Just by coincidence, I arrived in Kyoto two days after the anniversary of the attacks at Pearl Harbor. Despite once headlining the list of cities on which the United States intended to drop an atomic bomb, Kyoto was ultimately replaced by Nagasaki at the request of then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who, through his honeymoon and subsequent diplomatic visits, had taken a liking to Kyoto and its culture.
As a result, although a few air raids scratched the surface of the city, Kyoto emerged from World War II mostly intact. As the former imperial capital of Japan, the city is filled with more than 1,600 Buddhist temples, hundreds of Shinto Shrines, and has a restricted skyline dominated by imperial architecture — a quality that’s all but lost in Japan’s new capital, Tokyo.
Once on the ground in Kyoto, you should be ready for two things: to remove your shoes frequently, and to return your fair share of bows. Shoes are prohibited inside temples, shrines, and many restaurants, and to greet someone properly, you should bend at the waist and lower your head. The deeper the bow, the more respect shown. These rituals present themselves throughout the entire country, but Kyoto has a special knack for making them feel traditional thanks to its storybook scenery: cherry blossoms, trickling streams, bamboo forests and ridiculous fall foliage. In that sense, traditional and modern Japanese lifestyles are abuzz harmoniously in Kyoto, a city that stays true to its village roots.
Sticker Shock, Japan-Style
Many foreign travelers balk at Japan’s high cost of living, and there’s no question that when it comes to Asia, it’s one of the most expensive countries. Foreigner-only discounts on transportation help to ease the pain, but the real remedy rests in appreciating all that comes along with the sticker shock. Japan is impressively clean and well groomed, with a large emphasis on relaxing, peaceful environments centered around gardens, beautiful shrines, and temples. This, combined with an orderly, non-abrasive, overly polite population, results in a vibe that makes you forget about the few extra yen spent here and there.
|Where to Stay
Japanese guesthouses, known as ryokans, are found throughout the city. There are many different styles — traditional, modern, luxury — and, like hostels and guesthouses in the West, you always get what you pay for. Traditional ryokans are intended to preserve the culture of the Edo period, complete with tatami mats for sleeping and communal garden areas; the more luxurious ryokans offer better accommodations, high-quality meals, and more privacy. Browse around and find one that fits your tastes, whether it be in the city or the foothills. Boutique hotels are also plentiful, as are modern international options, such as the Hyatt Regency Kyoto and the Ritz Carlton Kyoto.
|Where to Eat
Regardless of whether or not you’re into the soft textures of Japanese food, the ambiance and experience of a traditional restaurant — shoes off at the door, pillow-padded floor seating — is well worth your time. The beautiful, geisha-centric Gion district is the birthplace of a sushi style known as “Mamezushi”, sometimes called “Maiko zushi” because it was inspired by a Maiko, or an apprentice Geisha, after her “cute little button” of a mouth (Mamezushi means “small sushi bean” in English). At Mametora, the best Mamezushi restaurant in the city, 15 different small and spherical sushi bites are served in a box, each with its own colors and flair, the chefs placing as much focus on the presentation as the preparation. For affordable, incredible ramen and udon noodles, head to Tenkaippin (it has no website, but is located across from the Minami-za Theater). Stop by the various vendors of the Nishiki Market to try everything from octopus on a stick to fresh oysters. Be sure to wash down anything you eat with sake, the country’s fermented-rice drink, which is treated with a the same veneration we treat wine with in the West. Taste it and learn how it’s made at OZU Sake, where you’ll learn that the taste of the drink can be altered by simply changing from a ceramic to a bamboo cup.
|What to Do
The place to best experience the city’s aura of “Storybook Japan” is the Gion district, filled with quietly murmuring creeks, cherry blossoms, weeping trees, traditional architecture and plenty of opportunities for people watching. Remember Memoirs of a Geisha? Gion is the setting for the book, where the legend of the Geisha entertainers (referred to as Geikos by locals) started and still lives on today in the traditional teahouses, which are open by invitation only. Several dance festivals, such as the Miyako Odori Dance Festival in April and the Kamogawa Odori Dance Festival in May and late October, allow visitors to glimpse this otherwise elite society. Continue your cultural gluttony with a visit to Gion’s Minami-za Theater, which dates back to 1610 and runs two shows daily of Kyoto’s most heralded art form, Kabuki Dance. Shortly after the rise of Kabuki, the Japanese government banned women from participating and now it is performed entirely by men on a stage that features an into-the-audience footbridge, revolving platforms and trapdoors. Kyoto is home to more Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples than you could ever see in one visit, so go for a well-rounded experience. (The thousands can also be narrowed down to the 16 that are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.) The Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine is one of the most touristy, but its thousands of torii gates are a sight to see. Pass through them all and follow the trail up the hill through the bamboo, cedar and maple trees for a view overlooking the city. For a rural village experience, start with a dip in the hot springs at Kurama Temple and then hike one hour through the forest to the Kibune Shrine in the city’s northern mountain range.
Kyoto’s Sagano Scenic Railway might be a train to nowhere, but it certainly takes you on a journey. Running through forests along the Hozugawa River to the rural village of Arashiyama and Kameoka, the ride is a slow 25-minute crawl and is a great introduction to the pristine, accessible nature surrounding the city — something that separates it from the megatropolis of Tokyo. For a closer look, jump on the Hozugawa River Cruise between Kameoka to Arashiyama. Anything outdoors in Kyoto is especially good in the spring and fall, when the cherry blossoms bloom and the leaves change colors, respectively.