If Tokyo was chaos, Kyoto is a city that gently washes over you. The city is much quieter, much more peaceful and delicate, but that’s not to say that its not very much full of life. From the cherry blossoms unfurling along the beautiful Philosophers Walk – a 2km journey alongside the forest to the geisha we saw in Gion, gracefully hurrying to her destination, ducking and weaving through the tiny alleys to avoid the crowd.
The beauty of Kyoto is that you never know what’s around the next corner (although its a pretty safe bet there will be a temple or shrine in there somewhere), and its a city that seems to take the time to enjoy the finer things in life, beautiful foods so tenderly prepared on Ponto-Cho – a tiny old street that runs alongside the river, the amazing fashions that grace the windows and the sidewalks around the city or the way people are content to wander and experience all of the sites at a slower pace – the city contrasts sharply with the fluorescent pulsing animal that is Tokyo.
Our first day in Kyoto was spent getting our bearings – while it’s a smaller city, it can be harder to navigate without a sprawling metro system to suck you in and spit you out at various points around town. Instead, it’s a very walkable city (and bikeable) so we did just that, wandering to the Philosopher’s Walk before heading into the more metropolitan centre.
The heart of Kyoto is around Gion, with busy streets packed with shops, cafes and entertainment – pachinko anyone? A beautiful blend of modern and traditional, with wide open streets woven with tiny, twisting alleyways, Kyoto struck us as a place where much goes on behind closed doors. Striking up a conversation with one of the baristas at Arabica (the best coffee place in Kyoto – thanks Yedi!), we found out about some of the hidden bars and restaurants that don’t even have names, much less plot points on a map. These were the places we sought out while in Kyoto, for a real taste of something different each time we turned a corner.
On the other end of the extreme is the tourist spots dotted around Kyoto. As the traditional heart of Japan, Kyoto is a tourist paradise with shrine after temple after park, the list goes on. So much so that you can tell there’s something worth seeing (or maybe avoiding?) by the mass of tour buses outside. And while you’d expect loud, brash Americans, almost-drunk Aussies and an assortment of other nationalities of tourists assembled in these parts, the biggest group of tourist travellers were actually the Japanese themselves, venturing out with family and friends to see other parts of their beautiful country.
We took on the masses to see some of the more memorable sites like Fushimi-Inari Shrine, the Golden Temple and Arashiyama (home of the famous bamboo grove), but we did quickly learn that Japanese visitors aren’t early risers so took advantage with early starts of our own to enjoy these sites virtually empty.
We braved Fushimi-Inari during the daytime with what must have been close to 10,000 of our closest Kyoto friends to check out the amazing orange Shinto shrines (there are around 10,000 in the area – almost one for each visitor!) and the beautiful, lush forest that surrounds. It was a surreal experience wandering through the never ending maze to be greeted by statues, temples and other ancient structures and we followed the orange path laid out before us.
In Arashiyama, we learnt first hand of Japan’s natural beauty – and the art of keeping our cool when transport, logic and patience failed us! Arriving at 8am we were rewarded with an almost bare Bamboo Grove, save for a few other photographers with the same idea. We then scaled the hills for another monkey encounter and some spectacular views of the city before getting our zen back in a traditional zen garden, where we were greeted by some of the first bursting cherry blossom buds of the season.
We spent 5 days in Kyoto and trod the well worn paths along the tourist trail while also trying to make some of our own and discover different areas of the city. What we ultimately discovered was that the beauty of Kyoto isn’t the amount of amazing sites to see around the city, but the stunning contrast between all that is old and new combined. While the city retains so much of its historical beauty, the way more traditional and so very modern sit side by side is what makes Kyoto so sensational.