If you travel to Kyoto for the first time, visit the must-sees by all means! Places like Kinkakuji, Kiyomizu, Sanjusangendo or Fushimi Inari Shrine are spectacular and worth seeing even if everybody else is visiting them, too. And yes, the top sightseeing highlights are always very crowded. But this post is about some off-the-beaten path highlights in Kyoto we discovered during six days we spent in Japan’s ancient capital earlier this spring.
The Gardens at the Taizo-in Tempel
Several pleasant dry gardens with unusual round waves of gravel around stone and weeping cherry trees. Yet more gardens with moss and stone lanterns, small ponds and a pagoda as backdrop. We were surprised to find such an enjoyable temple with so few visitors not far from Kyoto’s main tourist attractions of Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji. Taizo-in, a sub-temple of the not-so often visited Myoshin-ji in the Northwest of Kyoto, even offers dinner events with light-up in the garden during the cherry blossom season.
Matcha Parfait at Eirakuya
Between the tall modern buildings around the shopping district of Shijo-Kawaramachi, there is one old house with a sloping tiled roof. From the street it looks like many others, though; there is a shop inside selling traditional Kyoto sweets, pickles and salty miso paste. In the back, an unobtrusive sign announces a café on the second floor, and another sign mentions that the café is full – please register at the cash desk – but it is a moderate queue and it doesn’t take us long to get a table. A surprise, since Eirakuya is a long-established cafe specialising in matcha and matcha sweets. Some of the Japanese guests have come wearing Kimonos, and not the cheap rental ones but proper high-class family heirlooms. We have a beautiful and tasty matcha latte, and the shop‘s speciality: a huge matcha parfait with lots of green tea ice-cream and green tea sauce, green tea jelly, plus shiratama (sticky rice balls), sweet bean paste, crunchy popped wheat and whipped cream.
Stone fellows at the Sekihôji Temple
When we passed the Fukakusa train station in the South of Kyoto, we remembered a temple we had visited many years ago during our first trip to Japan together (in 1991), and decided to revisit the Sekihôji Temple, a relatively minor Zen temple. The main hall is a reconstruction from the 1980s. But it was here that the eccentric painter Ito Jakuchu lived in a simple hut in the 1790s, and he spent much of his time creating quite intriguing stone statues. The 500 Rakan, Buddhist holy men who are usually depicted highlighting their negative traits and imperfections (because nobody is perfect, but you can still try your best) are hidden in the forest behind the temple. A very atmospheric place.
A modern stone garden at Tôfukuji Tempel
Somewhat south-east of Kyoto station (and thus outside the central sightseeing areas), Tôfukuji is one of Kyoto’s largest Zen temples, reasonably but not overly popular with tourists and especially famous for its autumn foliage. We are, however, particularly impressed by the spectacular gardens designed by Shigemori Mirei – the first important work by this innovative 20th century garden artist, which made him famous. Anyone interested in Japanese gardens and/or modern Zen design should go and visit the Tôfukuji Abbot’s Garden (Hôjô Teien 方丈庭園). In addition, Tôfukuji boasts some fascinating historical details, such as Japan’s oldest Zen bath house, and Japan’s oldest toilet facilities in a Zen temple.
Sake Tasting in Fushimi
Fushimi ward in the South of Kyoto is the regional centre for Sake brewing, thanks to its clear water. You can visit a number of Sake breweries in the area – we had a look at the Gekkeikan museum (Gekkeikan Ôkura Kinenkan) and sampled a craft beer at Kizakura Kinenkan (also originally a Sake brewery but now specialising more in craft beers).
Finally, we went on to a Sake tasting at Fushimi Sake Village (Fushimi Sakagura Kouji). This pleasant bar in a yatai mura (a kind of traditional food court) also offers a full-scale Sake tasting with 17 small glasses of high quality Sake, each from a different regional brewery. And the food was good too.
Hidden doors at the Nijô Jinya
Nijô Jinya, hidden in a small alley not far from the much larger and touristy Nijô-jô Castle, used to be a VIP guesthouse during the Edo period (1600–1868). Tourists can only visit on a guided tour (in Japanese, although they do have an English leaflet for foreign travellers), but even at the start of the tourist season we could make a reservation for the next day. The house is a sprawling, rather luxurious villa, and the special features designed for yesteryear’s luxury travellers don’t seem so far away from today’s needs: A comfortable interior with a built-in theatre stage (no cinema in those days); speedy food delivery facilities for room service; soundproof rooms for private talks; hidden chambers for the body guards; special emphasis on safety, fireproof materials, escape routes, safe storage for documents and valuables …No pictures inside though – this is the only picture we have.
Extra: Coffee at Walden Woods
An inconspicuous white building behind Shosei-en Garden, without any sign or menu: Walden Woods is as minimalist as it gets; just a coffee counter and upstairs simple white steps to sit on. No decoration, no tables, no frills. The coffee was good, though.