Many visit Kyoto with a lengthy list of temples and shrines, but that’s not all Kyoto has to offer. From kaiseki meals to trendy cafes, Kyoto blends tradition with modernity. I’ve always wanted to write a 36 hours itinerary so as the Japanese say when asked for a recommendation, here are my オススメ (o-su-su-me).
8 a.m. Breakfast at 進々堂 Shinshindo
Nothing is more comforting than the smell of melty butter and coffee brewing in the morning. Whipping up some of the freshest breads in town, Shinshindo Teramachi makes for a great breakfast stop. The original Shinshindo was founded in 1930 and is an iconic Kyoto institution located across from Kyoto University campus. Like many great cafes around the world, Shinshindo was a place for students and activists to congregate for political and social debates throughout the decades. The founder of Shinshindo, Hitoshi Tsuzuki, wanted to provide authentic French breads that were made fresh every day and his grandson operates the boulangerie chain in that spirit today.
11 a.m. Visit Ippodo Honten for some tea leaves and omiyage
If you don’t try green tea in Kyoto, can you even say you visited? Second stop, swing by Ippodo Honten for some omiyage shopping and be dazzled by the number of tea leaves you can choose from. I also love to pick up Ippodo powder tea because they’re great for making ice matchas in the summertime. In my previous Kyoto post I introduced Kaikado’s beautifully designed chazutsu tea caddies. Well at Ippodo Honten, you can actually pick up a Kaikado chazutsu with the Ippodo seal on it to store your tea leaves–a worthy buy if you’re a tea lover. If you still haven’t splurged enough, sit down in the adjacent Ippodo Tearoom to enjoy some tea and wagashi 和菓子 because now it’s your turn to treat yourself.
1:00 p.m. Indulge in a 3-Michelin Star Kaiseki at Kikunoi Honten
Reserve a table at Kikunoi Honten ahead of time and you’ll be rewarded with an impressive dining experience. At Kikunoi, every single course served has an unique story and flow to it. The menu is fluid and changes every month, showcasing Chef Yoshihiro Murata’s creative use of fresh seasonal ingredients. As each dish is brought out, your private server will treat you with a short narrative about how the inception of the dish. If you’re an English speaker, the server will present you a colorful Kikunoi book that illustrates the stories behind different courses and ingredients.
For our visit, we tried the Fumizuki (July) menu and were presented with an assortment of tasty summer fishes. Highlights include the grilled ayu sweet fish and the hamo pike conger. The use of shiso flowers everywhere were lovely reminders of summer as well. Overall an incredible kaiseki experience celebrating seasonal ingredients.
5 p.m. Evening stroll through the historic Gion District
Historic and trendy, the Gion district is prettiest at dusk when the store lights just turn on. Strolling along the Shirakawa River, you’ll spot interesting cafes and restaurants all housed in machiya townhouses. I particularly love Pass the Baton, a chic second-hand shop that has one of the most eclectic but interesting retail spaces I’ve ever visited. Because Pass the Baton has unique brand collaborations with local and international brands, the vintage trinkets on display are all one of a kind. If you’re a design and crafts lover, this is the place to pick up an unique gift in Kyoto.
8 p.m. Order some Ichiran Ramen from a vending machine
Whether it’s for dinner or late night cravings, Ichiran Ramen is the best way to end a night. In case you haven’t heard of this Japanese ramen chain, Ichiran is a wildly popular ramen-ya specialising in flavorful pork-bone broth and house-made chili paste. Because it’s open 24hours, you will always have incredible ramen noodles whenever you want, and however you want it. After ordering your ramen noodles (~$7) and desired toppings from a vending machine, you will get to choose how creamy you like your broth, how well done you want your noodles, and the condiments that go into your soup base.
My recommendation? Regular broth, firm noodles, a soft boiled egg, kikurage mushrooms, and extra chashuu pork slices.
11 a.m. Savor Japanese bites at Nishiki Market, ‘Kyoto’s Pantry’
If there’s Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, there’s Nishiki Market 錦市場 in Kyoto. There’s something charming about perusing colorful food stalls and wondering which one to stop at. When at Nishiki Market, I can never pass up the fried fish cakes or takoyaki, both popular street snacks. Apart from fresh seafoods and snacks, the market is a great place to try various Kyoto specialties such as pickled vegetables and mackerel sushi. After indulging, hop over to the adjacent Teramachi shopping arcade for some kitchenware and Japanese condiment shopping.
2 p.m. Visit Kiyomizu-dera & make a short frappe stop at Ninenzaka Starbucks
Go to Starbucks… in Kyoto? Trust me on this one, I seldom get Starbucks coffee when I’m traveling because like many coffee lovers, I want to experience local cafe culture. But the Ninenzaka Starbucks is worth visiting in Kyoto because it’s a great way to see the interiors of a machiya, a traditional Japanese wooden house. I mean, where else can you have matcha frappuccino in communal tatami-style seating? If that’s not enough, there’s even a charming Japanese rock garden to appreciate as your barista makes your coffee. Cheers Kyoto, you even do Starbucks in style.
Starbucks is located right by the famed cobblestone alleyways, Sannenzaka & Ninenzaka 三年坂二年坂. Full of traditional Japanese omiyage stores, the area is great to visit rain or shine. Of course, make sure to hike up the adjacent steps leading up to Kiyomizu-dera if you want to step out onto the temple’s wooden stage for a Kyoto city view. *Note that Kiyomizu-dera’s main hall is going under construction until 2020.
5 p.m. Afternoon reading at Keibunsha, one of the world’s top ten bookstores
Trek to Keibunsha 恵文社 to see a quieter side of Kyoto and wind-down with some afternoon reading. Located in Kyoto’s Ichijoji neighborhood, Keibunsha was selected as one of the ‘World’s top 10 bookstores’ by the Guardian. While not the most glamorous, there is something very charming and authentic about Keibunsha’s old-school atmosphere. Books are categorized by themes and curated lifestyle goods that compliment Keibunsha’s books also have their own section.
8 p.m. Wagyu time at Hafuu Honten, a butcher-shop turned restaurant
Marbled wagyu steak with a glass of red wine served in an open Kyoto kitchen–it doesn’t get any better than this. Hafuu Honten used to be a butcher shop that has since transformed into a cozy restaurant offering amazing cuts of wagyu steak. Opt for the ‘Original Dinner Course’ (10,000yen), which includes lightly roasted beef, seasoned brisket, and wagyu sirloin steak. It’s such a feast for the eyes to see the pieces of marbled beef being grilled and served. Ask a staff for Hafuu’s special beef cutlet sandwich for takeout after your meal–no such thing as too much wagyu.