A guide to a unique budget weekend adventure at Japan’s former capital
An hour and a half from Kansai International Airport lies the city of Kyoto, high on many travelers’ bucket lists for its centuries-old temples and prewar cobblestone lanes, packed with inns and teahouses. But this handy three-day itinerary will prove that there’s more to Japan’s former capital than old temples and pretty geishas
*US$; hotels, airfare and impulse shopping not included
Day 1: Classic Kyoto
Start your day at 9am at the Silver Pavilion of Zen temple Ginkakuji (2 Ginkakujicho; US$4.50), getting in before the tour buses. Then, stroll down the peaceful brook-side Philosopher’s Path to delicious rice-ball maker Manpuku (31-3 Shishigatani Nishiteranomaecho; rice balls from US$1) to pick up a portable lunch. From there, it’s on to the sprawling gardens of Heian Jingu shrine (97 Okazaki Nishitennocho; US$5.40), where you can eat your goodies on the stunning covered bridge and toss a few grains of rice to the ravenous koi in the pond below. Stroll on through the hilly lanes of Higashiyama, absorbing the old-town atmosphere. Be sure to stop for photos at the solitary Yasaka-no-to Pagoda (388 Yasakakamimachi).
- Geisha etiquette: When geisha-spotting, remember to mind your Ps and Qs. These lovely ladies are on the clock and don’t have time to stop. Don’t block their paths, tug on their sleeves or otherwise pester them for photos — although it’s usually OK to take a picture from a distance. If you want a photo with a geisha, pay for her time! You’ll hear it can’t be done without an introduction from an existing client, but these days, it’s as easy as Googling “book a geisha”.
Heading uphill, you’ll arrive at the famous Kiyomizudera temple (1-294 Kiyomizu; US$2.70). The main hall is currently under renovation, but you can still drink from the Otowa wishing fountains and gauge your ability to find true love by wandering between the stones at Jishu Jinja.
Come dusk, it’s time to descend to the nightlife district of Gion for a bit of geisha-spotting. The lantern-lit lane along Pontocho is a likely spot to linger. When hunger strikes, head to hand-cut noodle shop Ukiya (125 Ishiyacho) to try local specialties like Kyoto-style kitsune udon (thick Japanese wheat noodles, seasoned fried tofu and fish cake in dashi broth; US$8.20) or yubatoji soba (hot buckwheat noodles topped with delicate bean curd skin; US$12.10).
- Day 1 costs: Shrine and temple entry US$12.60; Lunch US$10; Dinner US$25; Total: US$47.60
Day 2: Sake time
Our second day is focused on the sake-producing region of Fushimi, so head first toward the red gates of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine (68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho) to give thanks for everything that you’re about to receive. Then, hop on the Nara Line to Momoyama Station and head to Gokonomiya Shrine (174 Gokogumonzencho) to see some beautifully restored wood carvings of animals in the eaves and giant sake tubs repurposed as rain barrels.
A short stroll away is the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum (247 Minamihamacho; US$3.60), where you can learn how sake is made at a nearly 400-year-old brewery. Stop for lunch at Kisshouan (680-1 Motozaimokucho; US$18), where
bento is packed with Kyoto produce, then take a traditional flat-bottomed jikkokubune boat ride on the willow-shaded canal (US$11).
- What’s a machiya? Real estate is all about machiya houses in Kyoto. These traditional wooden buildings were popular with prewar merchants as residential and commercial spaces. Today, they retain narrow street frontages, with atmospheric sliding shutters, but they can stretch far back into the block and incorporate an internal courtyard garden to let in light and air.
Next, wander the charming old Otesuji shopping arcade, as locals go about their business buying everything from homemade pickles to mizuhiki decorative cords to hang on sake bottles. The last stop is the Fushimi Sakagura Kouji (115-2 Nayamachi), a sake bar ringed by eight small restaurants styled after yatai food stands. To cover all your bases, go for the Kissui tasting set with one sake each from 17 local breweries (US$15.30). For dinner, we recommend the ramen made with sake lees for an on-theme experience (US$7.90).
- Day 2 costs: Museum entry US$3.60; Lunch US$18; Boat ride US$11; Sake US$15.30; Dinner US$7.90; Total: US$55.80
Day 3: Breezy Arashiyama
Up and at ’em to get to the iconic garden pavilion of Kinkakuji temple (1 Kinkakujicho; US$3.60) at 9am, before the crowd forms. From there, make your way west to Arashiyama district, where the wind whispering through the Sagano bamboo groves is hypnotically beautiful. The walking path through the groves connects to the gardens of Unesco World Heritage site Tenryuji temple (68 Susukinobabacho; US$4.50).
If you’re feeling templed out, bypass the buildings and enjoy the expansive landscaped gardens, stopping in at vegetarian restaurant Shigetsu for a monk’s shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cooking) lunch (US$29.60 for the Yuki set).
- Fair time: To take a bit of Kyoto’s historic atmosphere home with you — and on the cheap — head to the Kyoto Antique Fair, held from 10am to 5pm, October 26 to 28 at Kyoto Pulse Plaza (5 Takeda Tobadonocho, Fushimi). Hundreds of antique dealers gather from around the country, peddling kimonos, pottery, woodblock prints, swords and more. While some lavish artworks are priced with enough zeros to bring on a heart attack, plenty of bargains can be found in the US$4.50 to US$9 range. And really, the hunt is half the fun! gomoku-do.com
Finally, make your way north to the Saga-Toriimoto heritage street, where 19th-century machiya townhouses have been converted into shops and restaurants. The street empties into the unusual Adashino Nenbutsuji temple (17 Adashinocho; US$4.50) — where 8,000 stone statues honor people who have died without family to tend to their grave sites — and the mossy Otagi Nenbutsuji temple (2-5 Sagatoriimoto Fukatanicho; US$2.70) — where thousands of stone figures crouch in the undergrowth, each with different and sometimes hysterical facial expressions.
- Day 3 costs: Temple entry US$15.30; Lunch US$29.60; Total: US$44.90
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Getting around: Kyoto is served by an extensive network of trains, subways and buses, making it easy to get around on public transport. One-day passes are available for buses only (US$5.40) and for buses and subways (US$8). Fushimi and Arashiyama are not included in the pass area.
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Where to stay: High-priced ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) abound, but some bargains can still be found
Hotel Material. Boutique hotel exuding artsy cool and an industrial chic vibe with a third-wave coffee shop and happening rooftop bar. hotelmaterial.kyoto
Hotel Keihan Kyoto Grande. Recently renovated station-front hotel offering value for money, with a club floor and stylish ryokan-style Zen Suite. kyoto.hotelkeihan.co.jp
Cafetel. Brand-new, ladies-only hostel and café with comfy triple rooms or dorms, a decked-out powder room and 500-yen breakfasts. cafetel.jp
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Tea tipples: Kyoto is famous for green tea and you’ll find it in everything from soba to ice cream. Naturally, the local barkeeps have incorporated it into their repertoire. Here are some places to try a tea-tail
- Bar Rocking Chair. This sweet sip spot features the eponymous rocking chairs, plus a twee rock garden and a very fine gyokuro (Japanese green tea grown in the shade) martini by special request. bar-rockingchair.jp
- Bar Atlantis. This riverside saloon provides gorgeous views, a sultry mood and the famed Pontocho cooler, an original cocktail with Cointreau and matcha. atlantis-net.co.jp
- Iyemon Salon. For your day drinking needs, this café from one of Japan’s most famous tea manufacturers also has matcha beer and umeshu infused with roasted green tea. iyemonsalon.jp
Photos by Pack-Shot / Thanes op/ Ye Choh Wah / Shutterstock.com
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Smile magazine.