Of course, I have a lot of posts coming up! I thought it would be best to split our trip up into neighbourhoods, rather than chronologically, which might be useful if you ever decide to visit. When I've finished posting all our photos, I'm planning a 'helpful tips' post as well so stay tuned for that and leave any burning questions in the comments below :)
First up, Kyoto! I'd actually never been there, despite living in Japan for 4 years, so it was exciting to discover a new place together with Darren, right at the beginning of our trip. We stayed at the sweet, but basic, Dozen Ryokan for an authentic experience sleeping in futons on a tatami mat floor. Perfectly placed in central Kyoto, close to the station, it was ideal for walking to the main shopping and restaurants area, as well as the famous Gion neighbourhood. Getting trains to the further away temples was really easy and quick too, so we were glad to be so centrally placed.
On our first night we walked along the river to get our bearings. Kyoto really is beautiful - it's an eclectic mix of old and new, surrounded by mountains silhouetted against the clear skies. At dusk, it was a nice stroll north up the river to Gion. Famous as the traditional area where you might spot a few geishas in training, Gion ended up being our least favourite part of Kyoto as it was filled with tourists loitering outside buildings hoping to spot a geisha. If one had appeared, I don't think it would have been dissimilar to a paparazzi scrum, considering all the telescopic lens-wielding tourists, so we headed away in search of dinner instead.
We were probably the worst Kyoto tourists, but we took a slow and steady approach to sightseeing and when we got up at 10am the next morning, we were the only people left in the hotel. Apparently most of the other guests had taken advantage of the 6am breakfast starts to get a headstart to the city's landmarks.
Fushimi Inari is the iconic temple famous for miles of torii gates, painted bright orange in homage to the foxes thought to be the god Inari's messengers. A long story short, they really do go on forever, up the full heigh of Mt. Inari. We had every intention of getting to the top, but the map was highly deceptive and it was a long up thousands of shallow steps. I think we managed to get about halfway up before the omnipresent humidity got to us and even the view couldn't keep us pushing on to the summit.
The train took us to our next stop, Arashiyama, famous for its bamboo forests. The forests really are breathtaking and going in the searing heat of the afternoon, we found the shade very welcoming!
Darren doesn't do selfies, so I was quite pleased with this one! We came to a fork in the road - right seemed to lead through more bamboo so we turned left into the park, which was much quieter. Happening upon a lake we realised we were just over the bridge from the Iwatayama Monkey Park. The park sits on top of a high, steep hill and it was a pretty tough climb in the heat (or we are just really unfit) - the monkeys were wonderful, of course, but I wasn't expecting such a beautiful view.
As you have to pay to get in, there weren't too many tourists at the park. The monkeys are wild and there are plenty of signs telling you to avoid eye contact, not to crouch down, etc. with staff carefully watching and berating tourists for any unwanted behaviour, but also watching the monkeys for any signs of irritation. There are plenty of areas that the monkeys can retire to, where people aren't allowed in, and they seemed calm and happy. At the summit, you can go into a structure designed to let you feed the monkeys through a wire fence. Offering peanuts and chunks of apple, I was so surprised how gentle the monkeys were and could have stayed for hours. My favourite monkey was the one pictured below - he was sitting by the pond dangling his fingers in the water and genuinely seemed to be playing with the koi that came up to him.
That night we had a rather strange experience eating dinner at a kushiage restaurant. The funny thing about Japan, that I think people might not expect, is that restaurants usually only serve one type of thing; in this case, it was 'fried things on sticks'. With each stick costing ¥100 (about 60p!) we tried everything from avocado, bacon and asparagus to a very white - but surprisingly delicious - piece of cheese, washed down with plenty of sake and umeshu (a deliciously sweet plum brandy which is now my favourite drink ever).
One of the things I love the most about Japan is the incredible attention to detail. There are random little restaurants, shops and bars and you find them in the most unexpected of places - down a deserted alley, next to a petrol station, on residential streets. The frustrating flip side is that everything is impossible to find! We actually came to Kyoto armed with pages of suggestions from a friend's boyfriend, who lived in Kyoto for 15 years, but found it difficult to find them, even with Google Maps on our side!
On our last full day we took the train to Nara, which is close by, to see the famous deer that tamely roam around the park. I was in a bad mood leaving the hotel and forgot to put the battery in my camera (cue an even worse mood), but the deer perked me right up - and thank god for iPhones! I wish we had some in Clapham Common! Nara itself is compact and easy to navigate and we really liked the feel of the town - not to mention the delicious ramen we found for lunch.
There are a few kiosks selling crackers you can give to the deer, so there are always plenty of hungry youngsters loitering around and they are very persistent! My crackers ran out in about 5 seconds. The park itself is really beautiful and it's easy to get away from the tour buses of tourists. For the most part, people are respectful to the deer and it's very peaceful.
It rained for most of the day so, tired and wet, we returned to Kyoto in search of dinner. On our first day at the hotel they suggested going to the mall in Kyoto Station to find somewhere good to eat. Snobbishly thinking I knew best, we avoided the mall as I thought it would be too touristy. In actual fact, when I googled the best tonkatsu restaurant in Kyoto, Katsukura inside the station came up on top and it ended up being my favourite meal in Kyoto.
Tonkatsu might be my favourite Japanese meal and it was extra-appreciated as we were starving. Juicy pork coated in super-crispy panko crumbs comes served with free refills of plain rice and crunchy cabbage and you serve yourself pickles and tangy sauce. You can choose the cut and grade of the pork, like you might do with a steak. I got a cream crab croquette on the side, which sounds bizarre but it might be my favourite Japanese snack food of all time and I have big plans to recreate it at home, so watch this space!
Kyoto Station itself ended up being very impressive. Built on the 1200th anniversary of Kyoto becoming Japan's capital (Tokyo became the capital in 1868), it opened to the public in 1997 and is a major landmark. It's strikingly modern, beautiful inside out and, as well as the train station, houses several malls bursting with cool shops and restaurants.
Kyoto surpassed all of my expectations and I loved playing tourist for a few days, but Darren and I were really excited to get back to Tokyo and live like locals for the next 10 days in our Airbnb, fulfilling our original mission of eating our bodyweight in ramen.