If I could write a love letter to Kyoto, I would. This place completely stole my heart and I’d love to go back there one day.
As much as I loved Tokyo, I can’t seem to spend too long in big cities and generally prefer places with less hustle and bustle. Kyoto has a completely different feel to Tokyo, and you get a real taste of traditional Japan thanks to all the old temples, teahouses, zen gardens and the still-working Geisha district of Gion.
There’s so much to see and do in Kyoto that I barely scratched the surface in a week, so my advice to anyone is to go for longer, especially if they like travelling slow and not feeling rushed.
I stayed at JAM Hostel which is perfect for solo travellers like myself. It has big comfy bunk beds, reading lights, a small shared kitchen, clean bathrooms, a washing machine and, wait for it…a Sake bar downstairs.
Plus, it’s located right outside Gion Shijo station, which is ideal for those with no sense of direction or map-reading skills like myself. It also means that you’re in prime position for sight-seeing, as most places are reachable by train.
Kiyomizu-dera and Ninenzaka
My first sightseeing trip in Kyoto was at the beautiful Kiyomizu-dera temple. Located at the top of a hill, this UNESCO World Heritage site consists of a big wooden stage and main hall as well as the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to love and matchmaking.
If you fancy, you can find the famous ‘love stones’ here. Traditionally, if you can walk between the stones in a straight line with your eyes closed then you’ll be lucky in love.
If you need a bit of help in that department, you can go and have a drink from the Otowa Waterfall. Made up of three streams, each one is said to have a different benefit – longevity, success and finding love.
On the way up to the temple, you pass through Ninenzaka. These pretty little streets are really traditional, and they’re filled with souvenir shops, teahouses and ice cream stalls.
I also discovered my favourite Japanese street snack while I was here – an ice cold cucumber on a stick.
Weird, I know, but it comes with a pinch of salt for a bit of extra flavour and it’s actually quite refreshing on a hot day.
This sleepy riverside town isn’t far from Gion by train. It’s worth spending a whole day there in my opinion, as you can see the stunning Bamboo Grove, Tenryu-ji Temple and Monkey Mountain – a definite highlight.
Monkey Mountain is a bit like a zoo but the wrong way round, so us humans are in the cage instead of the monkeys.
Oh, and take it from me, flip flops are definitely not suitable footwear. It’s a good 30 minute walk up the mountain and it’s erm, quite gravel-y on the way down.
Cue an embarrassing fall in front of loads of people and a very sore knee.
Keeping it cool, as always.
This famous red shrine is a photographers dream. Located at the base of a mountain, you can walk the ‘tori’ trails all the way up to the top taking Instagram-worthy snaps along the way.
Granted, it’s pretty touristy, but definitely worth seeing. The town itself is pretty cute too, and a great place to stop off for lunch or a grab green tea ice cream.
Gion & Pontocho
Now, I had planned to go see Kinkaju-ji (The Golden Pavilion temple) and take a day trip to Nara during my last couple of days in Kyoto, but my knee injury from the mountain just wouldn’t let me. I’m not kidding, it was so, so swollen.
Luckily, it wasn’t too much of an issue as I went to Nara from Osaka the following week (turns out it’s the same distance away by train), so I happily spent my last few days close to the hostel (and an ice pack) and hobbled around Gion and Pontocho.
Pontocho is basically a tiny lantern-filled alleyway running alongside the river, packed with teahouses, exclusive restaurants, sushi places and whiskey bars.
It’s the perfect place for an evening walk and I had the best Okonomiyake of my life here. If you don’t know what an Okonomiyake is, I suggest you google it, book a plane ticket to Japan immediately and go and find one.
Trust me, it’s that good.
I also spotted a real life Geisha in Pontocho, went to a karaoke bar until the early hours and drank Sake with some locals.
Japan check-list officially done.
Who wants to take me back so I can do it all again?