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  • Candace Ahlfinger

Kyoto's Gems: Temples, Restaurants, and Monkey Parks

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

Dressed Up and Ready for Tea

Day 1

Our trip to Kyoto began with one of my favorite activities—donning traditional kimonos and enjoying a chado, the traditional tea ceremony. The staff of WAK Japan explained each step carefully and made the dress up and tea experiences both fun and educational. Interestingly, most Japanese women who want to don kimonos for ceremonies now go to women who specialize in customizing the clothing since putting on kimonos is definitely not as easy as it seems. (Women use to put on their own kimonos, a skill they learned from their mothers. Now, even their mothers can no longer fit their own kimonos.) Through a system of attaching, pulling, and tying strings, the women fit the basically one-size-fits-all pieces to the person to create a beautiful vision. The kimono fitters top the kimono with an impressive sash using 9 feet of material.

Tea Ceremony

Even the men donned traditional clothing for the following matcha tea ceremony. (I’m not certain they enjoyed the dress up experience as much until they were given swords for pictures.) Again, the women carefully explained each step and the reason behind it. They patiently repeated each phrase for us until we had it right—or at least close enough. (From what I heard, watching The Karate Kid’s tea ceremony helps prepare you for this!) All too soon, it was time to change into our own clothes and head for lunch. (We were grateful that we weren’t wandering around the hot streets in the multi-layer traditional dress.) After lunch at a French bakery, we visited a nearby tea shop—where I promptly tried to deplete the entire stock of matcha teas.

Kiyomizu Temple Complex

The afternoon was filled with a visit to the Kiyomizu Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with our great guide, Machiko Tatsuuma (Matty). (Kyoto itself has more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, so finding one is not difficult!) From the temple, visitors get a great view of Kyoto. Of course, this panoramic view comes with a cost—steep, but charming, hills that must be hiked up. The hills surrounding the temple are filled with lanes in the Gojazaka area of Gion where we wandered, window shopped, and, of course, bought ice cream. (This area features Kiyomizu pottery, also.) Yasaka Koshindo was our final stop in the area. The fascinating temple filled with wishes written on colorful cloth is the home of the Kukuri Monkey, a messenger to the gods in the Koshin-shinko faith. The wishes are left for the monkey to take up to the gods to be granted. (We did have to sample the chestnut and matcha ice creams before we left the area.)

Yasaka Koshindo Temple

We ate dinner at a revolving sushi restaurant in the Kyoto train station. And what a train station! The huge facility is functional but also beautiful with a soaring ceiling and amazing art and architecture. I have never seen and had such good food in a train station! We ate in the station many times during our stay. It was conveniently located across the street from our hotel, The Thousand Kyoto, and had multiple restaurants, stores, and groceries where we also picked up food and took it to our hotel for some “picnics.”

Luscious Sushi--Different Color Plates Signify Prices

Day 2

Our day went to the monkeys, literally, as we visited the Monkey Park Iwatayama in Arashiyama. We walked up the hill to see the 120 snow monkeys, Japanese Macques, running around freely. We heeded the warnings not to look them in the eyes, not to get on their level to take pictures, not to get within 6 feet of them, and not to touch them, but all were sometimes difficult when they ran almost over our feet. I was a little paranoid after all the warnings, but the demeanor of the monkeys put me at ease. They were great fun to watch and to feed. (Visitors go into a cabin and feed the monkeys through a fence to protect feeders’ fingers. Visitors are in the cage, not the monkeys.)

Monkey Park Iwatayama--Don't Look Them in the Eye

Also in the Arashiyama area is the amazing Bamboo Grove. We wandered down the paths through the seemingly endless stalks that stretch upwards to over 150 feet. You could easily get lost amidst the giant stalks, but the roped pathway keeps you on track.

Bamboo Grove

Tenryu-ji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was our next stop. The temple, like so many in Japan, was destroyed multiple times but has been carefully rebuilt. The inspiring gardens survived the many wars to highlight the beauty of nature with its lakes, trees, and flowers.

Tenryu-ji Temple Gardens

The visit to the Golden Pavilion, our next stop, was one of the highlights of the trip. The beautiful Zen temple is covered with brilliant gold leaf. Its reflected image in the pond is a photographer’s dream. The beautiful, peaceful gardens surrounding the pavilion were wonderful to explore. (We had to stop to buy a new fortune for one of our family members who had received a bad fortune at another temple. Thankfully, this fortune was much better!)

Golden Pavilion

We ended the day at the Nishiki Market, an arcade-covered paradise for shoppers and hungry people. While you cannot eat while walking around, each vendor had a place for you to stand while devouring their offerings. (Some have tables inside.)

Nishiki Fish Market

Day 3

Our family used Day 3 as a rest day. My husband and I walked back to the Nishiki Fish Market for lunch at some of the vendors. We had a great time at the Wagyu beef kabob stand where we were regaled with stories in Japanese. (We didn’t understand much, but hand gestures were very effective.) On our walk, we passed many smaller temples and discovered the Shosei-en Garden and Kikoku-tei Villa. The garden was a quiet surprise in the middle of a city that holds many such surprises.

Shosei-En Garden and Kikoku-tei Villa

Kyoto, like Tokyo, is a shopper’s paradise. We did our best to see every store in both the Kyoto Station and Aeon Mall area. Of course, the highlights for the kids, young and old, were the game arcade and the capsule (Gachapon) areas. Capsules are addictive orbs full of surprises. Each one costs between 200-400 yen, which can add up without realizing it. Inside may be a doll, plastic sushi, or…The pictures on the machines give clues, but each machine contains approximately four varieties so opening the orb is full of anticipation.

Gachapon--Hundreds and Hundreds of Addictive Orbs

Of course, we couldn’t leave Japan without trying Karaoke—even over the protests of one of our family members. Big Eco Karaoke was located a block from our hotel and has private rooms for groups which is much more comfortable than getting up in front of a crowd. You can rent the room for a specific amount of time, and they give you a ten-minute warning.

Day 4

We started another day with animals—this time with over 1,000 deer at the Nara Park in the Fushimi district. We bought food for the deer which are considered sacred in Shintoism as messengers to the gods. The deer will bow before you give them the food—if you are not so intimidated by their aggressiveness that you just give them the food without the required bow. (I’ve never been head butted and deer nibbled so much in my life as the deer insisted upon getting their crackers!)

Nara Park

We walked through the beautiful park to the Todaiji Temple which was founded in 752 and is home to Daibutsu, the Great Buddha, which is the world’s largest bronze casting at 394 feet tall and over 8 million pounds. At his side are two Bodhisattvas, which are individuals who are Buddhas in training.

Todaiji Temple

A short drive away, we visited the Gekkeikan sake distillery which was founded here in 1637. The Fushimi area is famous for its excellent sakes. The tour showed the history of sake, especially that of Gekkeikan, before visitors sample some of the many types of sakes they produce. The visit was fascinating and the hosts very friendly.

Gekkeikan Sake Distillery Gives Samples

Yakitori was lunch followed by a visit to the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its 5000 orange Torii Gates. (Brochures state that there are 1,000 gates, but 5,000 is the actual number.) The Shinto shrine is open 24/7 which would make it interesting to visit at night with lights on it.

The shrine is to the deity Inari whose messenger was the fox. As we entered the shrine area, we paid our respect to the deity at the main hall using the ritual we had learned in Tokyo.

Some of Fushimi Inari Shrine's Torii Gates

The walk uphill to Mt. Inari is amazing as you pass through more and more Torii gates. You can hike up to the top of the mountain, but our time was limited so we turned around after passing through the hundreds of smaller gates lined up next to each other. All the gates were given by donors whose names appear on the support beams. The sight was magnificent.

Our last stop for the day was at the Sanjusangendo Buddhist Temple which reflected the differences between Shinto and Buddhist temples. Whereas the Shinto shrines highlight nature, this Buddhist Temple, from the Tendai sect, features 1,001 statues of kannon, goddess of compassion. The large statue is surrounded by 1,000 Bodhisattvas. In addition, 28 deities are located in front of the amazing display. These deities guide the Kannon and also show the influence of Hinduism on Buddhism. (This was the first temple in Japan where we were required to take off our shoes and that did not allow pictures. There are pictures on the Internet if you are interested.)

Miyajima Island

Day 5 was a day trip to Miyajima Island and its Shinto holy site followed by a visit to Hiroshima. For more information, click here.

Day 6

We learned a valuable lesson…two weeks is too long with children on a busy trip. We were all tired and the growing heat did not help. That being said, we took the train to Osaka for a quick trip to the Cup Noodle Museum. (No, there is no “of” in the title. I have been saying it wrong all these years!) We had fun getting our Styrofoam cups, decorating them, and then filling them with our choice of broth and ingredients before watching the containers be shrink wrapped and carefully packaged so we could take them home. It was a fun experience and one I would highly recommend, especially with kids. We returned to Kyoto for a free afternoon of wandering around.

Cup Noodles

A last sushi dinner and then early to bed for early flights the next day! Good-bye to Japan!

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For our Hakone, Japan, experience, click here.

For information on Hiroshima, click here.

Who Can Resist This Deer's Face?

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