Asia Guides Insider Tips

City Guide to Kyoto, Japan

I have visited Kyoto many times since I moved to Japan, yet it will never stop to amaze me. This former Japanese imperial capital is full of mysterious temples, majestic palaces, beautiful Zen gardens, and picturesque back alleys with traditional wooden town houses. It is a big city with small town charm and immense cultural heritage. However, it can be quite overwhelming for a first time visitor, because there are so many places to see. I prepared this article to help you plan your stay, it includes not only my favourite places to visit, but I added some extra activities to make your trip more memorable.

Best Places to See

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most impressive and popular sights in Kyoto. This mountainside Shinto shrine is dating back to 711 AD and its main feature is a path made of thousands of traditional torii gates in vermilion colour. The area is truly picture-perfect and therefore very touristy. If you wish to get a photo without people, you have to come here very early in the morning, or you can try to come late at night as the shrine is open 24/7. In the evening the lanterns light up the way. Another option is to hike all the way up to top of the hill, where not many people go and the views are spectacular.

Fushimi Inari shrine is located on the south of Kyoto and you can get there by Nara Line from Kyoto station. The journey lasts only 5 minutes. The entrance to the shrine is free.

Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion was named, together with Mt. Fuji, as one of the greatest sights in Japan and it is easy to understand why. Surrounded by stunning Zen Garden with its reflection in the pond, shining in the sun, this sight can honestly leave you speechless. The pavilion was built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for a military commander, but after his death his son turned it into a temple.

Golden Pavilion is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm and the price is 600 yen per adult. To get there, you need to take the bus 205 which leaves from Kyoto Station from the B3 platform. Even though Kinkaku-ji is very popular and usually very busy, it is a must-see place in Kyoto and totally worth the longer bus ride!

The Path of Philosophy

The Path of Philosophy (also called the Philosopher’s Path) offers a quiet retreat from the city and it will lead you to many historic sites along the way. The stroll lasts approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on your pace. It starts at the Eikan-do Temple, a lovely temple with famous Buddha statue looking over his shoulder and finishes at Ginkaku-ji Silver Pavilion. The path goes along a stream and it is lined with cherry trees, so this place is especially beautiful in spring when all the flowers are in bloom.

Gion District

Gion is very traditional neighborhood in Kyoto that has developed in Middle Ages as one of the most exclusive geisha districts in Japan. The chances that you will meet a geisha today are very small, but Gion is a lively and picturesque area to visit. The streetscape is very well preserved with high concentration of typical ochaya (teahouses) and machiya (merchant houses). Be aware though that many of these houses are private and their inhabitants do not wish people to take photos of them, so be respectful (you wouldn’t want to have masses of tourists in front of your house every day either).

The two most popular streets where you can take beautiful pictures are Ninenzaka and Sanenzaka.

Nishiki Market

Nishiki market, also called the “Pantry of Kyoto” is a lively place located in the city centre, where you can find hundred stalls with street food, fresh produce, sweets or handmade souvenirs. It is a perfect place to sample some unique dishes and enjoy the atmosphere. If street food is not directly your cup of tea, there are also many restaurants nearby.

Kiyomizu Dera Temple

Kiyomizu Dera Temple is one of Kyoto’s most famous and enjoyable temples. It was founded in 778 AD, and it’s a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main hall, situated on the hillside of Mt. Otowa, has a large wooden veranda from where you can enjoy epic views over the city. The entrance fee is 300 yen per adult and it is open daily from 6 am to 6 pm. It is walking distance from Gion, or you can take one of the city buses from Kyoto station (numbers: 106, 110, or 206).

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine was modelled after the ancient Imperial Palace and it is dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors who reigned in Kyoto. It belongs to the newer shrines in Kyoto, with its history dating back only about hundred years, but it has very impressive spacious grounds featuring a gorgeous garden full of weeping cherry trees that bloom around mid-April. There are a couple of museums in walking distance from the shrine, where you can hide in case of rain, and at its entrance you will also find some food trucks with Japanese and international dishes so you can take a nice break here when sightseeing all day.

Heian Shrine can be reached by Kyoto city bus number 5 or 100. The entrance to the temple is free, but if you want to visit the gardens you have to pay 500 yen per person. The shrine is open daily from 6 am to 5 pm (hours can differ during public holidays).

Top Things to Do

Stay in a Traditional Ryokan

Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that can be found all over the country. They offer you more than just a place to sleep, you will get here the opportunity to experience the real Japanese lifestyle and hospitality. In a classic ryokan, you will sleep on futon beds in tatami rooms, you can soak in famous Japanese bath and sample the local cuisine. Staying at least one night in ryokan is a must when visiting Japan.

Relax in an Onsen

Onsens are Japanese natural hot springs containing distinctive minerals. Soaking in an onsen after a busy day of sightseeing is one the essential experiences to have in Japan. Onsens can be public, or private as a part of ryokans. Kyoto is not very rich in onsen, but there are still a few to found around the city. Before visiting an onsen it is important to mention that there is an etiquette to follow – you have to take a shower first and you go inside without a bathing suit. Some more traditional onsens can forbid people with tattoos to enter.

Try a Kimono on for a Day

Nowadays, kimonos in Japan are used mostly for special occasions like weddings or official holidays. It is very rare to see young people wearing this formal attire daily. However, Kyoto is one of the cities where this tradition hasn’t quite disappear and people use kimonos frequently. There are many shops and kimono rentals so it’s easy to pick one and get the real kimono experience in the streets of Kyoto’s historical old town. The kimonos are beautiful and you usually get the full “make-over” including hairdo like geisha, make-up, wooden slipper shoes and little pouch for your necessities while browsing the city.

Kaiseki Feast

Kaiseki is a celebration of Japanese tradition, fresh seasonal and local produce and haute cuisine. It is traditional Japanese multi-course high dining with a long history that originated centuries ago in tea ceremonies and later it evolved into exclusive cuisine popular among aristocratic circles.

Kaiseki can be quite pricey and intimidating, if you haven’t got this experience before. The elegantly presented dishes often look like a piece of art and some restaurants don’t appreciate if you take photos of them. That is why I would recommend booking a food tour that takes you to kaiseki, where an experienced tour guide will lead you through each dish and tells you more about its cultural context.

Join a Food Tour

Japanese cuisine is very complex, it goes way beyond sushi, miso soup and ramen that are popular all over the world. Each Japanese city and each region have their own local cuisine and they take a great pride in using locally sourced seasonal ingredients. If you are a foodie and you would love to know more about Japanese food, I am sure you will appreciate a good food tour, where you will discover the whole philosophy behind each dish and its cultural and historical background.

There are plenty of food tours or cooking classes to choose from in Kyoto that suit all the budgets.

Getting Around Kyoto

The city centre of Kyoto is compact and easily walkable, however, if you want to get to further destinations such as Fushimi Inari Taisha or Bamboo Forest, you will have to use the public transport. Metro, trains and city buses are the most convenient way to get around. Taxis are very expensive in Japan so if you are traveling on budget, I wouldn’t recommend using them.

For international travellers the most convenient mean of transport are the city buses that have commentary in English and they take you to all the important sites. One journey costs 230 yen for an adult and you pay directly to the driver at the end of your journey, or you can buy a daily ticket in the office at the Kyoto station for 600 yen. Kyoto city buses are green and easily recognizable. They operate with numbers 5, 17, 100, 204 and 205.

Best Time to Visit

Kyoto can be visited and enjoyed in any season, but the best time to visit is spring and autumn. At the end of March and beginning of April, the cherry blossoms are in bloom and everything is covered in light pink. It is simply spectacular! Beginning of November is just as magical when all the leaves turn red, orange and yellow. Also the temperatures are moderate with little rainfall. However, keep in mind that these seasons are also the busiest.

Summers in Kyoto can be very hot and humid. The rainy season starts in June and continues until the end of July. Winters are relatively mild with January and February being the coldest months of the year.

Unique Souvenirs to Buy

Green tea – Japan, and Kyoto especially, takes pride in its green tea – matcha in Japanese. You can find matcha and matcha-related products anywhere in Kyoto, from convenience stores to high quality green tea leaves sold in big department stores.

Kimono or Yukata – Kimono and yukata (lighter kimono worn in summer) are also great souvenirs to buy in Kyoto, as there are many shops that sell them. Kimonos can be pretty expensive but yukata is usually a cheaper alternative.

Hand-made hand fan – summers in Japan can get very hot and you will see many people using hand-fans. They are colourful, cute and beautiful, and apart from being useful during hot summer months, they also make a beautiful souvenir to remind you of your trip to Japan.

Umbrella – I don’t mean the Japanese paper umbrella to protect you from the sun, but proper umbrella for the rain. In Japan you can buy high quality umbrellas in specialty shops that will protect you even during a typhoon. They usually have twelve collapsible ribs for extra protections against the wind and many of them have also UV protection against the strong sun.

Unique Kit-Kat chocolates – famous Kit Kat is one of the most popular sweets in Japan because its name is pronounced similarly to ‘kitto katsu’ which means good luck. You can find here many different flavours that you cannot find anywhere else in the world – from green tea, to sake, to soy bean paste, to apple pie, you name it! You won’t know which one to choose!

Kanzashikanzashi are traditional hair ornaments often worn with a kimono. They are very fine and usually hand-made. It can be difficult to attach them at first, so make you sure you ask for instructions in the shop how to use them. They are a very unique special gift.

 

I hope this guide to Kyoto will help you to plan your visit! Kyoto is very popular and beloved tourist destination for a good reason. I love to come back every time I get a chance! If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below. Have you ever visited Kyoto? Or would you like to go there?

 

*This post is for the inspiration for your future travels. As per 10th August 2020, Japan remains closed for international visitors until the end of this year.

 

 

 

Interviews

Interview with Dame Traveler Alaa Razoky

Thanks so much for chatting with us today! Could you tell us a little about your story and what you do, for anyone who doesn’t know you yet!

Hi there, my name is Alaa Razoky. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq and before the age of five, I had already lived in three continents and four countries. Maybe my love for the world started even before I knew it. I am 44 (as of August 29th). I was a teacher for 14 years, then a real estate broker and now I do a little bit of both remotely. I wasn’t always a traveler. In my 20’s, I saved for three years to take a big international trip (about three weeks of travel). As I became more financially stable, the trips increased. The turning point was when I was 33 years old and living my best life in New York City. I told myself that if I wasn’t married by 33 and looking to start a family, I was going to truly enjoy my life and really TRAVEL THE WORLD. I left NYC, moved to CA, where my family is, and started to plan. In the fall of 2010, I went to Belize for a week, came back home for 36 hours and turned around and headed to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji for five weeks. That was the beginning of my crazy travel life. Then I decided to set a goal: seven continents before I turn 40. Even though I had hit North America, Europe and Asia already, I had to touchdown on all seven in the seven years until my 40th birthday. Let me tell you this, there hasn’t been a goal I have set that I haven’t met. Two weeks before I turned 40, I touched down in the US after spending a month in Africa. That was continent #7.

Tell us a bit more about the trip that changed your life

Africa. I love that continent so much. I spent a month in Tanzania, Zanzibar (Tanzania), Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa. Aside from the amazing safaris, it was the people and their lives that touched my heart the most. I was in the land of extreme poverty and the highest rate of disease but yet I encountered the kindest, bighearted and happiest people in all my travels. It confirmed that you don’t need much to be at peace, to be content. I know they struggle daily but they smile, they enjoy barefooted dances in the streets and small gatherings among those they love and cherish the most. The farthest thing from a spoiled society but yet they know how to find a little happiness in everything that they do. They have a special gift and I don’t think this is something you can encounter unless you step foot onto this continent.

What has been your favorite destination so far and why?

This is one of the hardest questions to answer. How about a list my favorite city and /or country in every continent? Obviously that’s hard for Antarctica but I can do the rest. Here goes:

North America-New York City, USA: I have loved this city ever since I was in high school. I’m sure a lot of people fall in love with NYC even before stepping foot so I was no different than most. However, I spent my early 30’s living in the Big Apple when I was financially stable and could truly live it up in NYC. Anything you want to do you can do in New York. Best years of my life. I would not rule out moving back there sometime in the future.

South America-Buenos Aires, Argentina, known as the Paris of South America, BA has its own charm. The food is unbelievable, the people are kind, the city is beautiful and very fun. One thing you won’t see a ton of in BA is designer stores because of a tax placed on imported goods. It makes it more authentic than most cities. c) Africa-Serengeti, Tanzania-Animals, animals, animals. The number of animals you see in the Serengeti National Park is unbelievable. What’s even more wonderful is how protected this land and its inhabitants are. It’s a different side of Africa and it is amazing!

Australia-Whitsunday Islands, Australia-Imagine sailing for three days in the Great Barrier Reef amongst the Whitsunday Islands. We saw so much daily but the most spectacular sight, other than an abundance of coral underwater, was the stop we made to Whitehaven Beach. It is the WHITEST and SOFEST sand you will ever step foot on. It was pure heaven.  

Europe-Paris, France-I mean, it’s the city of love. It oozes romance, beauty, love, style and class. Yes, the French have a reputation for being rude but they’re not all like that. I have been there three times and I never get bored or sick of it. I love the language (studied nine years when I was schooled in Canada but far from fluent), the food (escargot and beef tartare), French wine and seeing a metropolitan city light up at night. I just love everything about Paris!

Asia-Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam-It’s hard to imagine that this city in a communist country that endured such brutality in the Vietnam War is as amazing as it is (be sure to learn about the war when you’re there). The food will blow you away, the city has views that are beautiful from many directions, it’s a bustling city, lots of markets and shopping but most importantly, the kindness of the Vietnamese people just warms your heart.

Through your experiences, what has travel taught you? What lessons does travel bring to those who experience it?

Travel has taught me that we are incredibly lucky and blessed in the US. When you see how others live, how little they need to get by and how they truly survive on the necessities, it is quite amazing. It has caused me to not live lavishly and constantly purchase things I don’t necessarily need. I am more humble because of this and I have chosen to help people around the world.

Have you ever faced any hard circumstances or issues as a female traveler? 

Once I was followed by a man in Italy. It was in a busy area so initially I didn’t know if it was just a coincidence or if he was really following me. I kept looking back and he was still there. I would dip into a store and as I walked out, I saw him waiting and then continue to follow me. It wasn’t until I ran into a store and pointed the guy out that the man took off running and I never saw him again. Another time La Paz, Bolivia, I was told never to hail a taxi on the street and never to walk at night. I followed those rules. Recently in Quito, Ecuador, I knew two people who had been mugged. Having this information, I decided to get rid of my purse and put my ID, credit card and money in one pocket and my cell phone in another pocket. If they didn’t see me physically carrying anything, I wasn’t of interest to them.

 Other than that, I follow warnings and guidelines while traveling in all countries.

What piece of advice would you give to women who would like to travel but are afraid to? 

It’s one of the best things I have ever done in my life. I have met tons of friends who I see occasionally, have met men that could have been potential mates, learned so much, more than a textbook could teach me, and can do what I want when I want without having to worry about someone else. If you worry about being lonely, you won’t be. The people you meet along the way will be more than happy to do things with you.

Why do you think it’s important for women, specifically, to explore the world?

I am a very independent woman and I believe that’s an important characteristic in females. If we follow the traditional path in life such as school, marriage, kids, we get so wrapped up in working and taking care of our family that we rarely have time for ourselves. I see it a lot in women who took this path. How wonderful would it be to have the freedom to travel, see the world, experience the globe for yourself before you settle into domestic life. To me, you’ll look back and be glad you did that before you made the huge commitment to do the other life events.

Fun fact

One thing I have been doing is buying gems from locations that mine them. So far, I have a tanzanite from Tanzania, a ruby from Vietnam and an emerald from Colombia. I then have them set when I return home and the result is amazing. I will send you pictures of those as well.

Also, I take all my own photos. I don’t have any formal training. Sometimes I get lucky with great shots and sometimes I don’t. I don’t journal when I travel as I feel my photos tell the stories I want to tell. With that said, I started an Instagram account @missworldwide that showcases my photos, gives a brief description and certain posts are connected to some travel writing I do for a lifestyle magazine, Nspire Magazine, located in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t know where this will take me but I wanted to share my joy of traveling with others around the world and hopefully inspire women to travel solo to find themselves, find happiness and true contentment.

 

Europe

Tips for a First-Timer Visiting the United Kingdom

The UK is among the world’s most popular tourist destinations. English-speaking, prosperous and full of history, it has a great deal to offer. But what should first-time visitors do to prepare for their arrival?

What is the UK?

This is one of those countries, like the Netherlands, which presents a few opportunities for confusion. Indeed, many of the natives might struggle to tell you exactly what the difference is.  There are actually three countries which comprise Great Britain: namely England, Scotland and Wales. A fourth comes in the form of Northern Ireland, to create The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The British Isles isn’t a country; it’s just the name for the landmass.

Public Transport

While the trains and buses don’t meet quite the same standard as set on mainland Europe, they’re still the easiest way for a new arrival to get from one place to another. Car rentals and taxis can be extremely expensive, especially if you’re traveling frequently. For example, the train from Eastbourne is a safe bet for those looking to head to Hastings to check out the battlefield and the beach.

Etiquette

When visiting any new country, it’s worth getting to grips with the local customs concerning etiquette. To begin with, the British know how to form an orderly line, and will take a pretty dim view of anyone attempting to push in. In the UK, the chance of any new arrival causing a serious commotion are fairly small; at worst, you’ll probably get a pointed tutting, or an “excuse me.”

The Currency

The currency is sterling. Notes come in fives, tens and twenties (and, very occasionally, fifties). You might find different sorts of notes if you’re in Scotland. These notes are legal tender everywhere, as Scottish people will never tire of telling you.

The Weather

The UK has a famously temperate climate, being surrounded by water. You won’t get extremes of heat or cold, and you can expect to be rained on at least once, even if you’re heading there at the height of summer.

City or Country?

The UK is quite a small country, especially compared to the United States. As such, you’ll find quite a lot of variety crammed into just a small area. You might use a city as a base of operations, and from there venture out into the countryside. London tends to take the lion’s share of the tourist traffic, but there are other places in the country worth visiting – and you may find that the cost of things in smaller towns is markedly lower.

When to Go

The UK provides plenty of distraction throughout the year. If you’re travelling in summer, then you’ll benefit from the traditional seaside and city breaks – though you should be aware that the prices will rise accordingly. At winter time, there’s more of an emphasis on indoor attractions. Some of the country’s outdoor adventures are best undertaken during autumn and spring. The countryside looks its best at this time of year, but you’ll still get a full day of sunshine.

Trips

Far Out Destinations to Get Your Imagination Running

The pandemic has influenced different sectors in significant ways. Perhaps one of the most affected sectors in the tourism industry. The world is packed with exciting destinations that you may want to experience as soon as the pandemic is over. Many of us have been dreaming and desiring to go to some far flung destination, especially while we were all in lockdown. With hopes the pandemic may be over by next summer, here’s some ideas of destinations you can start looking into for your first big post pandemic travel.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is the capital and the second-largest city in Vietnam. There are numerous amazing destinations in Hanoi, which are split into old and the French quarter. The old quarter is home to a more traditional Vietnamese vibe and atmosphere. The city has a lot to offer from lakes like lake Hanoi to the imperial sites, mountains, museums, and other landmarks. You could also try to rent a car and explore the outskirts of Hanoi or other areas! The government has been working to improve the Vietnam infrastructure to make the country more attractive and modern. The suburbs of Hanoi also provide several important religious places that you can enjoy.

Photo by Nastasia Yakoub / @nastasiaspassport

Kavkhan, Mongolia

Kavkhan is one of the 21 provinces of Mongolia. Located in the west of the country, Kavkhan is one of the best locations to visit because of its calm environment, climate, and wildlife. The province in Mongolia is home to massive populations of livestock and a diverse wildlife population. It also hosts several forests, mountains, birds in migration, and other rare animal and bird species. Kavkhan is home to hundreds of small rivers and lakes where you can enjoy a swim! I’d highly recommend to continue onto see other parts of Mongolia, it’s just so full of nature and culture that you will never get anywhere else in the world.

Perth

Perth is the capital (fun fact for you if you didn’t already know that) of Australia, and one of its largest cities. It is home to some of the most significant pieces of art, cultural and educational institutions in Australia like the Art Gallery of Western Australia, WA Museum, and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts for any art lovers out there! Even if you aren’t into art or design, these museums are definitely worth seeing. The city has also inspired a lot of artistic and cultural work in cinema. Perth’s main tourist destinations are focused around the city center, the coast, and the swan river.

Crete

Crete is the largest, the most populated, and considered by some to be the most beautiful island in Greece. It is surrounded by a myriad of islets that make up the Region of Crete. It is an extremely mountainous island crossing from the east to the west of the region, making it great for mountain activities with

sweeping ocean views that can be found almost everywhere. Crete is significant in cultural heritage for Greece, known for such elements as ancient literature, poetry and music! Not but least, the beaches. The water in Crete possess a beautiful, Poseidon blue color that changes from super clear to a bit darker shade of blue as you move throughout the island’s beaches and water.

Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Islands is a significant part of the Republic of Ecuador. It is an archipelago of volcanic islands that are distributed on each side of the Pacific Ocean equator. The Spanish islands feature an incredible climate, historical landmarks, and a beautiful and calm atmosphere. Here, you can find a seemingly uninhabited part of the world that you may not even have known to be real!

Each of the destinations mentioned above is an incredible place to visit. They are all far out from the average place, and a visit to any of them could be the most beautiful and exciting experience in your life. They have so much to offer that you are guaranteed to have an incredible experience.

Lifestyle What to Pack

Guide to Choosing the Perfect Travel Bag

Finding the perfect travel bag can be a challenge. You want your bag to be functional and practical for traveling, but not have to compromise on how stylish it is.

So, for when you need to consider form and function for your perfect travel bag, here are some tips on how to choose a cute handbag for travelling:

Style

When travelling comfort is key- no one wants a bag that keeps slipping out of place or too small to fit everything. Luckily there are many types of travel bags out there so we can opt for a practical bag that is still cute. Some of the best designs for travelling are totes, backpacks, crossbody bags and shoulder bags.

Material

There are many material options for travel bags, such as leather, water-resistant nylon and more. Leather is by far one of the best materials for a travel bag because while beautiful and super durable, it is also slash proof. You can find some gorgeous handmade travel bags online, on websites like Mirta for example, that carries authentic made in Italy leather goods.

Size

The size of a travel bag bag is extremely important because you want to be able to fit what is needed during your travel days, but you don’t want it to be too big that it is uncomfortable to carry. You’ll want your travel essentials such as your phone, wallet, documents and passport, as well as any personal essentials at all times and not have to leave anything behind because your bag is too small!

Security measures

Security measures are an important aspect of your travel bag. Two things you’ll want to consider are RFID and zippers. Many travel bags come with RFID blocking card and passport slots, which make it difficult for your information to be stolen electronically. As for zippers, you’ll want your bag to close well and stay closed well while you’re traveling. Inside zippers also give another layer of safety.

A crossbody travel bag is arguably one of the most secure travel bags because they are less targeted by purse thieves since you wear it across your body and it also makes it easier on travelers because it ensures you are hands-free (though wearing it on your front and placing a hand on it in crowded places is recommended).

Good quality and durability

Traveling isn’t always easy on a handbag, so want to choose a bag that is durable and good quality. That way, it won’t show too much wear and tear after only some use and you can continue to use it for future trips as well. Plus, you want your bag to withstand its use while on your travels and not have to deal with a broken bag.

As long as you choose something you like and that will withstand your travels, a travel bag will be worth the investment as it will last years and many trips to come.

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