Monday, November 9, 2015

Kyoto is not just a spring time destination

Kyoto is beautiful even in the middle of winter. Of course it is especially beautiful in the spring and autumn but sometimes life doesn't permit one to travel at the most ideal time of year.  We planned a trip to Kyoto at the beginning of February. Yes, Kyoto is cold during the winter, but with a down coat, gloves, long johns, and the right outlook, it can be a very special time to visit.

Our original plan was to go to Japan just for a ski vacation. But we couldn't resist the allure of the Kyoto's gardens, shrines, temples, food and culture - so the city was added onto our itinerary. Visiting during the winter allowed the opportunity to enjoy the city at a different perspective that many visitors  don't see.

With an easy train ride from Tokyo's Narita Airport to Kyoto, we were checked into our ryokan-inn and settled in before dinner. A ryokan is a traditional inn dating back to the Edo period (17th-19th century), with tatami mat floors, traditional futon beds, and offers visitors the use of cool Japanese robes called yukata. Without even leaving the room, we were immersed in Japanese culture. We could have lingered around our "hotel" and avoided the cold outside but we were excited explore Kyoto.
Waiting in an orderly line for the Shinkansen train to Kyoto.
Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura's warm welcoming entrance.
Our room
The traditional Japanese breakfast was extremely satisfying.

With three jet-lagged days in Kyoto, here's what we did to keep busy and warm.

Enjoying the temples and gardens without the crowds

The number of international visitors is far lower in the winter and it's actually possible to enjoy many sights in the serenity for which it was originally designed. Top rated sites like Fushimi Inari Shrine had a manageable number of visitors and many other sites were nearly empty. Thanks to our jet-lag, we were able to get out early and enjoy the sites before the early sunset.
Shōren-in Temple
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
With a warm jacket and tea shops along the way one can stroll through the whole grounds, sometimes completely alone.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Shōren-in Temple was nearly empty and we were able to have a zen moment.
Kodai-ji's gardens were tranqil with the silence of winter.

Not every temple was empty. Since it doesn't snow often in Kyoto and starts to melt away in the midday sun,  a snow fall can bring out the Japanese crowds. We avoided the crowds at the Golden Pavilion but found plenty of people at Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
Kiyomizu-dera was unseasonably crowded.


Warming up with ramen, udon and soba

Japan is renowned for its amazing food. And nothing is more satisfying on a chilly day than warming up with a hot tea and a delicious bowl of soup. With every area we explored, we also had a nearby place to get a warm bowl of soup.
Sobanomi Yoshimura Restaurant specialized in homemade soba noddles. Both the set menus of warm and cold soba were excellent. They even had soba ice cream.
Udon noodles are traditionally plated separately and each chopstick full is dipped in a rich broth before eating.
Myodai Omen Kodaiji Restaurant.
World famous and now world wide Ippudo is still popular with the locals.
With a limited lunch menu and many communal tables, locals are here for the serious business of eating and getting on with their day.

Nothing screams Japan more than incorporating technology into your meal. Ginjoramenkubota arguably serves the best ramen. It's a hole-in-the-wall shop with a machine to order your food from and a small counter to eat at. You select your ramen at the machine, pay for your order and then the machine gives you a ticket. Bring your ticket to the counter where a cook will immediately start on your ramen and you'll be eating within minutes. It's fast, cheap, convenient and so delicious.
Ginjoramenkubota  has a modest store front.
Crossing our fingers that we ordered the right thing.
Oh my gosh, it was delicious.

The biggest downside of eating in Japan was the occasional smoking section. Though we were lucky enough not be seated next to a smoker, there was always a fear of what the neighboring table might pull out of their pocket.

Staying warm by moving our feet

We did a fair amount of walking between taking (toasty warm) public transportation. We spent one afternoon in Gion doing the walking tour from the Lonely Planet travel book. With small crowds and a dusting of snow on the rooftops, it was our favorite afternoon.
Sannen-zaka Street in the Higashiyama District.

Need to warm up again? Pop into a shop for a snack.

I really don't need an excuse to stop for a snack while on vacation, but warming up at the same time had us stopping more than usual.
Warmed up at Kasagi-ya Tea House; a small shop in the Gion serving a small array of local treats and tea.
Nishiki Market sells an array of Japanese food, pottery, and other knick-knacks.
Matcha snack breaks.

This won't be our last trip to Kyoto

Overall we enjoyed our time in Kyoto. Although we were a bit jet-lagged, we were able to see as much as we had hoped for. There was more to see, but honestly this did not bother us too much because we're already daydreaming of our next visit.