Three Nights in Kyoto with a Day Trip to Nara

The train trip to Kyoto was uneventful and relaxing, about a three hour ride altogether. It’s amazing to see all the gardening that goes on from the train window. Lots of tea and veggies being grown on all available land.

I had reserved a room at Hotel Mume, in the Gion area of Kyoto. The hotel provided a note for us to give to our taxi driver. I had arranged with the hotel to store our bags as we would be arriving before check in. Mume is a gem, a small boutique hotel with the river running by the cozy, elegant breakfast room/bar. I had emailed back and forth with them to reserve and the customer service was incredibly polite and speedy. The service in person was amazing. They helped with directions, taxis, takubin, tea, dinner reservations, all with incredibly good nature. It’s close to Gion and the Higashiyama area, and there are many restaurants and shops within walking distance. These are the areas I wanted to concentrate on.


I had hatched a plan to visit the Hello Kitty Cafe for lunch which I had google mapped and found out that it was well within walking distance of the hotel. It would also take us on a small exploration of the Higashiyama area. My husband very nicely agreed and I was happy to see that there were quite a few other agreeable men at the cafe. The food is all kittyfied and there are giant stuffed kitty -chans which the wait staff bring to your table for photos. As an extra bonus there is a Ghibli store right next door with a giant Totoro and lots and lots of Ghibli goods. In our journey to visit Kitty- Chan and back we got to explore our fabulous neighborhood complete with shrines and lots of people in Kimonos and athletic young men pulling rickshaws and kids in their school uniforms. We learned from our tour guide that most people rent their kimono from the many rental shops in Kyoto.


I’m a sucker for kawaii Japanese goods. I have a dollhouse full of them at home called Tanuki Towers.


We found our way back to Mume in time to meet our tour guide, Kenzo Sato, from Rowthorn Tours for and evening walk in Gion. He would be our tour guide for the next two days as well so I was hoping he would be a good fit for us and he was better than I could have ever imagined. He grew up in Kyoto and decided life as a salaryman was not for him. Good choice because he is an excellent tour guide. He was so personable and knowledgeable and he went above and beyond to tailor his tour to our interests and requests.

Kenzo showed us how to get onto the Main Street via a secret passage. Our first stop was a very fancy bakery Gion Sakai . They had a display of very select and delicious goods. In particular there were some brownie like pastries called shakaku made with whiskey produced in his home town. They each had a little elegant dot of gold leaf on them. You can see them on the website . We went back the next night and bought some for a snack and I bought some more to bring back as a treat for my daughter’s birthday. There are not many window displays in Japanese stores and this store is no exception. It has a traditional wooden front with white curtains hanging down over the entrance. We were really glad to have Kenzo point it out.


We walked by many small neighborhood shrines and temples. Kenzo told us about the history and culture of Geishas. We saw the Geisha School where young women are still trained starting at the age of fifteen in arts such as tea ceremony, dance, music and flower arranging. Being chosen to study as a geisha is  competitive and its a great privilege to be chosen. We were lucky enough to see a geiko and several maiko as well as a Geisha being sent from her geisha mother’s house to an appointment . They are paid about 300 dollars for two hours of their services.

We went through some more small neighborhoods and stopped at Kenninji Temple . We also visited Marishiten Shrine where we practiced our Shinto praying. It is not unusual in Japan for a buddhist temple and a shinto shrine to be in close proximity, sometimes even in the same complex.  There are many boar statues there which Kenzo said are good for back and leg strength. Before our trip I had successfully battled a nasty bout of sciatica so we returned the next day so I could purchase and write out a prayer/ thank you on a wooden boar prayer card as the shrine shop was closed when we arrived. These wishing plaques are officially called Ema. As I was linking this shrine I read that many people think the boar gives them good luck in gambling as well. I think I remember that Kenzo told us that but it’s fun to make the links and learn another thing or two.


We took a circular route and saw the beautiful Yasaka Pagoda (featured image) in the twilight. Going up a back staircase on our way to Kodaiji temple we saw a film being projected on a building. It was all about Japanese folktale characters called Yokai which come in all forms from tanukis to old umbrellas. I have since done a lot of reading and researching about them and really enjoy the Kitaro graphic novel series by Shigeru Mizuki. My favorite is Nonnonba .  Kenzo left us at Kodaiji Temple where we enjoyed a beautiful light show . Before heading back to Mume, we had hoped the food stalls would be open in the temple area but they were not, so we had a bit of a struggle finding a place to eat and ended up at a funny toast, beer, rice place, yup…..whew! ….Big day… I’m glad we had heeded our daughter’s advice to spend three nights in Kyoto. There is plenty to see and do. Three weeks wouldn’t have been too long.


Fortified by Hotel Mume’s amazing breakfast of , freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, fruit, homemade jam, boiled egg, a selection of fresh-baked breads and homemade soup, we met Kenzo in the lobby for an all day excursion to Fushimi Inari, and several other locations in the Higashiyama area. We took a short subway ride to the shrine. We had told Kenzo of our Nakasendo hike and our upcoming plans to hike the Kumano Kodo so he had planned a fabulous hike for us at Fushimi Inari. We found our way in to this amazing complex of shrines through the back gate. He took us through all sorts of woodland paths. We saw magical little areas with stone foxes and orange tori gates, waterfalls, a bamboo shoot farm, a little shop with shrine offerings selling, sake and treats for the foxes in gift packs. We heard a family chanting for a relative as we walked and musical shinto frogs. We learned that the gates are donated by families and businesses as offerings in hopes of good luck. You will often see a pair of foxes one holding a message in his mouth and another with a ball that represents a god. Foxes are called Kitsuni.


Yotsutsuji intersection  was a beautiful spot on our way down where it was possible to look out over Kyoto. Kenzo pointed out two mountain tops and told us a folktale about how the two were nearly equal in height but they constantly argued about who was bigger. Finally one mountain lost its temper and struck the other mountain on the head which caused him to have a bump on his head so he actually became the bigger mountain because of this misdeed. A caution to keep your temper.


Walking away from Fushimi Inari we went through a quiet neighborhood and stopped at Komyo–In, a serene Japanese garden. Again, this was so thoughtful of Kenzo as he knew we had an interest in gardening and the outdoors. We sat and relaxed taking in the peace of the ancient Zen garden. Kenzo pointed out the groups of rocks which stand for buddha and his disciples and told us that, in Japan, the saying “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”, is understood as, you should NOT roll or, sadly, you will gather no moss. Moss is desirable and it flourished in this garden. The openwork is structural but is exposed for its beauty.


We hopped back on the subway and walked to a local ramen bar where we had some instruction on how to slurp noodles properly. We were in the urban area of Higashyiama and Kenzo kindly asked if there was anything I wanted help with as far as purchases. I actually wanted to get a certain sort of face washing granules I had read about so he helped me find them at the huge Matsumoto Kiyoshi , a Japanese drugstore chain with many, many branches. When I was paying he taught me that it is considered polite to offer your paper money to the cashier with both hands and place it on the tray. It is best not to fold money either. We also learned that in Kyoto the add the words Okini after arigato ( thank you). So you would say ” Arigato Okini” or thank you very much. Sometimes they just say Okini. The local people seemed to appreciate us using the added word and we have since named our puppy Okini.

Our last two sights for the day were Shoren-in Temple and Kiyomizudera Temple.  Shoren -In boasts a beautiful 800 year old camphor tree just outside which made me think of Totoro the wood-spirit. There is also a beautiful garden an impressive giant bell which you can ring and some interesting artifacts and history as it used to be a dwelling for priests. It’s not crowded so you can have a very close up and personal visit.


Kiyomizudera Temple is very much more crowded and very impressive. It is quite a large complex with many beloved religious rituals including the drinking of healing water from a waterfall and a love charm. The roof of the huge stage there was being replaced which was a sight in itself. This happens every 50 years and it is scaffolded and thatched in the traditional way. There were many school groups there and we were lucky to be approached by a charming very shy young lady who was assigned to interview tourists as part of her school trip. Her young friend was bolstering her shy spirit as she posed us questions about our thoughts on Kyoto vegetable. It was memorable.


It was a busy day but we still ended up being back for the cocktail hour at Mume. My Japanese drink of choice was plum wine. Yum. We had our favorite dinner of the trip at a Wagyu beef steak house attached to a butcher shop which the Mume  owner had recommended . Kyo no Yakinikudokoro Hiro Sembon Sanjo Honten a short walk from the hotel on Sanjo Street. It is the first restaurant where I have ever left my shoes at the front door. We had our own private little room with a grill built into our table and a buzzer for the waitress. There was a picture menu in english and we ordered some different cuts of meat, some veggies and a rice dish. Our kimono clad server would bow outside our room,  bow when she came in and put the food down, and bow again on her way out. And this was no little bend at the waist. It was a full on your knees head to the floor all three times. Yikes! It was culturally impressive as well as amazingly delicious!

After appreciating another fabulous Mume breakfast, the next to the last before we were back on the trail eating fish and rice, Kenzo met us in the lobby and we took a taxi to the train station to go to Nara. He pointed out the entrance we would be using the next day on our journey to the Kii Peninsula and the Kumano Kodo. It is only a short trip to Nara from Kyoto. It was April 22, Earth Day, there was a small celebration going on in the park with some vendors selling and a cut school group in hot pink tee shirts, doing a choreographed band/vocal performance. Kenzo told us they were singing a song from a popular television show about two teenagers in love and episode after episode nothing really happens.

Our first stop was Isuien Garden, a gorgeous traditional Japanese walking garden. We got to see some gardeners in action. Traditional Japanese gardening is truly an art and it takes years to become a master gardener. The gardens were owned by a family that excelled in the craft of bleaching threads which was necessary in an area with so many people involved in religious roles. We also got to see a thatched roof close up which was really interesting after seeing the roofing project at Kiyomizudera Temple the day before. The thatching was about two feet thick. There were also shells on top which were to scare the birds away.


Then we headed towards Todaiji Temple meeting lots of wonderful Nara deer along the way. Interacting with the deer ( sika, in Japanese) is a really amazing experience, not to be missed. Actually, I think there is really no other choice than to interact with them whether you buy a bag of deer crackers from a vendor or not. They really do exchange bows with you and seem to be old souls remaining in the area. I  highly suggest a day trip to Nara if you are spending some time in Kyoto.


We went on to see a series of amazing shrines and temples starting with the most impressive Todaiji Temple . It’s an amazing immense wooden structure built by 2.6 million people in hopes of inspiring Buddha to protect Japan. There is so much history here. I really enjoyed seeing all of the visiting school groups in their uniforms, and watching them try to fit through a hole in a post which is called the nostril of Buddha.


The giant Buddha statue and the Kannon and Kokuzo statues on either side, as well as the guardian statues may well be the most impressive artifacts I have ever seen. I also loved the wooden doorway guardian stepping on an oni and Binzuru who was banished to the outside of the temple for his misdeeds.


We also saw  Kofukuji Temple, and Kasuga Taisha Shrine and we visited a small calligraphy store where Kenzo demonstrated his calligraphy skills for us.  I loved all of the lanterns around the shrine. They were given by shrine benefactors much like the gates at Fushimi Inari but longer lasting. I could take a million photos of them.


I had mentioned to Kenzo that I wanted to try chagayu which is rice cooked in tea and he scouted out a local restaurant for us in the old district. We would never have found it without him. It was a fitting meal as it was probably similar to what the folks who worked on the temples ate. We walked back to the station through Nara Machi and through a small shopping arcade where we were able to purchase a basket of white strawberries that were more economical than the one we saw in Tokyo. We headed back on the train and said our goodbyes to our amazing tour guide. I’m certain our stay was a thousand times improved because of his wealth of knowledge and experience and desire to share Kyoto and Nara with us.P1040494

Arriving back in Gion , I did a bit of quick souvenir shopping at the iconic Yogiya and went back to Gion Sakai for shakaku for my daughter’s birthday. They were securely boxed and I was impressed that the salesperson pointed out the expiry date for my approval. We had a hilarious dinner at a tiny place in a covered arcade some  British folks from the Mume happy hour had told us about. There was a set meal and a sake tasting with an emphasis on the saki tasting. We shared the restaurant with a table full of saki salesmen whom the owner and her daughter would take turns sitting with. Every so often a small grilled fish or a few beans on a plate would be served to us but the owner in her classic white kapoggi apron would come by about every fifteen minutes with a new cup of sake with a full description of its merits and which part of Japan it hailed from. At one point we each had three cups of sake  and no food. When the nice woman came along with yet another type of saki we had to try hard suppress our laughter and I’m not sure we did very well. It was just one of those times in life….. and then the sake salesmen sent us some special sake. We realized we would need to ask for the check if we were to be in good condition for our journey onward in the morning. We had a nice walk home. Luckily, before dinner, I had packed for the most part and weeded out all unnecessary items into a few bags  to send on to Osaka by Takubin which I was able to do at the front desk. We were ready for our Kumano Kodo adventure!


 Tanukis at a yard sale in Nara- machi

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