To celebrate our 5th anniversary, Chuck and I visited Kyoto, which served as the imperial capital of Japan for 1,000 years. It was also was recently voted the #1 city in the world by Travel + Leisure, for the second year in a row. We had a wonderful time, so I can see why…
My favorite part about the first day (besides our dinner – more on that in a moment) was the Philosopher’s Walk, a pedestrian path that follows a cherry-tree-lined canal in Kyoto between Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji on the eastern side of the city. It is named for an influential 20th-century Japanese philosopher named Nishida Kitaro, who is thought to have used it for daily meditation. I loved its quaint, picturesque quality. We did visit Nanzen-ji first, then walked the path until we reached Ginkaku-ji. It took us a while to find the path itself, but thanks to Chuck’s navigation skills, we were soon on the right track.
But the highlight of the first day was certainly our “splurge” anniversary-celebration dinner at Misoguigawa in Pontocho, which prepares “French cuisine served in Japanese kaiseki style” in a century-old building that once belonged to a geisha. This meal surely came at a price (it cost more than three nights at our hotel!) but it was worth it. Chuck is not easy to impress, but he got the blissful look on his face that he gets whenever his taste buds are extraordinarily pleased. The chef even catered to my pescetarian tastes, and traditionally-dressed staff provided us with customized and attentive service.
Speaking of the chef, does anyone else get completely starstruck when you meet an amazing one? We were introduced to Teruo Inoue on our way out, and I was a total fan girl (even though I forgot to take a pic!) Better yet, he spoke only Japanese and French, so I was able to practice a bit of the latter with him – much to my delight. 🙂
I did my best to remember what we ate for the captions, but enjoy the food porn below!
Before I tell you about our second day in Kyoto, I want to say that our traditional ryokan hotel was fabulous. I was unsure how it would go over, especially given Chuck’s size. It was definitely tight quarters, but the novelty of the experience was completely doable for 3 nights – and the futons were insanely comfortable! We felt refreshed and well-rested every morning.
Ok, enough on that tangent. We spent day 2 in Kyoto exploring Arashiyama and some of the more prominent temples and shrines, to include the spellbinding Kinkaku-ji Temple, or the Golden Pavilion. Honestly, many of the temples were starting to look the same to me, but Kinkaku-ji was simply beautiful. We then crossed the bridge into Arashiyama, where we strolled the renowned bamboo forest. It did not disappoint!
After completing our tour of Arashiyama with a delightful rickshaw ride, we crossed town to visit another iconic site: the Fushimi Inari Taisha. Dusk was rapidly approaching, which only added to the mystique of this site. In fact, I think I’m happier that we saw it as the sun was setting. The experience was more spiritual that way!
At one point, we veered off the beaten path and discovered a serene little shrine on our own. It was all ours, until I turned a corner and silently screamed to myself at the sight of an old man with his hands suspiciously tucked behind his back. Chuck took full advantage of my nerves and pointed out that the right side of his jacket was crossed over his left… a sign that you are a ghost (as we learned from our host at the ryokan!)
By now, you can imagine we worked up quite the appetite. We loved Pontocho so much (where we enjoyed our luxuriant French dinner at Misoguigawa the night before) that we decided to go back to the area for an Italian dinner. (Before you judge us for eating European food in Japan, remember that we live in Okinawa, so we get plenty of Japanese food all the time!)
After dinner, we wanted to enjoy one more drink before exploring Gion, famous for its geishas. We stumbled into Stardust Club, a hole-in-the-wall whiskey bar with an eccentric crowd of six people – four of whom were European. The owner of the bar was a bizarre, silent, frizzy old Japanese man who wore sunglasses the whole time, and I’m pretty sure he was intoxicated beyond functionality. A Japanese couple that spoke English engaged us while we had a drink, and I was tipsy enough to experience my first Eastern-style, in-ground potty (when you gotta go, you gotta go.)
We spent our final full day on the mainland in Nara, an ancient and religious town 45 minutes northeast of Kyoto by train. Loyal followers may remember that I had already visited Nara with friends on an earlier occasion, but I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to go again – this time with Chuck.
Nara has a plethora of ancient temples all its own, but since we were rather “templed-out” from Kyoto, we opted for a more relaxed approach to Nara. We strolled the picturesque grounds, enjoyed tea and lunch at a cozy French cafe (that I had noticed on my previous visit and desperately wanted to try this time around), and shared acorns and beer with the “wild” deer in Nara Park.
I also scored the best selfie of my life with a young Bambi who managed to snatch the cluster of deer biscuits from my hand – right as I snapped the photo!
We made it back to Kyoto in time for a delicious Japanese meal at a traditional izakaya.
Kyoto is definitely one of my top trips thus far!