Once we arrived in Kyoto and found our accommodation nestled in a tiny laneway, we decided to take a stroll and acquaint ourselves with our surroundings. In my opinion this is one of the prettiest cities in the world. Walking down the main shopping street, we squeezed through a small laneway that opened up to a gorgeous temple. We discovered this was not uncommon in Kyoto, as there are temples and shrines everywhere! Over 2000 to be a little more precise. The city seems to have grown around them, keeping them untouched, and they are still visited by many on a daily basis. Kyoto feels like it has been engulfed in culture right from the beginning of time; which it has.
Walking down Shijo-dori (one of the main up-market shopping streets) you almost feel as if you are walking along Oxford street in London, with the glitz and glamour down to every detail. So it is a very unexpected change when you turn down a side arcade to find the large, robust Nishki Market. You really get a feel for the east meeting the west. The market has the old-town Kyoto feel, and is the perfect place to be introduced to traditional Japanese cuisine.
Heading east along Shijo Street out of Kyoto City, you will cross the Kamogawa River and find yourself in Gion district, also known as Old Town Kyoto. This is where you can do a little ‘geisha spotting’, as they entertain wealthy business men at dinner. They are always ushered quickly into what seem to be tiny establishments all with an expensive menu, so don’t blink or you will miss them.
Geisha have an elegant scurry about them in their wooden shoes and pencil-line Kimono. Their hair is decorated so beautifully and the make-up alone must take hours. The Geisha spend years learning their art.
Next stop: the Bamboo Forest. Catching the bus from Gion is probably the easiest way of getting there. If you are in Kyoto at a busy time of year, directions will be easy – you will just follow the crowds. The path through the Bamboo is spectacular and a great photo op. From the Forest, it is a short cab ride to the breathtaking Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. This was one of my favourite temples. The gardens around the temple are incredibly peaceful, and the coy fish are monstrous and very curious.
At the end of Shijo Street back in Gion, you will find the famous Yasaka Shrine. I was lucky enough to be in town for the ‘Hanatoro’, or Lantern Festival, and the Shrine was the starting point for the ‘lantern walk’. Approximately 2500 lanterns decorate the 5 kilometre walking path that leads to the foothills of nearby Higashiyama Mountain. The ‘Hanabutai’ stage is set up in Kodaiji Temple Park, where daily live music, dance and performances are held. Traditional and contemporary designers from around the world were on show as night fell.
The following day, we went to the other side of town to visit the Ginkaku-ji, or The Silver Pavilion. This temple is a little bit smaller than the Golden Temple, but once again the gardens are magnificent. I highly recommend paying a few Yen and hiring the audio guide. Everything within the walls of this temple has a historic meaning, or are placed in a symbolic way. A definite must-see.
Dinner this night was in a small Korean family run restaurant, where we chose our meals by pointing at the picture-less menu and crossing our fingers. Still to this day I don’t know what I ate, or the name of the restaurant. However I wish I knew, because this anonymous dish was completely delicious. Winding through the narrow back streets we spotted a small western-style pub, run by Irish ex-pats who showed us some famous Irish hospitality, before staggering home for some well-needed rest to conquer yet more temples.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine was first on our list today; you might be more familiar with the orange arches, the Torii Gates. There are thousands of them here. This place is simply special. Walking through the countless orange Gates became such a meditative experience, as the light that filters down changes as the path twists and turns its way up the hill.
A few more for your ‘to-do’ list:
The Philosophers Walk is a pretty cherry blossom lined walk along a canal that joins five significant temples and two Shrines. Even though the path is only 2km in length, you can easily spend half a day or longer here. There are small cafes along the way if you need to stop for lunch.
Nara Deer Park and the largest Buddha in the world. Beware of the deer, they are not shy, nor do they know the difference between food and clothing. Nara has to be done as a day trip as the express train will take over an hour each way, nevertheless it is worth the trip.
I hope you fall in love with this beautiful city as much as I have. If you are wanting to go, leave any questions below.
Next stop: Tokyo! Part III of our Japan series is coming soon.