Stepping back in time: a few days in Kyoto

After a couple of days in the crowds of Universal Studios Japan and exploring the neon lights of Osaka, Kyoto was a breath of fresh air.

Up until Kyoto, we’d really enjoyed our time in Japan but somehow didn’t feel the ‘OMG we’re in Japan!’ excitement, like it hadn’t really sunk in. That all changed as soon as we got out of the subway station in the Gion district of Kyoto.

Gion

It was like going back in time to a different Japan, where geisha still stroll along the Shirakawa stream on their way to entertain guests at a teahouse, where paper lanterns light up the wooden buildings and the streets are teaming with people making their pilgrimage to the Yasaka Shrine.

Shirakawa Stream, Gion District, Kyoto

On our first night in Gion we were walking down one of the little alleys towards Gion Corner when we saw our first maiko (apprentice geisha). I couldn’t believe it, I think my mouth literally dropped open. She was leaving a little wooden building in her full apprentice geisha regalia – the high wooden okobo slippers, the colourful obi round her waist, kimono with trailing sleeves and, of course, the distinctive white make-up and decorative hair style.

A maiko on her way to work, Gion District, Kyoto

Maiko dress in a much more eye-catching fashion than fully fledged geisha, who wear flat shoes, an obi with a smaller bow at the back and little decoration to their face and hair. Geisha have no need to go all-out, but the maiko are still learning and need to dress to impress.

Many people think geisha are some kind of high class escort but they’re far from our western ideas of such things – geisha are artists and entertainers, training from a young age in dance, music, tea ceremony and the art of conversation. They’re also pretty elusive these days so I felt very lucky to see a maiko on our first day in Gion.

A maiko of Gion

We carried on with our exploration and headed to the Yasaka Shrine, which is just on the eastern edge of Gion, and always busy. It’s brightly painted vermillion buildings and lanterns are very typical of Shinto architecture.

We made a beeline for the shaved ice stall at the entrance, as it was ridiculously hot as usual. We sat on a bench at the shrine eating our shaved ice when a little old Japanese man came up to us and started speaking in English. We’ve never been approached in Japan by people wanting to speak English so it was brilliant to have this man come over to see us. He said he’d been studying English for 35 years (he must have been in his late 70s) and said he’d like us to take a look at some of his Japanese-English translations and see if they were correct.

He got out some crumpled pieces of paper and had me read his English translations out loud and tell him if there were better words he could use. It was really nice to have some interaction with a local, as we usually feel like outsiders peering in on a different world in Japan – the language and culture are so beyond us.

Exploring Yasaka Shrine, Gion

After a while he said goodbye and we continued on exploring Yasaka Shrine. Kyoto is one of the places in Japan where women, and some men, still wear kimono – they either rent them for the day when they visit, or some still just like wearing the old style clothing. As a result, walking round the shrine really was like going back in time.

Japanese women in kimono, Yasaka Shrine

The food in Gion is another highlight, it’s unbelievable. We decided to push the boat out one night and have some of the famous wagyu beef. We made reservations at a tiny little teppanyaki restaurant called Teppanyaki Manryu and ordered okonomiyaki, yakisoba noodles and wagyu beef to share. I can say with certainty that it was the best food we’ve had in Japan… and that’s saying something.

Wagyu beef at Teppanyaki Manryu, Gion

The wagyu beef was just beautiful, it lives up to the hype, and the okonomiyaki was creamy and delicious – every city seems to have a slightly different take on this Japanese pancake dish, but so far they’ve all been good. The chefs clearly took pride in their food, we could see them sneaking glances at us eating each dish, and grinning with pride when it was clear we were enjoying it. If you go to Gion, head to Teppanyaki Manryu.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

One place we’d heard about before visiting Kyoto was the famous bamboo forest in Arashiyama, so we thought we couldn’t leave the city without visiting.

While the bamboo looked amazing, towering above us high into the sky, we were both disappointed. The ‘forest’ was tiny and the crowds were huge. We knew it would be busy, but we were expecting we could lose ourselves down some little forest paths and get away from the masses. Unfortunately not. There’s one path which takes you through the centre of the bamboo, and you’re out the other side within minutes, once you’ve fought your way through the crowds all trying to get that perfect Instagram pic. I’d read blogs where people had talked about how peaceful it is to hear the wind whistling through the gently swaying bamboo, and how much they loved walking through this magical place. Sure… if you’re there at the crack of dawn you might have a chance at some peace and quiet, but other than that it’s impossible.

Saying that, it’s still worth going – the bamboo forest is still nice to see, and there are some amazing temple gardens in the area too. We paid to walk through Tenryuji Temple gardens and I’m glad we did – it’s the area’s most lovely zen garden and a world heritage site. The temple and gardens were first built in the 1300’s, and while the temple buildings have all been rebuilt at one time or another, the garden exists today in it’s original form.

Zen Garden at Tenryuji Temple, Kyoto

The zen garden was very peaceful – even when full of people, the garden was still somewhere you could sit for hours and just enjoy looking at…. If it wasn’t so hot. We slowly walked through on our way to the bamboo forest and both appreciated how simple it was – moss, trees and rocks. That’s it. No fancy flowers or anything like that, just simple and beautiful.

Kyoto – worth a visit?

We didn’t have a huge amount of time in Kyoto so we didn’t get to see any other area of the city, but the bits we did see were amazing. Neither of us like spending too much time in big cities, but Kyoto is different. It’s seen as the cultural heart of Japan, and I can understand that totally.

If you come to Japan, you have to visit Kyoto for a few days at least. I would definitely like to come back one day, there’s still so much more to see!

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