Category: Japan

Kyoto on Bikes

Gearing up for our cycle ride.  How come Jonathan gets the electric bike?

Gearing up for our cycle ride. How come Jonathan gets the electric bike?

The cooling breeze as we cycled north along the Kamo River that bisects Kyoto was a welcome relief compared to the days we’ve hoofed around in the heat.   It was a Sunday and the banks of the river were populated with a slices of Kyoto life — families having picnics, senior citizens painting, children playing sports, men fishing, tourists napping…

Kyoto is a sprawling city, with hidden gems waiting to be discovered in every neighborhood.  And, as much as we tried to explore on foot, a month was not enough and we left many areas unexplored.   The bus system is comprehensive, but we discovered that cycling is loads more fun.

We rented two bikes from our local bike store (which are ubiquitous), one an electric hybrid with a rear child seat large enough to fit Zara (something that would be rare in the US) and a regular city bike for me.  Although Zara rides a bike well, it’s been nearly a year since she’s been on a bike and we didn’t want her to have to relearn the rules of the road while navigating the crowded city streets and sidewalks.  It wasn’t a tough sell, she was more than happy to ride along as passenger.  She found it a welcome relief from pounding the pavement for miles each day.

Princess passenger

Princess passenger

Cycling in Kyoto is easy because it’s the norm to ride on the sidewalks–thus, risk of serious accidents are minimized (unless you are a pedestrian, in which case this practice leads to much higher risk from walking).   Nobody wears helmets, but again, the risk seems acceptable when riding primarily on sidewalks or down quiet alleys.  The feel of the wind through my hair brought back fond memories of the years before bike helmets were mandated…

We headed north along the river banks until the urban noise quieted as we hit the northern suburbs and then circled back and towards the west to join up with the Philosopher’s Path.  We’d done that walk the week before, but this time we seized the opportunity to get a tasty snack at a cafe situated on the famous path.  Nothing like a 20+ mile bike ride to assuage feelings of guilt while eating a matcha cake.

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A few days ago we decided to pay Arashiyama another visit, as our initial one on a crowded festival Saturday in the pouring rain had been a bit of a downer and limited what we could do (although Zara amused herself pretending to be a turtle and our walk through the misty bamboo forest was unforgettable).


Our daughter, the turtle.


My “I’m waterlogged” look.

Arashiyama is a western district of Kyoto that is been designated by the Japanese government as a meishō, or Place of Scenic Beauty. Despite being a Kyoto suburb (it took less than 2o minutes by train), it feels like being in a small (albeit busy) Japanese village .  Our second visit we were blessed with blue skies and light crowds (a rarity at many of the “must see” tourist sights, which typically are overtaken by busloads of Japanese junior high students tasked with practicing their English on foreign visitors).

Post-interview pic with junior high students

Post-interview pic with junior high students

Another English-practicing group of students

Another English-practicing group of students

Zara’s disappointment at missing the monkeys on our first visit had not been forgotten, so we kicked off the day with a 20-minute climb to Iwatayama Monkey Park on the slopes of Mount Arashiyama.

(Note: Sightseeing in Japan involves a lot of walking, with few of the drive-up alternatives you’d see in the U.S. and given the heat, signs warning of heat stroke were prominent.   And yet, Japanese woman have perfected the art of navigating strenuous walks in 4-inch platforms carrying delicate sun parasols and maintaining a shine-free face in high humidity–must be that Japanese oil blotting paper!)

The Monkey Park is home to more than 100 Japanese macaque, popularly known as the snow monkey outside of Japan and notable for the red faces and fannies.  I was a bit apprehensive, especially after the Nara experience, but the park is organized in a way that avoids visitors being besieged by hungry monkeys.  As we arrived at the top of the park, we were directed towards a wooden hut where they passed out ice-cold washcloths (further preventative measures against heat stroke) and from where we could feed the monkeys apples, yams and peanuts that were on sale.  Feeding monkeys outside the hut was expressly prohibited, which meant that monkeys don’t expect food outside of the hut so they leave you alone.

The birth season runs from end of March to the beginning of July, so we were fortunate to see a few newborns, which was a definite highlight.  Zara was equally enthralled by watching the monkeys groom each other for lice.  You never know what will capture a kid’s imagination.



Next up was the Sagano Scenic Railway (aka the “Romantic Train”), which is a 7 km journey along a forested mountain track perched above the Hozu River from Arashiyama to Kameoka.  I suspect the multiple long and dark tunnels along the route account for its “romantic” designation.  The train is open-air, clackety and offers a  scenic ride at a leisurely pace.  I imagine it would be spectacularly colorful during the fall.  The highlight was when the train conductor ended the journey warbling a Japanese song to great applause.


It was approaching 4pm as we left the train station, but we wanted to do the return journey via the Hozu-gawa River Boat , so we hopped on a bus to a point a little further downriver, where a group of about 12 of us boarded a flat bottomed boat with four guides, one to row and the three others to stand fore and aft and use bamboo poles to push away from rock hazards.  We spotted multiple heron, deer grazing riverside, diving ducks and Zara burst into delighted laughter every time we navigated some minor white water.  Our guides frequently had Jonathan and the other passengers bursting into laughter with their jokes, and Jonathan did his best to translate.  We learned from a Japanese friend that many of Japan’s comedic geniuses hail from the Osaka-region and Jonathan has had the opportunity to enjoy their wit first-hand.  (The longer you stay in a place, the more you feel the loss of the ability to speak the local language.)

It was a perfect day from start to finish, and any stay in Kyoto should include a visit to Arashiyama!

Post-rapid grin

Post-rapid grin

Jonathan's mum, Mary, is all smiles on the river

Jonathan’s mum, Mary, is all smiles on the river

Japanese Food Porn

One of our primary activities in Kyoto has been eating.  Fortunately for our waistlines, Jonathan regularly makes us walk miles across town with the promise of a restaurant “just a little ahead”.  Essentially, we eat and walk and walk and eat.  Rinse and repeat.  Not a bad lifestyle.

Before we arrived, I had visions of daily sushi meals.  Perhaps the strongest testament to the variety of delectable food in Kyoto is that it took me over two weeks to have my first sushi meal!  (On the other hand, we did manage to squeeze in two Indian dinners–I take that as a testament to Jonathan’s determination.)  Below is a gallery of some of our meals, kicked off by a few offerings from a cool Whisky bar we found (on a long walk, of course)…

Kask Whisky Bar

Yudofu at Ryoan-ji

More Yudofu

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Kyoto-style at local bar


Menu at local bar – glad we had Jonathan with us!

DinneratKatsukura (tonkatsu)

Tonkatsu at Katsukura where we got to grind our sesame seeds

Chimiji (Koreanpancake)


Curry rice lunch


Dinner at Kyoshi – Isakaya style


Izakaya sushi – first night in Gion


Ice cream sundae!


Izakaya-style at Sugamachi


Lotus root


Lunch in Ohara, including raw egg over grated yam




Dish #2 from the left remains unidentified


Noveau curry rice at Cafe du Mon


Ninjinshirushi (from Okinawa)


Pickled octopus with crunchy noodles


Pork with burdock


Sea Bream head at Izakaya restaurant


Shabu shabu


Shabu shabu at Mishimi-tei




First sushi dinner

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Tempura and soba

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“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.” ― Paulo Coelho

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