We checked out and made the short walk to the station to continue our train journey from the day before, this time bound for Kyoto.
Train: Sakura 540 Hiroshima to Shin-Osaka (Followed by a local train to Kyoto Station)
Depart Hiroshima Station: 08:26
Arrive Shin Osaka: 09:53
Seats: Car 5: Seats 12A and 12B
Train: Kyushu Shinkansen 800 Series Maximum Speed 160mph (260 km/h)
The journey flew by and I really loved how effortlessly the bullet trains accelerated. Between enjoying the wonderful landscapes and writing a little more on this trip report it was soon time to exit the train.
Whilst everywhere we’d been to so far had been fairly quiet other than a few isolated tourist infested bottlenecks that were over almost as quickly as they formed, nothing quite prepared us for how busy and also how luggage unfriendly Kyoto public transport would be. This was the one and only time on this trip I felt it would have been worth the premium for a taxi as we bumped our suitcases up and down stairs (and hopefully not toes).
Hotel: Ritz Carlton Kyoto
Room: Garden Terrace Suite (4 Category Upgrade from Booked Deluxe Room)
Status: Bonvoy Gold
From the metro station the hotel was a short walk away, though it was so discrete from the outside we only truly realised we’d arrived when it was right in front of us! Thankfully I’d done my reading or we’d either have made an awkward first impression by arriving on foot through the vehicle entrance or faffed about outside wondering how to get in. Thankfully Ritz Carlton Kyoto lived up to every one of its good reviews and then some. As soon as we walked past the vehicle entrance with our cases one of the bellhops sprung to life almost at a jog to come and meet us as heaven forbid we carry any of our own luggage whilst on the premises.
From here our names were taken, the earphones started buzzing and we were seamlessly handed from person to person completing check-in in the room. OK, perhaps room wasn’t quite the right word. Despite being a humble Bonvoy Gold, albeit one on his honeymoon which coincided with our anniversary, we had booked the room on points so were genuinely expecting nothing at all in terms of freebies. I’d emailed the overly specific concierge for help with two reservations and booked us a lunch at the onsite Michelin starred tempura restaurant, but nothing that made me think we’d get upgraded from the base room to a £1500 per night Garden Terrace Suite.
As part of check in we got a full tour of the suite, sightseeing recommendations and routes, confirmation of our dinners and an offer of tea. It was also explained which items were complementary so there would be no confusion (and with Krug being the mini bar champagne it could have been an expensive mistake). Being made to feel at home and knowing what’s what is for me a big indicator to how good a hotel stay is going to be and I knew right away this was going to be fantastic. Then, to top it off a plate of amazing Pierre Herme macarons arrived. Not just two but six. These were up there with the best macarons I’d had anywhere. Yes, hotel heaven had been achieved.
Even the normally non-plussed Anne-So was loving this suite. There was also a full length terrace overlooking the river which had its own mini zen garden. Wow, just wow!
We’d planned our day around temple spotting, finishing up with an early dinner. Before starting with the sprawling grounds of Nanzen-ji, we took in one of the side temples, Konchi-in with a beautiful garden and some old buildings.
We then moved on to the crowded Nanzen-ji, mistakenly following our guide books suggestion of viewing a shrine a good walk uphill where monks would sit under a waterfall and meditate come rain, snow or shine.
The image our guidebook put into our heads did not match the reality and whilst it was a beautiful walk it meant we lost time at Eikan-do and ended up rushing along the Philosopher’s Path to the spectacular garden of Ginkaku-ji.
Whilst it would have been nice not to have rushed it was a wise choice to visit Ginkaku-ji at closing time, the crowds had thinned out and we had enough space to enjoy the tranquillity of the gardens and the views they afforded.
We arrived slightly early for our reservation at Monk and were politely asked to give them a few minutes to finish setting up. Being a beautiful early evening we found a shady spot across the river and gave the restaurant a good ten minutes wait.
Being the first ones in we got prime seats at the counter with full view of the kitchen and wood fired oven. The cuisine at Monk is a simple Japanese Italian fusion, fresh Japanese seasonal ingredients cooked simply, often using the wood oven or Italian food cooked and presented in a Japanese fashion.
Every course was delicious from first bite to last. It helped that one of the chefs was Japanese American and could therefore explain all the courses in a high level of detail in English which we were sure we missed at some of the other places we ate at. Having lived and cooked all over the world he was truly an interesting character. Speaking of which our dinner neighbours were from Australia and were quite the talkers. Well the wife was, less so the husband. We enjoyed hearing about their passion for Australian wine and their foodie adventures even if we are not the most talkative ourselves.
Whilst it may sound a bit odd, the joy of Japanese food and its celebration of high quality, fresh ingredients being allowed to shine is very similar to good quality Italian cuisine. Additionally, there was also a pizza course with some very Japanese toppings including fish and shiitake mushrooms. To be honest with the quality of the location and of the pizzas these guys could get rich quick running a pizza joint for tourists during the day. Not only was it a great meal but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say Monk is also my second favourite pizza place! This was quite possibly my favourite meal of the trip, from the succulent chicken to the creamy, rich risotto it was special from first bite to last.
We enjoyed a leisurely stroll back to the hotel through quiet residential streets with not a tourist in sight. Yes, a perfect way to end our first day in Kyoto. Well not quite the end, we still had some Pierre Herme macarons, a Nespresso machine and a soaking tub waiting for us. Yes, it had been one heck of a day that had us wanting more!
As per the suggestion of the generally stylish man of Instagram, Jarvis Marcos I decided to order a selection of the Pierre Herme pastries for breakfast to enjoy with the provided fruit energiser and in room espresso. Yes we could probably have found a bakery for half the price down the road but when you are treated to a £1500 a night suite on a points booking for a basic room you want to max out every moment.
However, before breakfast it was time for few lengths in the pool whilst Anne-So slept in. As I had shelled out on some fancy Calvin Klein swim shorts I’d be in trouble for not taking a dip. As it was much better looking than the bathrobe I wrapped myself up in my yukata and headed down to the basement for the spa and pool. After signing my life away at reception I was allowed into the changing rooms and got myself ready for a swim. Thankfully there were no more than two other people anywhere near the pool so my out of breath and out of shape attempt at doing ten lengths would not be widely noticed. It was a really nice pool for a relaxing swim, quiet, good temperature and all the things you could ever want nearby like clean towels, cool water, juice or a place to lounge.
The changing rooms featured Espa products as opposed to the Asprey ones in our suite they also had everything you need to get ready in the morning from tooth brushes to hairspray (lost on me) and deodorant as well as a handy machine to dry off your swimwear.
Refreshed from my swim I had worked up an appetite and as I returned to the corridor I saw the breakfast cart had pulled up outside the room. I let the nice lady in who kindly set up breakfast for us on the terrace outside. It was a beautiful way to start the morning with the calm of the river, mountain and zen garden. The pastries were good too, initially they looked a little dry on the outside but once bitten they turned out to be with filled with buttery soft flaky pastry inside. Perfect. The only downside was that the weather was so good it was just a little too hot on the terrace so the next morning we ate in the living room of our suite.
Our first stop of the morning was Nijo-jo castle and we enjoyed a leisurely walk from the hotel through the quiet streets of Kyoto, it was an easy trip as we pretty much walked in a straight line from the hotel heading away from the river.
About 40 mins later we arrived, picked up our tickets and began to explore. We particularly enjoyed the Ninomaru Palace with its squeaky nightingale floors, exquisite wood carvings, beautifully painted screens and rooms that showed the power of the emperor through their spectacular painted walls. In addition we also loved the fact that we were finally able to find some post cards in the gift shop!
Once we had castled ourselves out we took the bus to the Golden Temple (sadly not the holy place of the Sikhs in Amritsar that we have always wanted to visit) but somewhere we hoped would be a lovely spot.
The first impression we got of Kinkaku–ji (The Golden Temple) was that of a busy tourist magnet nightmare. Thankfully this first impression was mainly due to the small viewing area after buying your tickets being a great spot for taking a photo, selfie or 10 with the famous temple in the background, thus creating the bottleneck. The rest of the time we had a fairly pleasant walk around the temple grounds with some less crowded photos, other than the occasional interruption by a loud and slightly irritating tour group comprised entirely of middle aged Brits (glad we didn’t sign up for that one!).
Finding ourselves blinged out from all the gold we found a quiet spot in the shade (not easy as it was absolutely baking hot that day) and fired up Google Maps for a lunch option as our book was not of much help. Two minutes away was a soba place with the only negative being that it was a little over-priced. Whilst that may have been true, a refreshing bowl of cold soba was just what we needed. Plus it was gluten free which was good for Anne-So who had somewhat over-indulged on the gluten at breakfast. I had the cold soba meal with a pork donburi and Anne-So had the warm soba with grilled eel. The food was pretty good and set us up nicely for dinner.
We then decided against our original plan and decided instead to visit the famous bamboo forest via nice walk past some cute antique shops and another bus and train ride.
After an initial wrong turn on the bus we got back on track and it wasn’t long before we arrived at the station for our transfer to the San-In line and a short journey to Saga-Arashiyama Station for the famous bamboo forest. Once again, initially it felt like a bit of a tourist trap but once inside we found the Nonomiya Shrine dedicated to marriage. The shrine was a popular spot for those looking to find that special someone. We realised how lucky we were and made a small offering for a friend who has sadly not shared our fortune in the romance department. We then enjoyed a nice shady stroll along the path through the bamboo forest enjoying the calm, swishing, hypnotic green light and the cool breeze It was a world away from the harsh sun that had been beating down on us all day. Once the crowd thinned out we certainly enjoyed its magic.
We looped back to the station and enjoyed observing a rather persistent young man attempting to chat up a couple of kimono clad women on his way out of the forest.
Before we got the train back to the hotel to freshen up there was just enough time for a nice little ice cream combo of sakura and green tea, a world away from the charcoal dyed monstrosity from the volcano side in Hakone.
BTW. The mini train that took us back in the direction of the hotel was a sight to behold, not only that but it contained the most helpful poster for tourists in all Japan.
Arriving back at the hotel we dressed up (in the end somewhat unnecessarily) for dinner as we were going to a Michelin starred Kappo dining restaurant – to quote the Michelin guide itself, “As with omakase Kaiseki, Kappo is a multi-course meal that is left entirely up to the chef. Kappo simply means ‘to cut and to cook’, an all-encompassing word for a less formal cuisine that emphasizes the proximity between the diner and the chef who is cutting and cooking the food.“
As it was a lovely night we decided to walk down the famous Ponto-cho alley filled with enticing food fumes and an eclectic mix of tourists, it certainly provided an interesting walk before we cut through the edge of Nishiki Market searching for our restaurant.
As it was largely unmarked we were glad one of the chefs found us outside and had our reservation with my name horribly misspelled on his iPad. Jiki Miyazawa was a small intimate counter restaurant where you watched the chefs prepare and finish off all the food in front of you. There were different menu options all with a similar volume of food but the more you paid the more expensive the ingredients (and tableware) were. We went with the basic menu which was still around £60 each plus drinks after tax and service. I have to say seeing as we under-spent on our food budget and ended up splashing out at the end of our trip to make up for it I wish we’d spent the extra either here or at lunch the next day as although our food was excellent we did got a little bit of food envy when we saw some of the other diners dishes.
We enjoyed a small bottle of sake with our meal.
The two highlights from this meal for me were the specially aged sashimi where the blood and nerves are removed using a special process that completely change the taste and texture of the fish (if you’d asked me before this trip if I’d ever eat a piece of week old raw fish I’d have laughed in your face) and an absolutely amazing sesame tofu dish for which the restaurant is famous.
What was interesting about this meal is how both Monk the night before and Tempura Mizuki where we had lunch the following day all used very similar ingredients: peas, sweet potato and Japanese aubergine but each prepared them in completely different ways with equally good but completely different tasting results. We finished the meal with some matcha and a fond thank you from the chef (where I managed to embarrass myself on two occasions!) anyway, it was a really great meal that was both everything we hoped for and left us wanting to come back for more.
To walk it off we decided to route back over the other side of the river through the Gion area which at its best contained some interesting looking old houses filled with all sorts of secretive and no doubt very expensive goings on, to the seedy, nasty and generally not very nice which was only made fun by a group of absolutely wasted businessmen trying and failing to do the traditional good-bye bow and business card exchange. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor came to mind…
We arrived back at the Ritz tired and happy as it had been such a good day. Hopefully the next one would bring more of the same for us to enjoy. We knew for sure that one day we’d be coming back to Kyoto.
As per the previous morning I started the day with a few laps in the pool followed by Pierre Herme pastries and some Nespresso to get up and running. After nearly burning to death in the morning sun the day before we elected to have our breakfast indoors.
We had decided to spend our final morning in Kyoto at Fushimi Inari, home of the Inari messenger, a temple and those famous torii gates that line all the paths. It was a short walk and metro ride to the complex which was jam packed with groups of Japanese school children and tourists from across the globe. It was also very warm and thankfully we had brought with us a huge supply of Ritz Carlton water to keep us sane and hydrated. Unfortunately I’d planned our eating before our sightseeing and as we’d also changed our mind and decided to leave Kyoto later than originally planned we had only a few hours to wander the paths up the mountain and enjoy the bustle of the temple before needing to return to the hotel for lunch and to check out.
Initially going was slow, painful and crowded as we trudged slowly along the torii lined trail. However, after about half an hour when there was the first option to turn back around with ease the crowds began to thin.
By the time we made it up to the viewpoint after a good hour of walking the masses were gone and in their place was the feeling of regret that we had not left the time to make it to the top. It was a truly spiritual walk. We took an alternative path on the way down and again, found it crowd free and enjoyed passing through some shrines on our way down including some fantastic frogs that reminded us of the film Spirited Away.
We rushed back to the Ritz to ensure we had checked out in time and did not miss our reservation. Really it would have just been sensible to have asked for a later check out or push back our reservation half an hour. In all the rush I forgot to pack one of my more expensive t-shirts and luckily a day later the hotel e-mailed me and for a small fee couriered it on to our final destination.
From the moment we sat down at Tempura Mizuki we knew this would be a fun lunch. The chef was smiling, our counter mates to the left looked like they were having fun and the group to the right were pouring champagne like water and giving gifts to the hotel staff.
We were presented with the fresh ingredients that were going to be turned into our light and delicious tempura. Initially I was a little apprehensive that it was not enough food and that we should have gone for a pricier menu, but as was often the case during this trip I was wrong.
Our drinks soon came, a nice fresh, cold Kyoto beer for me and some ginger ale for Anne-So who by this time had become completely hooked on the stuff and had it with pretty much every meal.
Lunch began with a refreshing starter.
Next came our tempura, one piece at a time with the chef recommending how to get the most out of each item from using one or more of the four special salts, dipping sauce or just on its own.
He presented each item with a sense of theatre and love of his job that is rarely seen. Yet again we got a little bit of menu envy after watching some of the diners other dishes come out, specifically the wagyu beef and tempura swimming fish. Sadly those we only got to eat with our eyes. My favourite piece was the tempura Camembert. Once more we got to enjoy a lot of the seasonal ingredients that were on the menu at both Monk and Jiki Miyazawa. We found ourselves presented with another reason to return to Japan, but most definitely in the autumn or winter.
After the tempura it was time for rice, pickles and miso soup followed by some green tea.
To finish off we were served some delicious Pierre Herme ice cream, the black sesame was exceptional.
Just when we thought it was over some matcha tea arrived to signal the end of our feast.
Meanwhile our left sided dining buddies were presented with a little happy birthday photo and our right side buddies had cracked open their 4th or maybe 5th bottle of wine. They had now moved on to the red.
Our last stop in Kyoto was Nishiki Market, filled with fresh produce to purchase, smoke from the grill if you wanted a snack on the go and the hustle and bustle of the crowd. The atmosphere was good even if it was a touch too crowded for my liking. It was also fun to see a lot of the things we’d been eating during the course of the trip. We also attempted to do a little souvenir shopping around the area but the few things we genuinely liked were well over budget so we gave them a miss.
Unfortunately our time out was rudely interrupted by the rumbling of my stomach. As much as my taste buds had found a new found love of seafood the rest of me hadn’t so we hurried back to the hotel hoping for the best.
Whilst I was attempting to feel better, Anne-So had picked up our bags from guest services and was organising us a taxi. And if you know us well from our trip reports, other than in India we don’t really do taxis on our trips when public transport will quickly and happily get us from A to B.
Feeling relieved I headed back towards guest services to find Anne-So ushering me and our bags into the cab. At the same time our inebriated lunch companions were being ushered into a cab of their own before they fell down drunk after too much bowing. Thankfully the stories about the eye watering cost of Japanese taxis proved untrue as our journey was not crazy expensive vs taking the tube. It was also more comfortable and our taxi driver was great fun with his huge love of Kyoto and delighted in showing us his rather lovely photographs. We were dropped off at Kyoto Station feeling a lot better than when we left, until we tried to get ourselves to where our train was. It felt like we were furthest from everyone with our train departing from platform 0, or at least furthest from all lifts and escalators!