Travel log: Kyoto in December!

Posted on 24.12.2014

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hi there:)

Sorry I’ve been MIA, but Mark and I have been working extra hard to make up for the time off we’ve had and WILL have this month: Japan likes to force people to take off work at least once a year (as they should), since the majority of salaried workers (‘salarymen’, as they’re called) don’t really take days off or use their vacation. We can discuss WHY later, but for now: we took off December 15-17 to go to Kyoto, and will have Japan-enforced vacation from Dec 30-Jan 4. I can totally get down with forced vacation, especially since I get to make my own schedule and can arrange it to account for those lost days of work. I love that part of my job.

most of the fall foliage was already on the ground.

most of the fall foliage was already on the ground.

So we went to Kyoto. We wanted to go for my birthday last month, but the prices at this time of year are excessively high, due to ‘fall foliage viewing’. We had initially thought that hanami season (cherry blossoms) is the most expensive time to go to Kyoto or Hakone (or any place with trees and hot springs), but it turns out that THAT time of year is #2 only to THIS time of year. Apparently, the Japanese place a higher value on the color red than the color pink? Not sure about this one.

Kyoto is best known for its old-style Japan ideals and as the earlier capitol of Japan. It’s also kind of known as ‘the place to see Geisha’. Thanks to a book and movie about that, Kyoto is like ground zero for Geisha-viewing. It’s also got a TON of temples and shrines, and you could spend all year visiting one or another and probably never see all of them.

 

HOTEL:
We got an insane deal on our hotel stay because a few friends told us about an amazing hostel located a few blocks from Kyoto station: Piece Hostel. It’s pretty new and ultra-modern, and really makes up for the ‘hostel’ part of its name by having THE most comfortable beds I’ve slept on in a really long time. A double room with a king-sized bed (with a gd memory foam mattress and superior down duvet) only ran us Y6,000 per night ($55). For that price, we were totally happy to blow the savings on different modes of travel. Bathrooms and powder rooms on every floor, laundry facilities (it was really nice to use a dryer again), free breakfast, a bar on the ground floor, and some really lovely decks and balconies. You can also choose which type of pillow you prefer. How sweet, since Mark and I prefer different types. Oh, and they have a library in the reception area that’s full of Kyoto and Japan travel guides and art books. Really great for the price. I know we’re getting a bit old for hostels, but this one was excellent. And really, it was almost our only choice! Kyoto was STILL mostly booked this week, and most of the fall foliage was already on the ground.

 

TRANSPORT:
We actually opted for two different types of transport, since we had some extra cash to burn (thanks, Piece Hostel!) and wanted to try some things out.

IMG_2345On the way there, we went with the luxury sleeper bus from Willer Travel, which is a really popular way to travel overnight and save some cash, if the shinkansen is too expensive (and it IS a bit on the expensive side). We opted for the ‘executive’ seats, since they weren’t overly expensive and also, it’s a 7-hour bus ride. We wanted to be as comfortable as possible! The site was all in Japanese, of course, so we had to have our friend help us with the booking. But the bus station was easy enough to find and get to, and the process of boarding and departing was all super easy. The buses come equipped with outlets (in case you need to charge something) and for a bit more, you can get a private seat with a curtain (helpful if you can’t sleep and want to use your laptop) and personal fold-out TV. Since we don’t actually speak or understand much Japanese yet, and wanted to sit together, we didn’t choose this option. It should be noted, however, that there was a barrier between us, for privacy, in case the person next to you is a stranger. No talking to strangers on this trip.

Each of these buses only has 16 seats, and the bathroom in the back is HUGE compared to, say, flying. Or taking a normal train. They also stop every few hours to gas up (I’d imagine) and give unprepared travelers the chance to grab some food or snacks. We came prepared, of course.

IF you fly in to Tokyo but want to see Kyoto, but don’t want to spring for the shinkansen, this is a great option and is easy to book. Also, rather than paying online and printing tickets, you make the reservation online and then go to a convenience store (we went to Lawson) to pay there and have THEM print your payment receipt. Awesome and convenient, as always.

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On the way back, we took the shinkansen. For being the bullet train, it really wasn’t TOO expensive to go one-way, and only cost a bit more per person than the executive seats on the bus (compare: bus seats Y10,000 ($83) each // shinkansen Y13,500 ($112) each).

Compared to the bus, it only took us 2 hours to get back to Tokyo. From the same station. So this is really the way to go if time is of the essence. It moves really fast and you don’t even have to reserve a seat if you book last-minute, although you should, since you don’t want to stand for 2 hours. It goes almost every 5 minutes, and the boarding on and off time is really quick, so you really need to get to the station on time so you don’t miss it!

The seats were comfortable, and we were of course surrounded by businessmen. It appears that on ALL long-distance trains, even the train to Narita, there is a service offering snacks and drinks. So if you DO go unprepared, there are things you can buy when you get hungry or thirsty. Again, anyone who walks through a train station or down any street in Tokyo really has no reason to be unprepared, as there is almost literally a convenience store on every corner, and drink machines on the street between them.

You can book shinkansen tickets at any major train station’s JR ticket center. These are usually located just outside of the JR ticket gates. At major stations (Tokyo, Ikebukuro, etc) there will most likely be at least one person working who speaks English!

 

KYOTO ITSELF:
Kyoto IS really lovely, but don’t expect to step out of the train station and feel like you’ve been transported back in time. Kyoto is a REAL city, unlike smaller places such as Hakone or Nikko, and it has real people living real lives, who are not Geisha. This is something you have to be prepared for, otherwise you may be slightly disappointed.

That being said, it’s a small enough city (it reminded me of Philadelphia, actually) and easy enough to get around. There are a TON of buses that go everywhere, so you can never really get lost. There’s an imperial palace in the middle, shrines and temples scattered about, and then on the edges at the mountains (Kyoto is in a valley, like Wuerzburg!) on all sides, a TON of temples and shrines.

To most travelers, a lot of these are going to look the same, even though they’re all devoted to different people or kami. Try to read up if you can before you go! Some places are flooded with tourists (Kinkaku-ji is one of these), and others are completely dead (Nanzen-ji was empty and lovely). There are a few places that have a few temples and shrines just lined up in a row, and you can go from one to the next without even realizing that’s what you’ve done.

Some things I would say, for travellers who want to see the city:

IMG_9774The Fushimi Inari shrine is BY FAR one of the best things, maybe even THE best thing, about Kyoto. It is every bit as gorgeous as all of the travel guides would have you believe, and it’s a hike if you choose to see *all* of it like we did. The hike around and up the mountain is easily 5 kilometres, and on a sunny day that may mean LOTS of tourists. However, if you’re strapped for time, I’d actually suggest seeing it in the rain/fog/NOT clear day, as it generally slows the flow of tourists and you might get the place to yourself, like we (felt like we) did for most of the hike.

Note: You will probably feel the need to take photos of this place all the way around, so be sure to clear out your memory cards, just in case.

IMG_9974Kinkakuji (the golden pavilion) is lovely, but you’ll be fighting tourists all the way around it to get a good photo. And most of those tourists will be taking selfies.

Also, compared to some of the other sites (see above), it’s a much shorter walk around and will take less time to get through it. You pretty much walk right to this point, then walk around and behind it, up a hill, pass a shrine, and then you’re on your way out. And you pay to see this one… Not much by any means, but still: Fushimi Inari is free and RIGHT across the street from the train station.

Kinkakuji, on the other hand, is about a two block’s walk away from the bus stop and is a bit far from the city center. Totally worth it to see it, though, as it is really gorgeous when it’s a sunny day. If you’re not a fan of hordes of tourists, though, go first thing in the morning if you can!

IMG_2570Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is lovely. We went at night, because we wanted to see the bridge illumination as well, but this one is gorgeous day OR night. The grove is a bit of a walk from the train station, but easy enough to find (just go left and walk through a neighbourhood, and you’re there).

This one was ALSO totally crowded with tourists who were trying to take selfies, in the dark, without flashes or tripods… which meant they stood in one place forEVER re-taking the same shot. Maybe daylight would be a better time to go?

Honestly, though… I brought a tripod and my Mamiya. I can’t WAIT to see how these long exposures turned out.

You go through a part that you think is ‘it’, and then you go past it to a second part which is totally ‘the grove’. That earlier part was like a warm-up. There’s a train station that is right at the end of the grove, and you could always enter from that one, but it’s kind of like getting dropped off at the back door. Either way, this place is worth a walk-through.

IMG_0077Aside from these ‘big three’, there are a TON of shrines, temples and sites to see in Kyoto. There are SO many places that are worth a visit. I’m just typing out the major ones. It’s honestly a great idea to just plan to walk around one part of town or area and stumble across things, because there is a ton to see on every street.

Gion wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped it would be, and the Gion walking tour that’s offered is ok, but not amazing… you’re most likely to run into escorts who are working and the men who’ve hired them than you are to run into some Geisha or Meiko running around.

As a note, the women you see wearing the brightly-colored kimonos running around in groups aren’t geisha or meiko, but more often than not tourists who have ‘rented a kimono’ for the day.

That being said, rent the kimono and take lots of fun pictures! Go to all the shrines and temples, eat ALL the vegetarian or vegan food (there is really a lot, and most restaurants advertise and have menus in English), and buy ALL the excellent, cute souvenirs. Kyoto is an excellent city and we’ll definitely be going back again.

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