We traded the lights of Japan’s largest city to spend some time in the county’s old capital. With two weeks of travel planned in Japan, give or take a day on either side for the leg of the flight, making the Kansai region our second stop made the most efficient use of our time during a first trip to Japan. Looking back on our brief, wondrous trip, I’m glad we didn’t overextend our ambitions for exploring more of the country. Kyoto was an easy next step but turned out to be a beautiful contrast to Tokyo.
The Shinkansen train ride was a special delight, a bucket list dream for me as a train fan. We stopped before the train departed to pick up a sushi bento box at a neighboring department store depichika, buying paper cups of coffee from the train car attendants while on the ride. As I had observed all over Japan, the train was a mix of a new, shiny future with touches that felt like near relics of the past. We reserved seats on the right side of the train to see Mt. Fuji on but the clouds had their way with obscuring our view.
Though it seemed like business travelers used the train route the most frequently by the number of suit-clad individuals we counted near us, there were many types of Japanese people on the train. The everyday faces highlighted the absolute ease of to travel around the island nation.The train hugs near to the coast too, situating just how most of the Japanese live near the water in dense networked cities. The train window framed the grey, green, and mountains on the horizon, a slice of Japanese life inbetween Tokyo and Kyoto.
We arrived in Kyoto and hailed a cab outside Kyoto Station, the first and only one we used in Japan. We (believe it or not) mostly enjoy long walks while traveling. Not that the experience wasn’t first rate, though. The driver rushed to get our bags, wearing the well-known cab driver gloves, even stopping during the ride so he could call our host for us to figure out the exact directions since we could hardly communicate with him in English.
The little details made an everyday interaction–a cab idling outside a train station— feel just a bit deviated, emblematic of how I felt about a lot of Japanese culture: familiar but changed, ever so slightly. The cab driver drove us through tiny old city center streets to a restaurant where we would pick up our key for the apartment.
We rented another apartment with Airbnb for an easy, central stay. The apartment was a studio with futon style mats with a balcony, located in Gion. Gion is a nightlife district known for a beautiful street called Shimbashi Dori. It’s home to traditional teahouses and omakase restaurants, with picturesque walks amongst machiya townhouses never destroyed in the war.
Many people congregate near a bench on Shimbashi to catch a Geisha en route to an appointment in the early evening. The fascination with Geisha is a little strange for me—potentially wrought with cultural stereotypes I’d rather not engage in without more historical specificity–but we strangely enough ended up seeing a Geisha by chance one evening while strolling for dinner. It was a flash and then she was gone, a brief introduction to something I’m out of depths in.
Since Kyoto is more spread out than Tokyo and with fewer train lines, as well a region possessing what is likely 2,000 temples and shrines far and close to the city center, we picked a well-known neighborhood near the river figuring we could at the very least walk to what’s closest to us then strategically plan how to see farther sites. Though we didn’t rent them, biking around the city and along the river would have been a perfect late summer way to explore greater Kyoto. We enjoyed walking the gridded and flat streets of central city, though, using train lines and buses when need be.
Upon settling in I could already sense that Kyoto had a very different tone than Tokyo. The mountains in the mist, hovering around the city, greeted us on the apartment balcony like an emblem of their differences.
Kyoto is the old capital of Japan. It is home to history, traditional Japanese architecture, and hundreds upon hundreds of Shinto and Buddhist temples and shrines to encounter. I felt more of the environment and the people in the change from Tokyo’s cosmopolitanism to Kyoto’s historical sense. It’s appeared a slower, smaller city that reminded me more of Boston compared to New York City, with a similar collegial charm. Kyoto’s low buildings and traditional machiya immediately provided an architectural contrast with much of Tokyo’s grey mid century modernist facade.
Sites of religious practice were everywhere to say the least– from alleyway shrines to other-worldly Zen temples set in hillside hamlets. The Japanese also seemed more than comfortable with this seamless integration of their economic life blending into religious devotion: not only were foreigner’s respectfully mixing in sites of national religions practice, everywhere you went the Japanese were also touring their own heritage. Often we’d catch an everyday business woman or man on a stop on for a quick devotion, be it in a shrine next to a Pachinko parlor or in a larger temple hovering on the periphery of the city. Though we expressed reserve in temples, not looking to offend by misunderstanding, we always felt welcome alongside them.
We paired down our to-do for the trip based on the sheer inability for us to see everything, focusing on selecting a few must sees, then allowing time to just hang around Central Kyoto’s neighboring districts.
We made sure to go to Fushimi Inari Shrine, a shinto shrine with hundreds of red-orange torii gates in Southern Kyoto, that requires a train ride farther from of the city center. Inari being the god of rice, there were thousands of fox statues with grains of rice in their mouths throughout the hike. We hiked the gates in the rain which while a bit muddier than I expected actually meant for us that there would be fewer intrepid tourists. It was a transcendent experience in a downpour. My city girl canvas sneakers squeeked as rain belted the large tree leaves and the ground. Every minute or so you’d find some respite venturing between gates, up a hypnotic route to the top.
Gion where we slept was a superb base for exploring both food and temples. There were several temples in walking distance to the our apartment, including Chionin and Yasaka Shrine. If you cross the Kamo river near Gion there are several busy alley streets with cheap food, teeming with expat nightlight as well as hip vintage stores and cafes tucked away. Just walking the neighborhoods off either side of the river in all directions from Gion turned out to be a pleasant way to explore. We came across several antique stores off the beaten path this way. Venturing more southern of Gion, we discovered Cafe Arabica which brewed a great cup of coffee.
Nishiki Market alongside with the arcade area in downtown Kyoto offered the similar feel of Tokyo but with the added benefit that you’d discover a shrine right after you had just been trapped in a loud pachinko parlor. There is nothing quite like witnessesing a contemplative ceremony in an area full of shopping and modern life. We spent a few days exploring this area, stopping in Nishiki market for food and to observe the hawkers.
Walking on Sanjo and into the neighborhoods north of Gion but on the other side of the river, ending at the Imperial Palace Gardens, provided a quieter stroll around residential Kyoto. Here we observed more of what a calm day to day life in Kyoto might be like. There were several Japanese boutiques and good restaurants tucked away in this area that I’d loved to visit again, like Cafe Bibliotek Hello.
Another farther expedition was going to the otherworldly Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Though busy with tourists, the sacred bamboo forrest is nonetheless awesome to walk through, like a stroll on another planet’s forests. Afterwards we went to Tenryuji temple, a quick walk away, which is the head of an active zen buddhist sect. The temple is situated right near the mountains, incorporating the backdrop breathtakingly into the zen garden grounds. I’ve never seen moss treated as a central element to gardening until Japan. The area near both called Sagano is beautiful too. We spent a while just lounging near a river, watching wooden boat cruises passing by.
We made two day trips out to Kyoto. The first was to Osaka. known for it’s dinning scene, so we could stroll around Dotonbori while sampling the cities’ well known street food, great for budget traveling. The city reminded me of the lights and commotion of Tokyo but it was nice to be able to venture there and back to Kyoto in less than a few hours.
The second day trip we took was to Nara, the even older-er capital of Japan before it was moved to Kyoto, home to the largest buddha in Japan and (of course) sacred deer that roam around a reserve. We spent most of the time with the deer. The most memorable moment was sitting in the a park’s cafe, lounging on the table sipping Asahi dry beers, while deer came in and out of the restaurant, perching next to us as friends.
We left Kyoto with another day and half in Tokyo before flying home, a bit burnt out of being away but also awe struck with Japan. Kyoto was a quiet but lively and livable city. It was full of everything at once, a glimmer at another side to Japanese life and history.