After an interesting and serene ride on the bullet train with the sight of traditional Japanese homes shrouded in snow, we entered Japan’s capital of rich history and the birthplace of cultural traditions – Kyoto.
Abound with temples, shrines and relics of the past in enchanting forests, Kyoto is like a timeless old district reflecting traditional and classic Japan. It is synonymous with cherry blossoms, geishas, temples, traditional ryokan inns and masters of tea ceremonies.
After an energetic and frenzied time in Tokyo, we transitioned to a more calming vibe. Kyoto is indeed vastly different from Tokyo and I did sense two completely varied rhythms of life. Tokyo is electric and buzzing whereas Kyoto is serene and laid back.
Almost everywhere we went, temples, temples and more temples reminded us of the country’s rich history. These places are tranquil and historic with well-preserved heritage. This is not to say it’s all about tradition, as Kyoto also effortlessly embraces the modern side of Japan with its contemporary design and high-rise buildings.
Kyoto’s temples: The sounds of chanting and gongs
The iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine
The sacred shrine receives thousands of visitors wishing for success, good luck, and good health. Known for it’s tunnel of meditative vermilion-lacquered structures made of wood, the “torii” gates meander through the hillside forest up to the Inari Mount. Dotted throughout the shrine are Shinto gods which come in the form of fox statues called “Kitsune”, deities that represent rice, agriculture, and sake (Japanese rice wine). In general, the practice of Shinto venerates natural phenomena such as animals, rain, wind, rivers or mountains which are all referred to as “Kami”. In Japan, those who pass away are said to become “Kami” and are revered by their families.
Walking the pilgrimage route of the orange “tori” structures, we were lead up the mountain for a panoramic view of Kyoto. The place was very atmospheric in the rain when we were there.
As we passed through the tori gates, crowds after crowds shuffled in and out along the wide pathways, leading up to the temple beyond.
My husband and I ventured deeper and deeper in to the forest. Several trails diverted from the main one so eventually we found ourselves in a quite place surrounded by beautiful tall bamboo trees and small worship temples ahead. The whole experience was a wonderful hike and when we finally reached the top there was a sense of wonder and an air of calmness and tranquility.
Kyoto streetfood (Yatai)
On the way out, there were so many street food vendors filled with grilled wagyu skewers, rice cakes, matcha ice-cream, and other delicious bites!
This was one delicious Japanese donut topped with a light and airy puff of whipped cream. These donuts are made of soy milk, they taste like Kyoto; natural and straightforward! Yuba is actually dried tofu curd.
Another Kyoto delicacy is the “Mitarashi Dango”. The first time we tried these was when we spotting a long queue at a street market. These are plain balls made of rice flour, coated with a glaze made of soy sauce and skewered onto sticks. They have a chewy texture and can be sweet or savory.
From Higashiyama to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
We entered the historic neighborhood, Higashiyama district, leading up to the next temple. Evoking the look of old Tokyo, the street took us up a steep journey towards Kiyomizu-dera temple. Along the way, there are dozens upon dozens of shops selling Kyoto specials from snacks to handicrafts and souvenirs that we could spend hours exploring!
Once we reached the top at the temple, we admired the beautifully-landscaped Kyoto skyline with Cherry Blossom trees.
Seen from atop, people crowded under the Otowa Waterfall to take a sip of one of the three streams that are meant to have wish-granting powers in wisdom, love and longevity.
The Kiyomizu Pottery
As someone who loves ceramic art, I got to know that Kyoto is actually home to the craft. Kiyomizu was originally the name given to pottery made in the Kiyomezu area near the temple, but now the term Kyo-ware refers to all the potteries made in Kyoto. We entered an old Japanese pottery shop nearby the Kiyomizu Temple, and the owner was there with his granddaughter as well. When you see all kinds of cute handmade pottery, it’s hard to resist! From traditional and contemporary sake sets, decorative pottery, to rice bowls, after a long look around I got a mini ceramic tea cup ornament adorned with hearts and an owl-inspired incense burner. They were also beautifully-wrapped and packaged 🎁 by the elderly owner!
Japan’s Omiyage culture
Omiyage means Souvenir in Japanese, and they come in the form of colorfully-wrapped boxes. These are gifts you bring back to your family, friends and co-workers from Japan. The gifts inside are usually food and must always be locally- produced, therefore “Omiyage” doesn’t apply in other countries. There are many customs attached to the practice of omiyage gift-giving. I certainly loaded up on some Omiyage mementoes of my time in Japan!
Japan’s fine meal and old-world cuisine: Kaiseki
Known as Japan’s “Haute Cuisine”, Kaiseki is a rich traditionally choreographed 6-course set meal consisting of an appetizer with sake, a simmered dish, sashimi, a seasonal dish, a grilled course and an end meal served with rice. The entire meal concludes with dessert and a tea-ceremony. Usually, this experience is found in traditional Japanese “Ryokan inns” offering an immersive Japanese cultural experience complete with Japanese hospitality. It’s the perfect place to spend the night as one gets to see, touch, taste and feel Japanese culture. In most Ryokans, there are surrounding hot springs called “Onsens” for bathing and absorbing the rich therapeutic minerals naturally found in them, infusing the entire place with the Japanese philosophy of Zen. With our fast-paced and complex lifestyle, it’s normal that the past slowly fades into obscurity, however, this is a place where you can get away from it all and experience pure serenity in minimalist surroundings and old-school Japanese ambiance. This alluring charm of old Japan tucked away in picturesque valleys of evergreen forests entices the senses and adds a nostalgic flair.
One place that we didn’t get to visit was the Kibune Valley, which opens in the summer. Located on the Northern mountainous side of Kyoto, it consists of a dining terrace built over flowing water which sounds like a wonderful and calming place to be amidst Japan’s nature. We’ll save it for the next trip 🙂
The Golden Pavillion
An UNESCO World Heritage Site
The golden Buddhist temple shimmered brightly in the afternoon sun as we walked around the gardens with the temple in view. After an online search about the temple, we learned that the original was actually completely destroyed by a monk in the 50’s. It was shortly rebuilt a few years later and believed to be a faithful reconstruction to the previous one, although it is said to be covered in more gold leaf this time. As we walked around the ancient structure, I really did feel like I stepped back in time as there’s a deep history surrounding it’s existence that dates back to the 1400’s! It felt surreal imagining the thousands of people that walked these paths.
The Edo Tsumami Kanzashi
Exquisitely crafted Japanese hair ornaments
These are thin pieces of silk that are handwoven into flowers or bird formations and worn as hair accessories. In Kyoto, we found an old shop dedicated entirely to kanzashis and I must say, they are outstandingly expensive. Worn by geishas, the hair ornaments are made of kimono fabric and the ones we saw were considered the high-class versions. The shop itself had all kinds of items for hair, including Japanese hand carved wooden combs and Camelia oil traditionally used by Japanese women for centuries. As with Japan’s love for seasons, the Kanzashi are also tailored accordingly to feature sakura blossoms, plum flowers and many more seasonal flowers.
Gion District: Will we spot the Geisha?
The elusive geisha, a master of the Japanese Arts. Arriving at Gion, we were expecting to see geishas strolling the streets…but this wasn’t the case. A short taxi drive to the district and a small chat with the taxi driver taught us that Geishas are mostly likely to be spotted at 5pm in the evening when moving between their appointments. A geisha sighting wasn’t all that common after all.
Traditionally, geishas are meticulously trained to entertain, perform and converse at tea houses. Geisha culture is somewhat shrouded with mystery and intrigue and unfortunately we didn’t get to catch one this time!
The Romantic Sagano
En route to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest we hopped onboard the Sagano, an old-fashioned open-air locomotive that took us through the scenic landscapes of Kyoto. The train winds its way through the mountains and rivers as one admires Kyoto’s unique nature!
The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
The famously known bamboo grove or a.k.a the national geographic-like photo that we’ve all seen before, is a unique and dreamlike sight in reality with its sheer abundance of thick bamboo stalks that towered over us as we walked its serene paths. If there was another name for this captivating place it would be “Magical Forest”. The entire canopy illuminated in citrusy green. Strolling through, it was almost like mediative experience.
I had previously seen so many lush forests of pine trees in Europe, but a bamboo forest was something completely new to us and definitely a place worth remembering.
One amazing fact we learnt after our visit was that in 1996, the Japanese government and Ministry of Environment formed what is called “100 soundscapes of Japan”. This is a list of protected soundscapes all over Japan that aims to combat noise pollution. These sounds, which are deemed significantly meaningful in preserving sound environments, include a sound collection of of birds, trees, insects and other natural phenomena. The swaying tunes of Bamboo stalks at Arashiyama also make it to the list. All of these sounds are meant to be symbolic to the local Japanese culture as well.
From Arashiyama, we were on our way to the top of the mountain to visit the unusual Monkey Park, your “typical” neighborhood park except that it’s home to 100 Macaque monkeys. The journey up is a steep walk to the peak but certainly a rewarding one. At first, the idea of free-roaming monkeys might sound intimidating. The first thoughts that ran through my mind were; is it safe? Are we really allowed to get close to them? How do the monkeys react to human presence? When we almost reached, a fun board of rules instructs visitors on how to stay safe around the monkeys. One of the funniest rules clearly instructed not to stare into the monkey’s eyes! Apparently, they see it as a threat.
As we huffed and puffed our way up the final trail, we could already spot the monkeys sitting high up on the trees. Even though they are probably accustomed to regular guests, they are still considered wild, untamed and potentially dangerous.
At first, we sat at the bench and observed the way others interacted with the monkeys. Some were attempting to riskily take that perfect selfie only to be hissed at by the primate. Others fed them with nuts and fruits from inside an enclosed hut rather than directly, which almost looked like the humans were caged and the monkeys were out in their natural habitat! A couple of visitors admired them from afar (like us).
It was fascinating to see how human-like they can be with their unique behaviors, playing with their babies or grooming their’s partner’s fur. As a nature and animal lover, there is nothing quite like seeing them in their natural state, unconfined. And I wasn’t as nervous anymore as it turned out the monkeys are pretty well-behaved!
In the same place, there was an observation deck with lovely views of Kyoto.
One aspect of Japan I was eager to come face with are the traditional Kyoto dolls which are often regarded to be of high artistic merit, handcrafted with traditional techniques passed down from generation to generation of artisans. They come in various forms, some as heroes and warriors, others as children, fairytales characters and even demons. They are so popular in Japanese culture that Kyoto has an annual doll festival to celebrate Girl’s Day.
There is one particular doll shop called the Ando Doll Shop that I had found on a map, a family-run century-old business that I was keen on visiting and is said to be home to the most exquisite dolls in Japan. So we took a taxi ride over there. I was hoping to purchase this craft as a souvenir, however they are extremely expensive and it’s no wonder as all of the pieces are ornately handcrafted and dressed in clothing from the ancient Heian period of Japan. We could feel the history around us in the shop. The lady working there was sweet enough to show us around the exquisite shop, decked out with numerous varieties of extremely beautiful dolls. I would have loved to get to know the meaning behind each one but there was a big language barrier. She did however, give us amazing postcards as a gift from the shop.
The Musha dolls as seen above, represent the warriors of Japan’s martial past. They are dressed in armor. Unlike the Hina dolls which are displayed in homes during Girl’s Day, the Musha dolls celebrate Boy’s Day. Every doll has it’s own occasion and are unique antiques and collectibles.
These are known as Hina dolls and their representation is tiered in hierarchy. The first level holds the Imperial dolls, followed by the Three-Court Ladies displayed in the photo, then musicians, helpers and finally the samurai.
Emperor and Samurai Dolls
The traditional Machiya Starbucks
For generations, artisans and merchants of Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto, lived in traditional townhouses called “Machiya”. Therefore Machiya houses were often shops or workshops and mostly found in the alleys of old districts.
Surprisingly, we experienced a Machiya House in an unexpected way. In a Starbucks coffee shop! The multinational “western” brand is located in a 100-year old two-story Japanese house. At first I thought to myself, am I I really going all the way to visit this historical city to admire the majestic century-old temples and shrines, only to find myself in just another Starbucks branch? However, this is a different one. It took as some time to find it as there’s no infamous Starbucks logo to signal it’s location. That’s how much it managed to blend so well into the historical area.
Opened in 2017, the Kyoto Starbucks pays homage to all the traditional Japanese elements, including wooden floors and walls with “noren” curtains. We lounged on tatami mats as we sipped on Sakura milk coffee. Definitely an unusual experience.
Candy Show Time in Kyoto Gion
The Candy Show shop isn’t a local one, however, there is an interesting candy-making show and lots of Kawaii candies that come in a variety of flavors.
Through an open glass display we watched up close how the confectioners kneaded the candy, eventually cutting it into pieces of cute patterns portraying Japanese characters and symbols. The whole process can be quite hypnotizing. Row and rows jars fill the store, from rainbow swirls, hearts, sakura flowers and more. The flavors are distinctly Japanese-inspired too. My favorite part was observing the range of colorful Japanese packaging that are great for gifts.