Another much-delayed post about our trip to Japan over the Christmas/New Year holiday…
We left Koyasan in the morning of the last day of the 2012, and after a bus, cable car, several trains, and a 10-minute walk, we arrived in Kyoto to ring in the new year. Kyoto is a beautiful, livable city that boasts the perfect combination of creative, interesting urban neighborhoods and natural and historic beauty.
There was so much that I loved about Kyoto. I decided the easiest way to organize the highlights would be by these five themes:
Top Five Kyoto Experiences
1. Urban Beauty
Kyoto is a human scale city that boasts beautiful architecture and walkable streets. The city was spared from the atom bomb during World War II and wasn’t hit by many conventional bombs, either, accounting for its large collection of pre-war structures.
We loved walking around the traditional historic districts (Gion, Shirakawa, Pontocho) with their tea houses, inns, geisha houses, canals, narrow alleys, winding staircases…it was beautiful and romantic.
Not many real geisha remain in Kyoto, but it is possible to get dressed and made up as a geisha. I would like to think these were authentic, but not likely.
2. Shrines and Temples
Shrines and temples are the thing to see in Kyoto. We spent most of our days hopping from one to another all over the city.
Many of the larger shrines and temples are on the edges of town, nestled in the foothills of nearby mountains. We climbed up into the woods near Nanzen-ji to find this tiny shrine hidden in a cave.
Fushimi Inari was my favorite shrine, and one of the most incredible. There are thousands of torii gates here, winding high up along trails in the hillside, leading to many sub-shrines throughout the property.
3. Ringing in 2013
Spending the New Year in Kyoto was definitely the right choice. During the New Year, it is tradition to visit Buddhist temples before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Each temple rings the bell 108 times before midnight, and the larger ones have long lines of people waiting for their turn to sound the gong. Andy and I found a smaller temple near our hotel with a short line, and so we each got to sound the gong just before midnight! The photos turned out dark and blurry, but it was a pretty cool experience.
I also went for a New Year’s Day run along the Kama-Gawa (river):
During the first three days of the New Year, it is tradition to visit a Shinto shrine.
Some of these shrines were packed! The larger shrines had a very festive atmosphere, with vendors selling food and trinkets.
Including fish on a stick.
4. Natural Spaces
Kyoto’s beauty comes not only from its built environment, but also it’s leafy natural spaces. The edges of the city are pretty well-defined, and we visited many shrines and temples that were situated in park-like settings at the base of the mountains on the edge of town.
We wandered up trails and paths higher up into the hills, and also walked along canals and rivers in town.
5. Excellent Food
Of course, everywhere we went in Japan had amazing food. Kyoto was no exception. It is custom to eat soba around the New Year: the long noodles symbolize long life.
I sampled this amazing sticky sweet charcoal-grilled delight.
And one of my favorite meals of the whole trip was lunch at an okonomiyaki place. Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake of cabbage, eggs, other vegetables, and all sorts of other optional ingredients, mixed up at your table and cooked on a tabletop griddle. Amazing.
There are many more photos of Kyoto on Andy’s Flickr page here.
Our final stop in Japan was Takayama: mountain village, onsen resort, sake tastings. Hopefully will post soon!