Kyoto is an ancient city with the landmarks to prove it. Said landmarks have been burnt down/struck by lightning/dismantled by overzealous warlords and the like but they deserve props for standing the test of time! However, some of my friends who have come to visit me over my time in Japan were so over-saturated with temples and shrines that they asked for a reprieve. If you’re feeling the same when you read this or are planning your trip in advance, here are some places to go that don’t always include a vermillion torii gate (but with about 1600 temples in the city, don’t push your luck).
Instagram your coffee at Arabica
After opening in Higashiyama, Arabica exploded onto the coffee scene with followers coming for the beans with heady chocolate notes and (let’s not lie) the baristas. The head barista, Junichi, has won an international award for his latte art and my friend Naoki always knew what I would order the moment I walked in. My favourite branch of Arabica is perched on the Katsura River in Arashiyama, and it’s oddly peaceful among the rush of tourists. Lines are long, but the views (I’m not necessarily talking about the river) can keep you entertained while you wait.
Go gaga over old woodblock prints in a reseller store
They’re everywhere. There are shops in the city that sell replica and genuine woodblock prints from different eras. They’re a great souvenir to take home and frame. If you want an original print, expect to shell out the big bucks, but the reproduction prints will only set you back a few thousand yen.
Visit BAL Kyoto
If the health of your bank account isn’t a problem, BAL is perfect for some retail therapy. Opened in 2015 on Kawaramachi street, retailers like Theory, Helmut Lang and Diane von Furstenberg have called the department store home. Tomorrowland and its subsidiaries, as well as Ron Herman and Muji, take up most of the real estate. BAL is an example of modern Japanese style, living and décor and if it so happens to include an Acne jacket and Golden Goose sneakers, I’m down with that.
Go to Pakuchi for Thai food
Ethnic food is popular in Japan, like Chinese and Thai. If you want decent servings that won’t break the bank, Pakuchi will satisfy you. The lunch specials are cheap (about 970 yen for a curry dish with three sides) and the meals are cooked by expats from Thailand. The restaurants are set out in loud colours reminiscent of a Thai street diner, with food carts out the front to boot. And another kicker? They do takeaway.
Walk along the Kamo
Kyoto doesn’t have any beaches for long romantic walks – you just have to make do with the Kamogawa (Duck River) running straight down the middle of the city. In spring and autumn, the trees explode with colours and there are always couples sitting on the banks at the end of the day. The river is a popular meeting place for parties, drinks and romantic walks. If you want to challenge yourself, the pathways are good for running and cycling, with heaps of locals and tourists setting a fit example all hours of the day. Demachiyanagi to the north is where the river forks, and along different sections there are stepping stones to hop across.
Weave through the Bamboo Forest
Okay, so this is slightly temple related but you have the power to avoid them! Arashiyama (Storm Mountain) is a pilgrimage, a religious site and where your matcha needs can be met over and over again. The bamboo forest blocks out the noise of the outside world and offers pretty sweet views. The forest surrounds Tenryuji and other small shrines but there’s plenty of other things to see like fabric shops, a music box store, the Sagano Romantic Train, lollies of all kinds and even a hut that sells boiled eggs. Wear comfortable shoes and bring your patience; other tourists have a nasty habit of photobombing an Insta-perfect shot.
Eat dinner at Kyoto Station
You will need food to fill those empty legs after a day of sightseeing, or after just climbing those stairs. The 10th floor is home to Ramen Village, where ramen shops from different prefectures of Japan converge. It is insanely popular and lines are long come meal times, so you have to sit, slurp and go! If you want dinner with a view, Eats Paradise on the 11th floor offers more “civilised” dining and cuisines include tofu, sushi and western. The basement levels are a fun space to hang out, and Porta is crowded every weeknight with tourists, families and couples on a date. Bring your waiting game; you’ll need it.
See Gion at night
Not just for the geishas and maiko, Gion at night is something else. The back streets are homes to ramen bars, hostess clubs and drinking holes, with businesses piling on top of each other in a messy way you can only find in Japan. The Gion-Shirakawa area is my favourite in the city and it’s not a tourist trap like Gion Corner. You can see another side of Kyoto here that only exists after the sun sets, and it’s a lot of fun to explore.
Go to Shinshindo for breakfast
Breakfast culture in Japan is not huge like in Australia, and if you’re stuck for options Shinshindo is a safe bet. The chain is exclusive to Kyoto and serve a nice breakfast plate and even eggs benedict, with specials different in each store. And if you’re not convinced about how good it can be I give you two words; unlimited bread. For me, it was the unlimited coffee but some people REALLY need their brioche buns in the morning. Get the right special, get access to the breadbasket.
Visit the Botanical Gardens
After breakfast at Shinshindo, swing past the Botanical Gardens for your nature fix. The gardens are the oldest botanical exhibition in Japan since opening in 1924 and are home to markets, hundreds of species of flowers (including a Mary Rose), a hothouse for tropical plants and a lake with Japanese maples hanging over it. Entry is only 200 yen! Score! Bring a hat, maybe a tarp, a picnic and your camera. Kodak moments are made here.