My Compact Kyoto Guide

I love to take a bunch of pictures when I travel: of everyday curiosities and details (such as Hello Kitty seat covers on the train and key chains with a plastic omelette and nigiri decorations attached to them), of delicious food items and epic views and sights, of course. And still, there were many moments and experiences in Kyoto which essence and ambience was tricky to capture in pictures, such as the mood of the soft late summer nights of the tropic by the Katsura river. Frogs were giving their loud croaking concert, young locals were sitting and chatting by the river banks and enjoying a beverage, a beer and life, while others were sharing a late dinner on the wooden terraces built above the riverside brooks, lit by rice paper lanterns.

Of course, not everything needs to be captured in digital snapshots, the mental mementos are super special as well. But now, from these reflections let’s dive into my more concrete Kyoto tips!

First, I must say, that before we visited Kyoto, I had an image in my mind that the place is enchantingly idyllic. A colleague of mine had praised the soothing onsens and a Japanese friend had described the classic tea ceremonies he truly enjoyed. So was it, idyllic? Well, yes and no. There are such picturesque historical temples and shrines, traditional quarters where you can spot geishas in beautiful attire and atmospheric ryokans and inviting tea rooms. But, the very centre of the city is made of concrete and for the best, beautiful and traditional parts of the city you need to go a bit further, though not far. Now, let’s see, where to go!

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion

Now, be prepared to queue for a while to see this shining golden sight. This is described to be Kyoto’s most famous sight. And, it is impressive: the glittering gold pavilion shines in sunlight and is reflected in the pond surrounding it. I’d say that the temple is worth the visit, but you can plan other sights for the day as well, as this one is experienced rather quickly. We took the local bus there but then afterwards hopped into a taxi to get in time to the next sight (monkeys!). The temple is located in the far north west of Kyoto and is not close to the main train lines.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha

Fushimi Inari is a large and impressive shrine on Mount Inari, famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which seem to go on endlessly. Inari is the Shinto god of rice and foxes are Inari’s messengers. Hence there are many fox statues wearing red scarfs which guard the shrines on the mountain. The hike to the summit takes around three hours, given that there a many other fellow travellers and that you’ll stop for photos and a refreshing water break several times. The large red torii gates along the path are donations, given either by companies or private individuals, and the name of the donor can be found on the side of the gate.

This sight & climb combo was unique and sweaty, definitely worth a day trip. The entrance is free. And though there was a sign warning us of boars roaming in the area, we encountered none, luckily, as my how to meet a boar skill set is a bit rusty.

Kiyomizu Temple by night

This temple area, situated in the eastern Higashiyama area, was especially spectacular during the late evening: the red temple buildings, the tall three-story pagoda and the colourful bell tower were shimmering in the summer night. I read that the Kiomizu-dera’s large wooden stage standing on high pillars was installed in a special way, without using a single nail but wooden joints instead. Check out the web page of the sight to catch the special light-up occasions.

Iwatayama Monkey Park and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

You can climb up to Mt Arashiyama (about 15 min ascent one way) and visit the home of around 120 Japanese macaque monkeys. You’ll see the monkeys for sure, no doubt about that. The monkeys roam freely there, in their natural surroundings. You’ll likely spot monkey toddlers playing with each other. You can feed the monkeys from the feeding cottage but avoid taking direct eye-contact because that would make the monkeys feel threatened. I liked that the monkeys could run and hop around freely on their own hill.

What else did I want to I suggest? First, the Nishiki Market, a narrow shopping street market with countless booths, shops and restaurants. At this lively and bustling place, you can feast with fresh seafood (or dried seafood, if you’d prefer) and delicious ramen and find for example juicy tofu, all kinds of matcha treats from smoothies to soft ice, cookware and fruit (which by the way were quite costly). A busy yet pleasant experience and a great place to grab for example an appetizer (octopus on a skewer) and a tasty lunch (I enjoyed a rich ramen soup) in one of the compact restaurants right by the market. And not to forget the steak and shrimp key chains purchase. I wonder who needs to have one of those, someone who really likes steak, I guess.

Another tip for especially all the foodies out there is an abundant and instagrammable Kaiseki dinner. Kaiseki is Japanese haute cuisine, a tasting menu consisting of many small and beautiful portions, presented in an elegant way. Our Kaiseki dinner included for example a miso soup, a portion of shredded mushrooms, fresh tuna, delicious fried salmon and as a dessert two tofu-like squares served on a stick. It definitely was an experience, memorable and visual, but maybe more interesting than epic in a culinary way.

All in all, Kyoto really delivered.

Snapshots from Kyoto, August 2019

Japan is very high up on my Explore the world bucket list. We spent one week in Kyoto in mid August. This wasn’t my first time in this fascinating country and hopefully it won’t be the last. Already dreaming of the next Japan adventure  either during the hanami or autumn colors.

When I travel, I just love to watch and observe people, details, city life, ways of interaction and how people are dressed. I’ll share some observations and notes on Kyoto. My selected edition of Kyoto tips will come out in the next post. All the pictures in this post are taken with my phone: snapshots from our explorations around Kyoto.

Kyoto is atmospheric, historic, traditional and pleasant, a big city with the vibes and special cosy mood of a small city. Kyoto is filled with gardens, temples, shrines and teahouses. Many of the streets in the centre are rather narrow and peaceful so biking and walking are very noteworthy options. And for daytrips for example to the Kinkaku-ji Golden pavilion you can take the bus: the bus network is comprehensive. When you do take the bus: step in from the middle door and pay the fare (with the exact amount of coins) when you leave the bus.

The soundscape of Kyoto was unique: The impressive sound of whistling bamboo trees at the Arashiyama bamboo grove. The croaking concert of frogs by the Kamo river in the dark and soft late summer evening of the subtropics. The loud chirring of cicadas. And the characteristic clatter of wooden sandals as a couple dressed in kimonos walked up the stone steps at the Fushimi Inari mountain.

August in Kyoto is h o t. About 35–37 degrees Celsius during the day. Not too hot but sweat running down your back and I wish we had one of those mini fans (with small ears as decorations (!) hot. Many of the locals were equipped for the day with a sweat towel around their necks. Many were also wearing these long separate sleeves (some had lace decorations in them) to protect themselves against the sun. I also learned that you can buy a cooling ice mask which will provide some chilling relief for your face. Restaurants and shops had excellent air conditioning and there’s a vending machine selling water, refreshments, ice coffee and matcha tea on almost every street corner, so you won’t get dehydrated, or decaffeinated.

What else did I want to tell you? The historic and busy Nishiki Market is a good place to enjoy a tasty snack, perhaps some grilled seafood (kaisanbutsu in Japanese), a piece of juicy tofu or maybe a cooling matcha ice cream, which tasted a lot like cold spinach soup and strangely enough was pretty addictive. There are plenty of kimono rental shops around the city so if you desire, you can get dressed up and have a photoshoot in one of the historical quarters. And, at the Inari mountain there was a sign that boars roam in the area, but luckily, we encountered none. But, we did see many lively monkeys at the Iwatayama Monkey Park, where they ran, played and climbed the trees at the top of the mountain.

What surprised me in Macau

Macau is referred to as the Vegas of the East, did you know? And it really lives up to that depiction with its showy casinos. But the city is much more than that, it is a fascinating mixture or European and Chinese culture and traditions.  We started our Christmas visit to Hong Kong with two days in Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China. It is convenient that you can take the ferry to Macau directly from the Hong Kong International Airport. Many nationalities are free of a Visa requirement. On the way there we chose the Super class option of the TurboJET ferry:  it was located on the upper deck and included a green tea or coffee and some rice snacks. The cost one way is $ 326 per person and the trip takes around one hour and fifteen minutes.

And here we are, in Macau. I’ll introduce certain things that, well, didn’t necessarily surprise me big time, but a little bit and in a delightful way.

First, it was warm, more that twenty degrees Celsius during the day. In December. During our day stroll I got to take my leather jacket off. The Poinsettia Christmas flowers were blooming. A peculiar thing was that many of the locals had dressed their small dogs in these warm quilted jackets. Couldn’t understand why and felt a bit sorry for the small furry fellows.

During the Xmas holiday season there was a proper Christmas Market, Feira de Natal, with pandas wearing red and golden reindeer horns, the traditional Nativity Scene, a sea of red Christmas flowers and stalls selling everything from caramel peanuts to bric-a-brac jewellery.

Second, the Portuguese impact and legacy. I learned that Macau was administered by the Portuguese Empire from the 16th century until late 1999, a long time. You can see the Portuguese impact in the architecture, in arcs, white pillars and pastel colours and also for example in the traffic signs. The city is a mixture of Portuguese style and Chinese life, details, temples and shrines.  One place exuding Portuguese heritage was the St. Michaels Cemetery (2A, Estrada do Cemiterio). It’s a thing for me to visit the cemetery when I am in a new city. In the center of this beautiful cemetery stood the turquoise St. Michaels Chapel. The cemetery is a peaceful place in the middle of the lively city. The names, photos, memorial phrases and flower compositions on the graves show the merging of the Chinese and Portuguese cultures.

The Portuguese impact could be tasted in the cuisine as well. For our Christmas dinner we enjoyed some codfish in the form of a fish cake at the restaurant Fado (No. 2-4 Estrada da Vitoria). Though the most delicious dinner was not Portuguese inspired but Singaporean: a small and simple place near the Mercado Municipal Horta. We sat right by the street and shared a rich chicken curry. The friendly owner lady gave us some good Macau tips.

The city was bigger than I had expected but yet compact. All of the central sights are within a walking distance. The most famous of the sights is the Ruins of the Church of St Paul. All that is left of the church now (there was a fire in the 1800s) is a majestic facade and a broad stairway. During our visit the place was packed with tourists, school groups and families having a lunch break or a photo session.

The monument with its statues, skillful details and pillars is definitely worth the visit but it is rather quickly seen. It would have been beneficial had there been an information board about the ruins explaining a little bit about the symbolics of the inscriptions. When you head away from the ruins along the small and narrow streets there are several opportunities to try the dried meat which seemed to be a popular snack among the locals.

The casino experience. You can’t really talk about Macau without mentioning the big and imposing casinos. I didn’t find a gambler deep inside me so a quick round in the game halls was enough for us. Furthermore many of the slot machines were rather difficult to comprehend: there were no easy-to-understand fruit games. But  that’s alright, I’ll save my game money for a cocktail, I thought, wishfully, dressed in my shining little black dress. It turned out that you have to make quite a walk in the casino area to find an elegant cocktail bar, or any cocktail bar really. But Rolex shops were ubiquitous: you could find one behind every corner. They were as frequent as the bridal shops downtown.

The most interesting aspect were the parts of cities built inside the casinos. The Venetian had the canals and gondolas and the Piazza San Marco and right outside the Parisian there was an illuminated and dazzling copy of the Eiffel Tower. Must admit, I was a little doubtful that the casino scene would be as dazzling as the Vegas comparisons promised, but it was.


One place that deserves a mentioning is the lobby of the Grand Lisboa Casino (2 Av. de Lisboa). There is a lot of antique and art on display from a private collection. The amount of gold and detail is stunning and stupendous.

I would say that Macao is a good destination for a day or two to be combined with a visit to Hong Kong.