Upon arrival in Kyoto one is greeted by the big city vibe that is inherent to all Japanese metropolitan cities. However, once you cross the river into Gion, a part of town where traditions reign with the Geisha culture still active and an abundance of traditional wood houses and temples and shrines. Gion is home to both Shinto and Buddhist shrines and a good starting point to immerse yourself in Japanese culture and aesthetics. It is a tourist hub, but there are a few temples that are neglected by the big tour buses where you can enjoy the beauty of Japanese architecture and garden culture.
A stone garden in Kodai-ji temple – a beautiful temple with a picturesque garden emanating calm and peace. Highly recommended!
A picture spot for couples – something very popular in Japan. The lady taking care of the shrine got very excited when she saw us, saying “photo photo” and guided us here. Apparently, there a distinct spots for pictures for couples at all major sights in Japan. Sometimes there even is a special gadget to hold your smart phone to help you get the perfect picture. #onlyinjapan
In Kyoto a lot of local women and also Japanese tourists wear their beautiful kimonos to town. Which, for the picture-avid tourist like me, creates some colorful contrast to the monochromatic temple surroundings.
Kodai-ji temple also has a little bamboo forest on its grounds. It is surely smaller than the iconic one in Arashiyama, but you can have it to yourself here.
The streets of Gion- if you are lucky, you see a geisha hurrying past. Or a maiko, a geisha in training. Gion is full of old-style Japanese houses with wooden facades, little shops and restaurants, and at every other corner, you come across a little shrine or temple. Give yourself some time to wander through the streets, exploring the narrow alleys and backyards. One can escape the tourist masses, even here!
If you plan on doing any souvenir shopping in Japan, e.g. porcelain, do so here. There are beautiful artist’s workshops here, offering delicate porcelain dishes that you won’t find that easily in other Japanese cities. I didn’t do so since Kyoto was our first stop and regretted this decision throughout the journey, since I only encountered kitsch souvenirs at the other tourist hubs.
Kiyomizu-dera temple is another highlight in Kyoto with the cobblestone streets of Ninenzaka and Sannen-zaka leading up to its grounds. Unfortunately, the main building was under construction when we visited but the view over Tokyo was stunning all the same.
On our way back down from the temple we stumbled upon this little gem of a restaurant in a little side street. We have no clue what we actually ate but it was delicious all the same. Looking at the maps now, it must have been a little side street of Chawan-zaka, to the right, when heading down. The restaurant was very small, only a few tables, and had lots of flower pots on the doorstep. I am sorry, I cannot give any more detailed directions…
Eventually we took the subway south to Fushimi-Inari shrine, Kyoto’s most popular shrine boasting thousands of orange-colored tori that lead the way up to the mountain top. It is very crowded in the beginning but if you beat the heat and the mosquitos (bring repellant, I got about 20 bites within 10 minutes) and make your way to the top, you have the long lines of tori to yourself. The god Inari is supposed to support good business so the tori were all erected by businessmen hoping for a successful career.
A wall crammed with little pieces of paper with predictions on them. We haven’t understood the system in full since there are ways to get offered a prediction and also write your own wishes but also bad experiences you want to forget about on either pieces of cloth or wood. Depending on the temple or shrine (and on good or bad wishes), there are apparently different ways of displaying them.
Inari, the fox, is also a patron of marriage so couples buy little statues of a fox couple with a mediator. Once their couple is successful and they have established a happy life together, they bring the statues back to the temple so nowadays, thousands of little fox statues are embellishing the balustrades of the temple.
Kyoto was the perfect start to our Japanese adventure. Temples, shrines, gardens and colorful kimonos, a first taste of Japanese cuisine, and all of this in a relatively calm setting. Off to Osaka next which couldn’t have been a bigger contrast!