Did you know that Kyoto is Tokyo with the ‘to’ at the end instead of the front? Did that just blow your mind? It’s amazing how the overlooked, little details can do that sometimes.
Kyoto, meaning “the capital of capitals” in Japanse, is actually not the capital of Japan even though Kyoto-ites would like to think so. It goes to show what a proud breed they are, and they should be. Kyoto is an astounding city rich with history and Japanese tradition, and it’s the second most visited city in Japan.
In a land where Buddhism and Shintoism coexist, therein lies an opportunity to go temple and shrine hopping. There are many of both in Kyoto, and while it would be impossible to visit all of them, there are enough of each concentrated in different areas to get the gist.
My personal favorites are the two World Heritage sites known as the Golden Pavillion (Kinkakuji – 400 YEN admission) and the Silver Pavillion (Ginkakuji – 500 YEN admission). The 5-story pagoda, Toji Temple, as well as Kiyomizu temple are two beauties not to be missed either. Encased in out-of-this-world, versicolored trees, even photoshop can’t do justice to the stunning Autumn leaves lining every street corner. The sister season to blooming cherry blossoms in April is falling maple leaves of all shades of red, orange, and yellow in October/November. I could go on forever about how the colors are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but perhaps I’ll save it for a separate coffee conversation.
As grand as they may be, I was a bit underwhelmed by the Nijo Castle and the Imperial Palace. While accompanied by beautiful parks and gardens, the trails surrounding the grounds felt like walking a path beaten to death by too many tourists before me. For someone who has a deeper appreciation for Japan’s history than me, these would be good sites to visit. Audio guides or guided tours are available at both places.
During the week, I participated in two walking tours with a company called WaRaiDo. Not only were they reasonably priced, but they were perhaps some of the few tours I found to be worth the money.
The first was a 5-hour walking tour with a small group (10-12 people) through the backalleys of Kyoto. Our guide, Mei, answered every question we had about Japan better than I’m sure any history teacher could. While we talked, we strolled along visiting small restaurants, pottery shops, a community center, and even a sweets shop where we sampled a couple of treats. Even though the tour was long, it wasn’t physically strenuous in the least, and we had perfect Autumn weather for it as well.
Mei even taught us the proper etiquette for “purifying” our hands and mouth before entering a temple. With the ladle you rinse your left hand, rinse your right hand, pour some water into your left hand to scoop into your mouth, spit the water out, and then rinse the handle by dumping the remaining water towards you as if you were about to spill it on yourself.
On my last day in Kyoto, I took a tour through Gion which dovetailed nicely with reading Memoirs of a Geisha. Prior to the tour, I visited the Chioin-in temple and ate sweet & sour meatballs for dinner which was enough to keep me warm for the evening. With a group of 18, our lovely guide, Emi, took us through the streets, as we snacked on complimentary cinnamon flavored candies. We stopped every now and then so Emi could answer our questions, give us a history and background of the Geisha (or as they prefer to be called in Kyoto, Geiko) lifestyle and training, and let us admire her kimono. This was perhaps my favorite tour I’ve ever done, and even Emi dubbed it a success because we saw 2 geikos and 1 maiko (apprentice geisha) in full regalia throughout the tour. Plus, I ended up making some good friends I’ll eventually need to come back and visit in Japan.
Much like Tokyo, Kyoto is best explored by night when it is all lit up, and as a woman, I felt completely safe wandering around on my own at any hour. The people are as friendly as ever, and should you find yourself in a bind, they always seem to be at the ready to help.
Other than having difficulty using ATMs and finding food that doesn’t contain sea critter parts (both topics will be covered before the end of the year), I have nothing bad to say about Kyoto. Once you’ve seen it for yourself, it’s easy to understand why it attracts so many travelers every year, and it is a city I now hold very dear to my heart.