These days, when we think of Kyoto, things like climate change and The Kyoto Protocol come to mind. For some the thought of blossoming cherry trees may also resonate. But back in the day, Kyoto was the incredibly rich and opulent capital of the Japanese empire.
Known for its multitude of temples, shrines and intriguing Geishas, it was on the verge of being destroyed during World War II, but it is said to have been spared due to its unique cultural heritage. It is thus one of the best cities to catch a glimpse of the ancient Japanese history.
Truth be told, Kyoto’s beauty is not as obvious as I thought. I was expecting a never ending garden city, full of temples everywhere and cherry trees all over. You do indeed have all of this, but you have to look for it. The city itself has a modern flavor to it, and the first thing that gets into your retina are the modern looking buildings and the rhythm of a cosmopolitan city. But… There’s more than meets the eye! In every corner you’ll find a window to the past. A beautiful garden, a peaceful temple, a Geisha strolling in her unmistakable steps. And floating around all this, the appetizing smell of great food.
Our first stop was a culinary treat at the Nishiki market. The variety of food was unbelievable and I felt like trying everything… Well, almost everything: there were still a couple of things that, despite my love for Japanese food, I couldn’t touch!
The first temple we visited was Kodaiji, where I saw a rock garden for the first time. It’s difficult to explain how such a bare place can be so intense. We truly enjoyed our time there, it was one of the highlights of the visit.
Probably the best known temple in Kyoto is the Kinkaku-ji, a.k.a. the Temple of the Gold Pavillion. It was a grey and rainy day when we got there, and still there were thousands of people waiting to get in. I can only imagine (dread?) how it gets in peak season! Yet, it is a more than well deserved wait. The temple is absolutely astonishing, and even in such a grey day it was sparkling gold, imposing its magnificence upon us. The gardens around it are also quite beautiful and, as in many places in Kyoto, I would have loved to stroll there without the accompanying tourists and embrace a Zen mindset. Another must see is the Fushimi Inari shrine, with its thousands of bright red gates (torii) and dozens of foxes with keys in their mouths (regarded as messengers). It is a well worth and easy climb up the hill, allowing some nice views of smaller temples.
In one of our strolls around Kyoto, we stopped at the Nijo Castle, the Kyoto residence of the Togukawa Shoguns, later used as an imperial palace. This was not very high on our must see list, but as soon as we stepped inside we were fascinated by the architecture and wall paintings. It was a sumptuous palace, with silk walls beautifully painted and nice hardwood floors. You almost start feeling wiser just by being there!
Our last stop was in the Gion district, where you can still find Geishas walking around. From what we read, it no longer has the grandeur of old times, when it was one of the most refined places in Japan, but it is still a mandatory stop. Geisha means literally ‘an artist or artisan’, so it’s used to define women that master the art of entertaining, especially man, by dancing, playing classical music or facilitating conversations. In the past Geishas started their education as early as six years, but nowadays only girls above age can decide on embracing this activity.
Together with all the other tourists, the rain and fog were our most persistent travel companions. They stayed with us through all our stay in Kyyoto, and that’s one of the reasons why so many of our photos do not capture the true beauty of Kyoto. The other is of course our lack of expertise 🙂
Sadly, we have to say goodbye to Japan now. We are catching our flight for another much anticipated Oriental experience: China, here we go!