Kyoto

Where: Kyoto, Kansai, Japan.

When: August 2012.

Why: Five day summer holiday/ city break whilst we were working in Dongtan, South Korea.

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Map

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Intro

It’s such a shame that Kyoto is on the other side of the planet to the UK, as it is the perfect weekend city break destination. Kyoto has amazing history, so many sights to see, beautiful nature near by, great transport links, great shopping, some good bars, mouth watering food options – and monkeys!

We only had three days for our summer holiday in South Korea, so there were not a lot of destinations that we could have gotten to in that time. I really wanted to go to the Philippines, but the flight times didn’t work out – so sadly for me we had to go to Japan instead. And I’m so glad that we did…

I really liked Japan: it’s sophisticated, civilised and cosmopolitan. The people we met were incredibly friendly and kind, and also very individual culturally. We saw quite a few sub-cultures in Japan, which is not something that you find so much in other Far Eastern countries.

I loved that Japan had houses (not tower blocks like Korea) and towns and villages; and I loved the natural beauty of the countryside too. Japan really is a beautiful country, with dramatic mountains, plains, parks, wildlife and rivers. I thought that Japan was going to be super modernistic, with high technology everywhere. Where we were, they did have one or two modernistic touches (train seats that always point the right way for example) but mostly they just had good, basic, efficient systems that worked.

Kyoto is a great city. It was the capital of Japan for 1,000 years and so the city boasts hundreds of temples, shrines, parks, pagodas and palaces, including the imperial palace. Luckily for us treasure hunters, Kyoto was not heavily bombed in the war (apparently, at one point America considered dropping an atom bomb on Kyoto – I’m so glad they didn’t) – so most of the city’s treasures remain intact.

The city has a great location, surrounded by mountains – which makes it feel quite cosy. Kyoto felt like a very livable city: for all of its size and prominence, it never felt overly busy or crowded or noisy. It was a very relaxed city and at times I felt as if I was in France or Spain. I would love to live and work here.

The city is mostly built on a grid pattern to resemble the ancient Chinese capital of Xian. The Kamo River runs through the centre of the city and there are one or two pretty off-shoot riverlets too.

At the edge of the city are pretty suburbs and the foothills of the mountains. Many of the temples are hidden in the foot hills, and here you will find old crooked streets, pretty gardens and small shrines etc.

I’m really, really glad that I got to visit Kyoto – and I really, really, really liked Japan. This visit was an amazing taster for this country and I would love to go back to Japan to explore further. Fingers crossed – one day I’ll be back.

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Getting there

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Osaka airport is built on a square, man-made island, like Kobe airport above.

I flew to Osaka Kansai Airport (KIX) from Seoul Incheon International Airport, with Eaststar Jet. Eaststar Jet was an okay airline: my plane was decorated inside with funny animals, although there wasn’t a huge amount of legroom. I got a free drink of squash. The flight cost £220.

Kansai International Airport (KIX) is a strange airport as it’s built on a square, man-made island – out in the sea. Kobe airport, which we flew over, is the same. It makes for an exciting landing, as at the end of the runway is the sea. Other than that, KIX is a great airport with lots of shops and restaurants and quick security and immigration.

To get from KIX to Kyoto I caught the train. There were two options for getting from KIX to Kyoto by train: the Haruka Express Train, which went direct to Kyoto in an hour and a half; or a local train to Osaka station, followed by a rapid local train to Kyoto – this took approximately two hours. The direct train cost 2,900 Yen one way (about £25); the local trains cost 1,830 Yen one way (about £15).

When we were there it was possible to buy a JR line West Kansai pass, which allowed unlimited travel on the JR train network, including the Express Train to Kyoto. I think this was only available for tourists. The cost was 2,000 Yen for one day, 4000 Yen for two days, 5,000 Yen for three days and 6,000 Yen for four days. However, you could only buy the ticket once. I bought the one day pass from the JR Line booking office (which is next to the JR station at the airport) and this brought the cost of the Haruka Express down to £18.

On my way back to the airport I used the local trains. This journey cost me 1,830 Yen (about £15). I caught a train from Kyoto to Osaka and then a train from Osaka to KIX. If you travel by this route, make sure you catch the rapid train (otherwise it stops at every station and takes forever) and when you get in the train at Osaka station, make sure you are sitting in the right carriages, as the train splits. They will explain in English which carriages to go in and how to find your carriage number. It’s very efficient.

My clever boyfriend (now husband), who flew in and out at different times to me, found an amazing deal which had just started, which makes all of the above prices redundant. He found a deal to buy a return ticket on the Haruka Express, plus a local ICOCA transport card (for the underground) with 1,500 Yen credit. This cost 4,000 Yen (£40).

You can buy all of the passes and tickets from the JR train office at KIX airport.

kyoto stationFor more information on KIX airport and trains to central Osaka, visit the Osaka page

Kyoto station is amazing! It is an enormous, space age like building – full of shops, hotels, restaurants and official buildings. You can get escalators up to the 14th floor to the sky garden and there is a sky walkway on floor 14. Sadly I didn’t have time to go on the walkway, though I did travel up to the top of the escalators, just for the views.

On arrival at Kyoto station I went to the Tourist Information Office and they couldn’t have been more helpful. They gave me a great free map and a really useful bus map – and they directed me onto the buses (telling me which bus number and stand, and exactly where to get off the bus). I highly recommend that you pop in here when you get to Kyoto – even if it just to get the free maps, as they are really useful.

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Getting about

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I thought public transport in Japan was going to be really confusing. I couldn’t imagine being able to navigate a public transport system in Japanese. Also, some of the local train kines are run by different companies and so have different lines and stations. However, somehow we managed fine and the local transport system was pretty easy to navigate. There were lots of guides in English, the travel office was really helpful and there were lots of useful maps etc. Also, there was never a point that we had to transfer from one local train company to the other, so we just treated these as individual transport networks. We picked which train line we were going to travel with by which one was most convenient (and cheaper).

Within the Kyoto area there are subways, buses and local train lines..

Subway

There’s two subway lines in Kyoto. I didn’t really use the subways as the buses were just as convenient for me – but Jeff did and he said they were quick and easy to navigate. He had a travel card that he had bought at the airport and he topped this up at the station.

Kyoto City Web has more information about the subways and a good subway map.

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Local trains

Kyoto is a large city with a lot of outlying, connected towns and villages. The city area is traversed by eleven local train lines and these are a good way to travel to the more outlying sights. We travelled on the local train to go to Fushimi-Inari, Nara and Arashiyama.

Wikitravel has a great local train line map and Bus and Train Veteran has a great route planner, which shows you all of the train and bus options to get to your destination, how much it will cost and travel times etc.

The trains were very easy to navigate. At the ticket machines there was a poster above our heads telling us all of the prices to get to the various stops. We put our money in the machine first, then selected adult or child and then selected the fare we needed. It was well easy. The stations were well sign posted in English. We did have one boo boo when we got on a train going the wrong way, but that was just us being dozy.

Bus

The city buses were supremely convenient and easy to navigate – especially with the bus map from the tourist information centre. I used them a lot to get around town. Japanese buses are a little strange as you get on the bus at the back and pay when you get off. They were very comfy and well laid out though.

Most of the time there was a fixed fare of 220 Yen (about £2). One bus we went on had variable fares. Apparently the way to find out the fares on these buses is to look at the front of the bus and if it has a board with numbers on and different fares then you need to get a ticket from the machine by the entrance door when you get on. Then when you get off, simply look at the board for your number and this will tell you your fare.

The machines on the buses took coins and 1,000 yen notes.

There was a 500 yen (£4) daily transport pass for city-buses, although this is only valid on the main bus company buses.

Kyoto City Web has a brilliant, detailed guide about how to travel on Kyoto Public Transport, including ticket prices and how to pay for tickets etc.

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What we did on our holidays

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Nijo Castle

Nijo castle was built in 1604 by Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun – so in my mind this is a ninja palace.

It’s an okay ‘castle’: it had a moat, huge wall and nice gardens, though the actual main building seemed to be more of a very pretty house than a castle with walls and crenelations etc. The main building, which we toured through, had lots of pretty, empty rooms after pretty, empty rooms – with pretty walls, paper screen windows etc. It was nice, although a little bit boring.

The best thing about the palace for me was the nightingale floor which ‘sings’. It makes different squeaks depending on where you step on it. It was made so that no one could sneak up on the shogunate – or if they tried, he would know where they were and then he could ninja them. It’s great fun trying to be a ninja and to walk on the floor and not make it squeak.

Nijo (ninja) castle is pretty and it is a UNESCO site, but… it was a little bit boring too. It was very plain and there wasn’t much stuff here to see. It was kind of a zen castle. It probably has a really cool history – and if we’d have had a guide we probably would have got a lot more from the visit. Mostly, we just played with the floor, wandered about and watched the turtles in the moat.

Entry cost us 600 Yen.

Find visiting information and more information about the history of the castle on the Nijo Castle website.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple (UNESCO)

Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a really cool temple/shrine, situated in the hills overlooking Kyoto. The entrance gateway is bright orange, they have a bright orange pavilion and a beautiful temple hall, which was built without any nails. The temple is in a beautiful, forested spot and there is a fresh spring, which if you drink from it your wishes will be granted, apparently.

There was a fun pedestrianised road leading up to the temple, which was very touristy with lots of touristy shops and cafes etc.

We spent about an hour at the actual temple. Entry cost us 650 Yen.

www.kiyomizudera.or.jp

Old Kyoto

Between Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Kodaji Temple, there were lots of old Japanese streets. These were very touristy: full of nick-nack shops and sweet shops, but these streets were also very pretty and a lot of fun to meander down.

We walked past Hokanji Temple, which is an amazing five tiered pavilion, which I swear I have seen in a ninja computer game. We didn’t go in but we looked at it, which was cool.

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We also walked past Ryozen Kannon, a huge stone Buddha, who sits on the hillside, next to Kodaji Temple. He is a memorial to the people who died in the war. We didn’t actually go in to the complex, we just took a photo through the gates, but he looks pretty cool too.

Kodaji Temple

One of my problems with Kyoto is that I wasn’t sure where to go and which temples to visit as there are just so many of them and they are pretty much all unique and amazing.

I’d heard about a very-famous temple which apparently is used as a screen saver on the Apple computer and I thought, well this has got to be a pretty stunning temple then, so I planned for us to go here. The temple on the Apple screensaver shows a beautiful yellow tower, sitting serenely in the middle of a lake.

I thought that this famous temple was Kodai-ji Temple – so we went to have a look at this. Just before we got to the temple we got talking to an American man and he told us how amazing Kodai-ji is, so I really had my hopes up for this visit.

And Kodai-Ji Temple is amazing, but it wasn’t the amazing temple I was expecting. It was a different stunning shrine.

It turns out that I’d gotten my temples mixed up somewhere – and that this wasn’t the temple we were looking for. However Kodai-Ji was a very pretty, zen temple – something which I’d not seem before. The temple had a combed sand, zen garden, lakes and ponds, a bamboo forest. It was quiet and peaceful and a wonderful, gentle place to be.

We visited around dusk and we took about an hour to follow the pathways and to walk around the grounds. It was nice – very simple, and very zen (and mildly boring – but I think that’s the point).

It cost us 600 Yen (£5) to visit the temple, which seemed a little expensive to me, but then if it goes to help preserve the temple, then fair enough.

(The temple that I was looking for was Kinkakuji Temple – but sadly we didn’t go here. Next time…)

www.kodaiji.com

Gion District

The Gion district is old Kyoto; the area where geisha live. Gion is an area of tiny lantern lit alleys, bustling streets, canals and bridges, which were featured in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. Though the area has been modernised, there are still remnants of the old city here.

On the way back from Kodaji Temple, Jeff and I cut through the Gion district. We ended up walking through tangles of old alleyways, past paper windows and wooden shuttered houses, over pretty canals. We didn’t see any geisha – but it was all very pretty and atmospheric.

The place which looks most like old Kyoto is Pontocho. This is a lane which runs alongside the river, in the Kawaramachi area. It is so pretty and a real taste of old Japan – with lantern lit wooden buildings, interesting restaurants and hidden bars. I think this is the most atmospheric part of Kyoto and the best place to visit at night. This is also where you are most likely to see geisha apparently.

(See the where we ate and drank section below for more information).

 Shopped

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There was an amazing covered mall in the centre of Kyoto, that went on and on and on and on. There were loads of cool shops and restaurants in here (and a useful supermarket in the centre). I spent a lot of time here, pottering about and looking at cool stuff. Prices weren’t that much more expensive than the UK and there were loads of fun, interesting things to buy (although I resisted).

If you are making a similar trip and are in the area for a few days, I would highly recommend visiting Osaka for shopping. Osaka has two of the longest malls in the world and large chain-shops, such as Tokyo Hands. After this Kyoto trip, we later on returned for a Christmas shopping trip to Osaka ad we loved it. You can find out more on the Osaka page.

Iwatayama/Arashiyama Monkey Park

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One of the best things we did on our trip to Kyoto was to visit the monkey park in Arashiyama.

The 170 monkeys at Arashiyama are wild monkeys, free to roam about the park, but they are watched over by the park and fed by the rangers and the tourists. They have become used to being around humans and they know that this is where they can get food – so they stay close to the visitor centre.

The monkeys in Iwatayama Park are Japanese monkeys, or snow monkeys, and they are so cute!

The monkey sanctuary is located in some woodland, on a hillside, in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto. We walked up the mountain to the viewing platform, where the monkeys hang out. The walk up through the woods took us about 30 minutes. It wasn’t too steep, although in the heat we got a bit sweaty. It was very pretty in the woods, there was a little trickling stream and we heard lots of strange animal noises.

Just below the viewing platform was a playground where we spotted our first monkeys. They were lazing around in trees and running around; though sadly they were not on the swings or the monkey bars.

Then we got to the viewing platform which has stupendous views over Kyoto – and here there were hundreds of monkeys! And they were so tame they’d run right past us or come and sit by us and just chill. We sat on the base of one of the telescopes and just let the monkeys wander round us. We must have spent a good half an hour just sat there watching them run and play about.

We were there at feeding time, which was funny as the soundtrack to feeding time was the Can Can (por quoi? Je ne sais pas). The guides, who managed the monkeys outside, walked around with a bucket and all of the monkeys trailed after them to get some food. There were lots of monkey fights over food and all of the monkeys got very excited.

At the viewing centre was the feeding cage. When I first read about the monkey park and that you fed the monkeys from cages, I got a little confused as I thought the monkeys were wild and I couldn’t understand why the monkeys went into cages to be fed. They’re not in cages. It’s you that goes into the cage to feed the monkeys. Visitors feed the monkeys from the cage so that they associated this place as a source of food, rather than just any human who is in the park. Here you can buy monkey treats and you can feed the monkeys directly: they will take the nuts or bananas straight out of your hands. It was brilliant and we got up close and personal with baby monkeys!

Entry to the monkey park cost 550Y (about £4.50) and we spent about two hours there. I highly, highly recommend it.

Even if you can’t go, I recommend having a look at the park’s website as the monkeys are so cute!

Arashiyama

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Arashiyama is a lovely part of Kyoto. It is to the north-west of the city and it is a quiet suburb, on the river, in the foothills of the mountains. It was very pretty, very quiet and rural and a nice place to walk.

When we were here there was a food festival by the river, so we had a great time walking around and looking at (and sampling) the food. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming to us – very smiley and helpful – and the food was gooood.

To get to Arashiyama we caught a Hankyu-Kyoto Line train from Kawaramachi station, and then we changed trains at Katsura Station. This cost 240 Yen (£2) and took about 20 minutes.

To get back, we caught bus 73 from by the river. This took us directly back to our hotel in Kawaramachi and it cost 240 Yen, though it did take a lot longer to get back.

Japan Guide has useful information about how to get to Arashiyama and what else to do there.

Fushimi Inari-taisha

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Fushimi Inari is possibly the best looking shrine in the world. It is certainly one of the funkiest and most famous. Fushimi Inari is the head shrine for the approximately 30,000 Inari temples across Japan. It was established in 711.

The Fushimi Inari shrine is famous as it has many, many orange gates (torii) which have been placed together to form an orange corridor of light that runs up Inari Mountain. They are placed over the pilgrim path which climbs up the hillside, through the woods, to the top of this peak. Along the way there are shrines, a lake, some shops and cafes, woods, trees, trickling streams (lots of spiders) and great views. The woods are really pretty and it’s nice to climb up through them. The route is not too strenuous (we took it slow) – although in the height of a Japanese summer it was hot! I was glad I had my fan.

We only made it half way up the mountain, as we had deer to see, but we still spent a good hour climbing uphill.

At the base of the mountain and the pilgrim path there are some Shinto Temples – these are bright orange too. It’s an enormous temple complex.

Foxes are considered to be messengers for the Inari and so there are many fox statues dotted around the site.

Getting to the temple from central Kyoto was really easy. There was a JR line train station and a Keihan train line station just by the temple. We took the Keihan Line to get to Fushimi Inari, as the departure station (Sanjo Station) was closer to our hotel – and then we caught the JR train on to Nara. The train ticket from Sanjo to Fushimu Inari cost 220 YEN. The journey was about fifteen minutes.

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Nara

Nara the town (not NARA the National American Archive) is a small city about an hour from Kyoto. Nara used to be the capital of Japan, pre-Kyoto (a.k.a. about 1,000 years ago) and it has some interesting ancient sites.

We went here to see the UNESCO world heritage site of Todaiji Temple and to see the deer in the deer park.

Nara is a great day trip from Kyoto and easy to get to. There are two train stations: JR and Keihan. The Keihan train line is closer to the centre of Nara, and a one way ticket from Kyoto costs 640 Yen (about £5).

In Nara we went for lunch, pottered around the modern shops, walked to the park and then visited the temple. We spent a long afternoon here and this was enough time for us to see everything we intended to.

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One thing we loved about Nara was the city mascot: the Bud-deer; a half Buddha/ half deer man. See above.

Nara deer park

At the far side of Nara is a huge park, which is where all of the temples are located. In the park live hundreds of deer, who are quite tame and you can feed them deer biscuits. Watch out though, as they sometimes get a little bit overexcited about deer biscuits (don’t we all).

The park is very pretty and I suspect that in autumn it is just gorgeous. We only walked through the park on the way to the shrine, but it would have been a nice place to stroll, explore and maybe have a picnic. We spent a lot of time playing with and photographing the deer and eating ice cream etc. It was very pretty, very quiet and a lovely place to be. Living in Korea, we didn’t have huge, natural parks like this, so it was wonderful for us to be somewhere so natural. In some ways, it was very English and I liked it.

Todaiji (Great Eastern) Temple and the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall)

We came to Nara to see the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), which is in Tadaji Temple. Daibutsuden is the largest wooden building in the world. Apparently it used to be two thirds even larger, until it burnt down. This version of the building was constructed in 1750.

Daibutsuden houses the largest bronze Buddha (Daibutsu) statue in the world.

To enter the temple, we first had to cross through the 12th century Nandaimon Gate. This is a huge, old wooden gate with amazing wooden demon statues, guarding the way to the temple. There were many deer hanging around the gateway. They are at the shrine as deer are considered to be messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion. There was a lovely atmosphere of happy visitors here. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the sunshine and having fun with the deer. It was lovely.

The temple itself was very pretty and very impressive and the Buddha was cool, though without understanding he history and the context of the shrine it would be hard to understand why this place is so amazing. From what I understand, the hall was build in the 8th century. 2.6 million people were involved in the construction; 350,000 involved in creating the bronze Buddha alone. The Buddha was completed in 751, so he is over 1,250 years old! His creation nearly bankrupt the kingdom of Japan.

In 810 his head fell off in a huge earthquake. Recently some relics, including a human tooth and jewels, have been found in the Buddha’s knee and it is believed that these are relics of Emperor Shomu, who commissioned the statue.

We spent about an hour in the Great Buddha Hall, wandering around, looking at all of the avatar statues. here was one point where there is a hole in one of the temple columns and children were climbing through.

Entry to the Great Buddha Hall was 500Yen.

You can find out more about the temple at the Todaiki Temple website and visiting and transport information on Japan Guide.

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What we didn’t do but would have liked to have done

There’s hundreds of things we didn’t do, but would have loved to. Shrines, museums, temples – there is just so much to see in Kyoto that it would take a month or more to visit all of the sites. Some of the key things that we missed are:

Imperial Palace and gardens: You can visit the imperial palace, where the emperor lives – but you have to pre-arrange your tours and from what we hear, the palace isn’t that amazing! (Compared to the other sights). We wanted to go, but we just didn’t get round to it. Next time…

Kyoto Tower: Just by Kyoto Station is the space age looking Kyoto Tower – which you can go up to get great views.

Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park: We travelled past the Yasaka Shrine and it looked very impressive. It is located just in front of Maruyama Park, which apparently is beautiful in cherry blossom season. I meant to return here on the Saturday but we went to see monkeys instead.

We also missed the Golden Pavillion at Kinkakuji Temple, which is one of the key sites in Kyoto (and a screen saver on Apple computers).

There are loads of museums in Kyoto, we missed them all. Oh well, we’ll just have to go back…

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Where we ate and drank and partied

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Oooooooo – food in Japan is good. We ate very well here. We also drank well, and though some drinks were expensive most places offered happy hours or you could buy drinks from the supermarkets and convenience stores for reasonable prices.

Pig and Whistle, Kyoto

On our first night, we went to the British pub, the Pig and Whistle. It was very British (it had darts, pint glasses and fish and chips), but it was also quite pricey. I paid £8 for a pint of Strongbow on tap – but my goodness did it taste good! It was nice to have a taste of home for a little bit, but then we wanted to be in Japan – so after this we went to a tapas bar and a kebab shop.

www.pigandwhistle.beer

Musashi Sushi, Kyoto Train Station, Japan

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Musashi Sushi, Kyoto, Japan

Surprisingly, we found it really hard to find a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Japan. It was two days before we finally tracked one down, at the far side of Kyoto train station. We had to queue a while, but it was worth it. Conveyor belt sushi is just fun.

We sat at a long bench with lots of locals and we had our own bowls, tap and teabags etc. When the sushi we wanted came around on the conveyor belt, we grabbed it. Sometimes we’d faff and have to wait for our dinner to go all the way around the room.

The sushi we had wasn’t amazing (I was being a bit experimental, which is not always the best when it comes to sea food) – but it was good (and so was the beer). Each dish cost us 138Yen (about £1) – and I think we spent about 1,000 yen each.

We later discovered (through a friend’s photo on facebook) that there was a Musashi Sushi, conveyor belt sushi restaurant right opposite our hotel – so we went here for midnight sushi on the Saturday night. This sushi restaurant is located on the junction between Sanjo and Kawaramachi, just by the entrance to the covered mall. You can find out more about this branch on Lonely Planet.

Hamid’s Kebabs

We had 2 a.m., Japanese kebabs on the banks of the little river, by Kiyamachi-dori. They were delicious, although they had a slightly Japanese taste about them. They were pricey (700 Yen – £5) but good. We’d heard rumours of falafel, but we didn’t see any when we were there.

Noodles

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Amazing noodle shop on Kiyamachi-dori, Kyoto, Japan

So, we were sat outside Hamid’s kebab shop at 2am, and the noodle shop next to us had a huge queue of locals. It was a bit of a strange looking shop: there was a curtain which sort of half covered the people sitting at the outside bench and inside was a cramped space of kitchen, counters, steaming woks etc. It was extremely old-school, authentic Japanese – so we decided to go here for lunch the next day.

What they served was the most amazing bowl of ramen noodles I have ever had. We had pork noodles and we watched them cooking them in front of us. They took a spoon full of this, a dip of that and mixed it all in with this wonderful, porky, meaty broth. It was the most delicious, slightly fatty, warm dish of noodles that I have ever tasted. In winter, when it is cold outside, I dream about eating this succulent, heart warming bowl of loveliness. In summer, it was 34 degrees outside – but still delicious.

Pizza place

There’s a lovely little offshoot of the river, which runs alongside Kiya-machi Dori. Where the river runs past Sanjo Road, there was a gorgeous pizza place, sat by the river side. It was a little pricey, but sitting on the banks of the river, drinking wine in the warm evening air – it almost felt like we were in Italy. It was a nice taste of Europe.

Pontocho

Pontocho is a street/alley from old Kyoto. The cobbled footpath is enclosed by lantern lit, wooden buildings with paper screen doors and alleyways running off between houses, all accompanied by the sounds of distant music and hidden laughter. It was extremely atmospheric. Apparently, this is where you are most likely to see geisha.

We went to a Spanish bar/restaurant on Pontocho. This was a teeny tapas style bar where we had a carafe of wine and some nibbles. It was a nice, candle lit place to be and again – felt very European in the heart of the most Japanese part of Kyoto. I think it might have been Sama Sama.

Pachinko/ Arcades/ Kareoke rooms

You know how you have never heard of something and then suddenly everyone seems to be talking about it – well, that happened for me with Pachinko. I’d never heard about Pachinko before going to Japan – then suddenly it seemed to be mentioned on the news and everywhere.

Panchinko is a game where you have lots of little cascading balls and you have to direct them in a certain way to collect them and to get a prize. There are loads of pachinko halls in Kyoto . They are very flashy and from outside they look really cool. There are lots of arcades too.

On the Saturday night, we decided to venture into one of these places. From outside I was tempted by the flashing lights but once we were inside the arcade halls and the pachinko halls just appeared to be sad and empty places. There were people betting on fake horse races, clawing for prizes they could never win, hypnotised by flashing machines and white noise. I lasted about five minutes before I had to get out of there. I did initially intend to play something but then I just saw it all as a waste of money.

We went into a huge pachinko hall, with row after row of empty pachinko machines. The only people in there were bossy, pumped up security guards who explained to us how to use the machines and told me off for trying to take a photo. Jeff spent 1,000 yen (£8) on a set of little balls – they lasted him about five minutes.

The other night life thing to try in Japan is to go into a Kare-oke room for a sing. There are lots of these all across Kyoto. If you haven’t tried a private kareoke room before, then I highly recommend getting a group of mates together and trying it out because they are so much fun. It’s much more fun to be singing in a small group, rather than in front of a room full of strangers.

We are regulars at the noribongs (kare-oke rooms) in Korea, so we didn’t go in.

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Where we stayed

Kyoto Royal Hotel and Spa

I was originally going to stay in the BakPak Gion Hostel. Many of my friends had stayed here and it came highly recommended as a well located, fun and funky hostel. It was also cheap for Kyoto, at £16/night for a dorm bed.

However, we then discovered that Jeff could come with me on this trip after all, and so suddenly we had a bit of a bigger budget for accommodation, and so we were able to take advantage of a great Expedia deal to book the 4* Kyoto Royal Hotel and Spa.

In many ways, the Kyoto Royal Hotel and Spa was a standard business hotel. However, it had the best location, in the heart of downtown Kyoto, it had an English pub and the room was great: we had free kimonos to wear and a bath. The spa bit was actually treatment rooms that you had to pay extra for, so we didn’t use these. The staff were friendly and it was all good. The hostel might have been friendlier and more personal but the hotel was okay too.

The hotel is located in Kawaramachi, right by all of the main shopping and nightlife – on the other side of the river to the Gion district. If you can get a deal, I would recommend this as a good place to stay.

We paid about £50 per night, which for Japan is really good value.

www.ishinhotels.com/kyoto-royal

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Costs

Just a quick note on costs, as this is one thing that may put people off visiting Japan: It wasn’t that expensive. Certainly, costs were higher than in the UK and Eurpoe, but everything was still affordable. Excluding hotel, I had a budget of £40/day (5,000 Yen) and this was certainly enough for transport, entry to sights, three meals and a couple of drinks.

Transport is expensive but if you have time you can take cheaper transport options or there are often special offers for foreign visitors. Each local bus journey was 220 Yen – about £2.

Food was a little expensive, but if you buy set-menus you can get a good three course meal for an okay price. We usually paid 500 – 1,000 yen for a meal (£4 – £8). Also, conveyor belt sushi was pretty good value at about £1 per plate.

Drinks tended to be 500 – 700 Yen (£4 – £6) but many bars offered happy hours and supermarket drinks were much cheaper (and more interesting).

We got quite a good hotel deal through Expedia. We paid £50/room/night for a 4 star hotel with a spa, right in the centre of town. When I was initially planning the trip on my own, I was going to stay in the Gion Bakpak hostel, which was £16 per night. So costs are maybe a little bit higher than normal, but not as high as say London or New York.

Japan would be a hard country to visit on a tight budget – especially if you intend to travel around, but it won’t break the bank – and don’t let that put you off coming here.

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Useful links

Before we went to Japan, I found it really hard to get information about the must-see things in Kyoto. I think this is partly because there are so many of them. It would have been really useful if I could have found a top 10 list somewhere to give me some guidance. Even the UNESCO list, which I often use as a guide, is a little bit unhelpful here as there are 17 UNESCO sites in Kyoto alone!

We had the Triposo Kyoto app on my phone, and we used a Lonely Planet guidebook, but mostly we just got recommendations from friends.

The Triposos link is great as you download all of the maps etc. to your phone, so you don’t have to be connected to the internet to use it and the maps are really useful. You can download it at: www.triposo.com/loc/Kyoto.

Other useful links include:

www.kyoto.travel

Wikitravel.org/en/kyoto

www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/kansai/kyoto

www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/kyoto/index.html

www.roughguides.com/travel/asia/japan/kyoto

DISCLAIMER

Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.

If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.

All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.

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