10 Fun Things in Kyoto
Kyoto is the polar opposite of Tokyo: having been the imperial capital of the country for over a thousand years, it is the embodiment of Old Japan awash with beautiful vestiges of its past glory, a oasis of serenity as opposed to Japan’s bustling metropolis. Relatively small in size, Kyoto is nevertheless of utmost historic importance!
Here, you will stumble across plentiful quiet temples, both big and small, exquisite gardens, countless colourful shrines (Kyoto is also known as a City of Ten Thousand Shrines), and, of course, if you are lucky, you will lay your eyes upon a geisha or two!
1. Walk through the mesmerising arcades of Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社)
Out of all the shrines and temples I visited in Kyoto, Fushimi Inari Shrine was by far the most arresting sight with mesmerising arcades of thousands of orange and black torrii gates straddling the meandering trails leading into the forest of the sacred Mount Inari. Fushimi Inari Shrine is a a very important Shinto shrine, a place of worship and the dwellings of Shinto gods, in Southern Kyoto. The cumulative length of these trails is about 4 kilometres – a great place to get a dose of good moderate exercise whilst being overwhelmed by seemingly endless stretches of wooden torri gates, which traditionally mark the approach and entrance to a shrine.
2. Dress up as a geisha or a maiko
Dressing up as a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) has been a dream since my imagination was captured by the alien geisha world of Memoirs of a Geisha. Over the years I have wondered what would I look like if I were sporting an elaborate jet-black hair ornamented with beautiful flower pins, my face painted the whitest of colours with a touch of rouge on the lips, and attired in a flamboyant silk kimono?
My age-old dream was made possible at Maiko-Henshin, where a mere mortal can be transformed into an exquisite other-worldly maiko within an hour! First, the application of the signature white make-up; then fitting of a wig (incredible heavy, but of course real maiko turn their own hair into those elaborate hairstyles!); and to complete the look two dressers simultaneously attire you into a colourful kimono of your choosing, afterwards tying a contrasting obi belt tightly around your waist – a rather complicated process, hence two people. Maiko attire is surprisingly restrictive for movements, so their signature graceful movements must be the result of hours of practice! Especially when you try to walk in those 10cm high clogs…
3. Indulge yourself in a kaiseki dinner
For a unique and unforgettable meal, treat yourself to an exquisite kaiseki dinner showcasing a dizzying array of clean, crisp and local flavours. Kaiseki is Japanese haute cuisine with its traditional roots in Kyoto, since Japan’s former capital has been the home of the imperial court and nobility for over a millennium. Kaiseki multi-course dining, focusing on local, fresh ingredients – the majority of which for Westerners might seem very exotic – prepared in such a way as to emphasise their individual flavours whilst finding the perfect balance between all. However, kaiseki dining is not all about taste, it is as much about the stunning artistic presentation, making the most of the colour and appearance of the food. Consequently, in order to prepare this multi-course dinner, the chef must be highly skilled. There is no menu – although dietary requirements are taken into account – the chef surprises you with every course.
The most famous establishment for Kaiseki dining in Kyoto is a three-michelin starred Nakamura. Since, I was not organised enough in advance, I could not get a table there. Instead, I ended up going to an excellent alternative in Gion (although the name escapes me now, since all the signs were Japanese!)
4. Wander the streets of Gion at night
Nighttime infuses the historical district of Gion with a somewhat mystical ambience. As you stroll down one of the narrow traditional streets lined with narrow wooden buildings, you can easily envisage yourself crossing paths with a geisha en route to one of her engagements.
Gion originated in the Middle Ages to provide accommodation for travellers, gradually evolving as the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in the whole of Japan. Nowadays, it is a maze of traditional and modern streets tightly interwoven together, dotted about with old-style japanese houses and tea houses, where patrons of Gion – from samurai of centuries past to businessmen of this day and age – have been entertained by the beautiful geisha behind closed doors. These evenings would consist of traditional Japanese music and dance, conversation, and drinking games.
5. Explore as many temples as you can
Kyoto is home to over 1,500 Buddhist temples, so trying to visit every single one might be a daunting task. And yet, popping into as many as you can without rushing is very rewarding, since every temple is unique in its architecture, size, surrounding gardens, prevailing atmosphere and the number of people you encounter within its limits. Rather than trying to select a handful you would like to visit, I would recommend going with the flow and see where the day takes you. I love the surprising element of spontaneity, don’t you?
6. Eat your fill at Nishiki Market
Four-hundred year old iconic Nishiki market spanning five blocks along a narrow street is a bustling venue offering a delectable feast for the eyes and your olfactory palette. A perfect place to stroll through on a rainy afternoon, and nibble on fresh seafood, japanese sweets and an assortment of Kyoto culinary delights along the way. Almost everything you lay your eyes upon is locally produced. If you are anything like me in terms of food obsession, then it will take you at least a couple of hours to walk those five blocks. Popular with locals and tourists alike.
7. Spend an Evening in the company of Geishas
8. Experience a tea ceremony first-hand
I have never been anywhere in the world, where tea drinking is taken as seriously as it is in Japan. Tea drinking here is not just about consuming the hot beverage made by infusing crushed leaves of tea. A tea ceremony is one of Japan’s finest traditional practices, an art that combines the careful preparation and drinking of tea together with spirituality, history, respect for your fellow tea drinkers, and even an appreciation of handmade tea utensils.
I picked En, a small teahouse in Gion, for my introduction to this traditional, exquisite art. Not only did I learn the brief history of tea ceremony from a lovely young lady, I also partook in the tea making myself, an art full of precise and carefully choreographed movements – every single movement employed in tea preparation has a meaning!
9. Go on a hike in the outskirts of Kyoto
The city is surrounded by wooded mountains on three sides resulting in some excellent and sometimes slightly strenuous hiking in the immediate vicinity of the city. Some paths leading into the mountains offer splendid bird’s eye views of the city – and I do love seeing cities from different vantage points! A perfect activity if you are a little tired from all the temple hopping!
10. Be swayed by Kinkaku-ji temple’s beauty
An exquisite, jewel-like Zen- Buddhist temple in Northern Kyoto, whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf! As you enter the temple grounds, you first catch a glimpse of this magnificent structure from across the pond – a very pretty and photogenic view. The temple is surrounded by wonderful gardens, which were developed to be a perfect complement to the temple itself.
Some great eating places…
Apart from a must-do Kaiseki experience, here are a couple of places I loved:
Takamasa – a gem tucked away close to the Path of Philosophy, this place specialises in the dizzying array for dishes from the finest mackerel as well as other fresh seafood from Goto Islands. Also famous for its delicious pork dishes. One of the best restaurants I tried in Japan.
The Kitchen Kanra – a wonderful restaurant within the hotel I was staying in, serving delectable eclectic fare, fusing Japanese and Western flavours in the most exciting manner. Everything is made from carefully-sourced and local ingredients.
Where to Stay
A wonderful hotel with contemporary Japanese design throughout, some roomts featuring tatami-room and baths made of Japanese cypress.
And a photo diary to finish off…