Japan again - Kyoto 2024

We went to Japan again! Seven years later to the day, I returned to Japan in hopes of catching the peak of cherry blossom season. Spoiler alert: it didn't go quite as planned--but we still had a great trip. My brother-in-law and his family had never been to Japan before, and thus we planned a trip around my niece and nephew's spring break this year. Coincidentally, this was exactly 7 years after our 2017 trip in mid March. And coincidentally, my sister and her boyfriend had also booked a trip to Japan at the exact same time (completely independently from us). 7 years ago, we weren't able to catch any of the cherry blossoms except on the very last day in Osaka, one of my biggest regrets. This year, our trip was scheduled to coincide with the peak blooms, and so I was obsessed with making sure we saw all the cherry blossoms. 

We flew into NRT (which is actually the further airport from the city center of Tokyo) and took the Narita Express, a high speed train into the city center. Other options included the airport limousine (bus) or the local subway, however we decided to take the more direct but expensive option as we had some larger luggage with us. We had a quick one night layover in Tokyo before taking the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto early the next day. We had one of my favorite meals the first night, CocoIchiban curry house, lol. 

Luckily for me, there is a location in LA, haha. 
Learning from my mistake last time, I made sure to leave plenty of time to buy bento boxes for the train ride down. This was the chicken karaage one with rice, but they had plenty with fresh fish, beef, even kids lunch boxes shaped like trains. 

For the best view of Mt. Fuji, reserve seats on the right site of the Shinkansen!
Once we got to Kyoto 2.5 hours later, we had to kill some time before checking into our Airbnb and ate lunch at a conveyor belt sushi place in the Kyoto train station. It was good! And seemed to be well known too as there were locals and tourists there alike. 
After we dropped off our bags, we took the city bus to Kiyomizu Dera, one of the most famous temples in Kyoto. Unfortunately, this was around 3 pm so it extremely busy. 

I didn't realize this at the time, but the whole area around Kiyomizu-Dera is walkable and explorable. Use Google maps and just put in the famous Kyoto Nineizaka Starbucks, the Park Hyatt Kyoto or the Studio Ghibli store to navigate to that picturesque neighborhood. I didn't realize these were all so close to Kiyomizu-Dera and so I made our group walk probably an extra 1-2 miles back and forth Gion before I realized this. 

Kyoto Nineizaka Starbucks -- the most famous Starbucks located in a traditional machiya (rowhouse). We never found this place our first time in Japan. 

Exploring all the matcha and street food vendors near Kiyomizu Dera 

The next morning, we met up with my sister and her BF at the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest bright and early at 7:30 AM. With the jetlag, we were all waking up around 5:30 - 6 AM anyway. 

The Arashiyama bamboo forest is quite small (only about 2 blocks of bamboo) and so we had planned on walking 20 minutes to another temple (Adashino Nenbutsiji Temple) and checking out the bamboo forest there, but tragically we got there 30 minutes too early and it hadn't even opened yet. It was cold, so we decided not to wait for it to open and head back down to the river for Arabica coffee. 
We bumped into this cute and well behaved shiba on the way up to Adashino temple. 
During my 2017 trip, I specifically remember this Arabica coffee location on the banks of the Katsura river, however the line was so long I didn't even attempt to wait in it. Part of the reason we headed back so early was so we could beat the lines at the coffee place! And this was one of the rare occasions that line was worth it. 
I waited 7 years to drink this coffee on the banks of the river in Kyoto ;) 
After coffee (keep in mind this was only like 9 AM), we turned onto the pedestrian touristy street in Arashiyama and hung out at the local shops. My niece and nephew loved the Miffy and Rikklakuma stores and we got some street food like cucumbers on a stick (random), croquettes, and shu mai. 
We had lunch at a mediocre curry place (Arashiyama curry) that wasn't as good as CocoIchiban. In the afternoon, we took the bus again to the Golden Temple (Senso-ji). It was also a bit of a trek but I still loved walking around the serene garden that houses Senso-ji. Something about Kyoto is that it isn't well connected by the subway, and so we had to take a lot of buses which wasn't the fastest way to get around. 

We took the bus back to the city center around Gion, at went into the first cafe we saw so we could sit, relax, and recharge. We then wandered around Gion for what seemed hours looking for somewhere to eat. One of our major frustrations with Japan was that it seemed like any good place required reservations, especially for a big group. We had a total of 8 people in our group, and it was next to impossible to find somewhere to seat all of us. We went into a bunch of restaurants to inquire and they all seemed to have been booked out or you had to wait in line for hours. When you're already tired from walking 20,000 steps a day, we gave up looking for a "good" place and went into the first place that had open seats for all of us, which ended up being a questionable beef barbeque place. If I had to do it again, I would have planned better and made reservations nearly every night to save us from finding a place to eat with a large group! 

Our last day in Kyoto, we went to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the famous orange gates. We tried to meet up again around 7, but my sister got lost so we didn't quite get to start the trek until 8 AM. It was another cold and blustery morning and even rained later on in the morning. Last time I was here, we weren't able to make it all the way to the top due to my dad's arthritis, but this time we all hiked up to the top. The crowd definitely thins out at the top so you can get some unobstructed photos, but the top was actually quite underwhelming. There is no view at the top, just a few smaller private shrines, so don't feel like you have to hike all the way up. Hiking to the lookout would suffice. 

On the way down the mountain, there were more street food vendors that we sampled. I found the viral Montblanc yam dessert at a small dessert shop, and so we ordered two. The shop owners even filmed us for their instagram! 

For our final meal in Kyoto, after learning our lesson the previous night, we reserved a private room at a Wagyu shabu-shabu place. It was a much nicer experience than the previous night, and we all got the all-you-can eat option for about $55 a person. 

For our lodging, I booked a traditional machiya located only 3 minutes from Kyoto station on Airbnb. I love old, traditional places and more often rather stay at a traditional place than a generic modern hotel. The location was super convenient from the main transportation of Kyoto, only 3 minutes walk south of the station, located across the Gallery hotel (so very safe). It was 100 years old, so it was old and creaky, but after we figured out the heating, it got nice and toasty after 30-60 minutes. There was only one room with two real beds, however the other 2 rooms had space for tatami mats, so could have slept 8 total. We slept in one of the tatami mat rooms and it was totally fine. We walked an average of 20,000-30,000 steps daily so I knocked out every night. 

A pro tip for Japan is to ship your luggage to the next location to prevent having to lug your luggage up and down subway stations, across buses and trains. We arrived at the Kyoto station early and shipped some of our bigger luggage to our Tokyo hotel. Then we just took a carryon back on the bullet train to our next locale, Hakone! 

To check out what we did in 2017, see TokyoKyoto Pt. 1Kyoto Pt. 2


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