Kyoto was everything that I thought Tokyo would be, minus the big city vibes. Since I'm not familiar with Japan (I've only been there twice in my adult life), I really didn't know what to expect on either trip. After Tokyo, I was a little let down because I had set my expectations really high. I made sure to do the exact oposite this time. Aside from those torii gates and the bamboo forest that I've seen all over Instagram, there wasn't much that I knew about Kyoto. I was just looking forward to seeing the city where my grandfather went to college and lived in for several years. He passed away when I was very young and I leap at every opportunity to feel closer to him. He's unmistakably where I got my love of travel (and eating!) from: he used to take my mom (or basically whoever was available to go) to travel around the world. And you want to know the funny part? He would hire photographers to follow them around the entire trip to take pictures. We have so much in common, and I think if he were still here, we would be BFFs!
We flew into Osaka at around sunset and caught a bus in to Kyoto. It was pitch black and chilly by the time we arrived at our hotel. Even though I had a long list of restaurants on my phone, we've found that 1) the navigation was spotty even getting to our hotel, and 2) restaurants in Japan are often times located in little alleyways, aka extremely difficult to find. With that in mind, we just grabbed an omakase dinner around the block and called it an early night.
The following morning, we headed over to a quaint Japanese bakery across the street from our hotel for a few bites of red bean and matcha pancakes and some hot tea before taxiing to The Imperial Palace. Well, I wish we'd asked the front desk or done our research because the palace was closed that day! Just our luck...We took a walk around the gates and found ourselves some of the most beautiful cherry blossoms we've ever seen! And there weren't crowds of people, so it ended up being worth the trip. I had read that the cherry blossoms were blooming earlier this year, but I didn't get my hopes up. I was so glad that we saw some and didn't have to take a separate trip to Japan to catch a glimpse of these beauties alongside thousands of other tourists.
The weather was not welcoming and we were shivering so much (you should've seen me in my sheer dress and Samuel in his shorts!) that we popped into the gift store just in time to find a restaurant attached. I ordered myself a giant bowl of tempura udon and Samuel warmed up with teriyaki chicken bento box. We've eaten at more "tourist trap restaurants" that we'd like to admit, and I'm happy to report that this restaurant served adequate fare.
Next up was Fushimi Inari Taisha, perhaps one of most popular spots in Kyoto. Now that we've seen it, I can totally see why people flock to see the rows and rows of torii gates and the shrine. Sure, it makes an unbelievable backdrop for photos; it's also unlike anything we've ever seen. It's simple and traditional -- exactly what I wanted to see upon visiting Japan. One thing that I'm still not accustomed to while in Japan is how unpretentious and unfussy everything in Japan is. They focus on the beauty of organic simplicity, the less, the better, and it's truly a sight to behold. It doesn't wow you or knock you off your feet like The Grand Palace in Bangkok or The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. However, it sparks some sort of inner peace. Is that weird to say? In a world where there's so much embellishment and flashiness, it's refreshing to take in Japanese sites that are so infused with nature.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is a wonderful place to visit for a serious workout. I attempted to make it to the top, but threw in the towel half-way through, red and breathless. I most certainly didn't appreciate the reminder of how terribly out of shape I am. Samuel decided to run up for a glance of the view, a true champ! We headed back to the hotel for a change of clothes and then walked over to Nishiki Market.
The market is perhaps tied with Fushimi Inari Taisha for my favorite activity on this trip. I loved that I could sample various local foods and shop for unique souvenirs all while not forgoing a cultural experience. Nishiki Market is a long hallway with hundreds of vendors, some specializing in Japanese snacks, fresh seafood, tea, desserts, you name it. The moment we entered, I knew we made the right choice to come here. Our senses lit up -- there were freshly-baked rice cakes to our left, colorfully wrapped candies to our right, and endless miscellaneous scents, sounds, and sights straight ahead. There was such an endless selection of food that I was legitimately struggling to decide what I wanted to indulge in first.
At first, I was going to hold out until I surveyed all my options (who was I kidding?!). That's something strange that I often do when I can't make a decision: I like to see all my options before deciding, even if I don't just have to pick one. Anyway, my first treat ended up being a red bean mochi skewer from the Snoopy store. That was one of the snacks that I had hoped to try in Tokyo but never had a chance. I've had lots of mochi in my lifetime, but never had a traditional mochi skewer with red bean paste slathered on top. It was warm, chewy, and sinfully sweet! Plus, the Snoopy store had the cutest inventory of presents, all adorned with Snoopy and friends. Samuel stopped me from buying anything and we continued our tour of the food hall. We came across this stall with a long line and people scattered around the entrance eating these things that looked like donut holes. It turned out they were munching on takoyaki, batter balls filled with octopus, and trust me, don't knock it until you've tried it. I'm not a fan of octopus, but the crowd convinced me otherwise.
There's something about traveling that make me more adventurous with food. I've slowly, but surely, been more open to trying different foods and eating from less-than-credible spots. There've been a handful of regrettable moments, but that's not stopping me anytime soon! I've discovered so many new yummy foods that I can't believe I've never tried before.
I was over-the-moon when we passed a tea shop that had dozens of locally roasted tea. Honestly, I would go back to Kyoto just to pay that store another visit. My tiny carry-on bag limited my purchase to only three packs of specially roasted Kyoto green tea. I am going to savor that tea until we find our way back. And then as if I wasn't out of my mind already, there was a chestnut stand two stalls down. These chestnuts were the size of golf balls, and since chestnuts have been my snack of choice as of late, I had to splurge on a pack (they were not cheap!). My aunt raved about Japanese chestnuts from the day I told her we were visiting Tokyo and I was low-key grumpy that they were nowhere to be found on our last trip.
We walked to the end of the street and decided to explore the cross streets, which were mostly occupied with souvenir stores, while we were at it. We happily skipped along with cheese tarts (mini cheesecake tarts that are to-die-for!) in hand while eying handicrafts. There were loads of typical souvenirs (keychains, postcards, etc.) and there was also a generous selection of local and intricate souvenirs, which I always gravitate towards. I had major heart eyes for all the handmade silk pouches and clutches, woven scarves, and little accessories that imitated origami.
All that walking worked up an appetite, and much to my surprise, one of the restaurants that I had on my list, Musashi Sushi, was close by. It was a no-frills conveyor belt sushi place, a wonderful economical and practical option. There were easily 30 different kinds of sushi to choose from, my favorites being salmon with onion, seared tuna with mayo, and the tuna roll. I could've kept eating, but lost my appetite when I saw the sushi chef prepare a roast beef roll without changing his gloves and using the same pot of rice. Most people don't have the same hold-ups as I do when it comes to food preparation, and if you are one of those people, I would recommend this place to you. The sushi was cheap and delicious.
As we walked through the market one last time, I picked up a pack of fried chicken from an award-winning store for Samuel for his late-night snack. The owner and chef made each order fresh and there were heaps of customization options. I went with the original and it smelled so divine, even I wanted a taste. Samuel has gladly reported that it was the best fried chicken he has ever had, which is a lot coming from him, as he doesn't typically like fried food. For dessert, we picked up some taiyaki (red bed fish-shaped cake) and melonpan (sweet buns) for the walk back to the hotel. Our bellies stuffed, we collapsed into bed the moment we were back. We were up at 4 AM the next morning and bid goodbye to Kyoto.
Kyoto was such a blast, but getting there was quite the hassle. I'm the kind of traveler who will chose to have as few stops for the shortest journey possible. A brief cab ride to and from the airport is A-OK with me, but a 2 hours bus ride? Not so much. Also, I abhor public transportation, so there's that, too. To be fair, the bus that we took was clean and comfortable, which made for a more enjoyable ride.
I'm sure we'd love to revisit, since we only spend a little over 24 hours there. I would like to visit Arashiyama and several other palaces and shrines next time. Samuel and I both agreed that we enjoyed Kyoto more than Tokyo. The activities and food both outshone Tokyo, in our opinion. But in all honesty, I think our trip to Tokyo was not well planned and ended up being hasty and sloppy. I don't think we even grazed the surface of what Tokyo had to offer. The same goes for Kyoto. I'm curious to discover whether or not these two cities are really as sleepy and quiet as I've found them to be or if we just happened to visit or stay in a calmer part of town. I try not to judge cities too harshly after one visit because as we've found time and time again, the second visit can feel drastically different.
Have you ever visited Kyoto or Tokyo? I would love to hear your thoughts!