Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
– John Muir
Japan is a gift that keeps on giving. Watch it unfold itself into multiple surprises that will hit every gustatory cell on your body, impress you with impeccable garden temples as well as present you with cultural values you haven’t experience before and wish you’ll be able to stop time and stay a bit longer. It becomes overwhelming as you go through different Japan prefectures, so let’s break it down and start with an easy-going, cheap and budget friendly, First Time Guide in Kyoto.
Our 3 days itinerary is just perfect for you to delve into the world of Kawaii, giving into your inner Geisha desire, writing down prayers and fueling yourself with healthy, mostly – only in Japan goodies.
Where to Stay in Kyoto?
The neighborhood around Downtown Kyoto is the city center loaded with plenty of shops, restaurants and accommodation choices ranging from budget to luxury hotels. The bustling location is best for an early morning stroll at Nishiki market or a late night dining at a local ramen shop.
Best to note, that most hotels in Japan have extremely late check in and early check out policy. We stayed at Izutsu Hotel, a 3-star hotel near Shinkyogoku Shopping Center. Arriving early from our Singapore flight, the hotel staff was kind enough to accommodate our request for early check in.
Getting Around Kyoto
Japan Rail Pass is an economical option that will cover long distance train travel as well as local Japan rails. However, if you are only exploring Kyoto and Osaka, no need to get one, instead get a Kyoto City Bus Pass and ICOCA Card for the best deal. Will guide you further down this article.
Day One: Osaka Kansai Airport – Kyoto – Fushimi Inari – Nishiki Market – Shinkyogoku Shopping Street
We started our long journey from Singapore Changi Airport to Osaka Kansai Airport with a bit of inconvenience. For the first time in my travel history, my check in luggage was lost at Hong Kong from our connecting layover Jetstar flight. That means all my clothes, vanity and basically almost everything I need for our travel is on that lost suitcase. The airline promised to send it to our hotel on the next flight the following day.
Lesson learned, put at least your next day clothes in a carry on bag or if you are traveling with someone, make sure to save a little space over to them luggage for a “just in case” moments like this.
That was kind of stressful for a start. It lead us to our first of many Gyudon (Japanese beef bowl) in Kansai International Airport while waiting for the Train Ticket counter to open. Because food makes everything better.
From Kansai Airport, access the Nankai Line Train Line by foot on the 2nd Floor. You can purchase a one-way (or round-trip) Haruka + ICOCA Pass. It costs 3,600 yen which covers the fare of Kansai-Airport Express Train “Haruka” to Kyoto and the IC card pre-loaded with 2,000 yen which we can use for buses, subways and shops.
Kyoto by Haruka is only 1 hour 15 minutes. Don’t lose your ticket as an inspector will check it inside the cabin. From Kyoto station, we decided to take the long way and walk over to our hotel. Afterall, it’s a nice day to get to experience the morning rush from the streets as well as see the locals going about their daily routine.
En route we crashed into a convenience store to grab some personal stuff that I need before my lost luggage reached me. It’s a real struggle. Most if not all of the goods are Japanese products so finding a translation is kinda hard. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Japanese products, but I also hope there’s translations available so it will be easier to buy them.
Our 45 minutes morning walk just got better. We were able to see students on their way to school, a lush garden and more noticeably a thrash free community.
Izutsu Hotel Kyoto
The hotel let us checked in early. Hurray, to freshen up and make minor adjustments on our day plan since I would have to include shopping for clothes and vanity on my itinerary for the day. Thankfully it’s spring time in Japan so finding clothes for my 2 days (no luggage) stay will be easier plus all the shops are just right outside the hotel.
Brunch at Pomme’s
To refill our energy we set off for brunch at the nearby Shinkyogyoku Complex for a big serving of Omurice. This delish omelette stuffed with fried rice dish will bring energy for days.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Kyoto is among my top favorite place in Japan. For a Japan first-timer, it has not been an easy task creating itinerary and I’m elated that we started our Japan adventures in Kyoto and not in the busy streets of Tokyo (more of that on later posts). It’s a wonderful place that’s easy to navigate with such peaceful vibes. Every tourist attractions are fairly accessible by bus and subways. It is also among the top places which holds most of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Though Fushimi Inari is not included on Kyoto’s World Heritage site, an easy, no guide, 3-hour walking tour along the massive collection of gates through the mountain path will surely leave an impression.
A short train ride using our ICOCA card gets us to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The most popular Shinto Shrine in Kyoto, famous for its 5,000 torii gates and the monumental setting of Memoirs of a Geisha where the young Chiyo ran along the red gates to the shrine to offer money for her prayers.
Wishes and prayers are written in wooden mini torii gates or a sacred fox face wood . While the scripts on the real torii gate represents an individual or Japanese business who made a donation over the years.
Nishiki Market & Shinkyogoku Shopping Street
Back at Downtown Kyoto, we continued our walking tour and stroll along Nishiki Market for our favorite thing to do: Tasting Japan street food.
Malls and high end shops sprawled the busy street, Casino pachinko slot machines, Japanese Drugstores where I hoard my Japan skincare loot, Gaming claw machines and Purikura Photo booths. Check out why these photo booths made it to our 10 Reasons to Visit Japan.
Day Two : Kimono Rental – Shosei-en Garden – Higashiyama District – Gion
We made an appointment at one of the local Kimono shops to dress us up in Japanese clothing. It was the best option as we have plenty of style to choose from, and a myriad of staff to assist our clueless first time giddy spirits to our own very intricate Japanese Traditional Kimono.
My package include a kimono, an obi, a pair of zori (japanese sandals), a pair of tabi socks and a matching bag. They offer additional services for hairstyling and makeup. Since we rented out our outfit of the day, we can return it back before 8 in the evening.
Before long, we were rockin’ our Kimono in the streets of Kyoto. Heading towards Shosei-en Garden, our first stop which is about half an hour walk. Breathing fresh morning air, admiring Minka or traditional Japanese houses, trading smiles with the locals, and getting our cardio done is a perfect way to start our day.
Fortunately, there were only few people exploring around Shosei-en Garden. We almost have it all to ourselves before a horde of tourists turned up. It was a charming, instagram-worthy garden, although, do note that the use of tripod and selfie sticks are prohibited inside. Better ask someone to take your photo and take turns. The main feature of this park is the picturesque pond and the covered bridge.
Off to our second stop of the day, the crowded Higashiyama District. We used our Kyoto City Bus All-day pass to get to our next destination. It costs only 500 yen for an unlimited all-day use of Kyoto City bus. It can be purchased at Subway stations, Bus Information Centers, Convenience Stores, Vending machines or ask your hotel staff. For first time use, you have to give it to the bus driver or insert it to the card reader upon getting off. This will mark the card with the current date which is the validity of use. For succeeding use within the day, just show the driver the validity date on the pass.
Reality level 999. Only a quarter of the crowd.
Higashiyama district, the exact opposite of the quiet Shosei-en garden, I reckon all the tourists flock here. The narrow hilly street is brimming with visitors going to Yasaka shrine which is lined up with souvenir shops, japanese restaurants and cafes.
Love how the city preserved the traditional Japanese style design. All you need to do is dress up and celebrate the local vibe.
We then headed to Gion to spot some legit Maikos and Geikos,
Chairman Ken Watanabe, as well as admire some Ryokans, Machiyas and Ochayas. We were lucky to catch them on the streets while they were on their way to their dinner engagements. Did I tell I have deep fascination with the geisha culture the first time I read the book? This made me fell in love with Japan even more.
We then returned our kimonos before retreating to our hotel to freshen up. And finally reunited with my lost luggage.
Did you know that you can send out your suitcases ahead of you to another destination in Japan? Travel light and worry free. There are a number of couriers that offers luggage shipping to your next destination. You can easily find them at the airport or arrange a hotel pick-up.
Of course, this day won’t pass by without the ultimate thing to do for first timers in Japan, salivate to a Wagyu beef paired with Sake. It’s expensive anywhere in the world coz it’s of the top quality brand beef, but since it’s made in Japan, better set your priorities right. You’ll find it reasonably priced when it melts in your mouth. Found a hole in the wall restaurant bar – Sakanaya – Hirari, a high rated restaurant along one of the hidden streets of Kyoto. We were the last one to get served, no english but no problem! Kampai!
Day Three – Kinkaku-ji Temple – Nijo-jo Castle – Osaka
For our last day in Kyoto before heading out to Osaka, we started early at Kinkaku-ji Temple. We purchased another set of Kyoto City all-day bus pass to take us to Northern Kyoto. The most picturesque temple I have ever seen yet. The top floors are covered with gold leaf which looks stunning at any season.
We then move to Western Kyoto to explore Nijo-jo Castle. A former residence of the first shogun of Edo period. Stepping into the castle ground, one will be transported into a historical era, where manicured traditional Japanese garden surrounds the impressive feudal Japan architecture.
It was short and sweet Kyoto. I will miss the laid back atmosphere and all your greens. You certainly inspired our first time soul.
We hurried back to our hotel just before sundown to pack our suitcases and use the rail service to Osaka.