From Tokyo we took the train to Kyoto, which was about 3 hours.
Many travelers visit Kyoto to see the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, and it lives up to the expectations! Walking paths lead you through bamboo trees that feel like nature's skyscrapers, casting a beautiful green and yellow glow where the sun hits the trees. Following the path you can find the Tenryu-ji Temple, a zen temple with one of the finest gardens in Kyoto. The ground was so perfectly raked it reminded me of the mini zen gardens I used to play with as a child.
After the Bamboo Forest we headed to Nishiki Market, one of the largest and oldest traditional food markets in Kyoto. It's a perfect destination to try street food like Takoyaki and other Kyoto specialties such as Japanese sweets and seafood.
A possibly overly touristic but much loved activity I tried in Kyoto was a Japanese tea ceremony. The staff dressed us in traditional kimonos with little wooden flip flops and even put flower pins in our hair. The host then walked us through each step of a traditional tea cremony, and I learned a lot about Japanese culture through this experience. From properly whisking the matcha to the way you sip the tea, every part of the ceremony was detailed. For example, when you take your last sip of the tea you make a loud noise to indicate to the host that you're finished. Traditionally there isn't any talking during the ceremony, so this slurp at the end is the nonverbal way of saying, "Thank you, it was delicious!" We did this tea ceremony through Kyoto Maikoya, in the Gion District. The ceremony lasted about 45 minutes and was $48 per person with the kimono and $22 without.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is essential to any trip to Kyoto. The picturesque red torii gates are a must-see, and be prepared to climb many stairs to get to the top where the main shrine is. Because it's such a popular destination, I recommend getting their early to avoid crowds.
If you have time and are obsessed with matcha like me, then take a day trip to Uji City. Home to Japan's finest matcha, this town has matcha everything from lattes, to roll cake and ice cream, and even matcha beer! After feasting on matcha desserts, we went to the Byodoin Temple which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features the temple you see on the 10 Yen coin. Here you can find a beautiful garden and a museum full of ancient Buddha statues. The admission to the temple is 600 yen (about $6 USD).
Kiyomizu Temple is another beautiful temple in the Geisha District. It had incredible views with lush forest surrounding it.
We stayed in Hostel Mundo Chiquito, and opted for a private room with bamboo floors and a floor bed (called a futon). It was the perfect blend of a hostel and a traditional ryokan, with a peaceful Japanese garden to relax and take a break during the day. They also had bike rentals, which we took advantage of to explore sites and roam around the quiet streets of Kyoto.
Places to Eat
My favorite place to eat in Kyoto was a restaurant called Kouso Cafe 85. It's a vegetarian restaurant with incredible Japanese curry and the restaurant itself has a beautiful and cozy atmosphere. I had to come back here a second time because I loved the food so much!
Near Kouso Cafe 85, go to Zen Kashoin for traditional Japanese sweets.