Kyoto Fall & Winter Trip Report – Part 1

As we concluded our last week in Kyoto with a forecast calling for snow, it only feels fitting that I’d finally get around to writing about our first week here for fall colors season. I guess the emphasis should’ve been on ish when I wrote that this would be a live-ish trip report. 😉

With a full month in Kyoto, our goal was to experience the city–one of our favorites in the world–as we would like locals. This idea was born from the romanticized notion that it’d be a different and more fulfilling way of seeing Kyoto, and morphed from some misgivings we had about not studying abroad while in college.

Without question, this stay in Kyoto made us see the city differently, and was incredibly satisfying and interesting. It was also totally different from what we originally envisioned. However, we’d be getting ahead of ourselves by leading with that. Instead, we’ll start with our experience settling into the city, followed by the day to day monotony of what it meant for us to experience Kyoto like locals…

Once again, we took the Shinkansen to Kyoto, and once again, it was awesome. Here’s a video of this beauty arriving at the station:

The caption of that video jokingly suggested that we’d use the last day of our Japan Rail Pass to just ride around the Shinkansen…but that’s sort of what we ended up doing our second day “in” Kyoto, which was spent entirely outside of Kyoto (going from Kyoto to Himeji to Hikone and back). We’ll do a separate report on that.

Prior to that, on our first day in Kyoto, we arrived early. Sarah contacted our Airbnb host to see if we could check-in early, and she informed us that we could drop off our stuff before she cleaned the unit. Worked for us. I mentioned this in the Nagoya installment of our report, but we had fairly poor luck (mostly of our own doing) at our Airbnbs this trip, with the one in Hiroshima also being very small.

As is the case with many Airbnbs, our place in Kyoto used a keypad lock. Upon entering, we were greeted by a veritable mansion (at least relatively speaking). A sprawling unit with a separate living room, kitchen, and bedroom. My initial reaction was that we needed to leave, as, somehow, we were in the wrong apartment.

I’m not kidding–we actually walked outside while Sarah pulled up the listing on Airbnb to confirm the listing’s photos were of the unit we just entered. In hindsight, this made zero sense. The odds of us being in the wrong place despite being at the correct address and entering the correct keycode were infinitesimally small.

Recognizing this, Sarah reassured me that we were, in fact, in the correct unit. I guess between our poor experiences in the other two units and the photos (that didn’t do the size of this place justice), my inclination was to expect the worst. Here’s a video walk-through of the unit (the ‘Dear Sarah’ sign was added after we dropped off our luggage and the unit was cleaned):

This is about as exciting as this trip report is going to get, so if a walk-through of some random apartment in Kyoto bores you, fair warning: it’s only downhill from here.

We would later find out why this rental was only around $30/night for November and December, but I remain thankful it’s significantly larger than our places in Nagoya and Hiroshima. We definitely had some quibbles with it, but I thought it was fine. I’d book it again–Sarah wouldn’t.

Our first week was primarily about getting settled in. That is, after our Japan Rail Pass expired and we slowed down so we could catch up on work–and catch our breath a bit. Part of our slow pace to start was also the result of our surroundings.

Our place in Kyoto was in a residential neighborhood, a short walk from both Fushimi Inari Station and Inari Station. To get to either of these (or Fushimi Inari), we walked through one of the busiest tourist districts in Kyoto, and our first weekend was during the heart of fall colors season, when this area was just jam-packed with people.

To compound the crowd issue, our apartment was adjacent to a huge parking lot for tour buses, which meant that we were sharing the walkways (and by ‘walkways’ I mean streets, since the crowd spilled into the roads, making them de facto walking streets during this busy season) with huge tour groups as soon as we walked out the door.

Wading through that crowd to get to the station was discouraging. This was especially the case when we had zero sense of urgency due to so much time remaining in Kyoto. If a particular day had less-than-ideal weather for photos, I could justify staying in and working instead of dealing with the stresses of crowds.

While I came to loathe tour buses with a passion, I’m partly thankful for these crowds. Since I plan on writing planning resources for Kyoto, it was actually quite helpful to see the city at the height of tourist season. I spent a lot of time learning what gets busy and when, and what spots are hidden gems, comparatively speaking. We had been during cherry blossom season, so I already had some sense of this, but cherry blossom season had nothing on fall colors season in terms of crowds.

About the only thing I treated as top priority that first week was making my way to the various autumn nighttime illuminations. If the internet was to be believed (and it shouldn’t have been, as there is a lot of bad info out there), I had approximately 47 of these to hit by early December.

The logical approach would’ve been to go to each of these on a separate night, at the end of the night to avoid crowds. Unfortunately, I had more evening illuminations than evenings during the peak of fall colors season, meaning that was not an option.

did learn some strategy in terms of when to do each thanks to trial by error (for example, Tenjuan Temple at Nanzenji Temple should be saved for the very end of the night unless you want to wait in a 45+ minute weekday line, as I did).

Sarah accompanied me to a few of these, but I also did several on my own. Even though each temple in Kyoto costs “only” a few dollars, that amount adds up quickly when you hit several temples in a day. Since some were only for the sake of research and photos, we decided to play it conservatively. (Although at the time of this writing, we’ve now spent several hundreds of dollars on temples.)

I won’t fixate on the individual experiences at each place. On the crowds front, I also learned what relatively popular spots don’t attract crowds for fall colors. Path of Philosophers (above) is fairly high profile and immensely popular during sakura season, but I never saw more than a handful of people there.

I’m betting it’s not listed in high-profile travel guidebooks/internet resources as a fall colors spot, and that’s that. I did find it fascinating how many excellent spots for fall colors were uncrowded. Any location that isn’t visited by tour groups is instantly less busy, but I’d hazard a guess that a location’s prominence on popular blogs and guidebooks in Japan (and maybe China?) also plays a huge role.

I’ve already started to document a lot of the temples we visited in our 2017 Japan Autumn Foliage & Fall Colors Report post. Once we’re home, I’ll be doing additional posts for each nighttime illumination I attended. Suffice to say, it was a lot of fun–and a beautiful experience.

The crowds were really something, though. I kept thinking that if this was my first time visiting Kyoto, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the city. Then again, maybe I would have? These displays were simply breathtaking, and were absolutely worth the crowds.

It also helped to have the knowledge in the back of my mind that the crowds would dissipate in a couple of weeks once the trees were bare. Knowing we’d be able to visit some of our favorite spots, sans crowds, definitely relaxed us a bit.

One of the big agenda items during our first few days in Kyoto was finding a Christmas tree. We are incredibly enthusiastic (to put it mildly) about Christmas, and one thing we were really going to miss about being home for the holiday season was not putting up our tree. Figuring we could find a small tree for maybe ~$10, we headed to Kyoto Station.

Actually, we already were at Kyoto Station. A lot. Our second night there, we “discovered” Ramen Street, which is a way to sample different regional varieties of Japanese ramen without ever leaving Kyoto Station. We resolved ourselves to try all of its options in the name of scholarly research. Expect a blog post on this very important issue at some point in the near future.

As for the Christmas tree…it turns out, we had zero concept of consumer goods pricing in Japan. Prior to this trip, the only things we’d really purchased were souvenirs, stuff from UNIQLO, and things from the various 100 yen shops. Pretty much all of these experiences gave us the impression that things were not all that expensive in Japan.

This trip was a rude awakening on that front, with there being several occasions where we’ve needed something random, only to discover that it’s absurdly expensive in Japan. A prime example is Christmas lights. We went to four different stores, and couldn’t find a strand that was less than ~$30. I still have no clue why these lights were so pricey, but those were the starting prices for lights–many strands were ~$50 or more. (And all were powered by battery packs rather than plugging into the wall.)

Likewise, trees were all well over $100 at the stores we checked. This may not seem that far off, as Target and other retailers in the U.S. sell trees that eclipse $100. However, those trees are actually nice. These had a very ‘disposable’ quality to them, with a quality tree being in the neighborhood of ~$300.

After a lot of searching, we were finally able to locate a small pre-lit tree on sale for under $20. At first we thought this must’ve been a price mistake, or that we were misreading the tag, and the price on the display was for one component of the tree. To our surprise, that was the total cost for the whole thing.

It’s a really sad-looking tree with only 8 lights, but it’s better than nothing. We put our Country Bear Christmas plushes from Tokyo Disneyland on it, and gave some warmth to our place.

Another aspect of getting settled in was getting groceries and preparing meals for ourselves like real adults instead of irresponsibly eating out for every meal. This sucked.

I hate grocery shopping at home, and I hate it even more in Japan. At least at home, I have a working familiarity with the places at which we shop, and have the ability to read labels. In Japan, I have no clue where anything is, and trying to use the Google Translate Augmented Reality feature is a fool’s errand. I’d get more reliable results by having manatees push around balls with random words on them.

I also realized just how expensive groceries are in Japan, and what items simply are not available (namely, the things you need to make sandwiches). I always knew fruits and vegetables are pricey, but I figured we could get by eating nothing but bananas and gigantic carrots. (Like everyone else, I find carrots to be disgusting, but I eat them because they’re healthy “filler.”) It was brought to my attention that a diet of bananas and carrots was less than ideal.

Literally the only aspect of grocery shopping that I’ve enjoyed in Japan is trying to pinpoint the best time at night to go to score the best discounts. Fresh foods are marked down progressively, with the most aggressive discounts later in the evening. However, nighttime is also when other bargain-hunters are out.

It thus becomes a balancing act of achieving the optimal markdown. Go too early, and the discounts are subpar. Go too late, and others beat you to the punch, with the shelves looking like this:

This became something of a game, and it led me to purchase things I wouldn’t have otherwise, and introducing me to new foods in the process. So that’s a small victory, I guess?

An examination of grocery store discount shopping strategy in Japan seems like as good of a place as any to end this installment. So to recap, this post primarily focused on me being confused as to whether we were in the right apartment, complaining about Christmas tree prices, and concluded with an overly-long discussion of supermarket markdowns. Perhaps instead of making this a blog post, Sarah should’ve opened a Word document on my computer, titled it “Tom Thoughts” and saved you all from exposure to my brain. 😉

Check out All Installments of Our Japan Trip Report for more on what we’ve done. If you’re planning a visit, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help plan.

Your Thoughts

Have you ever visited Kyoto? Anything you want to know about our experience spending a month in the city? Are you a grocery store enthusiast who greatly enjoyed this trip report installment? Any questions or other comments? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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12 replies
  1. Kate Nicholson
    Kate Nicholson says:

    Loved reading this. When I was a kid my dad was in sabbatical in Japan a couple of times and we spent hours at the grocery store trying to figure out what things were. Can not tell you the number of times we bought what we thought was chicken only to have fish instead 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Paul
    Paul says:

    Tom–I love this post! I’m currently spending the holidays with my family “living like a local” in Singapore which is far easier. We’ll try Japan in the next few years. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      That’s awesome! Singapore is on our list of “someday” places, but I’m guessing we won’t get to it for the next several years. Looks like a very unique place, though.

      Reply
  3. Holly
    Holly says:

    Interesting post – I love getting a feel for a city by living like a local! Would be intrigued to hear about some of the foods you discovered. Looking forward to the next instalment, especially how you guys spent Christmas.

    Reply
  4. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    I find all of this interesting! I’m looking forward to more posts like this. From my perspective, your trip seemed like a whirlwind and I wonder how “living like a local” turned out. I have several similar Christmas trees from buying decorations for my room while living at home. I would say a tree like that runs maybe $10 here? (Although I haven’t bought one in a while…so…inflation.) I’ve never seen an empty grocery shelf like that, interesting difference you’d never think of until you encounter it.

    Reply

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