Kyoto and Osaka 

We took a shinkansen from Takayama to Kyoto, which is a little over 3 hours through snowy fields. While we rested and relaxed in Takayama, we knew there was a lot that we wanted to see and do in Kyoto over our three night stay. We stayed in the Gion district, which is known as the geisha district and has a more distinctly traditional feel than the downtown area of Kyoto on the other side of the Kamo River. We checked in to our boutique hotel, the Hotel Mume. I have said a lot of effusive things throughout my Japan posts about the hospitality at each hotel, but Hotel Mume wins hands down. The proprietor and her female staff could not have been more accommodating and welcoming throughout our stay. They offer a lovely afternoon tea service and a delicious breakfast, which is served with the other hotel patrons and gives the hotel a sweet little sense of community. 

One evening, I was woken by the sound of a crying baby. From the afternoon drinks the day before, I knew there was a baby from Boston and I thought maybe he was suffering some jet lag and unfortunately the crying went on for a while. The next morning, I approached the owner and said something about the crying baby. I was not complaining or demanding anything, really I was just curious if the room was next to ours or if there was anything we could do about it. The owner started immediately apologizing in a fashion I have never seen- she was devastated for us. I felt so badly because the last thing I wanted was for her to feel like she's let us down! She bowed for at least a minute straight and then offered to pack up our room and move us to another room. It all worked out and we got a few great night's sleep. If you're going to Kyoto, I really cannot recommend this hotel highly enough. 

While Tokyo and Kyoto aren't geographically that far apart, the difference between the two cities is striking. Tokyo seems to represent the fast paced, forward momentum of a big global city, while Kyoto delights in its cultural heritage and all of the relics of years past. There is so much to see and do in Kyoto - and like Tokyo, a lot of great food to eat. 

Some of the things we loved:

  • Arashiyama. Before going to Kyoto, I assumed Arashiyama was just the site of the famed bamboo forest. But there is more to Arashiyama than just the forest, it is an entire district with temples and great food and historic houses.  Your first stop should be The Bamboo Forest, which is absolutely mesmerizing and beautiful. Try to get there early and carve out some space for yourself away from the masses so that you can hear the tranquil sound of the rustling bamboo stalks. It is a truly magical forest. After you have had your moment of zen, you can explore the other areas of Arashiyama and try some of the delicious food in the center of town. Definitely do make sure to try the soy milk donut at the kiosk outside of Kyo-Ine. Heaven on earth. Coffee at %Arabica Coffee for a mid-morning pick me up. And a divine bowl of udon from the food stalls in the center of town for lunch. Go without an agenda beyond the bamboo forest and delight in all of the surprises that await you. 

  • Saihō-ji, commonly referred to as Koke-dera, meaning moss temple is a Zen Buddhist temple near Arashiyama. To be allowed entrance to the temple, you have to have a reservation. On a postcard addressed to the temple, you will need to write your name, the desired date for your visit, the number of people in your group, as well as the name and address of your “group representative” (this can be you). You will also need to send a self-addressed stamped postcard or use a return postcard, which will be mailed back to your hotel in Kyoto. You need to show this postcard for admittance. This little bit of hassle it well worth it! The moss temple is an experience unlike any other. You start your visit with a traditional monk's prayer, then you copy a sutra in kanji, adding your name and your wish before leaving it in front of the altar. Afterwards you are free to walk around the garden, which is covered in 120 varieties of moss. Because access is limited, is it very serene and relaxing on these grounds. 

  • The Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji, is another place you have undoubtedly seen photographed a million times, and yet it is still worth seeing it in person. It is often listed as the number one thing to see in Japan, so you can expect a crowd. After viewing Kinkakuji from across the pond, you can walk around to admire a few other structures like the head priest's former living quarters and the temple's gardens which have retained their original design from Yoshimitsu's days. The gardens hold a few other spots of interest including Anmintaku Pond where you can throw coins for luck. 

  • Nijo Castlewhich was built for the first shogun of the Edo Period, is not too far from Kinkaku-ji and it is fun to explore. The palace consists of multiple separate buildings that are connected with each other by corridors and also has beautiful grounds, which the kids enjoyed running around while catching snowflakes on their mouths when a little storm blew in. 

  • Fushimi Inari-taisha, an important Shinto shrine, is one of the places we were most excited to explore. You will know this landmark by the 5000 red torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which you can hike if you want. When visiting, you should visit the shrine's main hall (honden) where you can pay respect to the resident deity by making a small offering. You should also make sure to visit the food stalls at the base of shrine. Our family got into a heated debate about the BEST street food offering. I voted for taiyaki, the Japansese fish-shaped sweet pastry filled with custard. The kids both voted for the mochi filled with japanese custard. 

  • Walk around Gion. From our research, we learned that geishas don’t like to be approached by tourists acting like paparazzi. If a geisha is in a hurry, then she is trying to get to work and shouldn’t really be bothered. But if you see one strolling around Gion and you ask kindly, she will likely let you take a photo. We got really lucky and spotted a geisha who was kind enough to let us photograph her on our first day in Kyoto. 

Food we loved:

  • The street food, as mentioned above, is incredible all over Japan. Try as much as you can, from the adorable little animal shaped donuts, Doubutsu doonatsu, to the yakitori, meat skewers. 

  • Katsukura. This was our first time eating tonkatsu, a breaded and deep fried pork cutlet, and we opted for the best tonkatsu restaurant in Kyoto. We ordered the sets, which come with rice, miso, and shredded cabbage. It was all so good! The don't take reservations, but the line moves pretty quickly and it's worth the wait.

  • Ramen Sen No Kaze is another place worth the wait, despite the fact that the wait is long and outside. We literally sat outside in the snow for this- twice! That's how good this little ramen place is. 

Overnight in Osaka

We weren't in Osaka for long, as we took the train from Kyoto and flew out the next day. We stayed ay the St Regis, which was beautiful, of course. We had delicious sushi next door at, Sushi Hayatawhere you can have the chef choose for you and you know you're getting incredibly fresh and delicious fish. We spent the rainy and cold afternoon at the Osaka Aquarium, which is one of the largest public aquariums in the world. When you're visiting Osaka, you have to try their famous dish, okonomiyakiwhich is a Japanese savory pancake filled with cabbage and a topping of your choice. I'm so bummed because I can't find the name of the place we went and it was awesome. You're on your own- I'm sorry. 

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