Arashiyama, Fushimi, Nara, Himeji


After Kyoto, we spent the next couple of days in four different towns. The first town was Arashiyama, a beautiful district an hour west of Kyoto. I highly recommend visiting Arashiyama, even just to walk around for a bit, especially if you’ve spent most of your trip in urban cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. You can take river boat tours, bike through bamboo forests, or ride a scenic railway that runs along the Oi River.

So charming!

13606859_10105482557622383_1808456777525741144_nWe walked past the postcard-perfect mountains and rivers to visit Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. After purchasing cheap tickets from the entrance, we had a fifteen-minute uphill hike. It should have been simple, but that day was extremely humid, and we were drenched in sweat in no time. Fortunately, along the trail were huge fans that sprayed mist at us. Once we got to the top, we were greeted with frozen towelettes and an air-conditioned hut. What service! The monkeys are native to Japan and called macaque, or “snow monkey”. The monkeys are free to roam the forest, while humans must be inside the hut to feed them. We bought some nuts and fruits from a vendor and fed the playful monkeys through a wire fence. If you recall from my Tokyo post, I had learned that I was terrified of owls, but these monkeys were too adorable to scare me. As soon as I’d give them a nut to eat, they’d put it in their mouth and then place their hand out for more. Just like spoiled children.

We love mist fans!

13615171_10105482557113403_7163515025303482423_n13606975_10105482556579473_5271472900453530930_nFushimi, just a five-minute train ride from Kyoto, was our next stop. Anyone who’s been to Kyoto has to visit Fushimi Inari, perhaps the most famous shrine in the world. The Shinto shrine was dedicated to the god of rice and sake in the 8th century and sits at the base of a mountain. The shrine includes over 5,000 vibrant orange torii gates that wind up a mountain. It’s breathtaking to walk through, even with the crowds of tourists.13592718_10209267382938163_2578638745613801618_n13627238_10209267805308722_8846345388823973662_nAfter Fushimi, we made our way to Nara, which was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794. We stayed at another ryokan in Nara, but it was very different from the traditional ryokan we stayed at in Kyoto. The ryokan was called Seikanso, and it’s a great alternative if you’re on a limited budget. For about a third of the price of our Kyoto ryokan, Seikanso gave us a much larger tatami bedroom with a balcony view of the immense courtyard below, as well as kaiseki breakfasts every morning, unlimited tea, and access to an onsen. The reason Seikanso was so much cheaper than Kikokuso was that it’s nontraditional. Seikanso had more than twice as many guest rooms, didn’t offer dinners, and felt much less personal than Kikokuso. The dining rooms were not private, so for breakfast, we had to eat in the same room as another guest (gasp!). It was nice to have both experiences of a traditional ryokan and a more mass-produced ryokan. However, if you only have the chance to do one, definitely splurge a little and go with a traditional ryokan.13606677_10209269371987888_4361928663043296790_n

Notice the multiple tables in this dining room

There are tons of things to do in Nara, but most people come to see the spotted deer that wander around town. According to legend, a god named Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the capital. Since then, the deer have been regarded as sacred animals. We walked from our convenient ryokan to Nara Park, the best place to see hundreds of deer. Multiple vendors throughout the park sold senbei (Japanese rice crackers) for visitors to feed the deer. We bought a couple of packs, and as soon as the deer heard us unwrap them, they ran toward us. It was intimidating! I had read that if you bow to the deer, they’ll bow back to you, but it didn’t seem to work for me. Anthony loved feeding them so much that he ended up buying five packs of senbei.13626604_10209269556512501_3819262028403860220_n

The first of many packs of senbei

13592630_10209273281725629_8094234945130976965_n13600084_10209273284445697_5177662947319372231_nWe only spent one night in Nara, and the next day we continued our journey and stopped at the Himeji Castle. For those of you who don’t know my husband, he builds intricate Metal Earth 3-D models on his free time. He gets really into them, using tweezers and magnifying glasses, and then hogging counter space in our cramped Brooklyn apartment for his growing collection. He built a model of the Himeji Castle, so of course we had to do a side-trip to the city of Himeji.

Himeji Castle is considered to be Japan’s most beautiful surviving feudal castle and is designated as both a national treasure and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the largest castle in Japan and has 400 years of history. The graceful white hilltop complex resembles a white heron taking flight, which is why its nickname is the “white heron castle”. It comprises 83 buildings with advanced feudal defensive systems.

Himeji Castle with his Metal Earth model

As soon as we exited the station, we could see the castle looming in the distance. It was another hot day when we were there, so we greatly appreciated the mist fans scattered outside. It took us a couple of hours to walk through, and we even skipped some sections. We found thousands of loopholes throughout the castle, which allowed warriors armed with archers to fire on attackers without exposing themselves. When we entered the castle, we had to take off our shoes and walk around barefoot. Coincidentally, Anthony was wearing his Himeji Castle socks.

For defense purposes
Himeji socks
You know we’re not in America because all the old people climbed up these steep, narrow staircases with no problem

We could tell how well Himeji Castle was designed because the entire structure was filled with natural light and felt cool without air conditioning. It’s a stark difference from the clumsy construction of European castles. After steep staircases, we were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the entire city.

13592732_10105485921121903_3876722894048855700_nThe castle was stunning, but my favorite part of Himeji was our lunch. We were starving, and after a quick Google search, I found us an udon restaurant called Menme. Normally not a huge fan of udon (I’m more of a soba girl), my mind was quickly changed as soon as we entered. I knew the udon would be good because it was a tiny, family-run restaurant that’s been dedicated to making fresh udon for 30 years, and we could watch the two chefs hand-make everything from the open kitchen. Hole-in-the-wall places like these are exactly why I travel.

13645100_10209278972027883_3164647114748190852_nStuffed with unbelievable udon (fortunately, it didn’t make me cry like the sashimi in Kyoto), we walked back to the train station and headed to our final stop in Japan. Konnichiwa, Osaka!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Wear comfortable clothes when going to the monkey park. While it’s a short hike, it is a jungle. You will get sweaty and dirty, and it’s not completely paved.
  2. Try to get to Fushimi Inari as early as possible. When we went, it was completely packed, and we had to wait a few minutes to get decent shots of the shrine.
  3. Drink everything matcha you can find. The matcha trend has been huge in New York lately, but of course it’s still nothing like Japan. I had the most amazing matcha milkshake outside of the Fushimi Inari shrine, as well as an iced matcha from a vending machine in Himeji. Both items would have been four times the price in New York.




I knew I was going to love Kyoto as soon as I booked our ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) months before. It was pouring when Anthony and I arrived at Kyoto Station. The station opened in 1997 and commemorated Kyoto’s 1,200th anniversary (yes, the city is that old). After a few minutes of hoping the rain would die down, we gave up and purchased an umbrella — one of those cute transparent umbrellas that you can find all over Japan. Huddled under the umbrella, we comically ran through the streets and along an overpass for about ten minutes until we reached our ryokan, Kikokuso.


Kikokuso was everything I had hoped our ryokan would be. There are only four guest rooms, and a charming little family runs everything. We were given a tour of the ryokan, during which we learned about Japan’s intricate shoe customs. We used three different slippers — one pair for the lobby; another pair for the dining room and upstairs; and a third pair for the bathroom.

Our courtyard with a koi pond

We were led over a small bridge past a lovely courtyard with a koi pond, then taken upstairs to our room. A sliding door opened up to a large tatami mat room, with a low table set up in the middle. As soon as we settled in, we were given oshibori and served two types of tea (chilled and hot) and azuki sweets that were ornately wrapped like little origami purses. A large sliding door opened up to a balcony with a table and chairs, overlooking the courtyard below. It was perfect.

Welcome tea and azuki cakes

The best part about staying at a ryokan is the meals you’ll have there. All ryokans provide breakfast, and most also offer dinner. Since I knew the meals would be fantastic at Kikokuso, I scheduled us to eat all our breakfasts and dinners there. The telephone in our room rang when we could come down to the dining room for dinner. Our first dinner was an elaborate kaiseki meal. What a treat to be served an 8-course dinner in our own private dining room! During our first course, which included the most amazing sashimi I’ve ever had, I started crying! Yes, the sashimi made me cry. Some things make you so grateful to be alive, as well as depressed because you know you’ll eventually have to leave. I knew I’d cry in Kyoto, but I really thought it’d be on our last day — not within our first hour. Fortunately, Anthony is used to me being emotional about food.

8-course dinner in a private tatami room
Crying over sashimi
For our 7th course: miso soup and rice topped with pickled vegetables and shoyu

When we returned to our room after dinner, we noticed that our hosts had put away the table in the middle of our room, set up mattresses on the tatami floor, and refilled our hot water and tea leaves. We were telephoned again when our onsen (hot spring bath) was ready. We changed into the dark blue yukata robes hanging in the closet. A yukata is a summer kimono, which should be wrapped with the left side over the right side (apparently doing the reverse is for funerals) and secured with an obi sash.

Matching  yukata

Down in the onsen, we first washed our bodies thoroughly using a hand-held shower head, tiny stools, and wooden buckets. It’s crucial to be completely soap-free before entering an onsen, otherwise you’ll contaminate it. Anthony and I slowly entered the bath, which was designed with rock walls on two sides, and sat in the hot water for about half an hour. It wasn’t as relaxing as we wanted it to be (Anthony hates hot tubs, and I only like hot tubs because of the jets, which don’t exist in the onsen), but we appreciated the custom.

Ready for our steam bath
Ready for bed

The next morning, we were too excited, as usual, and woke up before our scheduled breakfast at 8 am. Fortunately, our tea was still hot from last night and we still had some azuki cakes from Tokyo, so we lounged on the balcony and planned out our day.

Perfect morning

We were called down to breakfast in a different private dining room, with a view of the garden. The kaiseki breakfast consisted of tamagoyaki (egg omelette), tofu, pickled vegetables, rice, miso soup, and lots of tea.

Good morning, Kyoto!

13631515_10209267187653281_3512906340135824646_nI could have spent our entire time in Kyoto at our ryokan, but eventually it was time to head out and do some exploring. It was still raining, so the ryokan called a cab that took us to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. This Zen Buddhist Temple was originally a retirement villa of a powerful shogun (military dictator). Kinkaku-ji was burned down numerous times throughout its history — twice during the Onin War in the 1400s and once in 1950 when it was set on fire by a suicidal monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955. The name “kinkaku” is derived from the gold leaf that covers the pavilion. Kinkaku-ji is set in a lush strolling garden and extends over a pond that reflects the building. The main reason we went to Kinkaku-ji was because Anthony had built a Metal Earth model of the pavilion and needed a photo with it, but the the setting was so stunning that I was just as excited to be there. It was still raining, but the rain somehow made everything feel even more sacred.

13567472_10209261002578658_8190132945295295249_nAfter Kinkaku-ji, we took another cab to Kiyomizu, a Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple juts out over the hillside and offers stunning views of the city. From above, Kyoto is a lot like Florence — a traditional, culturally-significant city surrounded by mountains. The popular expression “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge.” This refers to an old tradition that if one survives the 13 m jump off the cliff, one’s wish will be granted. 234 jumps were recorded and, of those, 85.4% survived. The practice is now prohibited.

View from Kiyomizu

Below the temple is the historic Higashiyama District, my favorite area in Kyoto. We noticed dozens of Japanese women renting kimonos from nearby shops and taking photo shoots at different landmarks. It’s surprising that this trend hasn’t caught on in America yet.

Rented kimonos

Throughout the neighborhood, touristy shops line the major streets, while side streets have quaint roads, wooden homes, and soothing streams. It’s impossible to walk through without being tempted by all the soft serve vendors and mochi samples. One store offered samples for every single product they sold. We rewarded their generous sample policy by buying a box of mochi strips.

Obligatory matcha and black sesame soft serve
Proof we’re in geisha town

When we felt overwhelmed by all the shops, we stepped into a calm tea house and spontaneously ordered an afternoon tea. We’ve had afternoon teas in quite a few places now — New York, London, Toronto, Honolulu — so I was grateful that this afternoon tea was unique, offering Japanese tea-centric pastries.

I love those roasted tea cream puffs

On our way back to Kikokuso, we decided to stop by Kyoto Tower for a view of the city. While observatory decks in New York are expensive and usually require advanced tickets, the view from the top of Kyoto Tower was cheap and easily accessible last-minute. The tower is the tallest in the city, which isn’t saying much, considering the rest of Kyoto is fairly short. It was built in the ’60s and is supposed to look like a candle. The tower can withstand earthquakes and typhoons. After buying a few more snacks from a nearby shop, we made our way home, just in time for dinner!

13567249_10209264154057443_1754538025559719729_nDinner that night was shabu-shabu, a Japanese hot pot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water, cooked at the table by the diner. The term is an onomatopoeia, based on the sound emitted when the ingredients are stirred in the cooking pot. Our host cooked the first batch for us, showing us how to properly create the dashi (broth) using kelp, and in what order to add each ingredient. She mixed in tofu, cabbage, seaweed, and three different types of mushrooms. We were able to try two different dipping sauces: ponzu and sesame seed. It was the best shabu-shabu I’ve had!

Watching our host make shabu-shabu for us
I want to live with this woman forever

After another onsen and wonderful night on our tatami floor mattresses, our last meal at the ryokan was a kaiseki breakfast the next morning, this time with grilled salmon and hard-boiled eggs. When it was time to leave, I had a hard time saying good-bye to our hosts and leaving the dreamlike world of Kikokuso. After such personalized, lavish, multi-course meals served with such care, eating in restaurants with actual menus, surrounded by random strangers felt so pedestrian. I’m not sure why Paris and Venice are known as honeymoon cities; when it comes to intimacy and romance, staying in a ryokan in Kyoto takes the (mochi) cake! Next stop: Nara!

Our last meal at Kikokuso. How’s that for a breakfast?

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Before your trip, look online to see what your ryokan looks like. Japanese addresses are pretty tricky, so you want to have a good idea of what to look out for.
  2. Staying at a ryokan (a good one, at least) will be pricey. Just suck it up and pay. These places are the equivalents of five-star hotels, plus they will include some of the best meals of your life.
  3. Don’t forget to eat Kyoto’s specialties: tea, kaiseki, and tofu.
  4. Since meals at ryokans are scheduled, always have snacks handy, just in case you get hungry before your scheduled breakfast.
  5. Rent a kimono and take photos at temples or shrines, especially if the weather is nice. The only reason I didn’t rent one and force Anthony to be my fashion photographer was because it was pretty hot when we were there and I didn’t want to sweat all over it. But it sure would have been nice to have those photos.