My obsession with Japan is a well documented topic and one that dovetails nicely with my other obsession with historical movies, usually involving a sword of some kind, a husky accent and Mel Gibson (pre-crazy days, of course!).
And Kyoto, the former capital of imperial Japan for more than one thousand years, is the kind of city that just transports you to another time. And it’s not just that the city’s 17(!!) UNESCO World Heritage sites blend timelessly against the sprinklings of modernity; it’s also the meticulous and traditional culture of Kyoto’s residents that bring imperial Japan to the present day.
So of course my 3-day trip was all about embracing and enjoying the alluringly romantic old-world charm of the city:
Tucked away on a quiet street off the main streets of Kyoto is Hiiragaya Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn from the Edo period. This historic ryokan started out offering lodging to samurai in the 1800′s, welcomed celebs like Elizabeth Taylor and Charlie Chaplin and today still features the same tradition of serene tatami mat accommodations overlooking a finely-pruned ornamental garden. My favorite part about my stay here was the en suite aromatic cypress baths that cured my aching feet from long days of touring the city!
While sprinkled throughout the city, Kyoto’s main attractions are pretty accessible and what better way to explore than peddling on around on a bicycle? Exercise, transportation and sightseeing all at once! Our lovely bicycle tour guide not only allowed us to customize our day-excursion to the temples, shrines, silk kimono factory, painting studio, geisha district and local eateries but also brought along extra gloves to keep us warm.
Palaces, Temples and Shrines:
With one of the most number of shrines in a single city, we weren’t able to cover them all. The ones we selected with the help of our tour guide are below:
Kinkaku-ki (Golden Pavilion), which was originally constructed in the 1300′s, is today an illustrious gold-leaf coated structure gleaming its shimmering reflection across the peaceful pond around it. It is arguably the most famous temple in Kyoto.
Ryoan-ji Temple’s dry rock garden, built in 1450, is one of the finest examples of Zen landscaping in the country and is a quiet mystery. No one knows who designed it or the purpose behind the 15 rocks scattered across its neatly raked white gravel. I too sat contemplating quietly over the “sermon in stone” while attempting to tap into my inner zen!
Nishi-Hongwan-ji Temple, founded in 1272, is the headquarter of Shin Buddhism, the largest sect of Buddhism in Japan. The tatami long mat-laden hall seem to echo the ommmms of the monks who frequent it.
Kyoto Imperial Palace, first built in 794, was the official ruling palace and residence of the Emperors of Japan. The palace’s long wall-covered exterior shield the beautifully manicured buildings and gardens beyond its locked gates.
One of the highlights of the bicycle tour was most definitely the time we spent touring Japan’s most famous, and still working, geisha district, Gion. Not to be confused with a “red light district”, geishas are skilled artists who are highly trained to perform various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance. The quaint streets of Gion are lined with wooden houses, traditional teahouses and, most importantly, bustling geisha training schools.
Dressing like a Geisha / Maiko:
Ok, let me preface this one by explaining that my travel companion was dying to dress up like a samurai and forced me to get dressed up like a maiko (geisha in training) along with him. The experience was definitely worth it but I must say, getting ready was uncomfortable — just take note of the looks of annoyance on my face during prep time! Not only did they attach a watermelon-like hair helmet onto my head but they strapped and tucked and tied and saddled me up into 5 layers of kimono-wear. After half an hour, during which I managed to master the graceful art of hobbling in 5-inch wooden plank sandals, I walked around Gion as an undercover maiko, admiring these beautifully adorned artists who not only have the skills but the patience to pull it off.
Nakahakusan-cho, Fuya-cho Anekoji-agaru
Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan