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Trip Report: Kyoto, Koyasan, Kumano Kodo

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Nov 29th, 2018, 03:26 PM
  #1
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Trip Report: Kyoto, Koyasan, Kumano Kodo

A buddy and I spent nine days in Kyoto and the Wakayama area in early November. It was a very nice trip, even though some of our plans didn't work out (though that's par for the course). We were apart from the masses of tourists for the most part, so this itinerary might not be for everyone!

THE FLIGHT: Scoot Airlines, the budget arm of Malaysian Airlines, from Honolulu to Osaka. It was functional, and still a couple hundred dollars less even after we added every add-on we could (preferred seats, checked bags, meals).

THE INN: Five nights at Kyoto-style Small Inn Iru in Sakyo Ward. This is a two-room inn near the University, far from any other tourist. It was about a fifteen minute walk to the subway station, We took buses a few times, which were more convenient for this neighborhood. The owner was super sweet, and had a list of where to eat in the neighborhood. There is not much: one small yakitori place (delicious, but often full), one small tofu place, one small ramen place, one small public bath ... you get the idea. I liked being in a real neighborhood, so this was great for us. It wouldn't be so great for people who are going to shop, or need bars and nightlife, or who want to see all the sites in two days.

DAY ONE: The Philosopher's Path. Sort of. In the morning we walked to Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion), and then wandered our way south stopping at three more temples: Honen-in, Anrakuji (the one with the cats), and the fantastic Eikando. Sometimes we followed the path proper, sometimes we walked the smaller roads just uphill from the path. This was a great morning, and wonderful introduction to Kyoto.

Afterwards we walked to Gionfor lunch. I thought it would be easy to find a place, but it was surprisingly difficult. Gion in the day did not impress me. Maybe it's different at night. After this we walked uphill to Kiyomizu-dera, but it was so crowded by then that we didn't stay long. I would have been just as happy grabbing lunch at small place near the temples and continuing to walk south rather than heading into town and Gion.


DAY TWO: Our plan was to walk from Kibune to Kurama, to the north of Kyoto, then soak in the onsen at Koyama. This day didn't go as planned. The train ride was fun, but the trail was closed due to landslides from the September typhoon. Shops and restaurants in both towns were mostly closed; it felt very "off-season." The onsen was nice, though ... how long can you soak in an onsen? I think this would have been a great day if the trail were open. As it was it was nice, but there are probably more interesting things to do in the area. There were a lot of Japanese travelers on the train who were connecting to the cable cars to the top of one of the mountains.

DAY THREE: We took bikes from the inn and rode across town to Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion). The ride across town was ok, nothing scenic. The temple was beautiful but crowded. You pretty much follow a line of visitors on a short trail through the property. I got a lot of great photos out of it. I much preferred the nearby Kitano Tenmangu. This is in the Kamishichiken neighborhood, one of the traditional geisha neighborhoods. which was beautiful. Unfortunately it was almost deserted in the mornings.

We then biked to the Imperial Palace, though the palace itself was unexpectedly closed. After lunch we checked out Pontocho Alley. We were hoping to grab an afternoon beer, but it was surprisingly hard to find a bar open in the afternoon!

That evening we went to Fushimi Inari Taisha, which we heard was less crowded and more pleasant at night. It was less crowded, but not more pleasant. Though there were fewer people, the tourists who were there were awful ... the other tourists weren't just taking selfies, they were doing full on photo shoots with their phones. People were sshhing others to get out of 'their' shots, they were stopping in the path every couple minutes to takes dozens of posed shots - it was unreal. The full trail at night was closed due to typhoon damage.

DAY FOUR: We went back to Fushimi Inari Taisha to do the full trail. And it was fantastic. Though the lower parts were crowded, the crowds were far more respectful of each other than the night before. And at each stage about 80% of the folks would turn around, so the top of the trail was actually peaceful.

That night we went to Kyoto Muze to see a taiko and traditional dance performance. The inn owner's brother was in the band, and she recommended the show. We would have never known about this place without her. This was an alternative art/performance space that only holds a few dozen people, and they were definitely surprised to see two gaijin walk in! The promoter welcomed us, and translated parts of the show for us. This was a great final night.

Downtown Kyoto was a surprise after Sakyo Ward - bright lights, lots of shopping, lots of people, and a fair number of Western tourists. I think I liked our quiet neighborhood better. We went to Pontocho to check out the famous bars, but ... it really wasn't my scene. The trendy bars were too full to get into - on a Wednesday! - and the craft beer bars we went into were full of American bro-types.

DAY FIVE: Train, cable car, and then bus to the mountain top Buddhist sanctuary town of Koyasan. Fall colors were at their peak, and the place was stunningly, breathtakingly gorgeous. We did the Okonuin Cemetery evening walk, which was informative, and spent the night at the Koyasan Zufukin temple.

DAY SIX: Long bus trip to the Kumano Kodo region. It was cold and stormy, so we lucked out that this was our one long-travel day. We stayed at Ashita-no-Mori in Kawayu Onsen, which is famous for its outdoor onsen along the river. Unfortunately, the typhoon had deposited massive amounts of sediment in the river, and they are still working to clear it out. Most of the places to stay in town were closed, and the area was very, very quiet.

DAY SEVEN: Day hikes in the Kumano Kodo. I was worried about the logistics of this day, but they turned out to be easy. We took a bus to Hosshinmon-oji, and spent the morning walking through the cedar forest to the big shrine at Hongu. After lunch we took the short but very steep trail up and over a mountain to the historic Yunomine Onsen. After visiting the public bath we bused back to Kawayu.

I liked our place in Kawayu, but I'd recommend staying in Yunomine if you can. Neither had much in the way of restaurants or bars (the onsen are all half-board), but Yunomine was more atmospheric than Kawayu. This might change once they clear the river at Kawayu and the tourists return.

DAY EIGHT: We took the Kawabune River Boat downriver to Shingu, ate lunch, Afterwards it was an easy train ride to Kii-Katsuura, We dropped our bags at the small Hotel Charmant, then took the bus to Nachi San. This is the temple you see in all the photos with the waterfall and mountains behind it. You can take a bus to all the sites, or walk the beautiful Daimon-zaka trail - 267 steps over 600 meters. That night we ate at a magura restaurant. This is the tuna-capital of Japan, so there are plenty of options. A lot of restaurants also serve whale, but we passed on that. The town is also famous for its onsen, but I have tattoos & so this wasn't an option (interestingly, the onsen in Koyasan and Kumano were fine with them).

DAY NINE: We visited the tuna market in the morning, had breakfast, then hopped on the 10:45 am train to Osaka airport. The ride took four hours.

Final thoughts: I can recommend anything above that I underlined! I enjoyed seeing this part of Japan that is more off-the-beaten-path. People in the countryside were invariably kind, though often a bit formal too. All in all this was a very nice trip. I have friends who absolutely love Kyoto. I enjoyed staying there, but can't say I 'loved' it in the same way. Interestingly, most of my friends of Japanese-ancestry strongly refer Tokyo over Kyoto, while most of my non-Japanese friends prefer Kyoto.

I've now been to both, and personally, I prefer the countryside to either! If I go back to Japan it will be for the mountains and the remoter villages more than the cities.
michael_cain_77398 is offline  
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Nov 30th, 2018, 10:05 AM
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Join Date: Apr 2012
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michael_caine......
Thank you for your trip report.
Some useful information and tips for travelling this area.
We were in Kyoto last March and the crowds can be daunting.
As you say by going a ways away from the main circuit and you can find yourself the only tourists on the scene, with a more restful pace to interact with the locals.
Especialy true in outer prefectures, we found ourselves practically alone in Shimane and Kagoshima locations.

Scoot Airlines just announced they are closing their Honolulu operation as of June due to low demand. I have friends who saved a lot of money on the hnl/kix route but I never had the chance to try them out. I was a little leery of the terms and conditions .

Thanks again for the report.
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Nov 30th, 2018, 02:26 PM
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Thank you Michael, I enjoyed reading your report and the impressions you had. My wife and I just returned from a two week trip of which 6 days were spent in Kyoto.

We were there in mid November and unfortunately the Fall colors were just peeking out in central Kyoto, a bit more up north. As both Michael and Kalihi mention, the crowds are daunting The most popular sites are inundated with tourists, sometimes brought in by the busloads led by flag waving leaders. Arashiyama, Nanzenji, Gion and the Nishiki Market were a madhouse, with hundreds if not a thousand people shuffling along.

Kyoto is a large, modern, congested city with pockets of beauty and culture. My advice would be to visit those sites you most want to see first thing in the morning to have the best chance of a good experience, or as Michael mentions, less popular sites which can be absolutely beautiful. Honen-in, located above the Philosophers Path, up in a woodsy area is one such place, really peaceful and stunning, well worth visiting.

We had a wonderful stay and especially enjoyed obanzai cuisine, homestyle cooking using fresh, seasonal local ingredients. Can't wait to return again in another year or two.
curiousgeo is online now  
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Dec 1st, 2018, 10:50 AM
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Join Date: Apr 2005
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Really appreciate you sharing your impressions here. I am one of those who vastly prefers Tokyo to Kyoto. Kumano Kodo remains on my wishlist and your TR is very helpful.
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Dec 2nd, 2018, 07:19 PM
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Thank you for your report. Iíve been to Kyoto twice now. The first time for koyo, like yourself and he second time for sakura. Put me in the camp that adores Kyoto. Like an earlier poster said, itís a big, modern city with pockets of beauty but oh, what pockets and so many of them. My greatest Kyoto memories are walking Fushimi Inari in the rain, seeing the Miyako Odori, walking the Philosophersí Path and seeing the fall colors at Eikan-do and the jaw drop at the first site of Kinkaku-ji. I canít wait to return for my 3rd visit to Kyoto, hopefully some day soon.
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Dec 6th, 2018, 01:22 AM
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Really enjoyed reading your trip report, thank you for sharing in such detail.
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