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~This is part two (Kyoto) of my favorite travel experiences in Japan. If you’re new to The Fresh Beet, be sure to check out Part 1 — Tokyo. If you really don’t care what I have to say and just want to read the travel tips, scroll straight to the bottom.~


The surrounding mountain towns, the plethora of ceramic shops, the architecture and design, the traditional handmade goods, the food, the way they chase out you the door saying goodbye, thank you and wishing you well. I fell in love with Kyoto the moment we walked out of the subway and onto the residential street that took us to our apartment. So many parts of this city spoke to me in ways I can’t explain, but I’ll do my best.

These are my top experiences from Kyoto…

 

1) The hike up Mount Kurama + Kurama Onsen (Hot Spring)

 

japan travel tips

After spending our first few days of this trip in the city, we were ready for some nature. Mt. Kurama is just a 30 minute train ride from Kyoto, making it an easy day trip. The train ride is part of the fun, as it winds through cute little mountain towns and a maple tunnel, a long pass of beautiful green maple leaf trees (green in the summer, vibrant red and orange in the fall).

mount kurama train

The ascent is full of spectacular temples and shrines, and a fair amount of stairs.

mountain town japan

It was so pleasant to be surrounded by all that green and to take a break from life, not thinking about what I have to get done today, tomorrow, or ever 🙂

When you ascend the mountain, you land yourself in a town called kibune. It was so adorable; I mean all the restaurants on this one street had outdoor seating right over the stream!

kyoto travel

mountain town japan

We headed back to the train station and made our way to the Kurama Onsen – the hot spring. They don’t allow you to take any pictures so I didn’t. Twenty year old Ashley would have ignored those rules and snapped away, but I wasn’t about to disobey. People in this country follow the rules and I can’t imagine what happens to rule breakers.

Onsen’s are gender separate so DT and I had to split up. You strip down, wash yourself thoroughly and then soak away until your heart is content. Relaxing in Onsen overlooking the mountains is as serene as it gets. Not a care in the world. And I don’t know about you, but being naked, outside, in the mountains, is a pretty awesome feeling. It’s quite liberating actually. Everyone is naked and there’s no shame. No judgement.

I was actually a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to partake in this adventure. I had read that Onsen’s are very strict about individuals with tattoos and that they may reject you if they see you have any. Had I gotten rejected, my plan was to plea for forgiveness and show them that two of my three tatts were Japanese inspired! A Koi fish and a lotus flower. If anyone was getting a tatt pass, it was me dammit. Luckily, I flew under the radar.

 

2) Arashiyama & the Bamboo Forest

 

japan travel tips

Arashiyama

Arashiyama is a touristy but pleasant town that can be reached in under 30 minutes by train, making it another great day trip from Kyoto. Home of the Bamboo Forest and near Iwatayama Monkey Park, there’s alot to see and do here. I came across photos of the Bamboo Forest online when I was researching things to do in Kyoto a couple weeks before leaving. It’s a bit touristy, but for good reason. It’s beautiful! It towers over you and you can’t help but feel like a wild animal walking through the jungle.

kyoto travel tips

In addition to the beautiful surroundings Arashiyama has to offer, it’s also full of shops selling handmade goods and of course, plenty of restaurants, street food and ice cream shops.

There’s no shortage of pastry shops or ice cream parlors. Green tea ice cream – when in Japan #greenteaicecream #latergram #egcg

A photo posted by Ashley Galloway Thomas MS, RD (@thefreshbeet) on

3) Ogling over pottery everyday and taking a Pottery Class in Uji.

 

I want to take all of these cute little porcelain bowls home and eat off every one of them

A photo posted by Ashley Galloway Thomas MS, RD (@thefreshbeet) on

I took pottery all throughout high school and continued to create during my “free time” in college. I currently have my own wheel and kiln and dabble around when I have time, though I wish I could dedicate more time to it. Like other forms of art, it teaches you patience. You might have your mind set on creating a certain shape, but sometimes it doesn’t work out and you have start all over. Sometimes your glaze doesn’t come out the way you intended (or even the least bit attractive) and now the entire piece is ruined, so you start over. I have more experience than the average joe but I have so so much more to learn.

The roots of pottery in Japan run deep and it’s some of the most exquisite pottery I’ve ever seen. It’s so delicate and detailed, but it’s used in everyday life, from restaurant chefs to home cooks. Every restaurant had stacks upon stacks of these marvelously designed bowls, plates and ramekins just ready to be tossed around in a hurried frenzy to get food to the customer. When we took a cooking lesson from Sumi I squealed in delight when she opened up her kitchen cabinet to reach for a bowl. I could see stacks of more beautiful plateware, handmade and painted or glazed by some talented artist in Japan. In every restaurant we ate, our noodles and rice were served in beautifully crafted and painted bowls. Our pickled ginger and bamboo placed on delicate ramekins. Our chopsticks placed on hand built rests shaped differently in each establishment. Meal time is artful among the Japanese and I just love how this tradition has remained in tact for all these years.

Feeling immensely inspired as ceramics endlessly surrounded me, I booked a pottery class in Uji, an area of Kyoto famous for it’s tea plantations and apparently, pottery. As you probably know, tea and ceramics go quite well together. I went for the pottery class but I also got beautiful views of more mountains, water and adorable cobblestone roads lined with huge, fluffy green trees.

My ceramics instructor didn’t know too much english, but she was easy to follow because I was familiar with the process. She also has instructions written out in english for those who are new to pottery. I chose a handbuilding class because I don’t usually hand build and I thought it would be good practice. And it was. I even learned something new – throw a shape on the wheel, bisque fire, and use it as a model to drape/hand build. This way you can make 10 bowls of uniform shape instead of throwing 10 separate bowls and trying to to make them all look the same. It’s probably something I learned in the past but have clearly forgotten. Anyway, here’s what I made. I used a stamp to cover the bowl in flowers. It symbolizes my desire to come back to Japan during cherry blossom season.

After the lesson, my instructor took down my address so she could ship it to me once it was glazed and fired. Then she led me next door to the gallery where a very friendly woman offered me tea and a sweet. During our conversation she learned that I was on my honeymoon. She got very excited and ran into the next room to bring me two chopstick rests with characters written on them symbolizing the year of the monkey. She wrapped them up and wished me well in my marriage.

 

4) The Food. Obviously.

 

RAMEN

If you follow me on Instagram then you know ramen was a big deal for me. And it still is. I touched on my love for ramen in my post about Tokyo, but I’m so obsessed that I’m already planning to perfect my ramen making skills and host a ramen blow out. It may not seem like the healthiest nor the most creative of dishes I could have had in Japan but the flavor profile was so phenomenal and the culture surrounding eating it was intriguing.

Noodle slurping selfie. We’re on the ramen train – can’t stop won’t stop. #ramen #noodlesforlife #japan #foodstagram #wanderlust

A photo posted by Ashley Galloway Thomas MS, RD (@thefreshbeet) on

OKONOMIYAKI

When we first arrived to Kyoto it was dinner time. We dropped our things off at our apartment and headed out in search of something good to eat. We stumbled upon a cool place with individual flat top grills built into the tables (and they had an English menu! woot woot!). We ordered a huge salad to split, Japanese omelet and okonomiyaki, a kind of japanese pancake. Ours was made with noodles, cabbage, and some other veggies and topped with a raw egg and tons of scallion. They put it on our flat top for us to briefly explained what to do with it. We didn’t fully understand. I wish we had our confusion on video. “Do we break the egg?? Do we flip this thing over?? Are we supposed to eat the egg raw??” Knowing that if we waited too much longer our pancake would burn, we asked the server to remind us how this works. For the love of God, DON’T FLIP IT! Break the egg and mix it with the scallions. Then cut it into slices like a pizza and serve. You’ll eat quite a bit of raw egg here and in Japan in general. Hows that for food safety America? lol

Japan travel tips

ONIGIRI

Japanese rice ball anyone? These snacks are straight up brilliant. I know it’s just rice but there are so many reasons why I love these:

The packaging – Well wrapped and easy to eat. The perfect (and much more healthy) convenience food. Ones with nori are wrapped so that the there’s a piece of plastic in between the rice ball and the nori so that it doesn’t get soggy).

The taste – So many different flavors so you don’t get bored. I can’t wrap my taste buds around natto though. Maybe one day.

It’s filling – yes, it actually fills you up.

It’s a convenience food – this is nutritious convenience food at its finest. Rice, meat, pickled or fermented fruit or vegetables. It might be packaged but it’s real food. Rice is clearly a staple in Japan and it’s neat to see – yet again – how tradition remains in tact, even if it’s got a modern twist. I spent a lot of time on this trip daydreaming about my new Onigiri company that I would develop back in the states so everyone could experience the goodness of these rice balls. Chances are I won’t actually do it, but who knows, maybe I’ll surprise myself.

 

COOKING CLASS WITH SUMI

 

japan cooking class

So this actually happened in Tokyo the night before we flew back to the states, but in my foggy jet-lagged mind, I roped it in with Kyoto. So here it is.

I highly recommend taking a cooking class if you visit Japan and you enjoy food and cooking. It’s good to see how a home cooked meal is prepared and you’ll be surprised to find that (most of) the Japanese don’t actually live off of sushi, tempura and ramen. It’s much more well rounded, with a main dish, a couple sides and always miso soup.

smith kitchen japan

Sumi was a wonderful host. She used to teach Japanese cooking classes for only the Japanese, but since she’s trying to improve her English (which we thought was excellent), she now only teaches classes to those speaking English. She runs Smith Kitchen and I highly recommend it.

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The menu:

Miso Soup with fried tofu and spinach + Rice + Black Sesame Green Beans + Tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet) + Fried mackerel + Cabbage Salad with lemon and tomato

Everything was delcious. The most memorable part though was that we learned how to fillet our own mackerel. My dad is probably rolling his eyes right now because I had endless opportunities to learn this growing up. My Dad was a fisherman and we had fresh fish for dinner weekly. I’m sure he’s shown me and has even asked me to help clean the fish, but it was too gross for me back then. Sorry Dad 🙂 I won’t lie, it was equally gross this time, but hey, if you can eat it, you can gut it. Getting my hands dirty this way was a good reminder of what it takes to get that delicious peice of fish on my plate and in my belly. In America, convenience is king and we never have to deal with this. But it’s important that we do. It’s important that we understand how valuable these resources are to us and to use them sparingly.

japan travel

Along the lines of fish and memorable moments was the fact that David had to filet the fish too. David is not a huge seafood fan. He likes shrimp and he’ll eat salmon but other than that, he wants no part of any fishy endeavors. I glanced at him every now and then to read his level of discomfort and – this sounds bad – but I couldn’t help but laugh. Of all the foods we could have prepped that day, it was one he couldn’t stand. He was a champ though and did a mighty fine job gutting and cleaning his mackerel.

5) Design 

 

japan modern architecture

As a foodie and a dietitian, I thought that food would be the main source of inspiration on this trip. But as it turns out, art and design were equally inspirational. While Kyoto boasts a greater amount of traditional style buildings compared to Tokyo, it’s also got a nice mix of more modern spaces. When walking through the bustling city center or quiet residential back roads, it’s evident that the Japanese favor clean lines and simple spaces. There is zero clutter and spaces are designed to be functional and efficient. Houses are close together and yards are sparse, so space is used as efficiently as possible, but it’s done beautifully. I didn’t do a great job at capturing what I’m describing; I’m used to photographing food, not design. But I’ve been inspired to experiment with a new subject now in photography so maybe I’ll have better pictures when I visit again 🙂

Japan AirBnB

Along the lines of design, our favorite AirBnB apartment was in Kyoto. It had traditional tatami mats for sleeping, zashiki table, a small balcony, and a quaint little kitchen. Once cool feature were the sensor lights in the bathroom and foyer; no fuddling around flipping light switches in the middle of the night. It’s always nice to have access to a kitchen when you’re traveling for a couple weeks. This way you don’t have to eat every meal out. Especially breakfast, which is the easiest meal of the day. We usually had cereal or eggs with toast.

fiber rich breakfast

It’s also good to make dinner every now and then. Eliminates the hassel of finding a place to eat at after a long day and saves you a little money. We bought a ton of different mushrooms at the grocery store for ridiculously cheap (like “exotic” mushrooms for under $1) and they lasted us several days. We had them with eggs one night, and with steak and green beans another 🙂 

6) Fashion!

 

I’m sorry I didn’t really get any photos of this either. I felt strange photographing people and didn’t want to come across as an American creeper. I did however, get a few pictures of my new sock obsession – wearing socks with heels and sandals. Love it.

sock fashion

It appears silly at first but I promise, once you try it, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t adopted this fashion statement sooner. Plus, when you have socks with cute characters or designs on them, it would be a crime not to share that cuteness with the rest of the world.

japan travel

What I also love about their fashion is that although it’s on the conservative side, it’s always stylish. Women typically don’t show much skin nor do they wear tight fitting clothing, but they’re always well dressed and looking adorable as all get out. Whether it’s high waisted gauchos, long skirts or wide leg pants, they’ve got a somewhat baggy blouse tucked in, showing off their tiny waist. I loved how much they sported the gauchos and you can bet I bought me some.


Kyoto Travel Tips (be sure to check out my Tokyo post for tips on traveling to Tokyo)

  • Spend a day or two walking the streets. There are so many unique little shops to see. Buy yourself something to remember the trip and get a couple gifts for loved ones back home.
  • Take advantage of Kyoto’s natural surroundings. Kyoto is surrounded by mountainous beauty. Touristy as Arashiyama and Mt. Kurama may be, they are beautiful and are worth experiencing. There are also many other day trips to be taken from Kyoto if you have time; check them out here.
  • Cover your tattoos if you plan to go to an Onsen. Many onsen’s reject people with tattoos. Although I flew under the radar, it’s not worth taking the risk nor showing them any disrespect.
  • Screen shot your train lines. If you don’t have a pocket wifi, these photos will save your life. Sometimes you have to switch train lines a few times and the names of the stations are not always easy to remember.
  • Bring snacks when heading out for the day. This is an important one. We walked a ton and frequently needed a little something before lunch, and sometimes at that late afternoon hour before dinner. It pays to have something on hand before you get hangry and ruin a perfectly good time. Plus, restaurant hunting during dinner time takes far longer than you might think. You’re in a new place with foreign food and many restaurants don’t have english menus or english speaking staff. One of you might be in the mood for sushi, the other for okonomiyaki. Or, you’re just so drained that you don’t even know what you want to eat. On average, we considered 5 different establishments before settling on a place to eat. I suggest being open minded and adventurous to try whatever, wherever. It will be hit or miss either way so there’s no use spending too much time deciding.
  • Consider staying at a hostel or AirBnB. I mentioned this in the last post too but it’s a good one to keep sharing. These places will be significantly cheaper than a city central hotel and include many of the same amenities like free breakfast and wifi. Unlike hotels, hostels offer fun tours of the local area and can give you local insider tips of what’s worth seeing and what’s not. If you’ll be in a place for four or more nights, rent an entire apartment via AirBnB. You get your own private space (still cheaper than hotels) with a kitchen so you can save a little money by doing some home cooking.

 

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