A visit to Japan would not be complete without a trip to Kyoto, the country’s cultural capital. From Tokyo you can hop onto the high-speed train and reach Kyoto within 3 hours, and it is so worth it even if just for a couple of days. The air feels cleaner, the streets are calmer and the Japanese traditions are much more present in even the smallest details. It is real Japan without the hype and chaos.
The Suiran – The recently opened Suiran hotel is on the outskirts of town surrounded by significant temples and gardens. Located in the beautiful Arashiyama area, the district was once the destination for the emperor’s summer holidays. This boutique hotel is traditional but luxurious with open-air baths, an authentic tearoom and a Kaiseki (multi-course menu) restaurant. Be sure to leave time to visit nearby attractions like the Monkey Park, Tenryu-ji temple and the magical Sagano Bamboo Forest.
Hotel Anteroom – The accommodation options in the historic city of Kyoto vary from exclusive traditional ryokans to cheap, trendy hostels. Hotel Anteroom is a brilliant option for those desiring the privacy and comfort of a hotel at low cost. Design conscious bedrooms, stylish common spaces and an art gallery on site, it is a great base for chic travellers who want to explore the city.
Yamamoto Menzo(u) – A favourite with tourists and locals for unbeatable traditional udon. After waiting in line patiently you will be pleased to get inside to feast on the flavoursome noodles and burdock or chicken tempura. The daily-made noodles have an amazingly light and bouncy texture and the broth has the perfect balance of umami.
Kappa Sakamoto – I can highly recommend this tiny, family run restaurant as a great place to try the traditional Kaiseki style of dining. Sakamoto was founded in 1977 by Keisuke Sakamoto and his son Ryuta is now the chef. In 2010 the restaurant was awarded a Michelin-star. Sit at the counter and let the chef treat you to a meal of his finest seasonal dishes.
Ten-yu – This famous tempura restaurant only has ten seats at the counter. We ordered the simple lunch menu, Tempura with rice donburi. The tempura was light and delicious, especially tasty when dipped in the sauce and daikon. The restaurant is minimalist and stylish, needless to say, we were the only tourists in a room of locals.
Tsubomi – This quiet, unsuspecting, little shop and cafe is the perfect place to stop for afternoon tea and cake after a long day of sightseeing.
Arabica% – A trendy speciality coffee shop in the Arashiyama area. This small contemporary cafe serves amazing coffee to go that will warm you up as you wander through this enchanting part of Kyoto.
Gion Niti – A hidden bar in the Gion district ideal for a nightcap or light dinner. We enjoyed the strong Charlie Chaplin cocktail and Italian food snacks like martinated eggplant and Jamon Iberico pizza.
Rocking Chair – Recognised as one of the best cocktail bars in town, this stylish establishment is frequented by discerning drinkers. Let the experienced mixologists make you their own creation, I opted for a Japanese Hibiki whiskey based drink.
Ogawa Coffee – A modern coffee house in Kyoto station serving some excellent coffee. Go for their house blend which is smooth and flavoursome.
To See & Do
Shoren-in Garden – A buddhist temple built in the late 13th century, it is a quiet and intimate building to wander round and is surrounded by colourful tranquil gardens.
Geishas in Gion – It is amazing to see a Geisha shuffling through the Gion district of Kyoto, but sightings are rarer and rarer as they try to avoid the tourists by using quiet backstreets to move about town. If you buy a place at a prestigious tea ceremony with a Geisha it will cost you over £100! Instead head to Gion Corner where you can buy a ticket to a cultural show to learn about tea ceremonies, traditional flower arranging and the Geisha customs.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – This is the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, in Kyoto. It has become one of the most recognisable images from Japan. The shrine sits at the base of the Inari mountain and includes trails and paths through the hundreds of wondrous red gates.
Funaoka Onsen – This is one of the oldest and most authentic bathhouses still in operation in Kyoto. Since 1923 locals and travelers have been coming here to soak their bodies in the waters and relax in this retreat. The baths are separated by gender and you are expected to go into the waters completely naked!
Ichizawa Shinzaburo – This family-run canvas bag company has been in business for over 100 years producing aesthetic, simple and functional products. The bags are handmade from the finest strong canvas in a variety of colours and styles.
Morikage Shirt Shop – I fell in love with the unique and stylish shirts in this small boutique. The shop opened in 1993 as a made-to-order, customised shirt company. Now you can also buy them off the rack in a variety of materials and designs. I bought a green shirt with ruffles that is now a treasured part of my wardrobe.
Kyoto Design House – An emporium in the centre of town filled with hand-crafted products from designers across Kyoto and Japan. Pick up an inspiring gift for friends like the little boxes of traditional sweets.
Pass the Baton – Found in a redesigned traditional wooden townhouse, this diverse concept store stocks fun vintage accessories and modern homeware. There is also a tea and sake room on the premises.
Aritsuga Knives – Japan is known for the quality of its knives, and Aritsugu, a knife specialist in Nishiki Market, makes some of the best in the country. When you visit, the staff will examine your hands to ensure you pick the perfect knife for you.
Nishiki Market – This bustling marketplace in downtown Kyoto sells every food product you could ever imagine. Wander through trying delicacies as you go, soaking up the atmoshere.
Kira Karacho – This sophisticated stationery brand is headed up by a husband and wife team. The intricate patterns made from woodblock printing and beautiful papers will captivate you.
Osaka – Osaka is the second largest city in Japan, after Tokyo, and to me it felt like the Japanese equivalent to Manchester or Liverpool, with lots of young people and a cool vibe. The food scene is thriving and we ate extremely well in our few days here. Try buckwheat soba noodles at Ayamedo, sweets from the Japanese confectioner Mochisho Shizuku, Kansai-style tempura at the 2-Michelin starred Yotaro Honten, and coffee at Moto Coffee. The Horie neighbourhood & Orange Street are lovely to wander around and explore, especially during the week when everyone is at work. I loved the variety of beautifully designed shops: Evam Eva for tailored clothing, Yumiko Iihoshi for stylish porcelain Ajikitcho, and Winged Wheel for appealing paper and envelopes of every colour. Hostel 64 is a reasonably priced, super hip hostel.
Hiroshima – This chilling city has a tumultous and heart-breaking history. While in town there are lots of war memorials to visit including the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the Children’s Peace Monument and Aioi Bridge. When it comes to meal times it is essential to try the famous Okonomiyaki dish at Mitchan Sohonten, and for a superior cup of coffee visit Obscura Coffee Roasters. If you have time take a day trip to the ethereal Miyajima Island to see the Itsukushima Shrine & O-torii gate.