July 12-14, 2016
Kyoto was tenfold the beauty of Tokyo, but it seemed even more hot and humid. We were warned that Japan in the summer would be hot and humid. After all, we were catching the tale end of the monsoon season. I would say summer in Japan is equivalent to DC or even Florida in August. Despite the never ending sauna, I think we both really appreciated the city for what it is. It is a beautiful city, with lots of history.
Kyoto was once the capital of Japan. It was moved from Nara (a nearby city) in the 700s AD, and it remained the imperial capital until the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s. Since the Americans understood the historical and cultural significance of Kyoto, it was largely spared the destructive bombings of other cities like Tokyo during World War II. This has provided for many of the neighborhoods, temples and shrines to be in their “original” conditions.
The first night in Kyoto we checked into our hotel. I had arranged for us to stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house. The ryokan is set up slightly different than a western style hotel, with, like many things in Japan, a lot of traditions and history. Besides some Japanese decor, the reception desk and hotel lobby are fairly similar to the western inn. However, the rooms are very different.
We were escorted to our room by a hotel attendant. Immediately upon entering the room (the foyer), we were asked to take off our shoes. There was a small area to take off shoes in the entry. (The shoe-thing has caught us by surprise on a few occasions. While walking into temples is usually a given to take off shoes. Certain restaurants and shops have asked us to as well. The rule-of-thumb is usually if you see a tatami mat or nice carpeted area, take off your shoes.) A small step was the barrier between the shoes-on and shoes-off areas. Tatami mats covered the floor of our room. The foyer had a sink and a shelf to place our shoes. There were also slippers for us to put on if we wanted to walk around the hotel without the inconvenience of putting on or shoes again. The foyer led to the bathroom (maybe slightly smaller but typical by western standards) and a sliding screen (made out of wood and opaque paper) led to the main guest room. Futon mats had already been set up and made by the maid. (Usually the futons are kept in a closet in the room and taken out and set up by the guest every night.) A small coffee table and 2 leg-less chairs with pillow cushions were set up. A box with tea and cookies was on the table. The attendant led us to the anterior room (separated by a sliding screen door). In here there was a closet with yakata (Japanese style robes). She explained we could wear them to lounge in while staying in the room and to the onsen in the basement.
Memoirs of a Geisha
The evening was young so we decided to venture out into the heat. Monica had been reading Memoirs of a Geisha, so she was the resident expert on Kyoto. We made our way to the Gion neighborhood nearby our hotel for an evening walk.
The Gion neighborhood is known for its old, wood facades, cobble stone streets and geisha. Geisha are an very Japanese phenomenon. They exist in a world of tradition and secrecy. Most foreigners never seen real geisha (nor afford the steep $1000+ price to be entertained by one). We are too crude and rude to know how to behave appropriately in their presence. Supposedly if you stroll down the Gion area around 5:45 or 6 pm you can see geisha going to work at the many tea houses in the neighborhood. We may have seen one or two geisha inconspicuously getting dropped off by taxis as we wandered around the narrow streets.
We ended up stopping at Gion Corner, a theater specializing in Japanese traditional arts. There was an hour-long show that showcased various Japanese arts: tea ceremony, flower arrangement, traditional instruments, puppet play. Although a bit steep in price for what you get, it was neat to get an overview of the arts and the Japanese way.
The next morning we woke up and decided to venture out early on an impromptu trek to this park on the edge of town (Arashiyama) that has a famous bamboo grove. We left the hotel with just our running cloths and some cash, not accounting for the clouds forming above us. By the time we navigated our way through the metro system, we emerged from the last stop on the train line to a downpour of rain.
We waited it out in the station until the deluge became a trickle. We thought we could wait out the storm in a nearby cafe, but nothing was open (the Tulley’s Coffee didn’t even open until 9 am). So we continued on through the rain to find the bamboo grove.
By the time, we arrived we were thoroughly soaked, but the bamboo grove was amazing. The bamboo grew fifty to a hundred (+) feet above us, making the path we walked down dark and mysterious. It was very enchanting and peaceful, even in the rain. It was totally worth braving the elements.
When we got back to the station, stores were finally opening up, and we were able to buy umbrellas. With umbrellas to protect us from any sudden thunderstorms, we decided to continue on. A Zen Buddhist temple Ryōan-ji, famous for computer desktops and screen savers around the world, was nearby. The temple complex was perfectly manicured and the 500-year old stone and gravel zen garden was peaceful, especially in the rain–until a large Chinese tourist group noisily busted in.
Peaceful Setting, Surrounded by Massive Crowds
Much of Kyoto was crowded with tour groups and tourists. While the city is well worth the visit and should be on every Japan itinerary, it’s the equivalent of Rome or Paris as a tourist draw. The two famous temple complexes, the Golden Pavilion and Fushimi Inari Taisha, are incredibly beautiful places, but the crowds distract from the setting. I think Monica and I preferred the temples and neighborhoods where we could escape the masses. The Bamboo Grove and To-ji temple complex, and even the zen garden, were our favorites, partly because there were fewer tourists running around.
We followed the crowds to a neighboring city called Nara. Nara had been the previous imperial capital before it was moved to Kyoto in the 700s. The main draw to Nara is a huge Buddha statue housed in the largest wood building in the world. The Buddha is enormous and luckily the complex is large enough to absorb the masses of tourists.
The complex also sits in a large park where docile deer live. These semi-tame animals are almost as big of a tourist attraction as the Buddha. You can buy biscuits to feed them and pet them. They literally roam the whole park and even parts of the city. It’s quite a surreal scene.
Ryokan Info: We stayed at the Nishiyama Ryokan near the city hall. The area of the hotel was nice, with lots of boutique stores and cafes. It was also a quick walk to the Gion district. The hotel itself was nice and clean. The Ryokan style room was very comfortable and the hotel staff were very friendly with decent English speaking skills. There was also a small onsen in the basement of the hotel.
Osaka Airport Hotel: On our last night on the main island of Honshu, we stayed at the Osaka airport, Hotel Nikko Kansai. This was the cheapest and most convenient option for us, since we were flying out early to Okinawa. The room was clean and comfortable enough for a one night stay. The airport was about an hour+ shuttle from Nara.
Gion Corner: ¥2500 (summer discount), shows at 6 pm and 7 pm; showcase of traditional Japanese culture
Kyoto Foodie Paradise: Kyoto was a foodie extravaganza! We had some of our favorite meals in Japan in Kyoto and Nara. One of our favorite parts about the food in Kyoto was the number of international options. After a week of eating Japanese food, Italian, Spanish and American style options were a welcomed variation.
- Spanish – El Fogon – Kyoto – We enjoyed a night of tapas and wine; affordable and tasty food.
- Italian – Kuragari Masa 海鮮山鮮くらがりまさ – Kyoto – Featuring a fusion of Italian and Japanese; an affordable Wagyu (Kobe) Beef option was our big draw.
- Coffee – % Arabica Kyoto Arashiyama – Kyoto – Coffee was pricey in Japan, but % Arabica was a nice treat.
- Sushi – Maguro Kayo – Nara – This was a very random find. The decor is very “divey/blue collar”, but it’s the type of place I imagine hard working salary men go to drink and eat. The sushi was some of the best we had in Japan, and it was decently priced.
Music to Put You in a Japanese Sort of Mood