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First Days In Kyoto

With comments in bold by Vicky

Us with Masashi our host for the first two nights in Kyoto

Couchsurfing in Kyoto

We finished our day in Nara and boarded the train to Kyoto, satisfied by the feeling of being on our way and having it all figured out. We were really starting to get the hang of Japanese transportation.

Or so we thought.

Before long the train ticket collector approached us, asking to verify our passes. As we handed him our tickets to Kyoto, he indicated, by pointing at a pamphlet with English translations, that we had improperly boarded an express train and would have to pay the difference (about $6 each). I don’t recall what we tried to explain…something, but it was futile, he just kept pointing at that sheet and at the end of the day it was only $12 (I was pretty upset about this anyway though – that could have been a delicious lunch). We paid the fee and were on our way, with the additional lesson that no matter how comfortable you think you are, you can’t rush into the first train you see without evaluating the situation.

The train here is a general metaphor, btw.

Kyoto station is a magnificent display of modern architecture, boasting several floors of shops and restaurants. We contacted our host and he agreed to meet us at the bus stop (yes, another bus). A bit more confident than the last time, we boarded our bus and made our way into the city(having thought we missed the bus we should have taken Dave was getting all worked up about missing the host at the bus stop for the meet up time).

Home made Okonomiyaki by our Kyoto couchsurfer

Our host for the next two days was a legendary Couchsurfer in Kyoto. A 71 year old man, he has as many references as years. He welcomed us into his home and made us okonomyaki, a traditional Japanese dish made of (eggs, cabbage, pork, mushrooms, etc. The final product resembles a thick pancake but instead is savory and bursting with flavors. Drizzled with a sweet soy sauce and mayonnaise we dug right into the meal).

Miso soup for breakfast in Kyoto Pacific Saury for breakfast in Kyoto

When we awoke the next day we discussed our plans with Masashi over breakfast (breakfast of champions to be exact – miso soup, pacific saury fish, capelin fish and a large bowl of rice). Masashi offered to personally show us around the city – an offer we could not refuse. Having lived in Kyoto for over 50 years, Masashi was a resident expert. I was slightly concerned whether or not he would be ok to keep up with Vicky’s and my usual pace of 8 hrs of walking per day, but I figured if we had to we could always cut it short.

Arashiyama Kyoto

Day 1 Activities

Masashi lives on the west side of the city in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto. His English was conversational and frankly one of the better we’ve encountered along the way. We first made our way first to a vantage point, (down the street and around the corner from the tram stop we began our short hike up the mountain.

View Point in Arashiyama Kyoto

When we reached the top we were just as out of breath as Masashi and a view of the river below welcomed us. This happens to be Masashi’s favorite spot in the city and we were incredibly grateful to him for sharing this spot with us).

Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama Kyoto Bamboo Forest Arashiyama Kyoto

Bamboo Forest

I’ll always remember Bamboo Forest(an entire area stacked with bamboo trees) as the place where I vowed never to forget my Deet. Shorts were a terrible idea and I left covered with Mosquito bites that irked me the rest of the day(more like the rest of the week).

Fast Food Lunch

(Understanding our budget consciousness Masashi offered that we get a ‘fast food’ lunch from the convenience store. We were happy to have him lead the way and point out which items would be good to eat. Triangular and round rice balls surrounded by seaweed and with various fillings in the middle made for a delicious lunch. I personally prefer the triangular ones as the seaweed is crunchy and hasn’t gotten soggy from the rice but Dave prefers the round ones where the seaweed is softer. To each his own. Since that lunch I have had tons of these rice balls – these are truly my favorite snack and I will miss them when we leave Japan. The more expensive ones seem to have a pork filling and I’ve found that the ones with a higher calorie count have mayonnaise in them (exactly what I’m looking for). With Masashi we eat our rice balls on a bench outside the 

The Rock garden Ryōan-ji Temple Kyoto By the rock garden Ryōan-ji Temple Kyoto
behind the Rock garden Ryōan-ji Temple Kyoto Japan_ Rock Garden

Ryoan-ji Temple and Rock Garden

This temple is one of the finest examples of Japanese rock gardens (and I know my Japanese rock gardens). It contains 15 rocks which represent perfection. From any seated position, only 14 are visible – it is said that only through attaining enlightenment would on be able to view the fifteenth boulder (I’m pretty sure I never saw more than 12 at once, so I have a ways to go) (same here).

There is something very unpretentious about Japanese rock gardens. Simple yet elegant, they seem to almost perfectly embody the minimalist spirit of Zen Buddhism. I won’t go so far as to say that I could stare at them for hours, but I did have some deep thoughts – I think. Unfortunately admission is not limited to the rock gardens so it is very hard to find some peace there among the numerous tour groups and independent tourists that visit the garden at any one time. 

Golden Pavilion Kyoto Japan

Kinkakuji – The Golden Pavilion

This temple lives up to its name, and I don’t mean the Kinkakuji part. The temple’s golden exterior is unlike any of the other ones we saw. A popular destination for school field trips, Vicky and I were bombarded by swarms of eight year olds who wanted to know where we were from, what we liked about Japan, and if they could take a picture with us.

Photo with school children outside Golden Pavilion Kyoto

Always the same questions, and as I’m writing this we’ve already encountered a half dozen of these groups (oh and the children along with mostly everyone else in Japan seem to put up the peace sign in every photo they take – why do they do this? We have yet to get a good answer for this).

Home made Japanese Curry for Dinner Kyoto Miso Vegetables for Dinner Kyoto


When we finally got back Vicky and I were both beat, and though Vicky had agreed to help Masashi in the kitchen, we both fell into a deep nap – the elderly man had bested us both.

Masashi made us Japanese curry for dinner. I generally don’t like curry but the Japanese version is milder and doesn’t contain the usual Indian spices, which, frankly, I find offensive. (Earlier in the day Masashi brought up the question of curry and Dave immediately expressed his dislike for to, which must have somewhat upset Masashi who I’m sure had already planned on preparing the Japanese curry for us. Though Dave tried to explain that he would be happy to try the curry Masashi was kind enough to prepare another dish as well – miso vegetables, in case Dave in fact did not enjoy the curry) Overall everything was delicious, curry and vegetables. 

Dave on Bike Kyoto Day Two

Day 2 Activities

The next day Vicky and I were on our own, but not on foot. Masashi lent us bikes to take around the city. The bikes took some getting used to since they were sized for a small child, otherwise known as an adult Japanese male (sorry but at 6 ‘3 I’m the tallest person in this country and find myself constantly ducking to enter rooms). Eventually we got the hang of it and were zipping around the city at lightning speed. (Dave looked more like a street performer trying to entertain people on his bike than a tourist trying to get from point A to B). 

Nijo Castle Kyoto

Nijo Castle Kyoto Japan Garden by Nijo Castle Kyoto

Nijo Castle

Early 17th century commissioned by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. One of the more interesting features are the nightingale floors. The builders constructed floor boards that squeaks as you walk on them to protect against sneak attacks and assassins.

Sukiya Lunch Day Two Kyoto Lunch Day Two Kyoto
Lunch Day Two Kyoto Gyodon Bowl Sukiya Lunch Day Two Kyoto Empty Bowl

(Before heading to our next destination we made a pit stop for lunch – Suyaki – a chain restaurant that seemed to have a lot of people inside, which I generally use as my indicator that a place should be ok. With the help of a picture menu we chose a Gyudon bowl with mustard greens and mayonnaise (who knew the Japanese love mayonnaise as much as us Russians?) With paper thin slices of beef and flavorful sticky rice the dish was delicious, and as you can see we gobbled it all up).

Hein Shrine Gate Kyoto Hein Shrine Bridge Kyoto

Hein Shrine in Kyoto

Heian Shrine Garden in Kyoto Heian Shrine Gardens in Kyoto

The Heian Shrine

This is a very beautiful shrine with a fantastic garden, which, unfortunately for us, was not particularly in bloom. Even so, it was still worth it.

Imperial Palace Gardens

If you want to see the Imperial Palace you have to make reservations ahead of time. We didn’t do this (but we did it for Tokyo!). The outer area is a nice park.

Minor Temples

The exact number of temples in Kyoto is under dispute, but the numbers that we heard were around 2-3ooo. If you’re in the mood for a stroll, there’s a good chance you’ll simply wander into one by nature of there being so many. Vicky and I came across a few unplanned temples that were also very nice (and free!).

Although we would stay 4 days in Kyoto we only did 2 with Masashi – he had more Couchsurfers coming and we had received more than our fair share of hospitality. We gathered our belongings and headed to Sanjo Station – the center of the city, to begin our next Couchsurfing experience.


78 Yen = 1 Dollar

Plan to spend about 1 hr at each of the below:

Nijo castle – 600 yen
Golden Pavilion – 400 yen
Rock Garden – 500 yen
Heian Gardens – 600 yen

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13 Responses to First Days In Kyoto

  1. looks awesome, Dave, couchsurfing appears the way to go.

    Stephen September 25, 2012 at 8:02 AM Reply
  2. Love the post, food photos, bike picture of David. Very entertaining and memorable!

    mom September 25, 2012 at 8:19 AM Reply
  3. Love those pics. Japan looks wonderful. The prices of things over there is a major deterrent for us to visit now. But someday.

    jill September 26, 2012 at 7:57 PM Reply
    • Thanks!! We will post a budget and cost update once we’re done with Japan and I think you’ll be surprised at how little we’ve spent. Japan definitely is expensive but we’ve been able to really cut costs and spend the minimum without missing out. Hope you make it here soon – it really is amazing!

      Vicky September 26, 2012 at 8:19 PM Reply
  4. You guys really packed in a lot in just 2 days! Did you explore the Arashiyama district with your host (apart from the Bamboo Forest)? It was one of my favorite areas of Kyoto – especially the monkey park!

    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) September 27, 2012 at 4:39 AM Reply
    • Yeah he took us around but unfortunately we did not go to Monkey Park, just didn’t get to it that day!

      Dave and Vicky September 27, 2012 at 4:44 AM Reply
  5. Great pics and info guys. I’m looking forward to seeing some cost breakdowns since we’re still debating whether we can afford to schedule Japan into the first year of our trip (we’re already including New Zealand and Australia so we don’t want to blow our budget entirely!).

    Amy September 27, 2012 at 10:53 AM Reply
    • Thanks! We’ll definitely post a cost breakdown within the new week or so, so that should give you a better idea. Even with a 7 day rail pass included I think our costs should be around $75 a day per person and we have managed to see Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go, Takayma, Tokyo, Kamakura, Hiroshima and Miyajima. Couchsurfing has definitely played a huge part in keeping our costs down and I think Japan can be done on a budget especially if you limit the amount of traveling and opt out of the rail pass (that alone is $356 a person).

      Vicky September 27, 2012 at 10:58 AM Reply
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