– By Vincent Sung –
While most cosmopolitan Asian cities experiment with ultra-modern architectural design, Kyoto stays true to its traditional past and aesthetics, especially since restrictions kept Kyoto from becoming just another large Japanese metropolis. And the fact that it was unanimously voted number one ‘Best city in the World’ in 2015 by Travel & Leisure magazine’s readers proves this strategy right.
Daily life here is calm, even at the heart of Kyoto which lies along the Kamogawa river – an ideal place for an afternoon bicycle ride or evening stroll along the scenic path. And while everyone in Kyoto lives in the 21st century, quite often you will see women and men of all ages dressed in kimonos and blending into the daily street scenes or ornately dressed geishas bowing in and out of traditional teahouses.
Luckily, Kyoto was not bombed during World War II, so much of the old city remains as it was several centuries ago. Kyoto is home to hundreds of temples and first-time visitors should guard against temple ‘burnout’, by taking the best in small doses and frequently rest in lovely traditional tea shops. No visit is complete without trying the traditional onsen (Japanese style bath and sauna) and eating a full kaiseki course at a ryokan.
To get to Kyoto fly to Osaka KIX airport from where you can travel by train to the futuristic Kyoto Station. An alternative way into the city, if you fly in through Osaka International airport, is the very convenient MK shuttle offering inexpensive door-to-door service, greeting you at the arrivals at KIX Osaka airport. The reasonably priced (¥ 3,600/person) shared shuttle van brings you to your final destination in Kyoto in approximately an hour and half. Price includes one suitcase up to a meter in size. Reservations are necessary at least 48 hours in advance.
To check in at the exquisite Kyoto Traveler’s Inn – a highly recommended and budget friendly option, perfectly located in the heart of the old Kyoto. It offers forty Western style rooms and thirty-eight Japanese style tatami rooms. Free WIFI is available at Café Green Box and on every floor, in every room category. A choice of Western style breakfast or Japanese style composed of fresh vegetables, miso soup, grilled fish and rice bowl is available. The hotel’s public bath opened from 3pm to midnight is a great way to relax after a long day of walking around the city. Bicycles are also available for rent by the day or for the whole week.
Rent a bicycle to start your visit from one of the numerous rental stations available around the huge Isetan building or next to Kyoto Tower. Bicycling around town is the best way to enjoy it and discover hidden treasures that are usually not on tourist maps such as traditional wooden shops, houses and tea shops – a reminiscence of scenes out of the Memoirs of a Geisha novel. Don’t forget to pick a free copy of Explorer Kyoto, a useful map and guide of the best the city has to offer.
Start your first day by visiting two near-by temples: Heian Jinja and Yasaka Jinja.
Heian Shrine is a big temple near the Kyoto Modern Art Museum and Kyoto National Art Museum. The whole environment at Heian Shrine is very zen; empty spaces all covered with stones. The Shin-en Garden (entrance Fee: 600 Yen) displays two ponds with lilies and plants, there’s also a pavilion where you can just sit down and unwind after a long walk. Newlyweds often use it for their photo shoots.
The next stop is at Yasaka Temple, a Shinto shrine in the Gion District of Kyoto. Situated at the east end of Shijō-dōri (Fourth Avenue), it was built originally in AD 656. The shrine includes several buildings, gates, a main hall and a stage.
Another noteworthy temple is the Kodai-ji temple, located in the Higashiyama mountains (just South of Yasaka temple). Established in 1605 by a noblewoman, Kita-no-Mandokoro in memory of her late husband and samurai, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It’s design and exquisite craftsmanship is renowned all over Japan and thousands of visitors are expected every year during autumn, when the gardens are lit at night and offer outstanding scenery.
A highly recommended Donkatsu restaurant, Katsukura is located in the Sanjo shopping strip of Kyoto. Specializing in breaded pork cutlets, they have rapidly expanded with twenty-six branches all over Japan, twelve of which are readily available around Kyoto. They take pride in serving premium quality pork loin and fillet cutlet. A specialty, Yuba croquette (¥ 1,550) is a delicious mix of vegetables and pork filled croquette. A good deal is to order the Sangen Pork Ton-Katsu Zen set (from ¥ 1,280 – 80gr to ¥1,950 – 160gr) which comes with barley rice, miso soup and free-refill pickled vegetables. Served with two different sauces it’s tender and perfectly cooked to preserve the meat flavours. The Kyoto-style interiors of the restaurant are very tasteful and reminiscent of a Japanese tavern atmosphere.
After a long day of temple visits, back at the Kyoto Traveler’s Inn hotel, rest your tired feet and immerse yourself ina Japanese tradition at their public baths. You can get fresh Japanese beers from their vending machines in the hallways (change is available at the front desk).
On your second day, as an alternative to Japanese breakfast, try the hotel’s Western breakfast, a refreshing cold gaspacho soup or hot and mildly spicy Okra and Prawn Thai Soup with Nampler (ask for the seasonal soup of the day).
A great way to start the day and to learn more about ancient Japanese culture is to immerse yourself in the unique experiences offered by KAFU – Wa Experience. One of them is KADO, or Ikebana – ‘the way of flowers’, a flowers arrangement tradition dating 600 years back. The workshop is conducted the expert Kimiko Yamamoto, who was trained in the tradition of Moribana style under her Japanese Master and who explains the intricate relations between human and nature, the philosophy behind every ‘empty space’ and the careful selection of each flower stem. She transports you back in time with her passion of Kado, from Tatebana style (standing flower) to Rikka style (16th century Kyoto), Seika style of the Edo period (18th century) then the Nageire style (Toss-in or Throw-in) to actual 20th century Moribana style which has thirty-eight recognized schools registered at the Kyoto Ikebana Association.
Through her words, you will feel touched and be able to understand the ‘temporary beauty of nature’ while grasping the fundamental rules of Ikebana display.
Another meditative experience is SADO or Tea Ceremony. For the past 500 years, Buddhist monks have practiced the Wa-Kei-Sei-Jak (Harmony-Respect-Purity-Tranquillity), a kind of meditation in movement. With many traditional protocols and manners, Kimiko san who wears a colourful Japanese kimono, prepares a bowl of exquisite green tea in a Zen tatami room, while showing ‘the way to serve it’ in the line of the traditions she had learned many years back.
To continue the full Japanese delicacies experience, head to Nishinotoin Tea House Motoan located in downtown Kyoto near Nijo Castle. Their must-try is the delicious Matcha Roll cake or Matcha Baum Kuchen set (¥ 1,200) served with a choice of Matcha, Sensa, Hojicha, Genmaicha tea or Matcha Latte.
This traditional and peaceful tea shop’s clientele is composed mostly of high-society Japanese ladies who appreciate the tea brews on offer.
For dinner, highly praised by locals is Kushikura, an upscale yakitori (grilled meat on a stick) restaurant housed in a converted machiya house in central Kyoto. Kushikura’s dining space is spread across several rooms on the house ground floor with more private rooms upstairs. The best seats are in the tatami-floored room in the back of the house, past a communal counter, offering views of the traditional garden. You can order yakitori sticks a la carte (average about ¥ 150 per stick), but the best way to sample all the rich flavours is to order the Miyako Course (¥ 3,100). The meal includes a seasonal appetizer, chawan-mushi (warm egg custard) with chicken, corn and daikon (radish) foam, miso soup with rice, Kyoto’s delectable pickled vegetables, and six different types of yakitori. It is highly recommended to book in advance.
Lunch (11:30-2:30pm) – Dinner (5pm-10:30pm).
On the third day, a nice alternative is to pre-book MK taxi for a traditional pottery visit outside of Kyoto. Unraku-gama is located in Kiyomizu-yaki Danchi, a region known for its Kiyomizu-yaki and Kyo-yaki ceramics. A long tradition of artisans since 125 years, this family business was passed on from one generation to the next and is currently headed by Unraku Saito III. With the growing popularity of tea ceremony in Kyoto many workshops developed during the Momoyama Era as the aristocrats and masters of tea ceremony requested for more luxurious and show pieces. Advanced potter’s wheel techniques and colourful picturesque designs were perfected during the Edo Era. To this day, experts and glazed ceramic connoisseurs flock here from around the world to acquire highly priced unique pieces from Unraku-gama.
After a short expedition outside of town, have an authentic lunch at the local soba specialist restaurant Honke Owariya, which was established in 1465. Originally a confectionary shop, which was patronised by the Emperor’s family and monks from Kyoto’s historic temples, the original taste has been preserved for more than 540 years. Soba is made from buckwheat flour and best eaten cold, with a side dish of soy-based sauce into which the soba are dipped before being eaten.
Time for dinner at a neighbourhood restaurant – Chikurin. It offers informal seating at the bar counter. Traditional Kyoto style ‘obanzai’ home-style dishes can be ordered along with draft beers (Ebisu is the norm) or with a selection of locally made sake.
For an entertaining afternoon, Samurai Kembu is just the perfect answer to your childhood dreams ‘to become a Samurai for one day’. Kembu means ‘sword dance’ and is one of various traditional Japanese performing arts. It is said that in feudal times, Samurai were performing Kembu to give themselves courage or to achieve better concentration. A scene from “The Last Samurai” portrays a Kembu performance on the day before the final battle. Samurai Kembu offer different sessions (12pm / 5pm) and packages (2 hours light package ¥8,000 / 3 hours full package ¥10,000) daily. After a one hour Samurai Kembu show in their visitors are then invited to step into the shoes of a Samurai and try the basic sword techniques.
Five minutes away from Kyoto Traveler’s Inn, is a French alternative for breakfast at Le Bac a Sable, which serves homemade French croissants, baguettes, fresh breads, quiches and other delicacies prepared every morning by the French baker/owner. They also sell locally made olive oil and offer a three-courses lunch for ¥1,200. Tel. +81(0)75-746-3080
Be prepared to do some shopping at the long shopping arcade known as “Kyoto Kitchen” or Nichiki Ichiba. Nishiki Market is a five blocks long shopping street lined by more than hundreds shops and restaurants. The lively retail market specialises primarily in all things food related, like fresh seafood, knives and cookware, and is a great place to find seasonal foods, Japanese sweets, locally made pickles, dried seafood and Kobe beef. Most shops specialise in a particular type of food and freely give out samples or sell sample dishes and skewers meant to be eaten on the spot. The market has a history of several centuries, and many stores have been operated by the same families for generations. It all started as a fish wholesale district, with the first shop opening around 1310. A larger variety of shops moved in later, and the area changed from a wholesale market to retail.
Inside the shopping arcade, a welcome rest can be had at the only Lipton teahouse outside of England, which stands there since 1930. Inside the Tea House, the atmosphere is warm and cosy. The place has a nice upscale, chic feeling to it and most of the visitors seem to be young or middle-aged couples that are looking to have a romantic tea experience. Their menu offers a scrumptious selection of excellent teas, both iced and hot such as Ceylon or Darjeeling. The Royal Milk tea is extraordinaire (¥ 630). As for the cake selection, spot your favourite from the storefront, where they are displayed and get it served to your table. Don’t forget to bring back home a box of lemon madeleine, the house specialty. Lunch can be had as well. The seafood gratin (¥1,000) is coming on top of the list otherwise try their Pasta Pescatora (¥ 1,160). For dessert, a favourite is the Mount Blanc tarte (¥ 560).
To finish off the day with something different, try the best Indian restaurant in town: Mughal. Tucked away in a little street, this authentic Indian restaurant comes with an Indian chef and waitresses. Try the Non Vegetarian Thali set (¥ 3,150) with a serving of meat curry, two vegetables curry, tandoori chicken, sheek kebab, papad, naan bread, basmati rice, salad, raita and masala chai. Fulfilling and different from other Indian restaurant, the quality and freshness is incomparable.
Kyoto offers an immersion into the life of Japanese the way they lived hundred years ago. Endless discoveries and experiences can be had in this magical city where not-too-long ago, geishas and samurais lived in peaceful harmony.
– Text and photos by Vincent Sung –
Vincent Sung shares his time between Seoul and Bangkok and offers tailored photography tours and workshops all over Asia. For more information visit www.vincentsung.com