Trip Report: Six Days in Kyoto, Japan

Roof of the Nijo Castle

My ten months in Japan up to this point have been mostly full of lows with very few highs worth mentioning. In retrospect, surely I over-hyped Japan in my mind prior to coming here, but that’s not hard to do when Japan is often portrayed as a cultural mecca and a semi-fantasy world in the media and through misguided word-of-mouth. Part of me has always wondered if my lackluster time in Japan has been due to my location in mostly rural Ibaraki prefecture, but Tokyo has also strongly failed to impress me, so maybe it’s not just a rural thing. Well, I got out of far eastern Japan for the first time since moving here and flew to Kyoto in central-western Japan for the week-long “Golden Week” holiday.

Finally I’ve experienced a completely different part of Japan than what I’m used to, and I can now judge the country just that much more accurately, as my Japan horizon has expanded. But what was Kyoto like on the ground? Did it give me new hope for a country that I had prior been losing hope for at a very rapid pace, or did it seal the nail in Japan’s coffin for good? Or perhaps somewhere in between? And did Kyoto live up to its hype as an ancient and traditional city filled with vibrant culture and beautiful temples? Was the food anything to write home about? Were the ladies much to look at? Was it absurdly expensive just like Tokyo tends to be? I’ll be addressing the answers to these very questions in this here trip report, so read on to learn more about Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and the epicenter of Japanese culture and history.

Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto
Kyoto’s Famous Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion Temple).

My trip began at Narita Airport, which is located between Tokyo and my home in Ibaraki. Back in February I managed to snatch up a couple of round-trip tickets flying with Peach Aviation (a budget airline) from Narita to Kansai Airport near Osaka – each plane ticket was only 16,210 yen, which is actually cheaper than taking the Shinkansen, Japan’s high speed bullet train. The flight was only a short hour and a half, and when I finally reached Kansai Airport, I had to take a “limousine bus” from there to central Kyoto, which is almost 60 miles north. A one-way bus ticket was 2,550 yen. So once you do the math, that’s 10,655 yen per person per way (21,310 yen round-trip) to get from Narita Airport to central Kyoto – not too bad for Japan.

Peach Aviation
Sitting in economy class on a Peach Aviation flight, one of Japan’s budget airlines.

Once I was on the ground in Kyoto, I could immediately tell I was in a very different part of Japan. The natural landscape was mountainous and pleasing to the eye, which is in strong contrast to Ibaraki’s flat and dull landscape. There was also far more traditional Japanese architecture all around me, something that’s sorely lacking in Ibaraki and Tokyo. There was also a very different social vibe in the air in Kyoto – in Tokyo the vibe feels very business-oriented, pretentious, uptight, and “hurry, hurry, hurry!” In Ibaraki the vibe also feels uptight, yet it’s also depressing and very “mind your own business”.

That said, I noticed right off the bat that the vibe in Kyoto just felt far more slow-paced and relaxed (by Japanese standards). The people actually seemed mostly like humans and not like the zombies and robots that I’m so used to seeing elsewhere in Japan. Kyoto is certainly no Phnom Penh or Vientiane when it comes to laid-back vibes, but it’s without a doubt far more laid-back than Tokyo or Ibaraki. I find it a particularly odd how unlaid-back Ibaraki can be – you would assume rural areas would be far more chilled out and “go with the flow” than urban areas, but I haven’t found this to be the case in eastern Japan.

Elderly Man Painting House
An elderly man paints the image of a small house sitting above a creek.

The women in Kyoto were far more pleasantly dressed than their Tokyo sisters. It seemed like their fashion style revolved around looking feminine, simple, and presentable, but also giving off cutesy vibes. I also noticed a lot of girls wearing bright red lipstick in Kyoto, which I’m a sucker for. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that Tokyo female fashion is way too “try-hard” and bitchy. Some Tokyo girls will be wearing like 20 different articles of clothing and accessories all at one time, and that just looks so ridiculous and vain to me. Sure, lots of women look good in Tokyo, but you see far less humble-faced “good-girl” types there than you generally would in Kyoto. This comes as no surprise to me, considering Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world and one of the epicenters of Asian fashion trends. We all know huge cities tend to change women for the worse. Nonetheless, I really liked the way women presented themselves in Kyoto, and there was absolutely no shortage of beauties.

On the downside, Kyoto girls are just like their Ibaraki sisters when it comes to body language – they strongly avoid eye contact as they walk, and they always look down or to one side. If you glance at their eyes, they’ll quickly look somewhere else. I didn’t get any of the eye-fucking that I sometimes get in other Asian cities like Manila, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing, Bangkok, nor even the subtle glances I get in cities like Tokyo or Taipei. I was completely invisible.

Woman Using a Smartphone at a Subway Station
An attractive young woman swipes on her smartphone while wearing earphones – sadly an oh-so-common sight in Kyoto.

I also noticed countless girls wearing earphones as they walked, rode along on their bikes, or rode on the subway, which is a habit I find to be extremely anti-social. The rate of smartphone zombies among women was also very high in Kyoto, a common trend all across Japan, especially in urban areas. Seeing any female in her teens all the way up to her fifties looking down and swiping on her phone endlessly was a very common sight in Kyoto, and it’s just as common in Tokyo as well. I gotta give some praise to Mongolian and Laotian women, as both of these nationalities of women have yet to fall victim to the smartphone epidemic plaguing so much of the rest of Asia… at least for now.

As I mentioned earlier, the average person in Kyoto seemed relatively normal and far less robotic and uptight than the average person all the way over here in eastern Japan. I could actually sense people’s individual personalities in Kyoto, which is something I rarely experience anywhere else in Japan, as so many Japanese people tend to be robotic, zombie-like, and herdish in everyday public situations. I could also sense that the people in Kyoto were far more used to dealing with foreigners than over here. People at stores and restaurants would often say things to me in Japanese first and then followed by English, even when it wasn’t clear to them yet that I didn’t speak Japanese. They also didn’t “freeze up” when I said a single English word to them like they tend to do in Ibaraki and Tokyo. But it should also be made clear that I didn’t meet any good English speakers in Kyoto, rather I just met lots of people who knew enough English to handle everyday business situations.

Gion District in Kyoto
Walking through a busy street in Gion, one of Kyoto’s super touristy districts.

The food in Kyoto was very similar to the food I’ve seen all around Ibaraki and Tokyo – millions of noodle and stirred rice restaurants, famiresus (franchise family restaurants), as well as the occasional restaurant serving something unique like okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes). Sure, I had a few snacks and meals that were supposedly signature Kyoto dishes, but nothing really stood out to me all that much, and most of the food seemed more or less the same as what I’ve had in Ibaraki and Tokyo a million times already. And in typical Japanese fashion, food and snacks in Kyoto were expensive and small-portioned. Bite-sized snacks usually started at 100 yen, and then they went all the way up to 800 yen, with 500 yen or so being the average. It would be very easy to spend 3,000 yen or more per day on food when traveling in Kyoto, and chances are you won’t even realize you spent that much until you sit down and count your money.

As for dining out in Kyoto, unless I was eating at a franchise or famiresu (the same franchises available pretty much anywhere in Japan), most meals in Kyoto cost me around 1,500 yen or so, whereas a meal at a franchise restaurant was usually around 800 to 1,200 yen. Looking back, none of the food in Kyoto really stood out to me, nor did I have any spectacular or cheap meals. A big thumbs down for the food in Kyoto. What can I say? Other than the sweets, the Japanese food scene just really fails to impress me. Too many mediocre or subpar franchises, small portions, bland tastes, high prices, and not enough variety or worthwhile foreign cuisine options. I’ve seen too many better food scenes in Asia, hence why it’s so hard for me to like Japan’s. Give me Thailand, China, Korea, Malaysia, or even Mongolia’s food scene over Japan’s any day. Others may disagree with me, and that’s just fine. Food is extremely subjective after all, and I for one have yet to be blown away by any great-tasting food or value when dining out in Japan.

Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki, a tasty Japanese-style pancake that’s popular throughout the Kansai region. Good, but certainly not great, nor is it worth its hefty 1,200 yen price tag. It’s also the very definition of “junk food.”

Getting around Kyoto was reasonable – there are many bus stops all over the city, and there’s also a subway system that runs through a good chunk of town, though it’s not as extensive as I would have initially expected. Bus rides are quite expensive on an Asia-wide scale – a single ride is 230 yen, regardless of your destination. That’s roughly double what you’d pay in Singapore, and about seven times what you’d pay in Bangkok or any major Chinese city. However, there’s a one-day pass that entitles the user to unlimited travel on the bus system in a single day for only 500 yen. Still not that cheap in my book, but a little more reasonable. Nevertheless, the rides on the buses were mostly comfortable and straightforward, so I’ll give them that. I definitely cannot say the same about most Thai and Chinese buses. Thai city buses are anything but straightforward, and Chinese buses are anything but comfortable.

Kyoto Public Pus.
Aboard a public bus in Kyoto – 230 yen per ride, regardless of your destination.

Walking through the streets of Kyoto was quite a pleasant experience. As is to be expected in Japan, the sidewalks were clean, walkable, and free of random shit taking up all the walking space – none of the broken down and cluttered sidewalks that plague countries like Thailand and the Philippines. Kyoto is also very bicycle friendly, which is immediately obvious when seeing just how many people get around by bike in the city. If I were to ever live in Kyoto, I’d immediately invest in a bike, as it seems to be the best and cheapest way to get around the city. There were also countless places to park bikes. This totally reminds me of Taipei, and is pretty much the opposite of Bangkok, one of the least bicycle-friendly cities I’ve ever seen. And just like in Taiwan, most of Japanese people are solid middle-class folk, so there’s no stigma attached to riding a bicycle in the country, which is in strong contrast to most developing Asian countries, where people associate bicycle riders with the lower class. I myself mostly just walked from place to place during my trip, while occasionally taking the bus or subway. I was envious of all the bike riders all around me.

Residential Street in Kyoto
Walking through a typical neighborhood in one of Kyoto’s more residential areas far away from the tourist sites.

As I walked through Kyoto, all around me was classic style Japanese architecture, foliage, and signage. If Beijing perfectly embodies the Western image of China, then I’d say Kyoto perfectly embodies the Western image of Japan. Kyoto is basically what I expected Japan to look like prior to coming here, whereas Ibaraki is not. I also saw countless bakeries, sweets shops, cafes, and mini supermarkets during my walks. On the other hand, when I walked the streets of Tokyo, many of the streets and alleys were dead as a doornail, faceless, and lacking any sense of community, yet when I walked the streets of Kyoto, they felt lively, full of community spirit, and oh-so-Japanese. It’s hard to explain, but I was getting very Chengdu-ish vibes in Kyoto – slower paced, more laid-back locals, a sense of culture, lots of little shops selling coffee, tea, or snacks, etc.

Kyoto's Imperial Palace Park
Two elderly women walk through Kyoto’s Imperial Palace park-grounds.

And though I wasn’t a fan of the restaurant scene in Kyoto, I’ll happily admit that I loved all the sweets shops. Just like Thai sweets, I’m a sucker for Japanese sweets, so seeing so many shops selling all kinds of traditional Japanese sweets filled me with joy like a kid in a candy store. My personal favorite was the shops selling yakidango, sweet rice flours balls put on a skewer, grilled, and then served with sweet bean paste. Matcha (green tea) ice cream was also available anywhere and everywhere, as it’s a specialty of Kyoto. However, I should note that I didn’t really stumble across that many sweets that I hadn’t already seen a million times in Ibaraki and Tokyo. Regardless, it was nice to have the opportunity to buy so many sweet finger foods around seemingly every corner. If you have an insatiable sweet tooth like me, then you’ll love Kyoto. A big thumbs up for Kyoto’s sweets scene.

Handful of Sweets
A handful of the typical kinds of sweets that can be found anywhere and everywhere in Kyoto.

Naturally, I also found Kyoto to be quite photogenic compared to other parts of Japan. This is particularly true if you’re into architectural photography. Kyoto is filled with hundreds of old-style temples and buildings, so there’s plenty to see and take a picture of. However, if you’re going to any of the most popular tourist sites, be prepared to fight the crowds to get a picture in. As I was in Kyoto during Golden Week, every single temple I went to was packed to the brim with tourists, particularly mainland Chinese and Taiwanese tourists. Though I enjoyed viewing the temples, the experience would have been infinitely better had there only been one tenth as many people. I’m curious as to how many tourists are in Kyoto during off-peak travel seasons.

Old Building in Yasaka Shrine
An old traditional-style building inside Kyoto’s Yasaka Shrine.

My personal favorite hotspots were Kinkaku-ji, a golden-colored temple, and Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine located on top of a mountain that requires you to walk through hundreds of traditional orange gates to reach it. I also visited the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which was not much to look at, though the surrounding park was a nice place to chill out for a few hours. The nearby Nijo Castle was also decent, though it didn’t really leave a lasting impression on me. On the other hand, there were plenty of much smaller and not-so-famous temples and shrines peppered throughout the city that were almost completely free of other people. It was nice to go for an afternoon stroll, grab some snacks at a local shop, and then sidetrack past a small, quiet temple along my way. That said, the environment in Kyoto was great.

Fushimi Inari Taisha
Orange gate after orange gate at Kyoto’s famous Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto Shrine.

The only major environmental negative I can think of is that Kyoto is filled with many noisy cars and motorcycles that never let up, even in the wee hours of the night. I found this somewhat strange, as generally the streets in Japan are very quiet, even in Tokyo, but not so in Kyoto, which is the reverse of what I would’ve expected. My sleep quality was quite poor throughout the trip, as my guesthouse was located right smack dab on a busy road, and I kept getting woken up all throughout the night by excessively loud cars and motorcycles.

And that leads me to the next topic – accommodation. Finding any reasonable accommodation during Golden Week in Japan is difficult, and Kyoto was no exception. I searched all through Agoda, Expedia, and Airbnb months ahead of time. Ultimately, I settled on said guesthouse I just mentioned, which is located in northern Kyoto and is only a five-minute walk from Kinkaku-ji, the famous golden-colored temple. I booked it through Airbnb for 3,400 yen per night, which is quite reasonable by Japanese standards. Other than the street noise, the location was excellent. The surrounding neighborhood was pleasant and mostly residential, which is just the kind of neighborhood I want to stay in when I travel.

Northern Kyoto
The view from the top of my guesthouse located at the northern part of Kyoto.

On the downside, the guesthouse was kind of a dump – I certainly got what I paid for. It was in a run-down building that resembled an old student dormitory, and it was poorly up kept. The building manager was nowhere to be seen, and it showed. Perhaps due to the cheap price, the other guests were mostly cliquish, standoffish, loud, and uncourteous. While the room was worth the price I paid, I don’t think I’d stay there again if I was ever back in Kyoto. But considering how little accommodation was available in Kyoto, even when I was searching months in advance, I didn’t really have a whole lot of other choice, unless I wanted to pay over 10,000 yen per night for a super basic and super small hotel room, which is over my budget. A big thumbs down for accommodation in Kyoto, at least during Golden Week. Japan is really lacking when it comes to decent and affordable accommodation for tight budget and average budget (like myself) travelers.

Except for the very first day, which was quite cold, the weather during the trip was great. Warm weather accompanied by clear blue skies was the norm, with quite a bit of intense sunshine around midday. It did rain on a couple of afternoons/evenings for several hours, though luckily I was already indoors each time it happened, except once.

Rainy Afternoon in Kyoto
It was mostly good weather in Kyoto during Golden Week in May, though there was some occasional rain.

Side story: I got caught in the rain one night when I was out taking photographs, and I was a good two kilometer walk from my guesthouse. Two cute women holding umbrellas, whom I presume was a mother and her twenty-something daughter, kept giggling in front of me as I walked in the rain. Every few seconds they would kind of half turn around and do a side glace. I could sense they were noticing me for whatever reason, though I wasn’t 100% sure, and I really had no real reason to speak to them. It was pouring down rain after all. I eventually passed them and stood under a roof on the side of the sidewalk.

Totally unsurprisingly, the two women stopped once caught back up with me, and the daughter showed me a translated message on her phone that said something like: “We have two umbrellas. One is for you.” She then handed me her umbrella, and they both walked away as they kept giggling. I felt like I was in high school all over again. That was without a doubt the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me in almost one year in Japan. I wanted to have a conversation with them, as it was pretty obvious they were totally into me, but it was quite clear that we wouldn’t be able to communicate. So I guess there are some nice women in Kyoto, but it’s just too bad so many of them have anti-social body language. My hunch is telling me that “slow and steady” probably best describes Kyoto’s dating scene. There are dating and romantic opportunities there, but you probably won’t find many as a temporary traveler in the city.

But all in all, Kyoto’s weather was good, and it lifted my spirits, especially when considering how many dreary overcast and rainy days I see here in Ibaraki. I can’t say what the weather is normally like in Kyoto, but at least the weather was mostly nice while I was there during the first week of May.

Man Fishing from the Kamo River
A man fishes in the afternoon from the Kamo River in western Kyoto.

One upside to traveling in Kyoto and Japan in general is that entry into most historic sites is either free or very reasonably priced. When I had to pay an entrance fee to get into any temple or shrine, it was usually somewhere between 500 and 1,000 yen, though usually it was free. This is very different than China, where most famous historical tourist sites, such as the Forbidden City or the Badaling Great Wall, are quite expensive when considering the average local salary. 100 to 300 RMB per adult ticket (about 1,600 to 5,000 yen) is totally normal when traveling in China. And thank God Japan doesn’t take part in the nonsense that can be found all over Thailand – that is charging foreigners five to ten times the price that locals pay to get into tourist sites. Rather, all nationalities pay the same price in Japan. However, when going to modern tourist attractions in Japan, such as Tokyo Skytree or Tokyo Disneyland, be prepared to drop a lot of money. Nevertheless, while I was paying a lot for food and transportation in Kyoto, I was paying very little for entry tickets to tourist sites, so the overall cost of traveling kinda balanced out.

Another thing I liked about Kyoto is its size. I’m a medium to medium-large city kind of guy, and Kyoto felt like a solid medium-sized city. It was certainly no mega-city like Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, or Bangkok, where you feel overwhelmed the first time you go and have no idea where to get started. Rather, Kyoto was small enough to not be so pretentious and hectic, yet large enough to stay interesting and entertaining for several days. Seeing lots of Kyoto by foot was also very doable for me, so that’s a big plus.

Outside 7-Eleven at Night
7-Eleven, the ubiquitous convenience store chain that started in America but is now owned by a Japanese parent company.

My advice to anyone wanting to travel to Kyoto is to look very far in advance at accommodation – all the way up to a year in advance, especially if you’re traveling during peak seasons such as Golden Week in May. If you’re wanting to do some sightseeing, which Kyoto is quite good for, I recommend staying in the northern or central districts, as that’s a more pleasant part of town with lots of nice stuff to see as you walk around. I would also recommend budgeting anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 yen a day, depending on what you want to do and what kind of traveler you are (those prices are after accommodation has already been paid for). I was usually spending around 4,000 yen or so a day, and I’d say the vast majority of that was spent on food. I did have to be somewhat mindful to keep to that daily budget, but I didn’t necessarily have to deprive myself of anything either.

On a day-by-day basis, I recommend hitting up a few temples around morning or midday, then have lunch at a local restaurant (not a franchise), then go back out and just walk around and soak up the vibes. Possibly go to a public bath in the afternoon (they’re famous in Kyoto), then follow that up by having some tea, coffee, or bread at one the many cafes or bakeries. Kyoto has very little night life to speak of, so once the sun goes down you can consider having dinner at a local izakaya, and then have a drink or two at the same izakaya once you’re done eating. Kyoto is far more of a place to just stroll around and soak up the vibes, rather than trying to party it up and/or have flings/one night stands with the local ladies. Simply put, you travel to Kyoto for the culture and vibes, not for hedonistic fun and easy women. All that said, if you’ve never been to Japan, Kyoto would be a great place to start.

Izakaya in Northern Kyoto
A little izakaya located in northern Kyoto.

I enjoyed my time in Kyoto, and yes, it did restore some well-needed faith in Japan in me. I wouldn’t say Kyoto made me do a 180 in how I look at Japan, but it did help make it even more clear to me that Tokyo and the surrounding Kanto region are totally not to my tastes. I don’t think I’d even rank Kyoto in my top ten list of Asian cities, though I would say it was by far my favorite Japanese city up to this point. If I were to ever do Japan all over again at some point, Kyoto would probably be at the top of my list as a potential place to live. But in all fairness, once I leave Japan in 2017, I don’t think I’d ever want to live here again, but only time will tell.

I enjoyed looking at all the nice architecture all around me in Kyoto. The temples were pleasant and photogenic, albeit quite crowded considering I was there during Golden Week. I enjoyed the clear blue skies and mostly nice weather. I appreciated that getting into tourist sites was very affordable. I appreciated that the locals were more used to dealing with foreigners. I appreciated how getting around the city was straightforward and with a very low learning curve. I loved eating all the Japanese sweets that were so readily available all around the city. I enjoyed seeing a place that represented Japan in a more positive, cliché kind of way. I was happy to know that not all Japanese are completely robotic and uptight like they tend to be in eastern Japan. I enjoyed looking at all the pleasantly-dressed women who had a more simple and feminine sense of style in comparison to their Tokyo sisters.

Restaurants in Kyoto
A few restaurants along a main street in northern Kyoto.

But I didn’t enjoy the way all the women in Kyoto seemed so “in their own world” – they totally avoid eye contact, they’re constantly looking down at their smartphones, and they’re often wearing earphones, which makes them just that much more unapproachable and anti-social. I didn’t really enjoy most of the meals I had at restaurants in Kyoto, and I didn’t like how costly food was in the city, though food tends to be quite expensive everywhere in Japan. I didn’t like how costly public transportation was in the city, which is several times more expensive than that of other Asian countries. I didn’t like how every single place of interest was loaded to the brim with tourists. I didn’t like that there was seemingly so little to do at night in the city.

But from a traveler’s perspective, I’d say the pros of Kyoto outweigh its cons. It actually seems like a pretty comfortable place to live, too. It’s also right next door to Osaka and Kobe, so you could do a traveling trifecta and see all those cities on a single trip. If you’ve never been to Japan, and you’re not sure where to start, I think you can’t go wrong with Kyoto and the surrounding Kansai region. And like I always say: don’t take my word for it, rather go to Kyoto yourself and find out on your own if you like it or not. Everybody’s different and has different tastes, as we’ve all lived life on our own individual paths and have experienced different things. On an Asia scale, I’d give Kyoto 3.5 out of 5 stars. On a Japan scale, I’d give it 4.25 out of 5 stars. Not a bad city at all! I’m sure I’ll be back some day.

Religious Altar
A small religious altar located just off a main street in northern Kyoto.

As of May 16th, 2016: 1 USD = 109 JPY.

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