Note: This is the third and final part of a 3-part series of Family Trip to Japan: Travel Tips and Guide to Osaka and Kyoto
Day 5: Arashiyama 嵐山 and Pontocho 先斗町
After a night in Kyoto, we spent one full day in Arashiyama.
Sagano Scenic Railway
My wife wanted to see Bamboo Grove and naturally I had to oblige. Hence, Arashiyama here we come. We had one full day for the small town that is west of Kyoto. We took train to JR Umahori Station. First things first, we walked for 10 minutes to Kameoka Torroko Station to embark on Sagano Scenic Railway (also called Sagano Romantic Train). The walk to the station gives you a village feel: humble, untouched.
The SRT’s journey takes about 25 minutes for 7.2 kilometres with 4 stops, namely Kameoka – Hozkukyo – Arashiyama – Saga. Kameoka is the furthest. There are a few recommended routes you can take. Each train is made up of four enclosed cars (with windows that can be opened) and one fully open car (Car No. 5 – which you can request when buying tickets). All seats are reserved, although standing tickets are sold if the seats are full.
Tickets can be purchased at Torokko Saga Station, or at JR ticket offices in the Kansai Region.
We boarded Sagano Scenic Railway from Kameoka Torokko station to Arashiyama station.
The sightseeing train ride gives passengers scenic view along Hozugawa River and cliffs. This is even more stunning during autumn or winter.
Hourly from 9:00 to 16:00 (until 17:00 on busy days). Closed Wednesdays
¥620 and ¥310; one way between Torokko Saga and Torokko Kameoka Stations
We alighted at Arashiyama Torokko station and walked a short distance to the Bamboo Grove. Bamboo Grove’s area is not big but it’s surrounded by other attractions such as temples. As with most places of interest in Japan, entrance fees applied for some temples.
Bamboo Grove is one of the most scenic places in Kyoto for taking pictures.
If you’re lazy or not in the mood to walk, you can ride on one of those human-powered rickshaws (jinrikisha). These rickshaw drivers are young, tall, dark, and handsome.
You can tell him where you want to go. Mind you pulling a huge and already heavy rickshaw like the ones in Arashiyama is not a walk in the “bamboo” park. It requires strength and precision to manoeuvre along the narrow paths of the bamboo forest.
We exited Bamboo Grove and made an entry into the main street of Arashiyama. Arashiyama food street, an area that houses plenty of street food, cafes and restaurants. Incidentally, that’s the entrance to Bamboo Grove if you take the subway or bus to Arashiyama.
At the junction, we saw a stall selling ice-cream. And next to it is a stall selling tofu, soba and ramen. Both stalls were on our list of food to try in Arashiyama.
We tried the 4-flavored ice-cream for ¥350. We ate Hot Tofu (¥400) and Herring Soba (¥500) from 三忠豆腐. Tofu was smooth but average. I find it overrated. Herring Soba was okay. You have to stand to eat though 三忠豆腐 does provide limited seats.
Arashiyama town has one main street. But there are some surprises too along the streets off the main road. Don’t be afraid to explore.
The furthest we walked was until the famed Togetsu-kyo Bridge (渡月橋) over the Katsura River. We didn’t cross the bridge but had a nice view from afar.
We didn’t want to spend too much on food as some restaurants tended to be expensive in Arashiyama. Therefore, we decided to have our late lunch at a randomly picked restaurant that served affordable food.
This restaurant is famous for its yuba cheese (¥300). This is where we had a conversation with an Indonesian student who had been studying in Japan for 5 years, working as a waitress at the restaurant.
Of course, as we strolled along, we ate what fancied us. Some of the food that I don’t know the name of.
Kyoto Arashiyama Music Box Museum
Along the main road we noticed a music box museum. We didn’t enter the museum section of Kyoto Arashiyama Music Box Museum as it’s paid but we explored the shop. The music box shop sells tons of music boxes ranging from low to high end. The quality of the sound of the music boxes are determined by the number of notes.
I was attracted to one 30-note music box that cost ¥25000 that was made of walnut wood. The music produced by the music box is captivating and mesmerizing and soothing. I admit I was tempted to buy but thought better of it. The female staff who attended to us was very friendly and helpful. She was excited to show us any piece that we were interested in. Superb service!
Onsen Foot Bath (足湯) at Randen Arashiyama Station
A foot spa at a train station? What better way to soothe your weary feet after a day’s walking than soak your feet in hot spring? Head over to Randen Arashiyama Station for a relaxing foot bath. Buy the foot bath coupons at the station’s information centre. Each ticket comes with a complimentary towel to wipe your feet after you’re done.
You can soak your feet as long as you want.
Kimono Forest is not a forest per se but transparent pillars with gorgeous kimono textile inside that line both sides of walk paths, right next to Randen Arashiyama Station. The place is a little less crowded and off-the-beaten track.
I believe the view of Kimono Forest would be much better at night. Nonetheless it’s a nice spot for photo-taking, day or night.
We were pretty done with Arashiyama. We walked to JR Saga Arashiyama station to go back to our apartment.
After a light dinner, we walked to Pontocho Alley – Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining areas. The narrow alley is lined with traditional shops and restaurants, and no cars allowed. We didn’t have dinner as we didn’t know what they served and how much they charged. Most restaurants only allow reservations and no walk-ins.
Later we strolled along Kamo-gawa River. There were many lovebirds sitting on the bank of the river chatting and enjoying the magnificent night view of the city and restaurants.
Day 6: Temple Hunting with Japanese Friend
On the second day in Kyoto, we met up with my wife’s friend who hails from Uji, about 25 minutes’ train ride from Kyoto. We hooked up with him before our trip and he was so kind to offer to bring us around Kyoto.
Our Japanese friend decided to take bus based on the places we wanted to visit. Despite being a local, he had to do his homework beforehand on which bus to take and at which station. It’s relieved to hear that it’s not that bad for foreign tourists to do our homework after all.
Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion) 金閣寺
Our first stop was Kinkakuji Temple. Kinkakuji is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond. My wife, J and I agree that this is the best temple in Kyoto.
Kinkakuji Temple is magnificent, spotless, grand, and glittering. Of course, recognized by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage, Kinkaku-ji is one of the historical buildings most representative of Japan. It’s also a popular icon of Kyoto.
The route for visitors is well thought of and it provides many spots for visitors to take excellent pictures of the temple from different angles.
1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
¥400 (regular fee)
Just nearby from Kinkakuji, we took a bus to go to Ryoan-ji. Ryoan-ji is a Zen temple located in northwest Kyoto. It’s famous for it’s sprawling Zen rock garden. One has to remove shoes to enter the temple to enjoy the serene garden. You can go around the temple before making an exit and go around the compound of the temple.
Ryoan-ji was built on the grounds of a villa of the Fujiwara clan in the Heian period (794-1185). Apart from little patches of moss around the stones, this garden has no plants. The design is more complex than it seems at a glance – for example it’s impossible to view all 15 stones at once from any angle of the terrace. The composition is also a fine example for the delicate balance of mass and void and the skillful use of numbers and groups. The garden has so much more than meets the eye.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple 清水寺
From Ryonaji, it takes a long bus ride to reach Kiyomizu-dera. More than 30 minutes. K almost didn’t manage to alight the bus as he dozed off on the bus and it took a while to wake him up.
It was lunch time and we were looking for a place to kill our hunger spangs on the way up the hill where Kiyomizura Temple was located. We settled on one Western restaurant.
We ordered its lunch sets. After having the lunch and fully recharged, we continued our walk to the temple.
Halfway up Mt. Otowa, one of the peaks in Kyoto’s Higashiyama mountain range, stands Kiyomizu-dera. You need to walk quite a distance with hilly roads before reaching the temple.
To our disappointment, there was some renovation work going on and the main building was blanketed with safety nets. Not a good thing to have for photographers. We bought tickets and went in anyhow.
Over 1200 years have passed since the foundation of Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The temple’s veranda which is located on the slope of a mountain is supported by 13-meter high wooden columns. When you reach Kiyomizudera Temple, you have no problems to realize that it’s popular and always packed with tourists.
Going down the hill after the visit, there are many shops selling souvenirs and food on both sides of the street.
1 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City
I didn’t know about this place until our Japanese friend brought us there. We walked there from Kiyomizu-dera. Ishibei-koji is maintained as the ancient Kyoto streets. The wooden facade and walls of the low-lying houses (some converted to inns or restaurants) have to be preserved. Visitors are taken back to the olden days of how Kyoto looked like when you stroll along pedestrian-only Ishibei-koji. The lane twists and turns a few times, but at no more than 200 meters, you can’t get lost.
Kodai-ji Temple 高台寺
Though Kodai-ji is not as crowded and as popular as Kiyomizu-dera, it is one of the finest temples in the Southern Higashiyama Area.
Kodaiji sits atop a slight hill. It was established in 1605 by the legendary Nene (Kodai-in), the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in honor of her late husband, and financed by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was responsible for later wiping out the family of Toyotomi.
526 Shimogawara-cho, Kodai-ji, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City
Yasaka Shrine (Yasaka-jinja) 八坂神社
The Yasaka Shrine, also known as the Gion Shrine, is a Shinto shrine in the Gion District of Kyoto.
Founded over 1350 years ago, it is often visited by tourists walking between the two districts: the popular Gion District and Higashiyama District.
After dinner that night, we walked to Yasaka Shrine again to take in the night view of the shrine. According to our Japanese friend, Yasaka Shrine never closes.
Hoping to get a glimpse of geisha, we walked to Hanami-koji Street 花見小路. As you walk down the narrow street, watch out for traffic as it can get very near to you. But luck was not on our side, we didn’t see any geisha that evening. Be careful not to mistake tourists making up themselves as a Geisha for the real thing!
Hanami-koji Street is a nice and expensive place to dine, the street and its side alleys are lined with preserved machiya houses which now function as kaiseki ryori and ochaya.
Kaiseki Dinner 懐石
Our Japanese friend was kind enough to make a reservation for us for Kaiseki dinner in advance. If it was not for him, we wouldn’t dare to try as we know nothing about the food and restaurants. He made things easier for us. Out of curiosity, we wanted to try out this Japanese haute cuisine called Kaiseki which Kyoto is famous for.
It’s a traditional multi-course dinner that grouped by the way the food is cooked. It was quite an experience. Since nobody liked sashimi, we opted out the dish and the restaurant replaced with an alternative dish.
The restaurant we went to was Kawamura Ryouri Hei (川村料理平) near Nishiki Market. We booked a tatami room. It was perfect for privacy and comfortable to relax your legs after a whole day of walking.
We took about 2 hours to finish the dinner. We insisted to pay for the dinner as we outnumbered our Japanese friend by 4 to 1. Each set of Kaiseki cost ¥3,000.
Day 7: Last Day in Kyoto
Today was the last day in Kyoto and we had a flight to catch at 10 pm.
Since we had to check out at 11:00 am and we wanted to take advantage of the time left to go around. We didn’t want to walk around with luggages for more than 5 hours. The logical thing to do was use a coin locker at Kyoto Station.
Kyoto Station was chosen because we needed to come back here to catch Haruka train to Kansai Airport. There are 3 sizes of coin lockers and we picked the biggest one that cost ¥600 a day. It’s convenient especially for travellers like us. And there are many coin lockers scattered around the station. Smaller stations have limited number of lockers.
Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社
Before the trip, this was one of the places that my wife wanted to go. She said Fushimi Inari was the most photographed spot in Kyoto, especially with the numerous torii gates. Therefore, giving this place a miss was not a good idea. So on the last day of our trip, we took train to JR Inari Station (3-minute walk). As Fushimi Inari was a popular place, it was crowded.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine of Inari with which all the others are affiliated. One needs a bit of time (at least 30 minutes) to walk through the magical, seemingly unending path of over 5000 vibrant orange torii gates that wind through the hills.
No doubt the pictures turned out to be attractive but waiting for a time when there were no other visitors to snap your photos was quite a challenge.
68 Yabunouchi-cho, Fukakusa Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
Lunch in Inari
We didn’t plan for this until the morning of our last day. We decided to meet up again with our Japanese friend for lunch at Inari. At the same time, he wanted to buy us some Uji green tea after we talked about it the day before. He said it was not very far to go to Inari from Uji.
We had our lunch at one of the restaurants that was not so packed. It was good. After lunch, we really had to say “sayonara” to our friend at the train station.
Kyoto Imperial Palace 京都御所
After lunch in Inari, we took subway to Imadegawa Station Karasuma Line to Kyoto Imperial Palace. It’s about 10 minutes’ walk to Kyoto Imperial Palace from the station.
Kyoto Imperial Palace is the former residence of the Emperor of Japan until 1869. It is a walled compound containing several sumptuous buildings built in the classical Japanese style. Mind you the compound is huge. Just follow the visitor’s route to go around the palace. We took about 30 minutes to finsih the tour.
What impressed me most was the inner garden (Oikeniwa Garden). The well-manicured Japanese garden had captivated me with its serene and peace.
3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 602-0881, Japan
Free (you need to take a tag that shall be returned upon exit)
Getting Refund for ICOCA cards
After getting our luggages from the coin locker at Kyoto Station (the station is huge and do remember which coin locker you use), we boarded Haruka train bound for Kansai Airport. If you use ICOCA card, another important thing to do when you reach airport is to get refund from unused balance of the card. Just go straight to JR West Office (not the normal line but the green one) and process your refund, even before you check in your flight and luggage. A ¥220 handling fee will be deducted from each card.
Note: This is the third and final part of a 3-part series of Family Trip to Japan: Travel Tips and Guide to Osaka and Kyoto
Quick links to the 3-part series: