The sterile, boxy contours of my immediate surroundings gave no hint of my destination. Together with the train station – a soulless machine of steel, concrete and glass, this city was obviously on the cusp of regeneration; a futile attempt to catch up with modern Osaka and Tokyo.
It was hard to believe I had arrived in the former ancient capital of Japan, home to thousands of heritage sites. I had imagined being suddenly propelled back in time; walking down cobbled streets, the click-clacking of a Zori sandal reverberating noisily through the hushed narrow alleyways; a flash of a white mask and the hint of a ruby red pout, as a geisha girl ambled away to the privacy of her wooden machiya house.
The reality was – we were walking along a busy pedestrian walkway towards our hotel, and the click-clacking sound was of my sister’s medical boot and walking stick as they struck the icy, concrete paving slab.
Some may describe the city as a celebration of the old and the new, but for die-hard traditionalists, the modern face of Kyoto is a betrayal or deception of its past. Indeed, a vivid imagination is required as you transcend over the 21st century threshold, and fall in to the realm of castles, temples and shrines.
Kinkaku-Ji (The Golden Pavilion) The Kinkaku-ji in was a welcome escape from the commercialism of shopping malls. Aside from the pavilion itself (which you cannot enter), the main attraction is its tranquil surroundings. Listed as a ‘Special Place of Scenic Beauty’, the garden circles the pond, fringing it with Japanese pine trees and large irregular rocks, typical of Japanese landscape design.
Tendrils of smoke escaped us as our warm breath hit the icy air and there was a discernible chill in the air that made me want to retreat back to the warmth of our hotel. Glimmering across the rippled surface of the pond, the sight of the golden pavilion soon warmed us though, as if we were standing next to a kindling fire. She was a marvel, an undeniable splendour worthy of her UNESCO Heritage status.
But nothing is original here I come to learn… a deception. Belying its Zen roots, history has been unkind. The 14th century original was torched on numerous occasions; once during the Onin War and later by a fanatical, novice monk. What we see today is a 1950’s reconstruction; still, despite the numbers of other time travellers in their Uniglo puffer coats, the evocative vision of the Golden Pavilion transported us to an era of the Shoguns and Samurai.
[Go in the late afternoon when the sun is low to capture that perfect shot.
Kinkaku-ji is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission is ¥400. To get there by public transport, take bus numbers 101 or 205 from Kyoto Station to the Kinkaku-ji Michi bus stop]
Gion District / Pontocho From 14th century to 18th century, we strolled the narrow lanes of Gion, the most exclusive and well-known geisha district in all of Japan, where once upon a time courtesans entertained business men. I imagined secrets being whispered through the wooden machiya houses that lined both sides of the alleyway; they were stacked so closely together it was as if they were holding prisoners of these darkest secrets.
The burning lanterns of Hanami-kōji Street tantalised us to enter through the Noren fabric hangings, in to the warm bosom of a Geisha. There were none to be seen though, and despite the well-preserved buildings and cobbled streets, the restaurants, bars and retail shops made it difficult to feel like I had been catapulted in to the 18th century. It was still too early perhaps; not yet nightfall when these streets would suddenly be transformed in to its famed entertainment district.
We wandered out of the constricted streets and followed the River Kamo upstream where evidence of life could be seen traversing the bridge of Sanjo beyond; glimpses of concrete blocks delineated the edge of a bygone era.
Downtown Kyoto Sanjo-dori street lay ahead of us now; the blazing neon city lights a definitive sign we had stepped back in to the 21st century. There was a throng of activity as people poured in and out of stores. This is downtown Kyoto, the central shopping district where large department stores like Takashimaya draw in the shopaholics.
Despite the hustle and bustle, a quiet charm was present, outshining even the most incandescent of glass fronted shop facades. Tiny alleys interrupted the monotony of the high street; illuminated lanterns and towering sake barrels peeped at us from a corner, enticing us to enter these small avenues. We followed the string of bobbing white lanterns which quickly led to us to Nishijin textiles, Yuzen-dyed fabrics and Kyo pottery, reassurance that Kyoto’s long history of craft and heritage is well embraced.
From cultural to culinary, we sampled fine teas, chocolatiers and patisseries. I felt like I had departed Japan for Europe… Delicate chocolates in the form of leaves and flowers teased me from their jewelled glass displays… Some stacked one on top of the other in an impressive towering display. But once the undeniable taste of green tea exploded in my mouth as the chocolate melted away, I was reminded that this is definitely Japan.
Green tea in fact, seems more ubiquitous to Kyoto than anywhere else in Japan; and considered a daily staple, it seems to be a major ingredient in just about every recipe. Desserts and green tea for example seem like an unlikely duo, but somehow the strange blend works… Picture green tea ice creams, green fluffy Mochi, green tea flavoured crepes, green tea sponge cake, dumplings filled with green tea custard and you’re halfway to heaven.
We stepped out of the busy, modern street of Sanjo-dori and suddenly found ourselves in an unexpected haven. Shoji screens, Japanese scrolls and staff dressed in traditional Yakata robes seduced us in to skipping dinner and going straight in for dessert. It was an easy sacrifice… the sweet tooth overruled as parfaits and chiffon cakes danced at us from the menu, each dessert served with a side helping of Kyoto’s famous Matcha green tea ice cream.
Kyoto has the best green tea houses in the country and you don’t need to search all corners of the city to find one. This website lists some of the best tea houses in Kyoto – http://www.ladyironchef.com/2013/10/kyoto-best-dessert-shops/
We’re up early on our last day in Kyoto; a rather fleeting visit that doesn’t give due justice to this city.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine All was eerily quiet as we wandered through the archways of the Fushimi Inari-taisha, an important Shinto shrine of the 8th century that was dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, sake and prosperity. History aside, it is an architectural spectacle – torii gates, thousands of them, are stacked one behind the other like dominoes, snaking their way through the heavily wooded forest up to the sacred Mount Inari. Drawing thousands of businesses seeking blessings for their enterprises, each torii gate bears the name of its donor and the black Japanese script is repeated a thousand fold as it ascends the trail.
Save for the few early risers, we had long stretches of the trail to ourselves. Streams of light managed to fight through the dense shrubbery of the woods, and squeezed themselves in between the gaps of the vermillion coloured torii gates. Some of the torii were ancient, faded to pastel hues; others were fiery red – new, bright and bare, absent of a donor yet…
[It attracts two and a half million visitors a year, so go in the morning or near dusk when you’re more likely to wander the archways alone. The hike to the summit takes around an hour so ensure you bring water and wear comfortable shoes.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is located just outside JR Inari Station, on the JR Nara Line (It takes 5 minutes from Kyoto Station and costs 140 yen one way). The shrine can also be reached from Fushimi Inari Station along the Keihan Main Line]
Tofuku-Ji Temple A twenty minute walk later, we found ourselves at the Tōfuku-ji. Home to an active monastery, the Zen temple was founded in 1236, and is most notable for its stunning display of traditional Japanese gardens. Each garden has a different character… from raked gravel, pebbles, and large rocks to chequered moss grounds; but most famed are its acres of Japanese maple. The most popular view of the complex is from Tsutenkyo Bridge, a 100 metre long, covered walkway, which spans the valley of maple trees.
It is probably most spectacular during the autumn months when the colours of the maple trees reach their peak. We had just missed the splendour (which explained the lack of other tourists), but there was still the last of the burnt umbers and rusty oranges that stubbornly clung on for dear life; enough of a hint to give us a flavour of these majestic, romanticised surroundings.
[Tofukuji is a ten minute walk from Tofukuji Station on the JR Nara Line (2 minutes, 140 yen from Kyoto Station) and the Keihan Main Line. Alternatively, the temple is a ten minute walk from Tofukuji bus stop (15 minutes, 230 yen from Kyoto Station by Kyoto City Bus 208)]
As our Shinkansen sped away from Kyoto and towards the adopted modernity of Japan once more, I felt like I was being rowsed from a dream… Like a spell had been lifted and all the charms and riches of Kyoto had been a figment of my imagination.
Indeed, the traditional side of Kyoto may be somewhat blurred along the edges of the new, but perhaps the thing to remember is that, Kyoto does not resolutely hold on to its past… Not really. Although its heritage and traditions are embraced, it accepts that it needs to move in to the future too…