We reluctantly said “sayonara” to Tokyo and jumped on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.
Rail Pass & Shinkansen
We bought a 7 day JR rail pass, which we had been using on some of the lines around Tokyo and it would also allow us to travel on the trains down to Kyoto and beyond. The passes are only available for tourists and you get a voucher which you need to exchange in person at the station along with your passport to get the actual pass to use. The cost was JPY29,110 or about NZD$377 per person for a 7 consecutive day pass.
You simply show your pass to the person at the ticket check as you go through to the trains.
There are a couple of different rail networks in Tokyo, so we used a combination of our rail pass and purchasing extra tickets for other subway lines when we needed them.
You can also reserve seats on your pass for the Shinkansen for free, but we were told that the reserved seating on the day we wanted to travel to Kyoto was all full. This was a bit concerning, but on the day it all worked out fine as there are also a number of carriages for people with non reserved tickets. We lined up and jumped on a train that stopped at more stations too a the direct train looked really crowded. There are trains leaving about every 20 minutes. We got up to about 270km/hr! So it only took a couple of hours to get to Kyoto.
When we did arrive we were starving as there was no food service on our train. So we headed to one of the many different food outlets in the station for a quick bite to eat before heading off to find our accommodation.
A ryokan is a traditional style Japanese guest house where you can experience the Japanese culture. We had booked in to a lovely place called Nishikiro just a couple of hundred metres away from the main train station down a quiet back street. Cost was around NZD$175.00 a night.
There is a bit of etiquette involved in staying in a ryokan, or any Japanese home for that matter. Firstly as you come in the door you take off your shoes and put on a pair of the guest slippers. You then wear those slippers to your room but take them off again before you go in, as you mustn’t wear slippers on the tatami mats (woven floor mats). Then when you go to the toilet there is another pair of slippers to wear in there!
Sleeping is on futons on the floor, which I enjoyed but Andrew found a bit hard.
We then set out to explore with the last few hours of daylight left. All the sights are spread out around the city, so being central and close to the main station was a real bonus as all the local trains, buses and taxis also leave from here.
The last time I came to Kyoto was about 23 years ago and I remember visiting Kinkakuji – a beautiful temple with my Japanese friend Satomi. Built in the 14th century, this temple is covered in gold leaf.
We caught a train and then had a 10 minute taxi ride from there to the main gates. Cost was ¥400 – or about $6.00 to go in. The sun was going down and it was lovely walking around the carefully manicured gardens and admiring this stunning temple.
Then it was back in a taxi and on another train to Kawaramachi station to find the Pontocho-dori street which has a long line of bars and restaurants down a narrow alleyway overlooking the river. We walked up and down looking for the perfect place and eventually found a good spot where we had another feast of amazing Japanese food.
The next day was stunning so Andrew and I were up early and off on the train to the Bamboo forest. Initially we were a bit disappointed, but as we walked further on the bamboo was so tall and thick it closed over above our heads like a tunnel. we carried on wandering around a lovely park and down alongside the river, and got chatting to a lovely local man who walked with us back to the station. Japanese people are very friendly and interested in where we are from and what we are doing in Japan. It is refreshing to have genuinely friendly people to chat with, without feeling like they are trying to sell you something or rip you off!
In completely the opposite direction is the Inari shrine. This is a stunning spot where an estimated 10,000 bright orange torii (shrine gates) make a pathway through a forest to the top of the mountain. There were heaps of people there which made getting photos challenging, but the crowds dispersed as we climbed higher and higher. We eventually came across a little restaurant high up the path serving udon noodles with tempura prawns which we slurped down like the locals do.
We didn’t quite make it to the top but the views out over the city were amazing.
New Years Eve
We were all pretty tired but couldn’t let the new year arrive without a suitable celebration, so we booked ourselves in to a bar/restaurant where we hoped to spend a few hours before the big event. New Year is a holiday time for Japanese people so we were expecting a big night out, however the bar called for last drinks about 10pm and so we went off in search of another place. We hadn’t gone too far from our hotel, expecting that we might have transport issues getting home, but there didn’t seem to be too many people about! We found a very smokey bar and had a quick drink there and then decided to go to the temple to see if there was any action going on there – nope, not a soul around, so we ended up doing our countdown on a street corner, before heading home to bed.
Happy New Year!!
Kyoto has got so many other beautiful places to visit and an incredible history. I could have easily stayed for a few more days. In fact it’s treasurers were one of the reasons it didn’t suffer the same fate as Hiroshima in the war. Something we were to learn a bit more about at our next destination.
Click here to come with us to Hiroshima
Or check out our adventures in Tokyo
And then come skiing in Hokkaido