Ahhh Kyoto, be still my heart 😍😍💗💗. Time and time again I return to this truly magical town and each time I fall deeper and deeper in love with it. The old marries with the new, intertwined in a way I have never seen or felt in any other place I have ever visited.
I remember one of my favorite classes I took while attending Waseda University during my junior year abroad in college was a Japanese literature class taught by a very passionate professor. She was not an easily impressed professor, but her level of passion for what she wanted us to take away from her lessons was ingrained upon me and I truly fell in love with so many Japanese authors and poems and stories that I never would have come across without her. One such story was set in Kyoto and when you read it you felt as if you were in the storyline, strolling along the banks of the Kamo River with a parasol in one hand, cherry blossoms aligning both sides of the river, and the rush of the river being drowned out by the bustling town. Ashamedly, I don’t remember the author or title, but I do remember the feeling that it evoked in me and I began planning my first trip as soon as I finished the story.
I remember an incredible amount from that trip, it burned images into my mind that I still bring up whenever I long for Japan. I remember watching “Lost in Translation” shortly before making the journey and seeing Scarlett Johanson walk over these round stones seemingly floating in the water and I paused it to ask my host family where this amazing place was. I researched and researched every temple, shrine, and areas I should venture to and I ticked them one by one off as I explored around in Kyoto, each place making me fall deeper and deeper in love with this city.
My favorite place that I explored was Gion, basically the main Geisha district in Kyoto where if you were patient enough and lurked around the narrow back alleyways and streets you may just be lucky enough to come across a Geisha or Maiko. I still remember the awe I felt when I first set my eyes upon one. Up until this point I had only seen them in picture books or described in various novels over the years and nothing could have prepared me for my first viewing. Everything about a Geisha is just breathtaking and I know I overuse this word with Japan, but so magical as well. There is a beauty, grace, and confidence which they all exude and knowing the thousands of hours they pour into crafting their very image is unimaginable to most. I have always been somewhat enthralled with Geishas (below you can see a beautiful, very artistic rendition I created as a child- haha) my entire life and I can’t remember why and when it began, but it was very early on. So needless to say, Gion and Kyoto are the must visit city and area that I tell anyone when they ask where they must go in Japan.
This is the fourth time I have been to Kyoto since the first visit I made in 2004 and holy wow how things have changed! First off, as a negative, the amount of tourists now visiting is unreal. To the point where even walking around Gion is a bit of a nuisance and there are now policemen on every corner trying to manage the crowds. There are signs along the street telling people to not touch the Geishas- what in the world?! I will admit to fully being shocked when I saw the sign as I guess common sense and respect does not prevail? Yeesh! However, if you stay out late enough for the crowds to die down, you can still be rewarded with some amazing views and Geishas and Maikos as well. I actually saw more during this visit than the previous three combined, so I felt pretty lucky and that the travel Gods and universe were definitely on my side! I even came across a party where the Geishas were entertaining their patrons (on the other side of the river, but you could still see them!) and was lucky enough to walk behind two and take a video as well (you can see it on my Instagram page at https://www.instagram.com/chasingrainbows360/). Needless to say, it was just amazing and I can’t wait to return!
During one of my previous visits I went out to another outskirt of town called Arashiyama which is famous for the bamboo grove that you see in many famous Japanese pictures. I remembered last time that it did get quite crowded, so I woke up super early to get there before the crowds assembled. I pretty much had the entire path to myself and was able to walk up and down it to take some amazing pictures, but also enjoyed looking at the dew on the spiders webs and hearing some chanting at a local shrine that drew me in.
Imagine my surprise that upon arriving at this shrine I was told it also happened to be the day of their annual festival procession, called Saigu Gyoretsu held at the Nonomiya Shrine (if you google this you will find a more in depth description). I looked it up on my phone and realized again that I happened to be in the right place at the right time and that even though it was a few hours away, I had to stick it out because it seemed like a once in a lifetime kind of experience. So, for THREE hours, I stood in a torrential downpour, being squished and pushed in every direction and almost gave up about ten times. But I knew I would regret it if I left after all of that waiting time and wowzers, what a treat!! The Princess and her procession were dressed in layers upon layers of colors and clothing that I had never seen before. I was able to watch from right in the front the blessings and purifications rituals that were going on inside the shrine. And when the Princess came down the steps she made direct eye contact with me and gave me a little smile!!! Eeeek, it was so amazing and an out of this world experience!
The next day I ventured out to visit a few of my other favorite places- one being the area surrounding the Kiyomizu-dera temple as I had read about a new Starbucks (I know, I know) that has recently opened. Supposedly it was built to look like an old tea house and I have to say, they totally nailed it! Very gorgeous and it was hard to even spot the Starbucks sign!
Close to this surrounding area I came across a tribute to unknown soldiers from WWII with a giant statue of Kwan-On that was gorgeous with the fall leaves surrounding the white statue. You can walk behind the statue and actually go inside it and there were some amazing copper Buddhas and I was immediately drawn towards one. After looking around I figured out that each one was representing the year of the Chinese zodiac calendar animals and the one I was drawn to was actually mine, the year of the Boar! Of course I was- remember in my last post how I had bought a Buddha carved amulet for my year of the Boar after my encounter with the Buddhist monk? Yep, tingles again!
Next I did one of my favorite things to do in the narrow streets of Kyoto, which is get lost and explore. Every time I return I go to new areas and just walk around as many neighborhoods as possible. I never know what I will come across, but it is never dull! I also found a delicious spot for some wagyu beef sushi- mmm 😍😍!
I also return to Heian Shrine (where ScarJo walked on the floating rocks) and on my way there as I meandered along a stream I was able to catch a crane fishing and then flying away! It was such a beautiful thing to be able to stop, observe, and relish in the moment of where I was and what I was witnessing. The shrine and the gardens were the most empty out of any of my previous visits and I was happy for the rain that seemed to be keeping most away, but not this Oregonian 😂🌂🌧🌧.
I also made it to the infamous Nishiki Market, a narrow alleyway lined with hundreds of vendors hawking everything from live fish to fresh wasabi roots to octopus on a stick with an egg in its’ head. Mmmm, if you know me and my love for food, you know that this is one of my favorite places to be in Japan 😁!
Speaking of food, Kyoto was the town where I was really allowing myself to have my last splurge meal in Japan. Kyoto is famous for their kaiseki food, a traditional multi course meal using ingredients fresh from the daily market and playing off of whatever season it is. At the top kaiseki restaurants, it’s said that even if you eat there everyday (in my dreams 😍), you would never have the same thing twice. The attention to detail of not only how it is presented, but also the pops of flavor of every bite is literally out of this world. The last time I visited Kyoto I lucked into getting a reservation at one of the top places as most aren’t really too keen on foreigners visiting and I was hoping to return to the same place. I couldn’t for the life of me remember the name and I must have walked up and down the street at least ten times before giving up. However, being the financially resourceful person that I am, I scoured through my credit card statements from many years ago and found it!!! I was also able to get one of the Japanese that worked at my hostel to call and get a reservation as I wasn’t about to tempt fate twice at being able to get in as a foreigner. Just as I had remembered, this was a meal that will be unforgettable and definitely in the top five best meals of my life. The sizes of the dishes are deceiving as they all look so small, just a few bites at most of each dish, but then they keep coming and coming and coming and before you know it you are completely stuffed.
I also met some really awesome people at my hostel (finally!)- a kickass chick from LA, a cool dude from Seattle, a couple of crazy Germans, a witty Welsh, and a kickass Kiwi. It was fun being able to explore Kyoto with a few and see it through a newbies eyes. We even explored Fushimi Inari Shrine late at night and were able to have a completely different view over the city at night and also take some pretty awesome pics of the never ending torii gates and their shadows. We were cautioned by one of the shrine attendants to watch out for wild boars and monkeys 😳🐵🐷!
I think that is a wrap on Kyoto- next up will be a short day trip to deer town aka Nara and then unforgettable Hiroshima. Currently chillaxing in my bunk away from the thrashing winds and sideways rain of my second typhoon in Japan!