Blossomed With Love In Japan by Jasmine Chai
Kyoto in less than 72.
Everyone talks about Japan and how advanced cities like Tokyo and Osaka are. The neon-light cities which are often being comapared to big brothers like New York and Paris just don’t seem to interest me. That being said, I do have a soft spot when it comes to Japanese cuisine, especially the fresh sushi and sashimi have certainly played a big part in my diet.
Japan has never really been a destination I have dreamt of visiting until my friend suggested a spring holiday to Kyoto. The idea lingered for some days. Finally, thoughts of witnessing the beautiful, weeping cherry blossoms and indulging the array of delectable fresh sashimi convinced me.
Kyoto is known as “The heart of Japan” and is the country’s seventh largest city, with a population of almost 1.5 million people. It is rich in traditions such as tea ceremony, flower arranging and geisha schooling; a home to countless temples and shrines, with17 sites recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. It is Japan’s capital city and the emperor’s residence between 794 and 1868. There is no other place in Japan like Kyoto which offers a wealth of history, culture and beauty. The modern and dynamic Kyoto Station tends to portray a different impression upon arrival as the functionality and efficiency of the city makes it convenient to get around. Yet it is not until one explores into the alleyways to discover the myraid pockets of surprises. The city is filled with wondrous places, with hills and mountains rim around.
Kyoto for less than 72 hours
I know it is not easy to see a city like this rich in less than 72 hours. With more than 300 shrines, 1700 temples, increasing number of interesting museums and handful of authentic restaurants to dine in, it was indeed a big challenge. In this case, it’s not just about filling up every hour to see as many places as possible in Kyoto but on the contrary, taking it easy and appreciating the little happenings around us. After some sketchy planning, my friend Stephanie highlighted her two must-sees.
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
The intriguing, winding tunnels consisting of thousands of vermilin torri arches which lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari kept us going. This site is dedicated to the deity of grains and harvet and foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, where many fox statues can be seen across the shrine grounds. With the serenity and easy going trails, the hike shouldn’t take more than three hours to complete. The fun part was actually trying to read the ‘primitive’ maps and had to decide on which trail to continue. It’s rewarding to complete the walk up to the top of Mount Inari as the view got better and less crowded.
The shades of green from the bamboo forest on the cover of the guidebook which Stephanie was reading caught my attention. This is a pleasant but rather touristy district in the western outskirts of Kyoto. As it’s the cherry blossom season, Arashiyama is particularly busy during our visit. The lush green from the bamboo groves was captivating and refreshing. Despite the endless flow of tourists, somehow we managed to enjoy the walk around the area.
There are few temples and gardens to visit at reasonable prices. We decided on Okochi Sanso Villa which was the private villa of the famous silent-film actor Okochi Denjiro (1896 – 1962). He constructed this unique and gorgeous garden villa over a 30 year period.
There’s a number of cherry trees, maple trees and pine trees which beautifully presented their best in spring. The breath-taking views of Arashiyama and Mount Hiei could be enjoyed from one of the buildings.
Finally, we visited the exquisite teahouse, rested our tired legs and simply sipped away the matcha green tea, accompanied with a light snack.
We had a couple of hours left in Kyoto so we decided to visit this magnificent temple since we were told it’s one of the must-dos. A brief background for those who love history: The official name of Sanjusangen-do is Rengeo-in temple and it was established in 1164. The original building was lost in a fire but it was reconstructed in 1266. The structure remained the same for 700 years since then with four major renovations during that period. The long temple hall is about 120 meters long with thirty-three spaces between the columns. Hence the temple came to be call Sanjusangen-do which literally means a hall with thirty-three spaces between columns.
When I entered the long hall, the 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity took my breath away. There was this powerful and dynamic feel which wrapped around me as if it was telling me my last hours in Kyoto was well spent here.
HONKE DAIICHIASAHI (本家 第一旭)
We were craving for ramen when we arrived on the first day. Hence the helpful staff at the hotel reccommended this yummilicious place. It’s not a fancy restaurant but more like a coffeeshop where the locals would go for a bowl of ‘comfort’ Ramen. Greeted by the friendly wait staff upon arrival into this kind of hole in the wall place, we could see satisfied customers slurping away their noodles. Stephanie and I exchanged our consenting looks and waited patiently to be seated. Luckily, it wasn’t a long wait before we got the counter seats. In my opinion, this is the best table as I could see the three cooks in action. The menu was user-friendly as it’s pictorial, presenting us the five different types of ramen. There’s a limited selection of side orders like kimchi and pan-fried dumplings as well. The service was prompt and so came our bowls of ramen. Fresh noodles in thick and rich broth, topped with thinly sliced pork and lots of spring onions sprinkled on was simply irressitable. At that very moment, ramen became the love of my lunch…
845 Higashishiokoji Mukaihatacho
Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto
Kyoto Prefecture 600-8213, Japan
We were on our way the bustling Gion district as we were hoping to catch a glimpse of the geishas on the cool Sunday night. We found ourselves in the lovely cobblestone alleys with interesting townhousesHunger hit us and we wanted to have a decent and authentic dinner. We finally found one restaurant with only the locals dining in which accepted us at this late hour. However, the chef also politely reminded us that the menu was only in Japanese and he could only converse in very simple English.
The chef’s name is Nomura Masashi, who patiently took our dinner order. We weren’t too sure what to expect but with such a reassuring look from the chef, we believed we would be well taken care of. To our pleasant surprise, we were served with some amazing local cuisine! The meal started with a tasting portion of a beancurd dish. It had a sweet flavour and the pretty colour of the cherry blossoms. Once our sake was warmed up and served, the rest of the dishes swarmed in. We had an assortment of freshly sliced sashimi; a plate of grilled mushrooms, peppers, snow peas and asparagus; a beautiful piece of grilled fish and a delectable array of prawns and maize tempura with thick corn coating! It’s a real dinner treat with excellent service.
570-121 Gionmachi Minamigawa
Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
This was an unexpected surprise. How we ended up dining at this cosy restaurant started with a kind recommendation made by a friend, Ken Yokoyama, GM at Kyoto Hyatt Regency. Ken briefly mentioned we could try out this tiny place run by a mother and son who serve traditional Kyoto cuisine. Despite the short notice, he managed to make a reservation for us.
We did a quick search on Sakamoto online and realised it’s a one-michelin starred restaurant! This gem is hidden within a commercial block in the bustling Gion district which overlooks into the Shirakawa River. We weren’t too sure if we had come to the right place until the lovely elderly lady who greeted us confirmed it’s Sakamoto. The feeling was like entering someone else’s home. Inside, the décor was simple yet elegant. There’re two low tables and a sleek wooden counter, facing the modern kitchen. Standing behind the counter was Chef Ryuta Sakamoto and his two assistants. He greeted us politely and explained patiently to us the menus offered in perfect English.
Not to be missed if you had a chance to try this out. The three hour meal was beautifully crafted and every dish was presented with love by Chef Ryuta.
Gion Sueyoshi-cho, Higashiyama-ku
Tel: +86 75 551 2136
If you were looking for top shopping tips, I am afraid I won’t be able to quench your thirst here. I personally don’t like crowded places so shopping malls just don’t attract me. However, we found some more interesting shopping streets which are worth a visit.
The Teramachi and Shin Kyogoku Shopping Arcade are two parallel running, sheltered pedestrian streets. They are packed with shops and restaurants which sell clothes and goods. We also visited Nishiki Market, a colourful narrow food market street known as "Kyoto's Kitchen". It’s a food trail experience for us as we snacked on our delicious strawberries and strolled leisurely in this bustling street.
When my travelling companion, Stephanie suggested to stay in one of the traditional Ryokan houses in Kyoto, I was doubtful. A couple of valid reasons such as comfort and cost managed to convince her later. One of the properties I looked into was Hyatt Regency as I wanted to have the modern accessibilities as well as the traditional touch during our short stay in Kyoto. What a great decision made as Kyoto Hyatt Regency superceded my expectation!
The dynamic and helpful staff exuded the positive energy which somehow attracted me to make an effort to understand this amazing city and culture deeper. I need to make another trip back here!
Hyatt Regency Kyoto is a stylish hotel which blends contemporary style with Japanese traditional design elements. It is ideally located in the traditional and historic area of Higashiyama Shichijo, in the heart of Kyoto, Japan. The hotel is just few minutes drive from the Japan Railway Kyoto Station. You will be welcomed by the elegant bamboo trees which leads to a beautifully maintained Japanese garden with a waterfall and pond. This property had been to the reign of Emperor Goshirakawa (1155-1158AD).
Each of the 189 guestrooms offer a comfortable and relaxed environment, combining traditional Japanese aesthetics with modern facilities. Each room is styled with simplicity, elegance and most importantly with great functionality as it is well-equipped with flat-screen television and high-speed broadband internet access.
Not everyone likes to dine in the hotel as it is usually pricey and or the quality is not good enough. However, I’d come to know that many locals do visit the restaurants here for its freshest, authentic produce, service and valuable promotions. I certainly enjoyed the food at Trattoria Sette for its casual dining and the exquisite Japanese cuisine at the classy Touzan restaurant.
Unwind at RIRAKU Spa and Fitness after a busy day of sightseeing and shopping as it features the latest exercise equipment, steam room and sauna. There’s a range of facial and body treatments based on both traditional and modern methods.
The hotel is close to the main city landmarks including the National Museum, Chishakuin, Sanjusangendo and Yogenin Temples. Gion district, a traditional neighbourhood famous for geishas has numerous shopping and entertainment options, with Shijo street and Nishiki market within short distance.
Hyatt Regency Kyoto Hotel
644-2 Sanjusangendo-mawari, Higashiyama-ku
Tel: +81 75 541 1234
What I have learnt…
Write down or take photos in the your smartphone of ingredients and/or dishes you do not take as the menus provided are mainy in Japanese.
Plan your daily activities well as taxis are rather expensive. The subways and trains run frequently and efficiently so commuting within Kyoto and to the outskirts should be a breeze.
Lost in translation is inevitable in Japan. But I think that’s the fun part and good news is the locals are patient, friendly and helpful, hence you will sure get assistance should you need it!