A two-and-a-half-hour ‘hands-free’ transit
When traveling, sometimes you need to get out of the hustle and bustle to escape into somewhere a little more bucolic. Using Japan’s railway system, you can travel anywhere without a cinch (more so if you’re a Japan Rail Pass-wielding tourist).
Granted, Kyoto isn’t truly the first place that comes to mind when you think of rural Japan but its rich cultural history set against a backdrop of idyllic landscapes, shinto shrines, and Buddhist temples make it a good change of pace from the frenetic energy of the capital.
What’s easily noticeable is that even if Japan has reopened its borders to international tourism, the crowds aren’t comparable to how they were the last couple times I visited. I don’t think I’ve experienced Kyoto’s Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka without the crowds I’ve gotten used to.
What I’ve learned from traveling with both parents for the first time is that the idea of “slow travel” I’ve always done in the past wasn’t as slow as I had thought.
The prospect is also personally exciting because this is the first time I’m going to be spending more than two days in Japan’s cultural capital. What isn’t thrilling is lugging around huge suitcases around train stations. Fortunately, this is Japan where for every potential quandary, there is an equally simple solution.
Like Yamato Transport’s luggage forwarding service called ta-q-bin (takkyubin or takkuhaibin). It was my first time using this service in which they ship your luggage from one hotel to the next (usually the next day), allowing you to pursue what Japan’s tourism organization calls “hands-free” travel so you can float gently into train stations effortlessly. A pretty useful service if you ask me, given the new shinkansen luggage size limits taking effect two years ago. (You can read all about it here.)
Keeping it simple in Kyoto
Just five minutes by foot from Kyoto Station is our home base called Tune Stay Kyoto. Gorgeously dark yet aglow in architectural warmth from its main hall that boasts a floor-to-ceiling shelf with Japanese books, a tiered seating area for nightly film showings, and a Y1,000 gin tasting service, the hotel is a reminder of what thoughtful hotels can do to spoil you from a fairly long and cold transit day.
Kyoto, in the first week of November, is cold with temperatures dropping to as low as one degree Celsius in the morning before leveling off at a manageable 10 degrees or so throughout the day. This means coffee is crucial. A quick search on Google Maps marks the location of one walkable standout from our outpost: Kurasu Kyoto Stand.
Started by former investment banker Yozo Otsuki, the contemporary cafe intends to bring Kyoto coffee culture around the world through an online shop that ships their blends, beans, brewing equipment, and even branded accessories overseas. Their beans are roasted in their own Nishijin Roastery close to Fushimi Inari Shrine and the gregarious staff approach the art of coffee-making (espresso and pour-over) with much love and soul.
I visited Kuraso Kyoto Stand, one of two locations in the city, a total of three times—and each visit, each cup didn’t disappoint.
I suggest beginning with something basic like a cafe latte (Y400) then come back for either a matcha espresso (Y500) or a matcha latte (Y450). I found the matcha latte to be rife with flavor, akin to drinking city pop in liquid form. Then dive right into their pour-overs made with beans sourced from as far as Ethiopia and Mexico. I chose the hot Happy Holiday blend (Y500), a light roast of Brazilian and Guatemalan origin with notes of grapes, dried guavas, plums, cranberries, baked apples, and honey to, well, get that holiday spirit in me.
Although, it’s easy to get into that spirit when the baristas happily remember you and engage in lighthearted conversation and you realize that it’s time for you and your parents (who are taking their sweet time charging up in the hotel) to wander around Kyoto’s autumnal topography.
From central to the east and then up north and finally down south
A leisurely walk to Kyoto Station features city buses you can take to some of the former Japanese capital’s big-name temples and gardens. While there’s a subway and metro system, I find buses to be more convenient to get to the places I want to go.
Like Kiyomizu-dera, one of the city’s most famous Buddhist temples. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kiyomizu-dera certainly demonstrates its chief appeal as an autumn must-visit as the scene-stealing sea of vivid colors from the maple and cherry trees shone under the clear skies. The Y500 entrance fee was worth it, even though I’ve visited this place several times. The only downside is that Jishu Shrine, one of my favorite parts of the complex because it’s a shrine “dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking,” is closed for renovations (I believe).
Fall foliage is central to the city as much as its ancient treasures. In nearby Kodaiji Temple and in Arashiyama up north where the mountain slopes are covered in bright hues and the Katsuya River flows down below to the iconic Togetsukyo Bridge, the natural beauty further cements this assessment as revelers pounce on every opportunity to snap portraits of the city that has always relied on tourism.
It’s also hard to fault the food scene across Kyoto. Just steps from Kiyomizu-dera stands Hisaya Cafe where you can cobble together with other tourists on the bench for matcha or roasted chestnuts soft serve (Y500).
Tonkatsu KYK in Porta just below Kyoto Station mostly delivers delicious deep-fried pork cutlets. I tried the Kagoshima kurobuta pork loin katsu meal for Y1,900 and the portions are decent enough so you’ll feel full and savor each bite of the meat with abandon. The rice and miso are unlimited, too.
In Arashiyama, the street food stalls near the river are marvels at satiating your hunger. Even though we subsisted on snacks, it was still a great way to mingle with locals and domestic tourists trying out 57Kitchen’s spicy ikayaki (Y450), a grilled squid snack cooked with eggs and slathered with an ichimi (red chili pepper) mayonnaise, and literal fruit candies of skewered glazed muscat and strawberries from Fluffy Kyoto. Even my mother had a sparkle in her eye after biting off the glossy fruits.
A larger-than-life return to Japan with subdued expectations
A couple months ago, coming back to Japan was all I could think of. But the novelty wore off a bit when I spontaneously decided to take my parents along with me. Constructing a new itinerary that would fit in with the slow pace of senior legs, I wondered whether it was something I could handle since I’m used to traveling on my own. But looking back, even if the moments were uneven, this experience took me into directions that swing between “I shouldn’t have done this” and “Wow this is actually nice.”
What I’ve learned from traveling with both parents for the first time is that the idea of “slow travel” I’ve always done in the past wasn’t as slow as I had thought. This time around, my parents showed me a new perspective that celebrates a different pace. To just sit still a little longer on a park bench. To just take in the sights a little more. To photograph aimlessly like my dad. To stop more often than you would. To appreciate natural beauty like my mom. Because amid the bustle I usually dismiss, there are plenty of inspired moments to find there, too.
And what a way to do it in one of my favorite countries in the world.
(But I’m still going back to Japan on my own next time.)