For such a popular tourist destination, Kyoto feels amazingly stuck in time. In a good way. Though the traditional machiya (very narrow townhouses) now house tourist shops and modern restaurants, the atmosphere walking down these streets is anything but contemporary. Kyoto is not a small city, with a population of about 1.5 million, but outside the downtown area, it can feel much, much smaller and reminded me a lot of Swiss-German mountain towns.
Kyoto understands the importance of preserving its historic streetscapes, in addition to its more obvious sightseeing spots. So few cities seem to get this concept, but being able to walk down the street and feel like you’re walking through a different era is, I think, more valuable than walking into a stand-alone historic building that has a McDonald’s next door. (No place fails more spectacularly at this than Cairo. You have not experienced true disappointment until you’ve seen the KFC practically across the street from the Sphinx).
I’m fairly convinced that almost any decent-sized city is better at night and Kyoto is the epitome of this. Restaurants and teahouses all hang red paper lanterns outside their doors, and sparse street lamps mean that areas along the river and in the famous Gion district are in a perpetual red glow after dark. Unlike Tokyo, where the giant TV screen and neon light are king, Kyoto feels like the whole place is lit by candlelight. Except for main streets in downtown, there’s just enough light to see. I would highly recommend exploring at night, when no picture can really capture the charm of the twinkling lights along Kyoto’s back alleys.
East of the Kamo River you’ll find Gion and the climbing narrow streets snaking through the hillsides in Higashiyama. I walked through this neighborhood on a crowded Sunday afternoon on a national holiday and found the area to be utterly fascinating despite the crowds. On the west bank of the river, tiny strung lights and countless paper lanterns make the area a beautiful place to dine when the sun goes down and it cools off. Sprawling patios atop wooden platforms line the river and though you’ll likely pay a cover charge for the privilege of dining and drinking outside, the view of the city and the people-watching on the riverwalk below make it worth it. The alleyways between the river and the forgettable, highly commercial Kawaramachi Street are full of restaurants and bars (many of which offer English menus) that line a smaller inner canal. Almost every restaurant has floor-to-ceiling windows so whether you’re eating or walking by, you’ll be afforded great views of the quietly bustling streetscape.
This brings me to the food. The food in Kyoto is a world away from Tokyo and frankly, I found it pretty hard to figure out. I suppose it could be described as “country-style” cooking, in that fish is not often fresh, dishes tend to be heavier, and there’s less variety than in a very cosmopolitan city. Kyoto is home to seven three-Michelin star restaurants, the third most of any city in the world, so if fine-dining is your thing, you’ve come to the right place. For mid-range and budget eateries, I’ve found that there’s not really a wrong or a right answer. Everything I’ve had has been pretty good, but I was never blown away or disappointed. A Google search didn’t get my much farther, as most reviews were along the lines of “we went into a place with an English menu outside and enjoyed it.”
Serendipitously, I arrived in Kyoto on Daimonji, one of the major holidays in the city celebrating the end of O-Bon, a festival honoring one’s ancestors. As a send-off to these deceased spirits that are believed to have visited during O-Bon, five enormous Chinese characters (why Chinese in Japan, I don’t know) are lit on the hillsides around the city. Not even Wikipedia can get a good picture of this event, and while it won’t exactly astound you with its intense majesty, the celebratory crowds of people huddled along the river banks enjoying picnics with their families makes it a memorable experience.
I’m noticing that despite the cultural importance of tea, coffee is extremely popular in Japan. On that note, I would highly recommend Len Kyoto (which was also my hostel, surprisingly enough). The lattes are excellent and the decor is minimalist, ultra-cool. Even an aloof Brooklynite would have to concede it’s not bad. Their croissants are the best I’ve ever had outside France and perhaps ever. Country music gets a lot of airtime here (they’re big fans of the new Zac Brown Band album), but you won’t feel like you’ve wandered into a tourist trap, even with the hostel upstairs.
If you’ve always wanted to know what it feels like to be a sleazy paparazzi, Gion is the place to be at night. This neighborhood is Kyoto’s famous geisha district and it’s an amazingly quiet place after dark if you turn onto one of the softly lit side streets, where you’ll often be the only person strolling the narrow corridor. Most of the restaurants and teahouses in Gion are extremely exclusive and rarely will you get a glimpse into these mysterious and luxurious places behind their discreetly opaque bamboo screen doors.
As such, this is the place to see geisha working and you’ll find packs of camera-ready tourists prowling the main streets looking to spot a geisha walking to or from work. There’s a sketchy, vaguely professional industry around photographing real geisha (beware imposters, as geisha makeovers are quite popular in Kyoto), and if you troll heavily enough in Gion at night, you’ll see a crowd of people queued up outside a teahouse. Sure enough, I saw a cluster of people leaving dinner one night and like lemmings, two equally clueless Aussies and I hung around to see what all the fuss was about. A geisha did come out a few minutes later and though I made an attempt at politeness by keeping my camera in my pocket, I missed an awesome moment when she came out, threw a coy look over her shoulder at the large crowd, and disappeared almost instantly.
I went back the next night and wandered around for an hour, during which I saw several geisha walking to and from various teahouses (8:45-9:15 seems to be the time when many are heading to different engagements). I fared slightly better photographically, but it’s hard not to feel like a bit of a creep taking a photo and if you’re unlucky enough to get caught in a tourist swarm, it’s only worse.
Anyway, though geisha are notoriously private, they are also an important part of Japanese culture. My understanding is if taking a picture doesn’t involve running down the street in pursuit, setting off a flash in her face, or getting in her way, that’s acceptable. Shout out to the couple who had no qualms about running after one geisha and attempting to get her to turn around by yelling at her in German. I did spot a woman and her daughter posing with a geisha on an empty side street, so I got the impression that especially if you ask, taking a photo is fine.
Moving on, here is some very unsophisticated advice about understanding and navigating the countless temples and shrines in Kyoto: if you, like me, know nothing about Buddhist or Shinto traditions, I would just go and see what you find. There are endless places to visit and trying to figure out exactly which are the “right” ones is probably a waste of time for anyone who isn’t going with a strictly religious or historically informed agenda. Kyoto is like Rome; all the churches are beautiful, but after a while, you can only see so many intricate Catholic altars and baroque ceilings.
That said, I would recommend Kiyomizu-dera, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the surrounding area, which is full of interesting old streets and several other temples on the hillsides that are a very easy walk from downtown Kyoto.
As you’ll probably want to visit the famous bamboo grove in Arashiyama, it’s worth exploring the area once you’ve made the trek out there. Ginkaku-ji and Kinkaku-ji are two of the other “must-see” temples but even so, I wouldn’t lose sleep over trying to hit both. To me, the beauty of Kyoto is wandering around and seeing whatever you happen to stumble upon.
As a brief side note, getting out to Arashiyama, though it can take a little while from the city center, is worth the trip because the subway cars look like they just rolled in from Budapest in 1890, with their hilariously impractical, but immaculately clean crushed velvet green seats and funky throwback paint job, all of which feel very Orient Express. This is interesting by public transportation standards, mind you, so don’t show up expecting to step into an Agatha Christie novel.
I should also add that the time of year to visit Kyoto is not now. There’s a reason that every picture of the city is from either the spring, during cherry blossom season, or the fall, when the leaves make the temples and hillsides particularly stunning. I’ve been slowly melting under the humidity the last three days, only to have some locals tell me that this was an unusually cool week.
Thanks to a comedy of my own errors, I have to give an obligatory plug to Hiranoya. The beautiful, traditionally appointed teahouse sits perched on the tranquil, winding hilly roads of Arishiyama, making it the perfect cap to a morning of touring the temples and parks of Arashiyama. I had just finished my tea, which came with some sweet globules that were, I think, mochi, and was having a nice time surveying the courtyard garden when I realized I had no money (credit cards don’t get you very far on the side streets of Kyoto). Literally, what amounted to about $1.50.
Ten minutes and a garbled explanation courtesy of Google Translate later, I was about to head out the door in search of an ATM when I was told by one of the waitstaff that the “master” had said it was okay and I could leave without paying, on the condition that I come back at some point. I considered offering to work for my bill, but came to the conclusion that doing so in a traditional and formal teahouse would be probably the most gauche thing ever. I left with a thousand apologies and intense shame, so I now feel obligated to promote this awesome place in whatever small way I can. The tea was delicious and I can’t thank them enough for so gracefully and kindly dealing with my incompetence.
Honestly, thank god they let me go because I only found an ATM several miles away and I’d probably still be sorting it out.
Speaking of tea, my final note on Kyoto also involves tea. If you’re interested in learning about Japanese tea ceremonies, then Joukeian in Kyoto is not to be missed. If you’re not interested in Japanese tea ceremonies, you should be. A former professor of mine tipped me off to this place (many thanks, Michael) and I immediately sprang at the chance to learn about a part of Japanese culture that doesn’t seem particularly accessible to Westerners. The host at Joukeian, Soukou, is the kind of person you dream about meeting while traveling. Soukou is someone who takes her craft very seriously and wants you do the same, and while she is very formal and reserved, she’s also incredibly warm and patient.
The art of Japanese tea ceremonies was for me an unknown unknown. There are many different methods and schools of thought, and the process is complex, but elegant, with no superfluous movements or unnecessary steps. Ranging anywhere from an hour to an entire evening or afternoon, a trip to Joukeian is completely transportive. Soukou is unbelievably meticulous attention in her attention to detail and watching her go through the process of preparing the tea is almost hypnotic. I went to an evening session and the candlelight definitely added to the soothing ambiance.
I’m having trouble adequately describing it because there really is no American equivalent. The entire process is a microcosm of Japanese culture, with its emphasis on harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility, and it’s one of those things that can seem a little unusual at first, but is sure to be utterly memorable and a great way to experience a side of Japanese culture that is, unfortunately, slowly losing its presence in modern Japan.
Onto Nara next very briefly, which I’m told has “very friendly deer,” and then I’ll be ending my stay in Japan in Hiroshima.