It’s almost the heart of fall colors season in Japan, which follows our recent two-week stay in Kyoto. In this trip report, we’ll share thoughts on our experiences, the crush of crowds, and various other perspectives on Kyoto. I’ll also scatter random (and not-so-random) photos throughout, as I took thousands of them and know I won’t post most of my photos otherwise.
We had deliberately planned this trip to precede the peak travel for autumn foliage season, something we also did for cherry blossom season this spring. That worked out wonderfully for us, as we enjoyed excellent weather, low crowds, and got lucky with an early bloom.
Hoping for similar luck, we followed our own ‘when to visit’ advice from our Ultimate Kyoto, Japan Planning Guide, which is that you’re better off going early for fall colors season if you want to roll the dice or avoid the crowds. If you miss the fall colors when you go early, at least you have green and maybe some yellow; going later and ‘missing’ means barren trees and colder weather.
This time, we were not so fortunate. As those of you who are awaiting trips to Japan might know, the fall colors in Kyoto are slightly behind the normal schedule this year, with peak colors still yet to arrive in most places, as compared to an ‘average’ peak in mid-November. Of course, colors vary widely within Kyoto based upon elevation, tree type, and other factors, but mid-November tends to be the safest overall bet.
We tried to make the best of this, saving most of our temple visits until the end of the trip and even then focusing on ones in the foothills or mountains that were already starting to see some color.
Getting down to brass tacks, we arrived in Kyoto via the Shinkansen after a brief stay in Tokyo. While the new laws targeting Airbnb rentals have definitely slimmed down the listings (and caused a slight bump in prices), we were fortunately able to get almost exactly the area of the city we wanted, nestled right between Gion and Kiyomizudera.
The Airbnb itself was great, and easily the most spacious accommodations we’ve had in Kyoto (it was also the most expensive one we’ve booked, so there’s that). What I liked most was the common area rooftop terrace that offered panoramic views of the city; we spent a good amount of time up there.
At this point, we’ve stayed all over Kyoto, with the only major exception being Arashiyama. Our favorite places have been the Fushimi Inari and Kyoto Station areas, with south of Gion now joining that mix.
I’d say this was my favorite place to stay thus far, but we didn’t have convenient train or subway access to Kyoto Station, and taking the bus is miserable. For a first-timer to Japan, this area might not be ideal. We barely used the JR lines at all during our two weeks, as none of those trains were convenient to us.
After completing the check-in process with the Airbnb manager (this now must be done in-person), we left our rental to soak up the early evening in Kyoto, and get dinner. Immediately upon turning the corner and entering the alley adjacent our building, we spotted a geisha, followed by another. Then two more.
We have never been much for geisha stalking, but that’s mostly because it seems invasive and uncomfortable. Seeing several in person (more than we’d ever seen before) was exhilarating, and a great way to say, “welcome to Kyoto.”
Geisha and maiko are not exactly difficult to spot in Gion, especially if you what time they’re typically out and about and which alleys they use for getting to appointments.
However, they are still a majestic sight to behold, like the human equivalent of seeing a snow leopard (I’m assuming). It was particularly neat to see the first couple geisha without hordes of obnoxious tourists hovering around, as is usually the case in the heart of Gion.
Our main mission that evening was ramen. We ended up at Menya Inoichi Hanare, which is one of Kyoto’s Michelin Bib Gourmand noodle restaurants. While the ramen was excellent as always, the highlights of our meal were actually the tofu and salad.
Kyoto is known both for its tofu and its seasonal vegetables, and both sides we ordered were exceptional–fresh and delicious. If you visit Kyoto, you have to try whatever traditional vegetables (called kyo-yasai) are in season.
They might look sorta odd, but tasting them is like watching a 4K television for the first time–you won’t believe what you were previously missing.
We’ve done a handful of tofu restaurants in Kyoto, and my general reaction to them has been that they’re unique experiences worth doing once, but in terms of personal preference, I’d rather spend significantly less money on something else. This gave us a chance to enjoy some tofu in a cheaper setting, while also having ramen. Win-win.
Our second day is almost a reverse copy of the first day of our summer trip to Kyoto. This is a walk we do fairly often, both because we enjoy the areas through which this route takes us and because a lot of these temples have free grounds. After visiting a paid temple once in each season, it’s tough to justify returning. With around 100 “good” temples in Kyoto at ~$5 each on average, that would get expensive quickly.
Here are some photos from our walk through Higashiyama:
We’ll start with Chionin Temple, which we’ve previously covered in its own post here.
This temple has a lot of stairs (besides the ones pictured), and I enjoy running up them. We eat a lot of garbage while traveling, so stealing a brief burst of exercise here or there is critical.
One reader recently lamented that we haven’t continued our Japan vending machine series of posts recently, so here’s a little teaser for the next installment, whenever that may be.
Not only does this vending machine have Chionin Temple designs on it, but it sells Chionin-branded green tea. Pretty neat.
The Miedo Hall refurbishment project is moving at a brisk pace, with the ‘warehouse’ it was in mostly torn down and only lower walls remaining.
Previously scheduled to finish in Spring 2020, this could now be completed by sometime in 2019.
I took this same super-zoom photo into Tenjuan Temple over the summer, and here’s a look with more color.
One nice thing about pre-fall colors scenery is that it features a kaleidoscope of color. Sure, a sea of red is breathtaking, but reds mixed with greens and yellows is also beautiful.
As we walked the path from Nanzenji to Eikando, a school security guard caught our attention and directed us towards this heron.
It was a beautiful and serene scene, and we got lucky with the foreground having some nice color in the leaves.
The temple similarly had nice color throughout its upper grounds.
We returned here several times over the course of our trip, as Eikando Temple is our favorite spot in Kyoto for fall colors.
From here, we continued north along Philosopher’s Path, spotting this: “Cat Restaurant of Philosophy.”
As you might be able to see, there are a ton of cat photos in the windows. There are semi-feral cats who call the Path of Philosophers home, and those photos are of them. I say “semi-feral” because I’ve never not seen people out there with cats on their laps, feeding them.
We continued on to Shinnyodo and the Yoshida Hill area after this for sunset, but it was a dud.
In some ways, this trip to Kyoto felt like coming full circle; it was like coming home to a familiar place. It was one year after our big 2-month stay in Japan, during which time we learned a lot more about the country and really got serious about creating travel-planning resources. Looking back, I feel like we had experienced so little of Kyoto before then.
That’s obviously not true, as we had visited several times. With each subsequent visit to any place, you learn new things, discover new places, and (hopefully) gain a deeper appreciation. That’s been the case for us, and part of why we enjoy revisiting cities and countries, rather than crossing new places off our list. This may not be true for everyone, but for us, return trips tend to be less superficial.
This trip had a couple of focuses: finding non-temple cultural gems and further expanding upon our itineraries for Kyoto. We also worked on new options for avoiding crowds, as that continues to be a (growing) issue in Kyoto, and one that’s only going to get worse as crowds further build before (and presumably after) the Olympics.
As for our itineraries, they remain a work in progress. As we do new things and revisit old favorites, I think of ways to tweak things, and reconsider our distribution of temples versus other points of interest. We’ve posted several new Kyoto itineraries recently, with more on the way. (I also plan on going back and editing some of our early ones.)
Nevertheless, our Kyoto itineraries are a huge source of pride. It might sound braggadocious, but I don’t think you’ll find better Kyoto itineraries (at least in English) anywhere. Most other itineraries don’t emphasize transportation or efficiency, instead just listing popular temples and shrines in an order that isn’t always the most logical.
We still have many more Kyoto planning posts to come that are in draft stages, with a mix of ‘temple stuff’ and totally unrelated content. Even though we don’t live in Kyoto, I think the advantage our coverage has over other sites is that we have done extensive first-hand research. We are two people who have personally experienced everything about which we write, rather than remote editors who mostly just crowd-source.
To that end, if you’ve used our Japan resources to plan a trip and have found them useful, we’d really appreciate it if you’d help spread the word. Whether that mean sharing posts on social media, telling friends, or even commenting on posts, it doesn’t matter.
This blog has been a labor of love, and that passion fuels a lot. Even if not many people are reading, we know that some of the readers we have are using these posts to plan bucket list trips (which itself is both gratifying and a bit intimidating). With that said, it’s always nice to have more people reading, providing feedback, and utilizing our resources.
Now that we got that “sales pitch” for TravelCaffeine dot com out of the way, let’s jump back into the substance of our trip to Kyoto. When I wrote “finding non-temple cultural gems” above, that’s in large part what I mean. Eating.
Kyoto has the second-most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, after Tokyo and before Paris. While we don’t have the budget to bankroll a bunch of lavish kaiseki meals for the sake of research (or for the sake of fun, for that matter), we mention this because it’s illustrative of the city’s dining scene at large. While we’d put Kyoto behind both Tokyo and Paris (and probably Los Angeles and New York, for that matter), it has a wide array of excellent dining options across price ranges.
Many of these are quite fun, which is what we’re looking for on the travel planning side of things. Not everyone may like ramen, tempura, okonomiyaki, etc., but everyone likes to have fun.
The fun food experience for the day was Nishiki Ichiha for some matcha fondue, creme brûlée, and ice cream. This elegant little matcha shop is tucked away in Nishiki Market, and has a small seating area with views of a garden outside.
As you might gather from the list of items we ordered, Nishiki Ichiha is known for its menu of various matcha items, ranging from pancakes to the fondue for which the shop is known. Everything we tried was exceptional.
After spending some time wandering Nishiki Market, we found ourselves on Kawaramachi Dori, one of the downtown area’s main shopping streets. Nishiki Market has always been a mixed bag for me.
From about noon until 6 p.m., it’s varying degrees of miserable due to how narrow the corridor is, and how crowded it gets with tourists. Before or after that, it’s more pleasant, but not all of the food stalls and shops are open.
Following that, we browsed various shops, and made our way to Montbell, our favorite outdoor goods store in Japan. I really wanted to buy a fanny pack, but Sarah not-so-subtly ‘suggested’ I not do so. Fashion people keep saying fanny packs are in, but apparently that doesn’t extend to the dorky, utilitarian one I wanted. I could’ve been a trailblazing trendsetter, but I guess not this time.
Ultimately, we found ourselves in UNIQLO (it never fails) before heading to the nearby tourist info center, where we picked up resources for our November Events in Kyoto, Japan post.
One of the most exciting accomplishments of this trip to Kyoto was finally scoring some of the “I Love Kyoto” posters. I feel like our hype level regarding this is going to be lost on most readers, so I’ll try to keep this concise.
Basically, this is a series of posters that Bank of Kyoto has been producing for the last few decades and displaying throughout the city. We had seen them a handful of times at various temples over the last year, but they always looked worn and weathered, so we assumed they were holdovers from the 1990s or something.
After a ton of internet sleuthing, I found the poster listing on the Bank of Kyoto website–it turns out they are still in production, with 3 new posters for every season. As the obsession deepened, I also found (and purchased) this 10th Anniversary “I Love Kyoto” retrospective book from 1992. That book indicated that the bank gave away posters to clients.
Naturally, we assumed this info printed nearly three decades ago would hold true in 2018. We went into Bank of Kyoto, took a number, sat down and were called pretty much immediately. After far less confusion than I expected, one of the bank employees disappeared into the basement and returned with some posters from a previous season, which they happily gave to us.
Having modest success our first attempt, we decided to try again at another Bank of Kyoto branch. We had already purchased a sturdy poster tube for storage at the local mall, so what the heck. Again, the initial exchange went far smoother than expected, and an employee returned with a handful of posters and was incredibly apologetic that we had to wait so long.
In both cases, most of the initial confusion revolved around the why rather than there being a language barrier. I don’t think anything we were saying was lost in translation, it seemed more like an unstated matter of, ‘no one ever asks for these anymore, let alone random Americans.’ In both cases, we expressed profuse gratitude upon receiving the posters, and I showed each of the employees photos on my phone of posters I had seen around the city, and the 1992 book that we own.
Something “clicked” at that point both times. Prior to that, they might have thought we were just confused tourists, mistaking the bank for a gift shop or something. Once they saw the photos and, more importantly, a book from the early 1990s, I think they realized that we were actually quite into their bank’s posters, which in turn made them exuberant. All in all, it was a fun experience that gave us a story to tell (and awesome posters!); hopefully it also gave those employees a story to tell about the crazy Americans obsessed with Japanese banking ephemera.
Okay, not quite concise like I promised, but I think it’s sort of an interesting story.
As I near the 3,000 word threshold of this post, I realize that we’ve barely covered any ground. While this “great” Bank of Kyoto anecdote seems like a high note to go out on, I’m still not sure how to approach this Kyoto trip report. People enjoy trip reports, both for planning purposes and to (re)visit places vicariously. I feel like our Brickers’ Japan Fall & Winter Trip Report failed in this regard (at least for Kyoto) because by the time I got to that part of the trip, we were thoroughly exhausted, and I was ready to start doing more topical posts. On the other hand, our Kyoto Summer Trip Recap was probably more useful, but short.
I think taking a similar approach in treating this like a recap that isn’t really constrained by a linear timeline makes sense, but I’m not sure to what degree people are interested in reading us gush about Kyoto yet again, so I’ll probably adjust my approach for subsequent installments based upon the response here. I definitely need to “force” myself to go through photos and edit them, so doing some sort of longer trip report–even if it’s mostly just photos and captions–probably makes sense from that perspective.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Thoughts on our quest to acquire the Bank of Kyoto posters, staying in Gion, shopping or eating in Kyoto, or anything else from this trip report installment? Questions about anything we did? 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!