Tips for Kyoto, Tokyo, Mt. Fuji and more! Read on for where to stay, what to eat and the can’t-miss views.
HIGURACHI-SOU GUESTHOUSE is tucked away in a tiny street next to Nijo Castle. It’s in a traditional Japanese home, complete with old wooden furniture, tatami mats and futons, and a garden. Staying here was definitely a highlight of a whole trip to Kyoto.
If we weren’t on a mission to find a traditional Japanese style hotel, we’d pick The Screen Hotel. It’s a modern boutique hotel inspired by the tradition, where no two rooms are the same. And the location is as good as they come – right on the corner of the Imperial Palace garden!
If you’re not ready to say goodbye to western comforts for a few days, check out Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyoto Sanjo. Although it has your favorite king-sized beds, it also has an onsen (a hot water public bath) and a beautiful Japanese garden. Did I mention they serve traditional Japanese breakfast too?
SUKEMASA If you’re looking for gyoza (fried dumplings), this is the place to be. They haven’t got many things on the menu and the place is pretty small, but these dumplings are very close to being the best thing ever.
MACHIYA is hidden in the maze of the Kyoto Station. Now, don’t be alarmed – most of the Japanese stations and malls have food courts filled with fantastic restaurants, unlike their western counterparts. Machiya’s specialty is okonomyaki (a savoury pancake topped up with veggies and meat) that is kept warm on a metal plate while you eat.
KANGA-AN This place is more expensive than most, but it’s worth it. First of all, the restaurant is on the temple grounds and serves vegetarian zen cuisine. Secondly, their best kept secret is a bar located in an actual temple! The bar was completely closed to the public until a few years ago and you might have to reserve in advance and speak a bit of Japanese. However, there’s nothing like enjoying your Suntory Special Reserve in a buddhist temple in the middle of Kyoto.
VERMILLION CAFE is exactly what you need after climbing the many steps of the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The coffee is excellent, and the marvellous view over the woods and a lake would trick you into thinking you’re in deep country, not in the middle of a big city.
If you’re fit enough to walk through the Thousand Tori gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine, you’ll be rewarded with a view that has no rival. On a clear day you’ll see all of Kyoto, old and new, coming together in perfect harmony.
Yasaka-Shrine is located right next to Gion (aka the geisha district), this place is not just a collection of marvellous shrines and peaceful corners, but it also overlooks a crossroads that would lead you to to a busy shopping street. It’s an awesome place for people watching, just sit down on the steps and observe girls all dressed up in kimonos for the occasion stroll by with their selfie sticks.
Ponto Cho is a narrow street tucked away next to the river with some of the best bars and restaurants in Kyoto. Get here after dark, and try to spot a maiko (an apprentice geisha) rushing off to her evening engagement.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest was definitely a highlight for me as I’ve never seen bamboo trees apart from the tiny sprouts in IKEA. It’s best to get here early if you want a peaceful stroll through the grove.
To-Ji Temple, a magnificent five-story temple in a traditional garden with a pond full of koi was my personal favorite and the reason why I stayed in Kyoto for an extra day. Apart from the Imperial Palace, it’s the most quiet and peaceful place you’ll find in Kyoto.
KYOTO SIDE-TRIP: Mt. Koya
When a friend in Berlin mentioned this mysterious mountain just an hour out of Kyoto with over 300 temples and shrines, I was curious. When I found out this very mountain is the cradle of Japanese buddhism dated back to 6 century A.D., where you could also stay in a temple, walk around zen gardens and attend a morning prayer in one of the oldest monasteries, I knew I had to go. I have a soft spot for quiet, eerie and foggy places, and Koyasan didn’t dissappoint. We stayed in a traditional japanese room in Kongo Sanmain temple in Koyasan, woke up before dawn to attend a morning prayer (in Japanese, no less), ate breakfast prepared by the monks, and explored as many temples as we could. Koyasan is a fantastic place for soul-searching, and if I ever need an eat-pray-love kind of break from life, I will probably do it here.
You can’t go to Japan and NOT stay in a capsule hotel. Unless you’re me and you’re slightly claustrophobic. Shinjuku Kuyakushomae Capsule is just a step away from all the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku, and is a perfect place to crash after a night out.
Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo has a Hello Kitty room! Need I say more? Actually, they have two rooms – a PG13 and an adult version of the beloved Japanese fictional character.
I’m usually not a fan of big hotel empires, but as a big fan of “Lost in Translation” I can’t go without mentioning the Park Hyatt. Aside from the slight movie nostalgia, you’ll get all the perks you could ever expect from a luxury hotel, plus a spectacular view over the whole city and an amazing bar.
Jiromaru — This tiny Yakiniku (japanese bbq) place is tucked away in the heart of Shinjuku and looks like it’s been shut for years. But once you’re in, you’ll get your own little grill and a selection of meats from all over Japan, cut up right before your eyes and given to you to grill yourself. Yakiniku (japanese bbq) is a must try, and frankly – there’s something very special about standing in the narrow space by the counter and cooking your own meat to perfection.
Hakarime — This place boasts the mix of modern and traditional Japanese cuisine and is a must for anything eel. Frankly, there won’t be much on the menu for you if you’re not a fan of eel. And the best part? You get your own booth and a button to call a waiter. Oh Japan and its efficiency! :)
Genki Sushi — If you get hungry when in Shibuya, check out this kaiten sushi right next to Shibuya crossing. If your Japanese is still not conversational by now, this is going to be the easiest restaurant you’ll ever go to. Kaiten sushi restaurants (or restaurants where your food is delivered via a conveyor belt) eliminates pretty much all human contact, you pick your dishes off the screen, press some buttons and in a few minutes the freshest salmon sashimi (or whatever you ordered) stops in front of you on a conveyer belt. Unlike the western counterparts, there’re no pre-made food circling around on the conveyer and all food is made to order.
Blue Bottle Coffee — Japan is a tea-centric country, but the Australians and Americans managed to bring flat whites and filter coffee anyways. This place is a coffee heaven – and make sure to try the matcha bread!
Hamarikyu Gardens — I’m a city girl, but there’s nothing like a green oasis right in the middle of the business district. Head over the the Hamarikyu gardens for an escape from the urban jungle, have a cup of matcha by the lake and take in the contrast between old wooden houses and shiny glass buildings. Also where else would you see a field full of bright yellow flowers in the middle of the city?
Meiji Shrine — Honestly, this place blew me away. And I thought by that point I was done with Shrines! Walk under the Tori gate next to Harajuku and follow the road into the woods. It’s like stepping into a whole different world, and so quiet you’ll be surprised you’re still in Tokyo.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is a must for a city view. Go up to the terrace on the 45th floor for a 360 degree view on the city and grab lunch in one of the cantines.
SIDE-TRIP FROM TOKYO: Mt. Fuji
For me, seeing Mt. Fuji was number one on the list when planning this trip. So no surprise that we headed here on our second day in Japan! If you want to see the majestic Fuji-san with a snow cap, just like on the photo above, the best time to visit is between October and end of March. On the first day there, Fuji was hidden behind the fog, so we enjoyed a perfect golden sunset at Lake Kawaguchiko, sampled tempura and drank matcha, and spend the evening relaxing in an onsen. I was up early the next day, and what a relief – the skies were clear, and Mt. Fuji was proudly standing, watching over the Land of the Rising Sun. I might have spent several hours just staring at it from our hotel window, not quite believing that my dream has finally came true: I was in Japan, looking at the mountain I read so many haikus about in school. Later that day, we took the cable car to the top of the nearby mountain and enjoyed a marvellous view of Mt. Fuji on one side, and the Lake Kawaguchiko on the other. The town we stayed at, Fujiyoshida, is so picturesque and serene you’d want to spend at least a day there!