Bucket List: Riding the Rails in Kyoto, Japan


San Diego couple makes a pilgrimage to the temple and estate gardens that inspired their careers 

Landscape architects Mysteri LeMay and Nathan Elliott have an eye for detail and appreciation for minimalist design, so when the couple decided to take a trip of a lifetime, they set their sights on Kyoto, Japan—home to the world-famous Zen rock garden at Ryoan-ji. 

Why exactly was Kyoto, Japan, a dream destination for you two? 

The Zen rock garden at Ryoan-ji

The Zen rock garden at Ryoan-ji

One of my earliest and most exciting design inspirations came from the study of traditional Japanese gardens: the pleasure grounds of feudal lords and meditative landscapes surrounding shrines and temples. It was my first exposure to the principles of a powerful design aesthetic that you find everywhere in traditional and contemporary Japanese arts. Kyoto was the seat of Japanese imperial power for more than a thousand years, and the city is full of outstanding temple and estate gardens. Walking through the spaces that both Nathan and I studied in slides and textbooks was a bit of a pilgrimage for us. 

What were the stand-out highlights of your trip? 

Visiting Ryoan-ji, which is possibly the most famous Zen raked-stone garden, was a dream come true. This garden has been photographed and copied to the point where I thought it would feel clichéd when I finally saw it, but that wasn’t the case at all. We arrived just after the rains that had soaked Kyoto all that morning abated. The Zen temple and its garden grounds, which normally see hundreds of visitors each day, were damp, quiet and nearly empty. 

Was it hard to communicate without speaking Japanese?

We used public transportation all throughout Kyoto, and made all sorts of mistakes learning to use the buses and subways (for example, you should enter city buses from the back, exit and pay at the front). In general, the Japanese people we met were incredibly polite and helpful, often approaching us when we looked confused and asking if we needed help. A friend of ours showed us how to use Google Translate, which can read lines of kanji captured by smartphone camera. It also translates English into katakana, which allowed us to phonetically pronounce simple yes/no or directional questions in Japanese. Once we relaxed into it, successfully navigating the transportation situation or finding walking directions or ordering from a menu all became little triumphs and part of the fun. 

How did you save money on transportation once in Japan?

Seven-day Japan Rail passes are available to foreign tourists for around $270 and covered our bullet train rides and most of our other rail travel outside Kyoto. Consider that a one-way Shinkansen high-speed railway ticket from Yokohama to Kyoto costs about $140 and you can imagine the savings. While individual bus and train rides add up quickly, Kyoto sells one- and two-day combined city, bus and rail passes for around $12 and $20, respectively. We used those multiple times each day in Kyoto. 

Where were some of your memorable meals and what did you eat? 

Mysteri and Nathan loved the conveyer-belt sushi restaurants all over Kyoto.

Mysteri and Nathan loved the conveyer-belt sushi restaurants all over Kyoto.

We ate at ramen counters and conveyer-belt sushi joints all over Kyoto. At most of the ramen shops, you can pick out the dish and beverages you want from photos on what looks like a vending machine. You pay the machine and it dispenses a ticket that you give to the chef who prepares your meal at the counter. For the sushi, you sit down, help yourself to what you want and pay based on the stack of plates left behind. These were foods we already loved, and in Kyoto they were better, faster and cheaper. 

Traditional Japanese breakfasts didn’t really appeal to us, but we found a chain bakery called Vie de France in the larger rail stations where we could get great croissants and coffee. At Ryoan-ji, a vendor was serving a refreshing tea/broth that was both minty and salty at the same time. We had soft-serve green tea and black sesame ice cream, weird fruit sodas from vending machines and plenty of Japanese beer and whisky. In a beer garden at Arashiyama Station, they put soft-serve frozen beer foam on top of regular or flavored Kirin Ichiban beer. It sounds strange, but I loved the orange flavor. 

Where do you recommend staying in Kyoto? 

We knew from the travel books and websites we’d researched that we wanted to stay in a ryokan, a traditional type of Japanese inn with tatami mat floors and sliding doors in the guest rooms. We compared rates on booking sites like Hotels.com with reviews on TripAdvisor and decided to book Ryokan Ryokufuso. Its location near the center of the city, within walking distance of Kyoto Station, made it a good home base for exploring Kyoto’s cultural treasures, which are spread out all over the city and the surrounding foothills. 

Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. 

Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. 

We chose their smallest room, a six-tatami-mat room, without any of the available dining packages. They served us tea and a snack at check-in, provided us with slippers and yakuta robes, and changed out our low dining table for futon sleeping mats each evening. Who knew sleeping on the floor could be so restful? In addition to the onsen (hot springs) men’s and women’s public baths—which were nude—we also had in-room baths and other comforts of home such as free Wi-Fi connectivity and mini-refrigerators. We were utterly enchanted with the place. 

How did you budget for the trip? Any advice for maximizing your time and money while on vacation?

Nathan flies regularly for work, and for several years, he’s chosen one carrier, United Airlines, as much as possible. With that carrier, he saved up enough miles for two roundtrip business-class tickets. We flew in and out of Tokyo and stayed with our friends in Zushi for a night at the beginning and end of the trip to save money.

We also ate simple, inexpensive meals and limited our souvenir purchases. We bought drinks and snacks at 7-11 stores (which are everywhere) and kept them in the fridge in our room. Strangely enough, 7-11 became a kind of home base; it’s the one place you can reliably use U.S. debit cards to withdraw cash. Many of them also sell hot, delicious, cheap fried chicken on a stick (trust me on this one). 


What advice do you have for first-time travelers? 

Mysteri and Nathan explored the region on a seven-day Japan Rail pass.

Mysteri and Nathan explored the region on a seven-day Japan Rail pass.

If you’re visiting Kyoto for the first time, research and prioritize what you want to see before you arrive. There are 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kyoto area, and thousands more temples, shrines and estates. We used travel websites (InsideKyoto.com is one of the best) and blogs to put together daily itineraries that focused on clusters of attractions in the same part of the city. We planned well, but I can think of at least four sites it hurt to miss: Saiho-ji(also known as the Moss Temple), the Daitoku-ji temple complex, Katsura Imperial Villa and Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion).

Be ready for the crowds, and look for opportunities when your plans fall apart. We arrived at Fushimi Inari-taisha with the light fading too fast for our camera phones to capture much. Determined to take away at least memories of the much-photographed red-orange gates, we climbed the empty paths up the hillside in the dripping darkness. We saw a different aspect of the place than most visitors see; it was eerie.

Think hard about when to visit: July in Kyoto was warm and rainy and humid, and we got at least a few showers every day. Kyoto is famously beautiful while the plums and cherries blossom in spring, also when the leaves change colors in fall, which is when I’d prefer to return.

It’s a travel cliché that you should get lost in a place to learn about it, but you should get out into the neighborhood streets of Kyoto and explore a bit on foot between points of interest. Beyond the crowds of tourists and the English language signs, there’s a peculiar bliss to be found wandering through the everyday places—the narrow streets and alleys and tidy little gardens—of a city you’ve never seen before. 

Fushimi Inari Taisha is an ancient shrine that sits at the base of Mount Inari in Kyoto, Japan.

Fushimi Inari Taisha is an ancient shrine that sits at the base of Mount Inari in Kyoto, Japan.

Mysteri and Nathan are adventure-seekers who just can't get enough of the great outdoors. Follow them on Instagram (@mysteri_lemay and @nelliott ) to see their travel, landscape and design photos (and try not to get too jealous of the cool stuff they're doing).