I spent 3 nights and 4 days in Kyoto and checked quite a few things off my list, but still feel I could’ve spend more days roaming and cycling around this beautiful city. Here’s my Kyoto journey in 20 pictures.
There was haunting silence when we entered Gion, Kyoto‘s Geisha district in the evening. The streets were dark with tourists stealthily moving around with their cameras on the ready. We were in Hanami-koji street, the most popular area of Gion, lined with traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. According to http://www.japan-guide.com/, due to the fact that property taxes were formerly based upon street frontage, the houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street.
The area houses restaurants, shops and ochayas (tea houses) – one of the most expensive dining establishments in Kyoto where guests are entertained by geiko (the local term for geisha) and maiko (geisha apprentice). We walked in the by-lanes to spot a geisha and were soon lucky to meet one leaving an ochaya. Tomoko is a maiko, an apprentice, which means she is under training to become a geisha.
No matter how much I love Japanese food, the idea of eating rice and soup for breakfast was something I found hard to digest. This lovely bakery and Boulangerie – Briant – at the corner of the street near my home-stay in Hakubai-cho was a blessing. We would walk up to the shop in the morning to pick up fresh butter croissants and mini pizzas. The breads we had here were absolutely gorgeous.
I didn’t know Kyoto had trams till I reached there. There are two lines and luckily enough we had to take one to get to Arashiyama. The tram ride reminded me of the toy train journey from Kalka to Shimla. We accidentally got down one station before and then walked down to the destination station.
I loved how people in japan are hooked to cycling. There are cycles available for rent almost all over the town for around 800-1000 Yen for a day. Cycling is the best way to explore Kyoto.
Arashiyama is a beautiful district in the western outskirts of Kyoto with Tenryuji Temple and Bamboo Groves as the major attractions. The suburb is surrounded by beautiful mountains and the streets are bathed with a Meiji period charm with old machiya houses, hand pulled rikshaws and locals dressed in kimono and yukata (summer kimono).
The bamboo groves of Arashiyama were on top of my list of places to visit and it was as mesmerising as the pictures depicted. The trees grow as far and as high up as the eyes could see and from the dense bright greenery you can spot a little sky peeping in.
Kyoto is famous for its 3 distinct cuisines – Kaiseki ryori which is formal dining, Obanzai ryori which is home style cooking and Shojin ryori (in the pic) which is the traditional vegetarian cuisine of the Buddhist monks. Shojin means pursuing a state of mind free of worldly thoughts and attachment and Shojin ryori is an essential part of the practice. The monks believe that in order to achieve enlightenment it’s important to abstain from meat, fish insects or any kind of strong flavours. There’s use of dairy products and eggs, but rare since these two were scarce in the ancient times. Shojin ryori is based on harmony and so every meal has a balance of nutritions and various colours. The idea of ‘nothing should go to waste’ is also incorporated in the cooking which means every part of an ingredient is used. There’s no use of onion and garlic in the cooking and the broths are made using dried mushrooms and seaweed instead of fish.
Typical ingredients of a Shojin ryori include tofu and abura-age (fried soybean curd). Goma-dofu (sesame tofu), koya-dofu (dried tofu), yuba (soy milk film), fu (wheat gluten), konnyaku (rum root cakes) and natto (fermented soy beans) along with various kinds of seaweed. The meal is cooked with seasonal vegetables keeping in mind the nutrition they provide in various seasons. Some of the common Shojin ryori dishes are – vegetable tempura, kenchin soup (miso based soup with vegetables and tofu), tofu prepared with sesame seeds and wasabi and pickled vegetables. I tried a Shojin meal at a restaurant in Arashiyama and yes, the blandness of the meal took me by surprise. While I wouldn’t like to try it again, the idea of meditating and achieving Zen state through food was something I found interesting.
In Kyoto, where a thin stream of Kamogawa river is lined with restaurants, bars and pubs on both sides, we found a basement pub owned by an extremely chirpy Mako. The bar served only finger food and we got unilimited popcorn with our drinks. The decor was kinky (notice the bras hanging on the wall?) but there was nothing fishy going on at the pub.
During our stay in Kyoto, we went for the traditional home-style meal called Obanzai Ryori (read more about it in the next post). Our host lived in the charming suburbs near Kamogawa river. The beautiful river, mountains and greenery that you see below was the view we got on our way to her house in Koyama Kamigamo Kita-ku.
On our way back we stopped at the Nishiki Market – a narow five block long street lined with hundredts of shops selling all sorts of local ingredients, seasonal vegetables, pickles, spices, meats, seafood, dried fish and sake. I visited a shop here that was completely dedicated to sesame products – oil, paste, dips, jams, sauces etc. There’re plaenty of shops selling sushi, grilled skewered meat and grilled seafood.
In Arashiyama, when a bland Shyojin Ryori (food of the Buddhist monks) made us contemplate hitting the closest pizza joint, we found our salvation in shrimp, pork and wasabi chicken gyozas at Chao Chao near Kamogawa river. The tiny eatery is run by a tiny woman you see behind the counter and had a long snaking queue outside. We stood in line for almost an hour, almost missing our last bus. Pleaded the staff to let us in and quickly downed three plates of meaty, crisp gyozas with sake.
Friday nights in Kyoto are bustling with street performers and artists. We bumped into bands, solo artists and some quirky ones like the one in the picture.
On one of the nights, we went drinking at the next door local bar and made a few friends there. J (the guy in the picture) is a wrestler and had his arm broken recently during a fight. His day job is to pull hand rickshaws in Arashiyama which he has been doing since the age of 17.
The Fushimi ward in Kyoto houses one of the most famous shrines, the Fushimi Inari shrine and one of the oldest sake breweries in Japan. The Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum is located in a sleepy suburb of this ward. The museum is the perfect place to learn about the history of sake and the culture associated with making it. Fushimi is the Mecca of sake brewing in Kyoto and has sweet spring water and best quality rice to brew the perfect sake. A lovely canal flows through the ward which was used for transportation in older times.
The Fushimi Inari shrine, dedicated to Inari – the Shinto god of rice, is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates which create a network of trail leading up to the sacred forest of Mount Inari. It’s believed that foxes are the messengers of Inari which explains the number of fox statues across the grounds.
Just across from the main Kyoto station, Kyoto tower is a 131 metres tall iconic landmark which stands out because of it’s modern structure in a city full of temples and shrines. The tower was built in 1964, the same year as the opening of Shinkansen (network of high speed trains) and the Tokyo Olympics.
On our last day in Kyoto which was a Sunday, we visited a flea market near Kinkakuji Shrine. Kyoto is famous for its vintage and flea markets and this one had shops selling beautiful vintage cameras, utensils, ceramics and various other artefacts. Yes, the prices were exorbitant and I managed to buy just one vintage tea pot. However expensive they might be, these markets are not to be missed when in Kyoto.
Getting Around Kyoto: Kyoto has metro, bus and tram network and depending on where you plan to travel you’ll have to switch between the three. We mostly traveled by bus and you can save a lot of money by buying a day pass for 500 Yen. The bus service stops at 11pm so make sure you plan your day accordingly. The cab service is expensive but not as expensive as Tokyo. However, save it for the night you’d really like to stay out late (preferable Friday or Saturday). Train service too ends at 12am.