Home to 2000 temples and shrines, Japan’s former Imperial capital, Kyoto, should be a priority on any trip to Japan. We took the shinaksen bullet train from Hakone, which cut down the trip from 4-5 hours to 2.
It was interesting to see all of the domestic tourists in Kyoto dressed up in traditional Japanese clothing, an apparently popular local vacation activity.
Shinkasen bullet train
Kiyumizu-dera Temple (UNESCO World Heritage Site) – the most visited site in Kyoto
The 1300 Gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine – the inspiration for the 2005 Christo and Jeanne-Calude “The Gates” exhibit in Central Park, NYC
Kinkaku-ji Temple (The Golden Pavillion) (UNESCO World Heritage Site) whose top 2 floors are covered in gold leaf
Fushimi Inari Temple
1300 Gates at Fushimi Inari Temple
Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavillion
Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavillion Temple
Nishiki Market for everything – this one covered street in Kyoto is the best places to taste bits and bites of Japan from the dozens and dozens of merchants selling everything from mochi-wrapped strawberries and tofu donuts to live loach fish and octopus tentacles. The market was one of our top Kyoto highlights
Gogyo (just off of Nishiki Market) for well-priced ramen (vegetarians beware – get something in Nishiki Market instead)
Kikunoi – one of Kyoto’s top rated restaurants — but make reservations in advance! (We didn’t get to go)
Mochi at the market…yum!
Nishiki Market Stall
Win & Ari at Nishiki Market
Shop at: Kyoto Handicrafts market for high-quality and reasonably priced souvenirs of all types (lacquer, kimonos, katanas, tea sets, etc.)
For the second leg of of our Japan trip, we traveled an hour outside of Tokyo to Hakone, a resort town known for its onsenhot springs and views of nearby Mt. Fuji.
Unexpected and wonderful:
Transportation: Upon arriving at the Hakone train station, visitors check luggage with a transportation service that shuttles guests’ bags to their hotels. No shlepping for us! This enabled us to freely ride the many modes of transportation that comprise the Hakone sightseeing loop including: train, cable car funicular, bus, ropeway, and pirate ship (around Ashi lake).
Onsen Tamago: eggs that have been hard-boiled in the volcanic hot springs, yum!
Open Air Museum: Our fault: we expected this amazing space to be boring. Nope! It had dynamic, interactive exhibits including a maze and climbing structures. We got weird in the best way.
Staying at a Traditional Ryokan near Mt. Fuji
The most memorable part of Hakone was our traditional Japanese guest house (ryokan), with serene onsen hot springs overlooking Mt. Fuji. Furnished with tatami woven mat floors and traditional futon beds, the traditional Japanese rooms each presented picture-perfect views of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest volcano. Ryokan guests wear traditional yukata robes (cotton kimonos) and enjoy a traditional kaiseki dinner, consisting of several, small, elaborately displayed dishes including:
Where to stay & eat: We loved the inexpensive Fujimien Ryokan. The ryokan reopened after some renovations in 2015. Availability seems limited. For a similar traditional ryokan and onsen experience, check out Yoshimatsu (traditional) or Centurion Hakone Bettei (luxury).
Visitor tip: Buy the Hakone “free-pass;” The pass includes the roundtrip train fare from Tokyo and unlimited access on all of the modes of transportation within Hakone. Very worthwhile.