Monday, 20 January 2014

Frugal City Guide: Kyoto

Japan's old capital, with over 2,000 shrines, is a must-see city. It's just over 2 hours on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo but feels a million miles away from the city of lights. I loved the windy streets of the Pontocho neighbourhood, the fantastic food, the Geisha district and the shrines and temples everywhere you looked. My husband loved Tokyo, I fell in love with Kyoto. These are my must-visits:


Hotel Mume was not only my favourite Hotel in Japan, it is quite possibly my favourite Hotel in the world. Boutique style accommodation with only 7 rooms, book in advance but it'll be worth it, stylish modern rooms with antique furniture and the staff act like your personal concierge. Every evening between 5pm-7pm you can enjoy free drinks as the staff help you decide where to visit, print maps and give personal recommendations. Everywhere they suggested was out of this world. It is also in a great location on a cute antique street right by the Gion area (Geisha district).


Fushimi Inari Shrine

By far my favourite shrine, it has a wonderful loud, market street leading up to it with music, shaved ice (essential if you are there in the summer), matcha (green tea) ice cream, street food and trinkets. Then behind the shrine is an incredible length of the famous red Tori gates, which are seemingly endless.

Strawberry shaved ice
The Golden Pavilion

Okay so it burnt down a couple of times and is actually not as old as first thought but it's still pretty incredible, almost entirely covered in gold leaf. And it has beautiful gardens, too.

Me at the Golden Pavilion (feeling very zen)

A little way out (we had to get a local train) but well worth it for a day, I would rent bikes as there are lots of nature trails here. It's a bit like a giant national trust park, with lakes, places of astounding beauty, and behind one of the shrines is the most amazing 'bamboo forest', which is definitely worth some snaps.

Rivers and bamboo forest of Arashiyama

Pontocho Neighbourhood

This looks like a street from another era, and it used to be traditional teahouses, some Geishas still entertain in some establishments but mainly it's full of restaurants and bars (and in Japan, there's not really such a thing as tacky, rip-off restaurants like you have in London - all are pretty much great). The street runs along the river and from afar looks like shacks and at night, all lit up, you can feel the buzz of the restaurants come alive.


This is the traditional geisha district of Kyoto, and here you might see a Maiko (Geisha in training) or even a Geisha roaming the streets. It has beautiful cobbled streets and is easy to walk around, you can also see the small red bridge from the film 'Memoirs of a Geisha'.

On Gion corner, there are daily shows showing 7 different types of Japanese performing arts. In July, the Gion festival has parades all through the streets, we just caught the end of the festival when we visited.
Part of the Gion festival


Kappa Zushi - a restaurant in the Pontocho district and recommended to us by our Hotel and probably the best sushi I've had in my life, and roughly £50 for two of us. We sat at the bar and the chef made each dish in front of us, and gestured us how to eat each item - some items needed no sauce and others should be eaten all in one go etc. It made us really appreciate the food. 
Must try: the fatty seared tuna...

Kokoraya - this is a typical Japanese Izakaya (like a Japanese pub) where food is simple, tasty and you can drink more than you would in a restaurant. You would generally order drinks and then keep ordering small dishes to accompany. They're often more local and in this one we had to take our shoes off and eat sitting on floor level. Try: sake with water.

Isoya - a trendy, hip place serving only local produce. The place was packed with a great atmosphere, we ate at the bar - get your hotel to book for you as there was no english menu but they were happy to help. We just pointed to other people's food or things they were cooking and it worked perfectly! Everything we ordered tasted so fresh, and prices really reasonable -  we loved it.

This was where we realised there was more to life than sushi: have you tried okonomiyaki?! Basically savoury pancakes served on a hot plates...delicious. The restaurant is on the red bridge from the Gion district but great value and not too touristy - a must.

Cool decor, although it gets busy. We went around 2:30pm to miss the crowds which seemed to work, as there can be queues. Known to be some of the best ramen in Kyoto, I tried the popular 'dipping ramen' which involves dipping cold noodles into a hot soy broth so you fuse the cold and hot. My husband tried the signature dish: burnt soy ramen.

Dipping noodles

Again, we used Unique Japan tours, who offer one day tours whilst in Kyoto. Our guide, Meg, was wonderful and she actually took me to the best conveyor belt sushi place where you order via a computer and it was 65p a dish but I forgot to write it down! C'est la vie...

With Meg at The Golden Pavilion


  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I would have never considered Japan as a holiday destination-it looks amazing! I hope the ramen tasted as good as it looks!

  2. I would love to go to Japan! Its on my bucket list! Ax

  3. Looks like you had an awesome time. I'm planning a trip to Japan at the moment and will be visiting Tokyo and Kyoto, so your recommendations are really helpful. Did you visit any other cities on your trip? I'm trying to work out if I have time to go somewhere else too.

    1. Hi Bex, we travelled quite a bit - we visited a beautiful place called Takayama in the mountains (it is a world heritage site with a preserved old town) - just for one night as it's quite small but you get much of a feel of the countryside - we found a fab karaoke place here and great restaurants...and we stayed in a traditional Ryokan in nagano which was an amazing experience (we stayed here: We didnt do Hiroshima or Osaka, which we heard were brilliant, too. Just means we have to go back! It was literally the best holiday we've ever had!


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