We headed out of the Mt. Fuji area with lots of 7-11 snacks and embarked on a bus ride followed by a bullet train, arriving in Kyoto in the early afternoon. We checked into Kiyomizu Samurai Machiya, a private traditional home in a quiet neighborhood in Kyoto, which featured 3 Japanese futons and 2 western beds, along with a full size Samurai warrior costume on display like a museum piece. After doing a bit of bed rearranging, we headed out to start exploring.
Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple dating from 776 AD. Dave and Marc performed the prayer and gong ritual, and we captured pictures of the kimono-clad locals set among the timelessly beautiful temple grounds and cherry blossom trees. After checking out some of the gardens and views, we did some shopping along the temple path, which was lined with tourist shops and restaurants. Diana picked up a fan, and Marc perused the Japanese bowls, which would become his obsession for the rest of the trip.
Tired from the travel day and temple crowds, we wandered into a dive ramen joint with an unremarkable sign alongside one of the busier roads in town. The restaurant featured bar seating, self-serve water and beer, and two elderly men behind the counter in rain boots, cooking the only two menu items - ramen and steamed gyoza. We each ordered a combination platter and watched as the older man grabbed fresh noodles out of a box straight from the market and cooked us the best ramen of our trip, topped with scallions and piping hot. We feasted on the super cheap noodles and dumplings, happily slurping up as much as we could before heading home with some convenience store candies for dessert.
On our second day, we started with a trip to the Golden Pavillion, a Zen Buddhist temple decked out in gold leaf, set in an immaculately manicured zen garden sanctuary. We took our time to appreciate the structures and gardens before heading to our next stop, Chion-in temple.
Chion-in temple is set inside Maruyama Park. While we admired temple structures and cherry blossom trees, we took time to listen to a temple ceremony for a few minutes to really take in the scene.
We headed to the Nikishi Market area for lunch and shopping, on a quest to find the famous Japanese jiggly souffle pancakes at the request of Diana. We tried a few places, and finally found an ultra-girle spot for the thick, fluffy pancakes that were Instagram gold. After lunch, we walked through the market and did some shopping (kimonos, squishy pancake stress ball toys and a yukuta for Dave - which Mark thought was a bathrobe). After getting our fill of shopping and snacking on a few more Japanese street foods from the market stalls, we headed back to our house for some afternoon chill.
Geisha Walking Tour in the Gion district
We finished the day with an evening walking tour in the Gion district, where we learned about geisha culture, history and practices, and spotted a few real geisha and maiko (apprentice geishas) on their way to engagements. After Marc, Mary and Diana took a taxi home, we took a long walk through the nearly empty late-night back streets along the river and came across a few geisha in full attire, ushering their clients into waiting cars. Without the Gion tourist crowds around, we were able to stand closely and admiringly observe their intricate robes, hairpieces and makeup.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
For our last full day with the Brauns, we headed out early to hike Fushimi Inari, a mountain shrine featuring more than ten thousand orange gates. Since we arrived early, we were able to climb the stairs under the gates to the mountain-top lookout point with only a few other tourists. On our way down, we stopped by a giant bamboo forest and picked up matcha teas. Once we arrived back at the base, the tourist crowds were raging, and we picked up some snacks at the entry market en route to our next stop.
We decided to take a long walk through the outskirts of Kyoto, leisurely walking from temple to temple along the way back towards our house. Our favorite stop was an open-plan traditional religious Buddhist house of worship, set inside a zen garden we had all to ourselves. We spent time moving from room to room, taking in the open views to the perfectly manicured gardens. Along the way, we stopped for noodle bowls at a local spot. One of our favorite things about Kyoto is the sheer number of spots to visit. On this afternoon, Erin abandoned her itinerary and we just walked in a general direction, stopping each time we saw something interesting, which was frequently.
After a chill afternoon, Marc, Mary and Diana headed to a Japanese culture and dance show, and we all regrouped to walk through a moonlit park to a Japanese beef dinner, where we feasted on waygu beef that we cooked ourselves at the table.
The following morning, we said goodbye to Marc, Mary and Diana at the train station, and they headed back to Tokyo to fly home. We hopped on the short express train to Osaka, where we'd spend the next couple of days getting our last bits of cherry blossom viewing, exploring and eating the best tuna of our lives.
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