Whenever I imagined Japan, I would picture oriental gardens and pagodas and bamboo forests and Buddhist temples and shrines. If this is the Japan you are hoping to find, I would definitely recommend the Kansai (southern-central) region of Japan over Tokyo. I loved Tokyo, but it’s the big city experience vs. the more outdoors-y/ historical experience. If I had a week or less in Japan, I would go to this part of Japan without hesitation. The main cities we visited in this region were Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka!
Something you should know: Kyoto was the capital of Japan right up until the 1800s when it was then moved to Tokyo. And you know what that means – ancient castles and pagodas and temples galore! This place is a gold mine of olden treasures surrounded by a beautifully modern city. It reminds me of Puerto Rico in the sense that a modern city has been built right around the carefully-preserved ancient grounds. I don’t know why, but something about a city with buildings ranging from 700 A.D. to last year just gets me.
FUSHIMI INARI-TASHI SHRINE
Okay, I’m guilty… I started with my favorite one. The Fushimi Inari Shrine was amazing! Just for a little bit of background, this shrine was built starting in the 700s. Now let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that that means this is over 1300 FREAKING YEARS OLD. It is mind blowing to me! It starts at the base of a mountain and an arched pathway leads you up to other shrines around the “park”, making up about a 2.5 mile walk. We spent a good 2+ hours here looking at the shrines, checking out the souvenir shops, and a street market where locals set up stands along both sides of the road selling all kinds of delicious food – naturally the best part of all. That one day alone was so worth the trek down from Tokyo! It was also literally right outside of the train station which made it really simple as far as transportation goes.
BAMBOO FOREST OF ARASHIYAMA: THE PATH OF BAMBOO
It is even more incredible in person (as most things typically are). I will be totally honest, there were signs there leading you through a kind of “tour” that had little temples and more forest to see but to be honest, we didn’t go much further than the Path of Bamboo which is pretty close to the entrance. Because once you’ve seen one part of a bamboo forest you’ve seen it all, right? So we didn’t spend a ton of time here, but it was still totally worth it. It was absolutely breathtaking and made for some cool pics! A wide angle lens will be your best friend here. To get a picture of us together, we literally used my GoPro on its little tripod, took a video, and got one of the stills from that haha. It didn’t come out with the best quality, but it worked all the same!
If I could do it over again, the only thing I would change would be to get there earlier so it wasn’t so crowded. It wasn’t terrible so don’t be discouraged if you can’t make an earlier time work because it was totally fine, but most people there were with tour groups that probably don’t get there until at least 10AM. It would be an even COOLER experience if you had the place to yourself around 8AM!
I was honestly just expecting to walk up to the pagoda, marvel at its beauty for a few minutes, and leave. Little did I know there would be a grand walkway, 3 gardens, a few small temples with museums inside, and a koi pond all leading up to the pagoda! It was lovely. There was an entrance fee of around $8 USD per person, but I felt like it was worth it. I wouldn’t say it’s a Japan MUST DO, but we really enjoyed it!
This is where I’ve failed… I have NO good pictures of the market because I was too excited about the kumquat ice cream. We made it to the tail end of the market so some of the booths were already closing down, but luckily there are several markets throughout Kyoto and Nara that are basically the same – a covered street lined with little shops and food vendors!
MISTER GYOZA RESTAURANT
I thought I would have thousands of restaurants to recommend by the end of our trip, but every place to eat was just as good as the next! It is all very similarly priced and equally amazing. There is, however, one exception: Mister Gyoza. Give me ALL of the gyozas!!! These are little potstickers that are descended straight from heaven, and Mister Gyoza has the best of the best. We got a bowl of ramen to share and then like 5 plates of gyozas haha they were THAT GOOD. On top of that they have great prices so I couldn’t even feel that guilty about ordering fourths and fifths… ha. When you go to Kyoto (not if, when), you will likely be passing by Mister Gyoza because it is just a few blocks away from the 5 story Toji pagoda (just outside of Toji station). Gyozas are a Japan must-eat!
Thanks for reading — check out the Tokyo blog post to read more about this beautiful country.