In honor of Sakura, the internationally renowned spring cherry blossom season, we continue our journey through Japan. Next destination: Kyoto. One of the most magical cities in Japan, it feels like you’re a character in a novel from eons ago when you’re here. Literally, if this city does not make you feel like you’re in Memoirs of a Geisha or Shogun, then Sayonara, Felicia.
Kyoto has a dark magic feel to it, the city of geishas. You just know there’s secrets hidden in the dark, wooded architecture.
If these rice paper walls could talk…
Start your day exploring Kiyomizu-dera, a world UNESCO heritage site. This temple sits high on a hill, obscured by lush greenery, a veritable legend of the hidden temple. No big deal, but the current structures were built in 1633 (!). The large veranda provides an expansive view of the city below. it was an area of refuge for pilgrims during the Edo period.
You’ll see tourists upon tourists, but many locals come to this shrine to celebrate and commemorate major life events like promotions, weddings, and even death.
This Buddhist shrine sits high on a hill and provides a perfectly serene backdrop for anyone wishing to find some inner peace.
Don’t forget to check out the Jizo bodhisattva, said to be a patron saint of sorts of unborn children. Worshippers put clothes and bibs on the statues representing the spirits of thir kin so that they won’t have to suffer much in the underworld.
It really is a magnificent structure with incredible architecture, very dramatic and cinematic.
As you make your descent into town, there’s pedestrian streets lined with shops selling everything from antiques to Hello Kitty flags (I know this because I purchased both).
Downtown Kyoto looks like something out of feudal Japan. And it should, it’s one of the oldest cities in Japan; it’s origins date back to around 794. Of course, it’s been through countless natural disasters and a huge fire that nearly decimated it in the 1800s, but there are still many pre-war buildings in existence (mainly because it narrowly escaped being the target of an atomic bomb during WWII). If not for the electric/telephone poles and wiring, it could be the setting of any movie from the samurai era.
It’s very seductive, for looking like an old fishing village. Although plain in appearance, this city is and was one of the major commerce areas throughout Japan’s history. Although now more known as a tourist destination, Kyoto served as Japan’s capital for over a thousand years.
Geishas are women (and some men) trained in a traditional style of being a hostess or entertainer. Not to be assumed as the world’s oldest profession, these women are usually singers, dancers, poets and play multiple instruments. Younger geishas in training are called maiko, these are the young ladies with the white makeup and flashy kimonos. There are not many of these classically trained professionals left, but you will catch a glimpse of some in the streets of Kyoto. As a tourist, you are not supposed to disturb them or stop them to take a picture, hence the blurry mcblurry pics to follow.
Geisha in Kyoto (where the art is most closely associated) are called geiko. If you see girls on the street with green pin headdresses, this designates their underage status.
On your second day in Kyoto, start with more congee. I can’t get enough of this stuff. There are no better pickles than Japanese pickles. It’s a bold declaration, but one which I stand by wholeheartedly.
First stop is the elaborate gold pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. This gilded Zen Buddhist temple is one of Japan’s most popular attractions and is another one of the world’s UNESCO heritage sites.
About 30 minutes to the outskirts of Kyoto lays a tranquil little nest of bamboo wilderness, the Sagano Bamboo forest. It’s definitely a tourist laden destination now, but if you’re lucky you may get one or two quiet moments to yourself to disappear into the lumbering stalks surrounding you. Become one with nature.
These groves are so dense and enveloping that they almost create their own acoustic chamber, with the pastoral symphony as the headliner and the bamboo audience itself swaying along to the breezy music.
Arashiyama, the district where Sagano is located, is touristy, but for good reason. The Hozu river runs through the town, which is nestled between mountains and the woods. There are rickshaws to take you through the pedestrian malls lined with tourist shops. Don’t forget your bento lunch.
The Togetsukyo Bridge is one of its iconic landmarks. It is especially popular come cherry blossom time (end of March-mid April).
Continue onto Nara, one of Japan’s former imperial capital cities (700s). There are many ancient temples and heritages sites, but the one that everyone should experience is Todai-ji. Todai-ji was first built in the mid 700s, but multiple fires have led to several rebuildings, with the current building finished in 1709.
This enormous structure contains the largest bronze Daibatsu (Buddha) in the world. He is just about 50 feet tall and weighs 500 tons. He’s also about 1160 years old, must be all that meditation keeping him looking so young.
On the grounds of this sacred temple are herds of deer. Like literal deer roaming around and begging for “deer crackers,” which are sold by the temple. The deer are thought to be embodied by Shinto spirits. There’s all sorts of spirituality going on in these hallowed grounds.
They are very tame animals, practically domesticated, and some of them even know to bow when you give them a treat.
On your last day in Japan, head to Osaka, the second most populous city in Japan. This city is thriving. There’s malls and neon lights and shopping and everything you want in a large metropolitan area. It’s a hotbed of excitement for sure.
But, to start on a more subdued note, visit the beautiful Osaka Castle. This was an important site in the reunification of Japan, transitioning from the the shogunate era to a modern system.
Now you can really enjoy the modern era at one of Osaka’s many shopping areas. The Shinsaibashi is probably the most well known. It’s street after street of shops, cafes, restaurants, and people. Like seriously a lot of people.
I love it, truly an urban vibe. I sampled lots of sushi, tempura, udon, soba, curry. Tourist driven, so a little more expensive and probably not as good as down home cooking, but good enough for me.
And thus, Japan, one of the most amazing destinations you could ever hope to visit. A country with such technology and tradition. Truly one of my favorite places in the world, and one that should be at the top of everyone’s travel bucket list. Sayonara!