From Hiroshima, we took our next bullet train to Kyoto. We were really excited to see Kyoto. Our friends Matt and Rebekkah had been here about a year ago, and had great things to say. After doing a little research about things to see we had a full itinerary. Whenever I heard about Kyoto, I always thought about the Kyoto Protocol. Anyone else? The Protocol is an international treaty that was signed by nations committed to reducing greenhouse gasses (not fun fact: the US didn’t sign). Read more about the Kyoto Protocol here. Anyway, now that we have actually been to Kyoto, I will definitely have different thoughts!
We spent 3 nights in Kyoto, and stayed in an Airbnb on the west side of the city. We used our JR Rail passes a few times, but they weren’t super convienent to get around the city center. We bought 1-day city bus passes, which were 500 Yen each (about $4.50).
We used the bus to get down to the Gion district. This is the area of town to see Geisha’s! We didn’t see any, but we did see a lot of tourists. If you are going to visit Kyoto, you need to be prepared for many other people, and ready to fight off the other Asian tourists performing photo shoots on every corner. Most Asian tourists rented kimonos. Don't confuse them with the actual geisha's! For about $30 you could rent a kimono for the day, and if you paid a little more, you could get your hair and makeup done too. Jeff and I passed on the kimonos, but I did pay about $20 to attend a traditional tea ceremony. It sounded very expensive to me for a 45-minute tea ceremony and only 1 cup of tea. But I am so glad I went! You pay more for the cultural experience than the tea, and to me, that was completely worth it. (Below: sights from the tea room.)
The lady running the tea house took 2 other couples, plus myself (Jeff opted out), upstairs to her tea room and explained the tea ceremony to us. She asked if we all had tried matcha (powdered green tea) before and if we liked it. Everyone, except for me, said that they liked matcha. I told her that I had made my own cup of tea using matcha powder, so it was probably due to ‘user error’ that I didn’t like it. I love all kinds of tea! Then she performed the tea ceremony, while the rest of us sat silently and watched. It was almost meditative- we were told that listening to the sounds (water, mixing of tea) of making the tea should be very relaxing. And it was! She presented the bowl of matcha to me in order to change my mind about green tea! I was very surprised at what the matcha looked like. It was vibrant green, and very frothy. This was due to the way the tea was made. She added matcha powder to the bowl, and then used a bamboo whisk to dissolve the tea powder after the hot water was added. It was served in a bowl- not a cup!
After I drank the bowl of matcha (it is polite in Japan, and a compliment to the chef, to completely finish your food and drink), she had each of us in the room prepare our own bowl of tea. She served it to us with a small Japanese sweet. Since the matcha isn’t sweet, you usually have a sweet right before, or while you consume your tea. While I still prefer black tea (English breakfast to be exact), I was pleasantly surprised by matcha, and my experience during the tea ceremony!
We packed many touristy sights into Kyoto. On our second day in town, we went out to Arashiyama to see the Bamboo Forrest- a small park just outside of town.
We also visited Fushimi Inari Shrine. It is famous for its thousands of vermillion torii gates! Again- be ready to walk with bunch of tourists. We walked halfway up the mountain in order to get a good view over Kyoto- it was worth it!
That night, we stumbled upon a lantern festival. There were hundreds of lanterns lining the streets in the Gion district, and many beautiful flower sculptures that were lit up:
For us, Kyoto was the city of ramen. It’s been cold in Japan, and we are pretty much wearing all of the clothes in our backpacks every day. So it makes sense that a hot bowl of soup sounds good after walking around all day! Jeff has never been a fan of soup (or hot beverages). I was really surprised that he was excited about eating it 2 days in a row! On our second night in Kyoto we ate at a ramen shop that had many options. While they had an English menu, both of us had never eaten ramen before, so we took a stab at what we thought looked good (thankfully the Japanese love putting full photos of food on the menu). The ramen we got was great! I ordered a regular (?) bowl, and Jeff’s ended up being spicy. It was delicious! Also, the table was covered with things to add to our ramen...we stayed away since we didn't know what any of the condiments were!
The next night, by the time we got hungry while walking around, the nearest restaurant in our budget happened to be another ramen shop. We were the only ones in the restaurant around 5:30pm- the Japanese seem to eat a little later. Since we got prime spots at the counter, we were able to see how our bowls were put together. Not sure how long the pot of stock had been boiling for (years maybe?), but we watched our noodles cook, and then get added along with broth, beef, bean sprouts, and a lot of onion to our bowls. These bowls were even better than the night before!
We didn’t leave Kyoto until 3:30pm on our last day there, so we spent the morning at the Kyoto Botanical Gardens and walked around the Imperial Palace before heading back to the train station.
Getting food to eat before getting on the trains seems to be extremely common in Japan. There are plenty of restaurants and food counters in all of the train stations and they are always packed with people! We didn’t want to be left out, so we picked up two bento boxes of food at Kyoto Station before we got on the train- yum!
Overall, we enjoyed Kyoto, but found it to be extremely touristy- much more than Hiroshima. I would definitely suggest visiting the Bamboo Forrest and the Torri Gates, just be prepared for all of the tourists. We haven't encountered too many Western tourists in Japan, but in Kyoto, there were many other Asian tourists. You would see people everywhere in rented kimonos- and it was pretty obvious that they were not locals.