Following our trip trip to Osaka we headed to Kyoto to explore it like locals. My youngest son had spent the semester studying at Doshisha University and wanted to share with us a few of his favorite haunts, as well as enjoy some of the more expensive restaurants he wasn’t able to afford on a student’s budget.
Upon our arrival in Kyoto by bullet train, we dropped our bags at the hotel (The Four Seasons Kyoto) and hailed a cab to campus (which is located in the Imadegawa area of Kyoto) to begin our exploration.
We were all hungry (as usual) so Artisan’Halles a French inspired Patisserie located in close proximity to campus proved to be a tasty and convenient stop. I did not indulge, but my crew raved about the taste and quality of the baked goods.
The next stop was one I had been enthusiastically anticipating, Demachi Futaba dates back 200 years, and produces what many claim is the best Mochi in Kyoto. The line of locals crowded around the shop seemed promising, and I couldn’t wait to try the mochi that has been described to be as soft and smooth as a baby’s cheek. I love mochi, the chewy texture and bean paste filling is an unbeatable combination. The fact that it is gluten -free is a bonus!
There was no English spoken, so I was lucky to have my son to order for us. Once we ordered, the mochi were wrapped beautifully and we took them to a nearby park to enjoy while we admired the scenery.
Since I has passed on the pastries I felt entitled to the first bite of each variety. I was happy as can be, they were all delicious, delicately chewy but not excessively sweet. I think the Kusamochi (the green one) was my favorite. Fully fueled by starch and sugar we were on our way to a small but peaceful shrine.
There are shrines located throughout Kyoto, some with tremendous crowds and some practically empty. We found ourselves at Shimogamo shrine, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. It was the the perfect place to find some peace and quiet in the city, and we were happy to be almost the only visitors.
When I booked our trip I was sure it would coincide with the height of Cherry Blossom season, but undoubtedly due to the effects of climate change and the earlier peak we found ourselves at the very tail end. When we managed to find a couple of random trees in full flower it felt as though we won the lottery!
Our first day’s dining options seemed to alternate between my son’s choices and mine, so I was happy to watch while they all enjoyed a bowl of ramen at a very casual local spot while I saved my appetite for a strawberry parfait.
There are fruit cafés locate throughout Japan, and they are a treasure trove of the most perfect examples of what is available seasonally. In addition to simply purchasing fruit there is also the option to enjoy pastries, parfaits made with both whipped cream and ice cream, as well as fruit and whipped cream filled sandwiches. Hosakawa enjoys an excellent reputation, so that is where we found ourselves. My sons found the sandwich ethereal and delectable and I devoured a strawberry parfait. My husband ended up missing out due to extreme jet-lag; we sent him back to the hotel to take a nap.
As we continued to explore following our strawberry snacks I couldn’t help but be impressed by the freedoms the Japanese children enjoy. Whether they are navigating the trains on their way to and from school or crossing big thoroughfares, the sense of security that the children possess is in such a glaring contrast to the current situation in the US. As an American it is both striking and sad.
As the day wore on we decided it was time for some coffee (in my case a delicious hot cocoa) to imbue ourselves with some energy. Manaia Coffee & Things is a tiny oasis owned by a New Zealander who is committed to bringing the perfect cup or yummy taste to the people of Kyoto.
Refreshed and ready for more, we took a cab to the hotel to wake my husband and get ready for dinner. There are quite a few choices of high-end accommodations in Kyoto, but it seems to come down to the Ritz or the Four Seasons if the goal is luxury and a convenient location. I wavered between the two before ultimately opting for the Four Seasons, and honestly am not sure whether I made the right decision. Additionally, there is an Aman which I am sure is amazing but is not as conveniently located, as well as a Park Hyatt which is another option. Of course there are Ryokans and other wonderful choices, but we ended up at the Four Seasons. The demand for hotel rooms in Kyoto was sky high, not only because we caught the tail end of the cherry blossom season, but also because of the pent-up demand of those whose travel plans were upended during Covid.
The suite we had booked was very nice and spacious and enjoyed a beautiful patio overlooking an 800 year old garden and pond. We were welcomed with some lovely amenities including a zen garden made of chocolate and matcha powder.
While hotel was VERY nice, it seemed a bit soul-less to me, more corporate in service and decor than I had expected.
We didn’t have much time to linger as we were due at Nijo Yamagish a very sought after spot featuring chef Yushi Yokoi’s interpretation of hot-pot Kaiseki which incorporates Kyoto’s freshest seasonal ingredients. We were seated in our own small private tatami room and enjoyed truly outstanding attention from both the chef and the staff.
Chef Yokoi (who happens to be a tremendous NY Yankee fan) was incredibly endearing as well as talented, and he deserves all of the accolades he has been receiving. I would imagine a highlight for him was a visit from René Redzepi (arguably the world’s best chef from Noma) a few days after we were there.
The baby squid were briefly cooked and proved to be absolutely delicious. There was a literal parade of dishes, all delicately prepared and subtly flavored so the freshness of the ingredients could shine through.
Following dinner we posed with the chef for several photos, and then he followed us out to capture a parting family snapshot. We loved our dinner at Nijo Yamagish, and would most definitely recommend it.
Following a very action packed first day in Kyoto we returned to our hotel room with a plan to meet at 6:30 am in order to experience Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most visited sites in Kyoto before the crowds arrived. Dating back over 1200 years, and otherwise known as the Temple of the Pure Water Spring this Unesco World Heritage Site can be teeming with tourists. Being early birds paid off as we pretty much had the Temple grounds to ourselves for the first half hour.
We walked back to the Four Seasons just as the breakfast service was getting under way. While the space is attractive I found that the food and service was actually the least impressive of any of our accommodations throughout Japan. Everything from the service to the food to the presentation (aside from the Japanese Breakfast presentation) was just adequate. Not bad, not outstanding, but merely okay.
For a quick dose of culture to start our day we paid a visit to the Kyoto National Museum to view an exhibit celebrating the 850th anniversary of Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism. We were fortunate to meet up with one of my son’s professors there, and she was able to give us a unique insight and perspective on this fascinating exhibit. No photos allowed, but if you are visiting Kyoto be sure see what the Museum currently has on display.
Following the museum we made our way to Motoï, another Michelin starred restaurant that was a bit more formal than Nijo Yamagish, and features a fusion of French Japanese cuisine rather than traditional Kaiseki.
The set menu (which included accommodations for my gluten free and pescatarian diet) changes daily and features whatever is freshest and in season. The presentation and service were formal, but not onerous. The setting was filled with sunshine which enhanced the overall experience.
We really enjoyed Motoï, and were especially glad we went for lunch. It is not customary to be served so many sweets following a meal in Japan, so we took the opportunity to burn some of that sugar off while walking after lunch. If you read my prior post it was at this point that we returned to Osaka to enjoy a baseball game, which was very fun.
Day three in Kyoto was chock full of exploration starting with a visit to the National Treasure Sanjūsangen-do, a Temple built in 1164 which features 1,001 gold statues of Kannon, the Japanese Goddess of Mercy. Photographs were prohibited inside, so I will make due with a stock photo. The Temple is absolutely worth the trip, it is stunning.
From Sanjūsangen-do we headed to the Fushimi district where Kizakura Brewery is located. The brewery takes advantage of the exceptionally pure and clean Fushimi spring water to brew their award winning Sake (since 1925) and craft beer (since 1995).
After sampling the wares at Kizakura it was time for a casual but hearty lunch at Cotelette (also in Fushimi) to satisfy my husband’s need for “crispy” food. A “Western” restaurant that specializes in fried pork cutlet (Tonkatsu) as well as fried shrimp, I was also able to get an excellent example of vegetarian Omurice (a rice omelette covered with ketchup).
As a side note, the iconic Fushimi-Inari Shrine is also located in the vicinity . Due to time constraints we did not have the opportunity to visit, but if you are able to, you should consider a visit to Kizakura or Cotelette to round out your day.
Directly across the street from Cotelette were an array of antique shops as well as a small shop that featured excellent strawberry mochi (Ichigo Daifuku) and Warabi mochi (mochi made with bracken starch, derived from ferns, rather than rice and covered with slightly sweet soybean dust). My youngest son loves the Warabi mochi, but I think I prefer the traditional.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Kyoto National Gardens. Similar to New York’s Central Park, the gardens are an oasis within the city. The level of care taken to keep the foliage in tip-top shape is astounding, we witnessed gardeners pruning trees with incredible precision. The entry to the gardens are free, and they are absolutely worth a visit.
Following the Imperial Palace we quickly made our way back to the hotel in order to enjoy a short performance by a Maiko, an apprentice Geiko (Geisha). The traditional dance was mesmerizing, and it was a treat to get to witness it. There was a pretty sizable group that gathered to watch, and many of the hotel guests lined up afterwards for photos.
After a stellar day we were ready for a knock out dinner, and that is exactly what we had at Sen. With just eight seats at the counter (and an additional private room ) Sen is a Michelin starred Omakase experience that was the best meal we enjoyed in all of Japan, and that is saying A LOT.
The meal was utter perfection, absolutely delicious, beautiful to look at, and the service was exemplary without being intimidating in any way. Much of the staff who worked with Chef/owner Takeshi Sugisawa are women which is a rarity in traditional Omakase restaurants, and the feminine touch served to enhance and elevate the experience.
There was SO MUCH food as the Chef believes everyone should leave with a very full belly. Honestly, I cannot rave about this meal enough. All four of us concurred, the dinner was incredible. In a city with extraordinary food options, Sen is worth the trip.
Day 4 was an excursion to Kojima, the epicenter of Japanese Jean culture, also known as the Holy Land of Jeans. If you are a denim lover you surely know about the culture that has grown around these artisanal products, and we were not just going to shop, we had the opportunity to actually tour the Momotaro factory where the denim is produced and then visit with the people who sew each pair by hand; a rare treat.
Before we could visit Momotaro (which is owned by Japan Blue) we need to fortify ourselves with some Tempura at a truly local establishment, Tempura Kappo Mimatsu. We found ourselves eating alongside locals who seemed to feel right at home in this casual spot. The veggies came out exceedingly hot and terrifically crispy, my husband was happy!
Fully sated, we had a few minutes before our appointment at Momotaro to do a quick spin around Jeans Street to get a preview of what we might like to purchase later on.
We met the representative from Momotaro in the headquarters they share with Japan Blue, and as he spoke only Japanese my son served as the interpreter though out the visit. The mill was small and vey tidy, and the machines in action were hypnotic.
Day 5 was focused on more “local” experiences including a trip to the To-ji Temple flea market which held monthly at To-ji Temple, a UNESCO world Heritage site. Most striking about the Temple is the 5 story black pagoda dating back to 1600s which looms over the grounds.
With wares ranging from food to antique kimonos to bric a brac there was something at the market for everyone. I came home with a purple silk kimono dating back to the 1930s, and was very happy with that!
One special feature was the continual burning of “wishes” inscribed on small pieces of wood (which can be purchased for a small donation). The belief is that the prayers/wishes when offered via fire to the deities are more likely to come to fruition.
Our youngest had some graduation festivities to attend so we were on our own for lunch. We found our way to Fortune Garden which is housed in a gorgeous structure dating back to the 1920s. My husband was excited at the prospect of some classic Chinese cuisine and was somewhat chagrinned to find Fortune Garden is actually a French Bistro. The setting and service were lovely, and the food was pretty good as well. It was nice just to rest our feet after many miles of walking during the earlier part of the day.
After lunch we found our way to my dream of a spot, Nijo Wakasaya Teramachi which features Kakigori a super sweet confection of shaved ice, fruit, condensed milk along with other surprises. I am not exaggerating when I say this was just heavenly. Shared amongst the four of us there was still enough sugar to send us all into the stratosphere.
We had one more special experience booked on our last full day in Kyoto, an introduction to the rituals of the Japanese Tea Ceremony with a Tea Master at the Four Season’s historic tea house. My husband was a bit skeptical that the price we paid would deliver (it was quite costly), but we all loved it. It was incredibly serene and fascinating.
The time after the tea ceremony was spent packing in anticipation of an early morning trip to the Tokyo airport to fly home. I hadn’t planned a dinner (and was still stuffed from the Kakigori) so I let the guys dictate where we would go. Their requests- Ramen and Pizza.
We happened upon a ramen shop that was very crowded, and the guys slurped it up with enthusiasm, so it must have been good. While continuing to wander we happened upon Goichi Pizza which had a line out the door so we figured it was worth a try. Happy again to just observe, the pizza seemed to be a big hit.
For my final meal in Kyoto I decided to go all in with the Japanese Breakfast at the Four Seasons, and was not disappointed. My opinion of the restaurant (and the hotel for that matter) did not change from my initial assessment), but the set breakfast was plentiful and tasty.
In the morning we bid farewell to our youngest who was embarking on a hike of the Nakasendō Trail (350 miles from Kyoto to Tokyo) and set off on our own to navigate our way from the hotel to Narita airport.
We arrived at the Kyoto station with our bags and tickets to find that the trains were delayed upwards of 45 minutes which is practically unheard of, The Shinkansen line is generally the most punctual train line in the world. On the day we were traveling it seemed as though there was a trespasser found on the tracks which in turn shut everything down.
This was not ideal as it appeared as though we were going to miss the two possible connections that followed the train we were supposed to make, and if we had to wait for the third we would be too late to check in to our flight. Thankfully I had arranged for a “minder” (as my boys call the transportation facilitators) and he was able to literally race us through the station and squeeze us on the train to the airport just as the doors closed.
We ultimately managed to check into our Air Canada flight without a problem and settled in for an uneventful flight to Toronto.
Upon landing in Toronto we were met with a board showing many outbound cancellations, though our flight to LGA still appeared to be flying. Following multiple delays and time in the very mediocre Air Canada Lounge we boarded the plane only to be told that there was a ground stop in NY due to weather moving in. We disembarked, and found our way to an airport Hyatt (or Hilton it was so nondescript I can’t remember). We were rescheduled twice more before we actually took off for home on Sunday morning. This was a stressful journey from start to finish, and I was happy to finally get back home.
The tumultuous journey did not detract from the magical time we had in Japan, in fact it left me wanting to return for a third trip in the not too distant future. It is a special place that cannot adequately be described no matter how many pictures or words are committed to a page. If you have been thinking of a trip to Japan, take it, you will have a life time of memories to reflect on.
If you end up finding the”perfect”place to stay in Kyoto, please let me know!