spots!
Fushimi Inari-taisha – one of my favorite spots from my first trip, so had to take Mum to this place too. This time we climbed the entire Mount Inari (approximately 2.5 mile hike), walking through around 1,000 red Torii gates. Walk alongside the Kitsune, fox guardians, as you pass by many of the sub-shrines until you reach the very top.
Kodaiji Temple – on the edge of Higashiyama, this place is a good one to tag with your Kiyomizu-dera visit.
Yasaka Temple – be sure to check out this area of town both during the day and at night. The temple grounds are beautiful while the sun is up, but the stage of glowing lanterns gives off such a relaxing and mysterious vibe during the evening.
Tōfuku-ji (東福寺) – this was a spot of Zen. This location had gorgeous rock gardens and beautiful moss ‘checker board’ grounds.
Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺, literally “Pure Water Temple”) – we went here our first trip about 10 minutes before they closed the gate at sunset, so we only got to see the exterior building and pagoda. This time, we visited during the afternoon, and got to walk in and see the inside of the grounds too. The temple was founded in 780, and is beautiful. To get here, it is about a 10-15 minute walk uphill.
Kōtō-in (高桐院) – this hidden jewel can take a minute to find but it’s totally worth it. It’s completely contained within walls and covered by tall trees and bamboo. The entrance is a lush, moss walk down a cobblestone path to this Buddhist sub-temple. The gardens are gorgeous and the vibe is so serene and private. This one is close to Kinkakuji and can be tagged with this trip (below).
Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺, literally “Temple of the Golden Pavilion“) – this is one of the most popular spots to visit in Kyoto, so go early in the day. It certainly lives up to its name – with the golden color reflecting beautifully in the blue waters. You get this view across the lake, and then circle around to see some of the architecture up close. At the end of the walking path, there’s a tea house where you can see green tea and treats in the shape and color of Kinkaku-ji.
Places to eat
Kishin Kitchen Kyoto (朝食 喜心) – Breakfast experience, approx. 2 hours – highly recommend making a reservation in-person if you can, but can also do online. The chefs put a lot of value and meaning into their dishes as well as the serving ware too. Website | Google
Tokkyu Ramen – perfect lunch spot for easy and inexpensive ramen. They are known for their vegetarian ramen, and it did not disappoint. Website | Google
Vermillion Espresso – this was a great spot to go to for breakfast before the hike up Mount Inari. It was a cute walk to the cafe, and they have both indoor and outdoor seating. Grab a quick bite or beverage before heading back to Fushimi Inari. Website | Google
Yasube Okonomiyaki (お好み焼 やすべえ) – this was by far one of the best okonomiyaki that I had during this trip. Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is a Japanese savory pancake – and is very similar to eating a personal-pan pizza in the US. At this restaurant, they cooked the okonomiyaki, and then brought it to your grill to add your toppings of choice. Of course I added the otafuku sauce (like a sweet BBQ/Worcestershire sauce), Japanese mayonnaise and katsuobushi (bonito flakes) as my main toppings. Located in the Ponto Cho area, which is a great spot to visit at night. Website | Google
Lessons learned from Japan 1.0
There are different train, subway and bus providers in the cities. Pay attention to the kiosks before buying tickets. We bought a couple wasted passes when I was in a hurry, and realized it wasn’t for the line we needed. What we found easiest to do was give loyalty to a couple lines and always choose routes that those lines provided, even if it was 10 min longer.
Lessons learned from Japan 1.0
In this trip, I focused on participating more in activities and experiences in a concentrated area. Here are some of our favorites:
Yasaka Hall Gion Corner – this show was a great way to get a taste of seven arts of Japan. In the performance, we saw two performing maiko and geiko, a tea ceremony, traditional music including the Koto live performed, Kyogen show, etc. Website
Tea Ceremony in Kimono – this was such a fun and unique Kyoto experience. We learned how to prepare and host a formal tea ceremony with a licensed teacher. It was very cool to learn about all the intricacies of the ceremony from every movement to the way you held and drank the tea. Aya was a wonderful teacher and I’d highly recommend her tea ceremony class as well as her other ones in your visit to Kyoto. Website
Japanese Shiatsu Massage at Hiyoshido in Gion – this hidden massage gem was the perfect place for a late night massage. We had to go in person to make the appointments, and it’s off a pedestrian-only street. It was so different than a Western massage! You wear a two piece outfit and lay on the Tatami floor. You might have 1-2 people working on you, and it’s blended with a series of massage, stretching, pressure points and more. I fell asleep for a short period of time (hopefully not snoring). The room we were in was a private room with a calming waterfall structure in one corner and plants throughout. We got ours at around 10:30 pm. Website | Google
Have you been to Japan? Share your favorite spots to see in the comments!