We started our day with the included breakfast in the hotel. It was pretty nice, with miso soup, scrambled eggs, toast and a little lettuce salad. I’m happy to have an included breakfast. Hotel Inn Gion has been a great deal so far. The wonderfully helpful guy at the front desk tried to help us make more reservations today, the bathroom is nice, the room is warm, and the free breakfast is an added bonus.
We walked across the river to the Hankyu Kawaramachi Station. Hankyu operates two private lines in Kyoto, and the trains were pretty nice and quick. We switched to the other line, even though we had to wait a few minutes, and soon arrived at Arashiyama, in the western suburbs of Kyoto. As soon as we arrived, I could tell it would be touristy, as swarms of people exited the train with us. We started at Iwatayama Monkey Park, where we walked about 20 minutes up a moderate hillside, where we found about 150 Japanese macaque monkeys. The monkeys are wild, but pretty tame, and you can walk around with the monkeys doing their thing around you. The Japanese monkey is a unique breed to Japan, and they’re sometimes called snow monkeys. They’re pretty fun to watch, and it was genuinely cool to walk amongst them. Even the other tourists didn’t bother me, because everyone was just appreciating the monkeys and the landscape. The view of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains were also pretty great, although the skyline, as with every other city we’ve seen, is lacking.
There are still some remnants of fall leaves here, although I’m a couple weeks too late for the full color scheme. The occasional red tree is still pretty great, though.
We walked across the Togetsu-kyo Bridge to the center of Arashiyama. We stopped at one of the three branches of % Arabica Coffee, which is the trendiest, most lauded coffee shop in Kyoto. It was a pretty serious operation. They only serve espresso based drinks, so I had an Americano, which was quite good. The place was filled with pretty obnoxious tourists snapping photos, but I still liked the coffee. Somehow other tourists really annoy me in Japan, even more than in a lot of other places. I wonder whether it’s because I want to impart so much importance and meaning in all of these places, and then it’s just shattered by tourists acting as tourists do.
We sat and drank our coffees by the river, which was very pleasant. Then we walked a couple doors down to Yoshimura, a soba restaurant facing the water, but hidden in a little courtyard. It was the only restaurant I could find in Arashiyama that sounded even halfway decent. There are two buildings, one of which normally houses a traditional tofu restaurant, but they were serving the same menu. We had to wait about 15 minutes but were soon seated in the second building (so not facing the water).
We stored our shoes in a handy locker and were seated at a counter facing a pretty courtyard, with trees and plants, where we were served buckwheat tea. We both ordered a set menu with two types of soba: a half portion of zaru and a half portion of hot soba with wild vegetables. It also came with tempura over rice, pickled daikon and some toppings for the soba. The food was all delicious; the hot soba had mushrooms and some wild plants I couldn’t identify, the tempura was light and flavorful, and the zaru soba was chewy and dense. My favorite part of eating cold soba is the end. After you finish your noodles, they bring you a pot of the soba-ya, the water the soba was cooked in, which you pour into the dipping sauce. It kind of feels like the Japanese version of bone broth, and it’s deeply satisfying and comforting. I was full after lunch, and happy, as the meal was great value and also delicious, and in a nice setting.
We hadn’t seen much, yet, so we started out at Tenryu-ji temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site founded in 1335 and the main temple for a sect of Zen Buddhism. The main building was closed, so we decided to just enter the gardens and walk around. The complex was huge, and the buildings were more grand than a lot of the Buddhist temples we’ve seen. The gardens were pretty, and we meandered through before exiting and turning into the Arashiyama bamboo grove, where we walked down a path surrounded by dense, tall stalks of bamboo. The scene is hampered a bit by all the tourists with selfie sticks, which I think is often true in Kyoto (and I’m also here at a pretty low point in the year; I can’t imagine what it’s like in April or November), but the bamboo is still magical, if a bit overrated (My favorite places in Kyoto, at least thus far, have been a little off the main tourist track).
We left the bamboo grove behind and entered the grounds of the Okochi Sanso Villa. Sanso was a Japanese actor in the early 20th century who built a villa with gardens and great views. Entering all the temples and gardens in Kyoto adds up quickly, as each entrance costs around 500 yen, and sometimes more. The Villa was 1000, but I thought it was really worth it. You follow a winding stone path through gardens and trees, with buildings interspersed throughout and the gardens landscaped in order to ensure stunning views of the mountains. It was quiet, with the silence only punctured by the loud voices of the tourist couple who seemed to be following us, and pretty in the afternoon light. At the end of the walk, you’re served a matcha latte in part of the garden.
I’ve discovered that the majority of green tea here is matcha, which disappoints me, as I prefer sencha, genmaicha and haji-cha, among others. Especially desserts are mostly made with matcha. I find it too sweet and not that tasty, but I like the color and the change of pace.
From the villa we walked north, across the train tracks (it’s funny sometimes when you hear a train clickety-clack by or car horns honk as you walk through a temple complex or a garden). The crowds thinned pretty quickly, and we entered Jojakko-ji temple, which I thought was amazing. We walked up a couple sets of stairs to the main temple complex and then up behind it, where there was a simple two-story pagoda that I was transfixed by. I walked up farther to the top of the complex, which is set on a hill, to the observatory, where I got another nice view of the city. There was almost no one around, and I could have spent a couple of hours there.
We walked back down to the road and kept walking north. We passed Nison-in temple and a few other, smaller temples but didn’t enter. There seem to be another temple here every few steps. Every time I turn my head I spot an entrance to a temple or shrine or garden, or some hidden passage that holds further secrets. I like that about Kyoto, but it’s also a bit overwhelming. It also seems like a lot of the city’s secrets are meant to be hidden from foreigners, which I’m totally fine with. We kept walking up and soon we were walking through a quiet residential neighborhood, with old, pretty traditional houses and nice gardens. We passed some little shops but almost no other people.
We wanted to enter the Adashino Nenbutsu-ji temple, which has over 1200 stone buddhas, but when we arrived a lot of the main areas were closed, so we didn’t bother entering. We didn’t want to walk further, to the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple, or the other direction to Daikaku-ji, which sounded pretty nice but similar to a lot of the other big temples, so we had a nice walk back to the center of Arashiyama. There are so many temples here (over 1600 in the city) that I think it would be impossible to see all of them, and after a while they start to meld together in certain ways, so I think it’s important to pick a few and spend a little longer really engaging with their spaces and meanings. We still have a couple full days here so I have a few specific temples in mind I definitely want to experience. We walked back through the bamboo grove again. I particularly enjoyed the little garbage truck that drove right down the path under the bamboo. Then we walked along the main street in Arashiyama, which is lined with shops and tea houses, but was too crowded to really enjoy. It was getting dark, so we walked back across the bridge to the train and returned to the hotel for a quick rest before dinner.
I had made a reservation at a restaurant just a few minutes from the hotel, and we arrived at Teppan Tavern Tenamonya, down a steep flight of stairs in a basement on a main street between Gion and Higashiyama. It’s run by a husband and wife, who both speak English. The guy works the grill, and we sat at the counter and watched him. I had Kirin on draft, which I don’t see very much (it’s my favorite of the big Japanese beers), and we ordered food. We had passable gyoza, some grilled shrimp, soft-shell crab tempura that I liked a lot, some much-needed spinach and asparagus, yakisoba with veggies that was fine but nothing special, and the main event, A5 wagyu beef, which the restaurant sells at significantly lower prices than most restaurants serving steak. A5 is nominally the highest classification, although I’m not sure the beef was really the absolute best. It was delicious, to be sure, and melted right in your mouth, but it was no better than other wagyu I’ve had before. I sound so obnoxious, wow. I really enjoyed it, I’m just realistically describing the food as I experienced it.
After dinner it was raining, so we stopped at the hotel to regroup. I had read about this cocktail bar specializing in gin, so we walked about 10 minutes back across the river to a tiny little bar on a quiet side street just off the river. The bar was called Nokishita 711 Gin and Cocktail Lab, and at first I thought it was empty, as pretty heavy vines and shrubs cover much of the interior. It’s just a local guy, dressed in what could be a white lab coat or a chef’s coat, who really loves gin and making cocktails. There were only two other people there when we arrived, a couple who hardly spoke to each other the whole time we were there but took lots of pictures and edited them on an iPad. By the time we left, though, there were a few other foreigners: a pair of older Italians and four white folks who could have been American. It’s clearly a bar mostly for foreigners (although I think Kyoto is just so touristy that most places here, even a lot of good places, cater in large part to tourists), but it was still wonderful.
There are about 15 different gin cocktails to choose from, each with a different type of gin (many I’d never even imagined before, like a burdock gin, a spicy gin and a shiitake mushroom gin that I wasn’t brave enough to try. The cocktails were some of the most inventive I’ve ever seen. I had one that was a Negroni variation with gin, mezcal and bayleaf, and a second with suze, ginseng bitters and moon candy. Jake’s second cocktail was the real showstopper, as the mixologist (I don’t like this word but I honestly don’t know what else to call him) lit a little piece of blackened wood on fire (a piece of an 1500-year old cedar tree, according to the guy) and placed the glass over it for a few seconds to capture the aroma (it was described as ancient cedar bitters on the menu) before pouring the drink, made with gin, honey, syrup and an egg white, into the glass. The cocktails were all amazing and unique, and so much care and thought was clearly put into the creation of each. I tried to watch him at work but the small bar area was partially hidden. Tons of notes hung from the vines (which also had little string lights), from people all over talking about how awesome the bar is. I really enjoyed the place and might return another night while I’m here. The bar also has a quirky pay-what-you-wish policy, where you leave whatever amount of money you deem appropriate. I struggled to decide. In New York, cocktails like these, even on the smaller side, would run at least $15-$20 a pop, not including tax and tip. I eventually decided that a little less than 1000 yen per drink seemed reasonable, as they were really quite small, and if I end up feeling badly about that, I can always return (and as a bonus, try another cocktail).
We walked back through a light rain to the hotel and spotted a couple of geishas on the way. Kyoto is definitely different than the other places we’ve been to, although it’s hard to put my finger on what, exactly, makes it so different. There’s somehow more tradition and history, but also at least some level of innovation. It feels touristy and played out, but also extremely authentic, if that makes sense (I’m not sure that it does).
Another thought I had today, as I jumped out of the way of a taxi on one of Gion’s side streets, is that in some way, there was an order to Tokyo, despite how massive and bright and unruly it is, that just hasn’t been apparent anywhere else. The drivers have been more aggressive elsewhere, the people have been more uneven, and places close and open according to some unseen whims, to offer just a couple of examples. I’ll reflect on this more when I return to Tokyo and see if this first impression actually holds up.
I was planning to take a half-day trip to Osaka tomorrow to see the castle and walk around Dotonbori, the main entertainment district, but there’s so much I want to see in Kyoto that I think I’d rather just stay here and get the most out of my time here. I’m going to wake up early on Friday to get to a couple temples before the crowds. I think it’ll be worth it, especially because it gets dark so early now.