traditional Japan: Kyoto and its surroundings

Traditional Japan was the first chapter of our trip and I had envisioned it as a soft introduction to Japan, but also the pure experience of tradition, meditation, simplicity and a bit of magic. We decided to stay at the perfect traditional guest house in the center of Gion, the geisha district, and we started feeling the deep vibe of Kyoto immediately when we arrived.



Arriving at our gate I saw all this bunch of foreign faces and the excitement suddenly kicked in, stupidly and undeniably.

We queued politely at the gate and we took our seats on a full KLM flight. When booking we noticed we could pick our meal choice and, for no specific reason, we planned on having a low sodium and a low fat meal. Despite the airplane quality, it was quite a good call! Special meals are served before the others and indeed the low fat was the lightest but still tasty onboard meal I ever had and on the plus side all its ingredients looked recognizable.

After the meal, tea, a nap, a snack, some more napping and tiny walks around the aircraft we arrived at Osaka Kansai Airport. The portable wifi I had booked was waiting for us at our arrival and we could be immediately connected (a plus considering that there are no offline maps of Japan).

It took a while to understand what train ticket we needed but we made our first wish come true: travelling by bullet train. After a change in Osaka we got on the shortest train ride, barely 12 minutes to get to Kyoto and it was amazing to see the speed more than feel it.

Once in Kyoto we got our way around the complex bus terminal and went on a short bus ride till our accommodation, a super cute traditional guest house in Gion District, the geisha district. Already walking towards Gionkoh we saw many girls and some guys dressed in traditional clothes and happily enjoying the perfect 18C weather.

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Hiro was waiting for us at the entrance of the guest house and gave a very brief and precise guide to the area and the house, plus a very good tip for a late lunch. Japanese have lunch around 1pm and many restaurants close for a break before dinner, but we were lucky that this little place just down the street was open. There was a small queue in front of Hisago, but for us it was just the first occasion to do some people-watching: a Japanese family and a Japanese couple were before us and two German couples were following. Our turn was approaching and the waitress made us understand that we would be seated with the couple of locals before us. Perfect.

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They were a Korean-Japanese couple on their third date and while their English was limited they were very curious to know more about us, food, everything. They explained the reason why there were baskets on the ground under the table (to put your bags) and what food to order (oyako don, rice with soft cooked egg) and to wash our hands before eating with the wet towels.

We enjoyed our meal, took a couple of selfies and left separate ways, ours was direction nap.

Refreshed and almost set in the right time zone, we decided to walk a bit around, get hungry, eat, walk back and try to fall asleep; but first, coffee. I had seen all over Instagram posts of a very minimal, trendy chain called Arabica, but showing “%” only as their logo. I had to try it and it was surely worth the fame.

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We walked along Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka, two beautiful historical streets and we fell in love with the soft light at sunset. We reached the Kiyomizu-dera but found it closed and decided to come back at sunrise the day after. We went towards the Chion-in Temple, loved the elegant neighborhood and stopped for dinner at a ramen place called Ramen Miyako where a couple of Chinese wanted to take a picture with us. After enjoying the delicious dinner we walked back in the fresh night passing through the Hanami-koji District.

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I woke up at 5:13am with all the energy to start the day, the koi fishes were swimming in the pond and Sourena was sound asleep. I waited till his alarm went on at 6:40 and then started pushing, maybe a bit too hard, to head to the Kiyomizu-dera, the temple we had sneak-peeked the day before.

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The light and the empty streets gave a completely different vibe to the place. We had our breakfast overlooking the mountains and the city and looked at the school groups of children visiting the temple.

Stupid side note: school girls are really dressed like Sailor Moon!

Since it was only 8am we still had time before everything would open so we decided to enjoy an early morning bus ride to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha. We got out at the wrong stop or even got in the wrong bus all together and ended up at the Tofuku-ji. Good that we did! This was a unique place; a spot that makes you think you should meditate, relax and enjoy time. The moss garden, while small, was very pretty and the bridge on the small river, the tree house, the fact that you had to walk bare feet, everything was very enjoyable.

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From there we walked to the tori mile (the Fushimi Inari-Taisha), it was a bit of a long walk but we had the chance to pass through a very quiet area where bikes were not locked and we didn’t feel at all like we were in a city. When we started feeling like we were lost we suddenly turned in the caos of the touristic attraction.

Tons of people were coming and going, vendors along the street selling everything; from souvenirs to oranges with a straw and any possible food on a convenient stick (we literally saw cucumber on a stick, which is actually just a cucumber).

We stopped at a nice coffee shop called Vermillion, had ice coffee and used the perfect toilet with a dramatic classical music soundtrack (I had been thinking this for ages…).

After this well-deserved stop we walked towards the beginning of the super crowded tori mile.

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We didn’t go all the way up but could feel the exceptional atmosphere of the place and while very crowded it was great to still find some peaceful corners.

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We took pictures, had a very expensive, unsweetened, matcha ice cream (the beginning of our confusion about what sweets are in Japan and our love for matcha) and decided to take a bus to the Bamboo Forest.

While the ride was not as special as I had read, the forest itself was crowded was breathtaking. Long lined of tall bamboos create a magical light and if it wasn’t for the train passing close by you would really feel detached from space and time.

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When we remembered that we were quite hungry we walked towards the river and choose a restaurant that clearly stated they didn’t serve Japanese food, Cafe Hanashirube, we checked the menu and we saw they had hamburgers so we went for it. The restaurant had only seats facing the river and mountains and it was the best idea to enjoy the funniest and delicious meal.

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From there we walked to the bus station for the unflattering way back. Fast forward to one hour later, we were close enough to our place to get out and walk the rest of the way when we remembered that we wanted to check a grocery store with possibly fresh ingredients and we found it! Happy with the grocery at Fresco we walked back to enjoy some rest at the private garden; pure luxury.

At 5:10pm I decided that I would give a third try to enter a building at the Kiyomizu-dera that we found closed both the previous times. I got ready very quickly, left Sourena doing some exercise and walked out of the door.

When I stepped outside I thought that if it was about giving extra chances, I should check if the Ryozen Kannon, a huge Buddha statue as memorial of the wars, was open (I really couldn’t believe the 8:40 to 16:20 schedule).

After running uphill and enjoy the sunset I failed at both missions, but I also realized that even just discovering by myself and the sunset were was worth it. I had the chance to observe things better, asked a group if I could take their picture in traditional clothes and I could freely walk back at my own pace.

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During a very short rest we decided to test Instagram for dinner-drinks suggestions and we were disappointed by the first but really appointed by the second. We ended up at a very cool roof top bar, In The Moon, overlooking the city and the river.

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We realized in this way that the streets of Gion extend to the upper floors: clubs, bars, restaurants and pubs are at the higher floors without obvious statement from outside, only an elevator as a connection. We were walking back speaking about the fact that this might be the layer where the real geishas exist and then, all of a sudden, a beautiful one passed in front of us and it really felt like seeing a unicorn.

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We had a small breakfast and home and got out stuff ready for a day trip to Nara and Osaka: Nara is famous for the huge shrine complex and the wild deer that live around it and Osaka is famous for all the food; we were quite excited about the day.

On the plus side, we finally started feeling more confident about the public transportation: enter here, exit there, pay cash and queue nicely.

We had planned to go around Nara by bike so as soon as we arrived we went to the closest bike rental shop and started cycling on the uncomfortable side of the street.

We went up the hill till Kofuku-ji, stopped at the first deer, pet a couple of them and cycled through the park till the Todai-ji’s Gate where a very nice man gave me some acorns to feed to the deer, they loved them and immediately got greedy so we had to run away from them and went to the Todai-ji itself.

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The suspense created by the entrance patio that suddenly reveals the huge wooden structure is quite stunning. In the heat of the day, it was very pleasant to enter the temple and visit the huge Buddha. Quite impressive.

Once out we decided to cycle to the Kasuga Taisha; the lanes of lanterns must be magical at night.

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From there we went all the way downhill to the city center and only then I realized how much we had gone up. We had lunch at Happoh and the first sushi of the trip and headed back to the station after dropping our bikes.

I was very excited about going to Osaka since I had managed to arrange a meet up with two friends of mine from my long trip to Los Angeles. As planned we arrived a bit early to be able to have a first feeling on our own, we got out at Namba station and went on exploring, mostly around Dotonbori.

We met Kotaro at the metro exit and it really was like 10 years ago. We made no sense for a while, walked around and got a closer image of the modern Japan we expected.

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We stopped for tokayaki (grilled, ball-shaped, doughy snack with different fillings) at a small place where we could learn how to make them and choose the ingredients we preferred. After burning out tongues with these balls of light dough filled with octopus and more, we went to meet Isamu at America-mura, the America town in East Asia. Think about it, how cute is that?!

Since we were not really hungry for the second round we decided to go on Sourena’s mission to find a cheap watch and I convinced him that buying a Casio he would both accomplish the mission and have a very nice souvenir.

We headed to the next food stop for okonomyaki (a kind of pancake with toppings and sauces on it) but while waiting for the table we relocated to the next-door restaurant. We realized that for Japanese people the most important elements to pick a restaurant are the price and the speed of the service and for this reason they really enjoy a category of restaurant where everything costs a fixed low amount and you can keep on ordering at a very high speed of service. So we bailed on the “Japanese pizza” for many rounds of food at 280 yen. The food was not our favorite but is seems like they enjoyed a lot so it must be our problem.

When we got out it was already night but because of all the neon light it was brighter than when we entered and we got simply amazed by the amount of people.

Since we were on a food mission we queued for kushikatsu (chicken, tongue, beef, fish, asparagus, quail eggs, shrimps fried and passed in a delicious sauce with a side of fresh sweet cabbage). After this we were definitely not hungry anymore and a bit tired after the long day. We decided to go back to Kyoto and Isamu offered to drive us back since he was going that direction anyway. We said goodbye to Kotaro and went to pick up the car that turned out to be one of those amazing, super funny cubical cars. We got immediately excited by the idea of being in one of them and we didn’t mind at all getting lost every once in a while. Exactly because we got lost we passed close to the Osaka Castle and it was really stunning with all the light up in the darkness of the surrounding forest.



The forecast was right and we woke up in a very rainy Kyoto. The sound of rain in the garden, through the thin walls was the best background noise to nap and relax.

We slowly had breakfast, got ready and gave up on the idea of renting bikes. The plan was to go to the Kinkaku-ji passing by the city center to explore the Nishiki Market and we didn’t see reasons to change it, so that’s what we did.

We walked downtown in the pouring rain under our transparent umbrellas.

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Passing through the Pontocho Alley we arrived at the Market, first the shopping district then the food market. I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t know what 60% of the products were.

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Once at the end of the shops we took a bus to the Kinkaku-ji. Quite randomly it passed along the east wall of the Nijo Castle; not much was visible from outside because of the lush vegetation but it was still nice to see this little pocket of green in an otherwise very grey city center.

By the time we arrived at destination, it was raining like crazy and it was amazing: definitely less crowded than we read it would be, the golden pavilion was still shining and standing proud against the lush vegetation.

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We walked around the park and when we had enough of being wet, we just headed back home by bus.

Finally back in dry clothes we decided to go for our last round around Kyoto before packing for the next part of the trip.

I don’t remember how I had found and pinned Mimikou, but I am glad I did. I ordered ama-kitsune curry udon and it was one of the best meals I had in the whole trip. It was served in beautiful ceramics, quickly and politely as usual, with a glass of water instead of tea on the side.

It’s a cash-only restaurant so while Sourena was getting cash, I briefly chat with the hostess who was making pretty origami for people to take as a thank-you-and-goodbye. It was simply very nice.

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Recharged, warmed up and properly fed we went up the hill after stopping for a quick grocery shopping at our favorite supermarket: Fresco. They keep the air-co at polar temperatures and prices are ridiculous (5 peaches were 50euro and 150gr of high quality tuna less than 3euro), but we managed and bought ingredients to prepare a homemade dinner.

From there we went to Kinakoya, a little café I had seen passing by. We ordered one matcha latte and one roasted green tea-soy beans flour and milk and pancakes and they were all amazing.

Happy, stuffed and finally with some sugar in our bodies we walked home and stopped along the way at a lovely shop, Kyoto-to, selling embroidered accessories. I wonder now why I listened to my brain and didn’t buy anything.

From there we just went home, relaxed, packed and prepared a light dinner of salad and roasted tuna with a mysterious vegetable that luckily didn’t kill us. After that we were ready for an early night of sleep and the next chapter of our trip.