The Kyoto Files

We leave Japan for Cambodia in three days. Our five plus weeks here have flown and we’ve found our family travel rhythm.

Before a philosophical post on what Japan has meant to us, we owe you a trip report for Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama and Tsumago. So I am in catch up mode…first, Kyoto. Again, this is simply a quick list of what we did, where we stayed, yadda, yadda, yadda…vs well worded writing.


This was one of two decadent stays in Japan…we booked a traditional Machiya home for two weeks. We felt lucky to live in this historic alleyway, hearing the coming and goings of neighbors (we sure know they heard us!). A real treasure and one of our favorite accommodations in Japan.



Kyoto was much larger than we anticipated and while we were there for a full two weeks, there’s far too much to see if we were to stick to our homeschool schedule. So here’s what we made time for, highs and lows:

All Time Favorite Day: Arashiyama

I did an earlier post on this so I won’t go into detail here however we so loved this small town bordering Kyoto…quiet unique temples, bamboo forests and an entertaining monkey park…what else do you need?


There are over 2,000 temples and shrines in Kyoto (Temples are Buddhist, Shrines are Shinto). Here were our favorites:

  • Kiyomizudura Temple: This decadent temple comes with a pagoda, walking paths, and a fancy-pants water purification fountain. While extremely busy with tourists, it was stunning and the neighborhood it sits in also beautiful.
  • Fushimi Inari Shrine: Over 1,000 orange Torii gates follow a meandering walking path up into the mountains. Stunning. Calming. Sacred.
  • Sanjusangendo Temple: The hall of this temple houses 1,000 life-sized armed Kannon statues. It is an amazing sight to behold. The detail in each Kannon is unique. You are not allowed to take pictures inside the hall so the photo below is swiped from google images.
  • Heian Shrine: We really appreciated the large garden attached to this shrine. We meandered for over a hour, taking time to feed the koi and snapping turtles in the most picturesque place.
  • Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple: Our 2nd most favorite temple…it had hundreds of stone statues amid bamboo trees and was heavenly quiet and sweet.
  • Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple: Our favorite!  Thousands of Buddhist disciple statues carved in stone hugging a hillside. Serious, humorous, loving…every face imaginable. Think of complete solitude and hours to explore every face before you.  Such joy.


Cultural Experiences

  • International Manga Museum: While most exhibits are in Japanese, there is a collection of English Manga and a great space to read, which gave the kids hours of entertainment.
  • Nijo Castle: Beautiful grounds, intricate details and a moat…what else does one need? The photos below are of Nijo…loved this place!
  • Sake Museum: Kyle spent an afternoon learning the nuances of Japan’s adult beverage.  The tour came with samples…of course.
  • Harvest Moon Festival: We were lucky to be in Kyoto during the harvest moon (mid-September).  A handful of temples held evening celebrations with traditional music, dance and food. We partook in all of the above!
  • Handicraft Center: I highly recommend this place if you have kids or enjoy learning local art. They offer approx. eight handicrafts for a nominal fee.  Kyle and I tried our hand at wood block art, Sean made a paper toy top and Julia made a glass necklace…very fun afternoon!
  • Kimono Fashion Show: Ok, my family thought this was cheesy but I loved the Textile Center’s kimono fashion show.  It runs multiple times a day.  I had a smile in my face the whole time but admittedly I am fabric obsessed.



We struggled a bit with food in Kyoto. With a kitchen, we thought we’d be cooking more but our trips to the grocery store were comical and fruitless. We’d find online a restaurant we’d want to try, take multiple buses to get there and be turned away at the door (we are so uncool). Nevertheless, we had two standout food experiences in Kyoto:

  • Ipuddo Ramen: In the Nishiki market..let me just say this…any restaurant who provides patrons with their own garlic press is A-OK in my book.
  • Tsukihi: This central Kyoto restaurant was in our neighborhood and we stumbled in on a date night. No one spoke English but they were very welcoming. I managed to communicate that our server should chose on our behalf.  Right choice!  In hindsight, we figured out that the restaurant specialized in farm fresh food.  We were sorely lacking vegetables in our Japanese diet thus far and we spent the evening moaning in delight at the taste of fresh vegetables and fish.  Highly recommended!
Ippudo's Ramen

Ippudo’s Ramen

Tsukihi Perfection

Tsukihi Perfection

What I was Supposed to Love that I Didn’t

  • Gion: Oh, Gion, what have we done to you? You were supposed to be a picturesque, quaint vision of old Kyoto with the stolen sight of a geisha here and there. But I could hardly see you through the hordes of  tourists — we’re sorry to have contributed to your chaos.
  • Nishiki Market: When a shopkeeper has to post signs in English asking one to NOT take photos of unique vegetables or fish, the magic is gone. Another sweet spot overrun by tourists (and yes, I’m aware of the irony here).


Activity Bookings: Kyoto is a popular tourism city. We found we should have booked activities well in advance. For example, we wanted to take a cooking class and they were all reserved. Also, many sites require a phone call reservation, which can be difficult if you don’t speak Japanese…planning that well in advance assures both room and support.

Volunteer Tours: There are a handful of organizations that provide complimentary tours in Kyoto. We used Samaritan Students, which are local university students, and it was a highlight of our trip. This is a must. It’s so easy as a traveler to superficially interact with the locals. Tours like this allow for deeper conversation which was very rewarding. It is normal to pay for transportation, temple fees and lunch for the guide.

Run to the Border: Kyoto was surprisingly big and the center was very commercialized. The Kyoto you hear about…quaint, green, calm is found at the edges of the town…Arashiyama in the northwest, Kibune in the north, Fushimi in the south, and so on.

Stay tuned for trip reports on Kanazawa, Tsumago and our absolute favorite place in Japan thus far, Takayama (it’s even fun to say)!

Natural Disasters & The Oblivious Tourist

Our 1st week in Japan, we sat sipping coffee when the cafe began to sway. Kyle and I looked at each other. We have quite an earthquake history between us — Seattle, Northridge, Mexico City. He said, “It’s an earthquake.” I said, “Nah, the metro tracks are right there, it’s a train.”

He was right.

There was no panic in the cafe. Japan, sitting on the pacific ring of fire, sees over 1,500 earthquakes a year and judging by the calm with coffee, the country’s citizens are used to them.

We felt one more earthquake before leaving Tokyo. A day at the Museum of Emerging Science confirmed both. We packed up, headed to Kyoto and…walked into a typhoon.

Kyoto Typhoon (photo by Nobora Tomura)

Kyoto Typhoon (photo by Nobora Tomura)

As tourists, reality is often suspended. There’s the vacation protection bubble myth, that bodily harm couldn’t possibly happen in paradise. So the zipline company doesn’t provide helmets, so what? So the taxi has no seat belts, big deal!

Despite a sleepless night listening to house shuddering wind and rain. Despite my cellphone, now on Japanese wifi, shrieking hourly with emergency warnings (ok, in my defense, the alerts were in kanji, Japanese characters), I wasn’t concerned. When Kyle told me the next morning that he attributed the cellphone noise to neighbors ringing our doorbell trying to alert us, I at least wasn’t alone in my moronic choice of sleep over emergency response.

At some point, we actually read the news and were mortified to learn that over 250,000 people were evacuated not 15 minutes from us. But it was really this morning, when we made our way to Arashiyama, on the NE outskirts of Kyoto, that we realized we’d missed reality.

Our Photos 36 hours Post Typhoon

Our Photos 36 hours Post Typhoon

The Katsura River flooded, nearly submerging the historic Togetsukyo Bridge, and damaging the shops, restaurants and inns along the river. It’s slightly embarrassing now to admit that we had come to Arashiyama as giddy tourists to see the monkey park. Instead we saw a raging river, piles of debris, and flooded businesses with groups of people working hard to clean and recover.

Now a profound ending would be to say that we too jumped in, rolled up our sleeves and helped. We didn’t. We talked about it, assessed the situation (the press and military were on site) and determined we’d be a distraction vs a help.

Instead, we climbed small roads high above the river and visited a Buddhist temple, Otagi Nenbutsuji. There we were surrounded with 1200 rakan, stone statues representing Buddhist disciples. While built in the 8th century, the temple was hit with a…yes…typhoon in 1950 and had to be rebuilt. The rakans were thus carved in 1980s and 1990s by amateur artists. The temple brochure reads that “…the carvings have amusing or contented expressions that warm the hearts of visitors.” And that’s exactly what they did.


Here in our suspended reality, we’d come face to face with a surreal location that had been destroyed by natural disaster and rebuilt with calm and steady resolve. As we peered into the faces of each rakan, smiling at some, laughing aloud at others, it was clear to me what an exceptional culture we were experiencing.

So imagine our surprise when we saw among the many faces, the one person in our extended family who epitomizes calm, steady philosophical resolve, who is hard working and driven by “we” vs “me.”  And who certainly would have recognized a natural disaster just a wee bit quicker than we did.

Papa Greenley

Papa Greenley