Wow

   
To begin with, I have never seen such a remarkable contrast between the new and the old in my life. As a resident of Boston, MA (very young compared to most places in the world, I know) I have come to appreciate and love the mix of new and old architecture, the fast paced world and the puritan historical roots. But taking the founding date of Boston to be 1630, Kyoto is more than double Boston's age (taking the "founding" of Kyoto to be sometime in the 8th century, when the Shimogamo Shrine was established). This makes for unrivaled contrast between the ancient streets that still have many ancient tea houses used to host Geisha entertainment, and the modern streets of today, filled with overpriced merchandise, BMW's, nightclubs and restaurants. This contrast was evident throughout my entire time there and makes Kyoto an absolute must see for anyone looking to experience "old Japan".

Traveling to/in Kyoto

    Please look into buying a guide book before you make extensive travel plans. I highly suggest Lonely Planet's Japan, as it covers the WHOLE country, and is in depth enough to give you the all the information that you need and want. At the bare minimum, familiarize yourself with the Kyoto subway system.

    As usual in Japan, the trains were quite enough to get me where I wanted to go, quickly and for a (err...somewhat) reasonable price. Keep in mind that there are private railways in Kyoto in addition to the JR railways found throughout Japan. The ICOCA (rechargeable electronic money) card will do you just fine and is extremely convenient. In a later post I will write about Japan railways in detail, but for now let it suffice to say that they are efficient and when you get there you can easily figure them out. So lets total it up here. In Kyoto, in the absence of a personal car, you have the following options of transportation:
  • JR Railways -- very quick and efficient for getting you TO Kyoto, but they run through the city; not throughout the city, such as the subway; so not easy to rely on for 100% of travel.
  • City Bus -- Some of these are local buses stopping at every stop. Some of them are tourist buses that take you right to your destination. Inquire at Kyoto Station (from which most of them leave) 
  • Subway System -- AWESOME. Very efficient, fast,  extensive, and well labeled (assuming you speak English or Japanese).
  • Private Railways -- I was confused about this at first, but they really work just like a subway or JR train line. Tap your ICOCA card and head on in! In some cases they are slightly more expensive than the equivalent trip on the subway.
  • Taxi -- Please: make it your last resort. The are most likely more expensive here than your home city. They WILL however be a necessity if you miss the last subway train at 12:00 a.m. and your hotel is more than a few blocks away.

[Please keep reading after the slide show for more awesome info!]
All pictures in slide show I took myself.

Temples & Shrines

       Unfortunately on my first stay, I did not get to see every one of Kyoto's thirteen world heritage sites but this is just a reason to go back. After the slide show below I list the temples and shrines I did go to and what I loved about them:

清水寺ーKiyomizu-dera -- This literally means "Temple of Pure Water". After you walk through the simple but impressively large main hall, you step out onto the Butai or "dancing stage". This stage juts out over a 12 meter high cliff, and is supported by hundreds of huge zelkova-tree pillars. My favorite part was that you actually got to drink some of the water that the temple is named after (see slide show above). It was extremely hot and humid waiting in line, but drinking from the natural spring was worth it. Between the beauty of the temples and the drinkable water, this was my favorite temple. Be warned however, that it is usually the most crowded of the temples in Kyoto due to its easy accessibility and location in the high temple density area.

天竜寺ーTenryu-ji -- This means "Temple of the Heavenly Dragon."  The main hall looks much the same as the main halls of many of the other temples. If you're short on time here, only pay for the garden, as this is most certainly what makes it a World Heritage Site. The plants and shrubs are trimmed to perfection, and the streams that run through look painted into the ground.

広大寺ーKodai-ji
-- This "Wide, Large Temple" is not officially listed as a world heritage site, but is a very nice temple in itself. The main hall is surrounded by a moat of sorts, which makes for a very beautiful and peaceful view. Next time I return to Kyoto I'd like to visit the part of the temple with the giant Buddha (I don't know exactly, but I'd give him 50 or 60 feet tall), which was closed by the time I went there.

八坂神社ーYasaka Shrine -- The most impressive part to me about this temple was the coloring. As you step out of the ocean of green that is Maruyama Park, you are hit with these very brightly colored buildings. Part of praying at the temple is ringing the bell, which in truth looked really fun, but there was a long line so I chose to forgo it. In order to not look so much like a tourist when you go to pray, check out this website for the procedure.
Other Awesome Places

    Kyoto is well known for its temples, but that isn't the only thing in this amazing city. If you'd like to spot a Geisha or want to pick up some tasty Kyoto specials, check out the places below:

Nishiki Market -- This is another must do when in Kyoto, and because of the density of the shops, you can walk through the whole market in less than 10 minutes (that is, of course if you don't go into any of the shops!). My friend and I had just eaten when we came here, so all the food, although it smelled delicious, was not what we were focused on (which might have been good for the budget). My favorite shop was the Aritsugu Knife Shop. I had a special weakness for this store because of my enjoyment of cooking, but I think the vast array of knives themselves is worth a look for anybody. Just walking through the narrow market you can feel how old it is, making it a welcome and fascinating change from the football field sized malls many of us know too well.

Gion -- If you want to be entertained by a Geisha for dinner and music in a 300 year old tea house, then walk right down the street to a state of the art night club and drink until morning, then this is the place to do it. It was Kyoto's entertainment district 800 years ago, and it still is today. A Special Note on Geisha: This area of Kyoto is your most likely bet for spotting a Geisha, however, do NOT chase them and ask for their pictures. They are highly trained (and highly expensive) performers and entertainers who do not have time to take pictures. "Tourist Geisha" are found around the city and would be more than happy to take a picture with you. Read more about Geisha history and culture here.

Ponto-cho -- This is another one of the areas in Kyoto that I really loved just walking through. More like an alley than a street, this area is packed with restaurants and bars. My friend and I ate okonomiyaki (a cheap pizzaesque dish; ¥800), but be warned, many of the restaurants are here are quite pricey.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest -- Arashiyama is the northwest corner of Kyoto, and is a beautiful and quaint area of the city to explore. Not far from Tenryu-ji, Arashiyama's bamboo forest is literally like stepping into another world. I wanted to run through it, but the tall straw on either side of the pathway suggested I shouldn't. Anyway, as a resident in an area with mostly pines, oaks, maples and birches, this forest was especially attractive to me.

Okochi Sanso -- This is the name of the villa of the famous 1930's movie star Okochi Denjiro. Many movie stars today might choose to build five pools, a 35 room house and a 20 car garage, but he chose to build a massive garden with scenic vistas, a tea house, and a small shrine.Only a 5 minute walk away from Tenryu-ji, it is obvious that he was a follower of Buddhism and loved nature. Visiting the villa costs 1000 yen (rather pricey, comparatively), but you also get a tea ticket (for matcha and a small cake) and a post card. Well worth the visit if you want a beautiful vista of Kyoto city in a mountain setting.

Staying in Kyoto

     The usual rules of hotel booking apply:
  • Book early -- pay less money and have a better selection
  • Book late -- pay more money and have less of a selection
    I suggest the website Rakuten Travel for an aggregate hotel search, as Hotwire, Priceline and the other big guys generally don't have a wide selection of hotels in Japan. Rakuten hosts discount, capsule, ryokan, standard and luxury hotels throughout Japan and some other Asian countries, so at least give it a look. My friend and I stayed in a reasonably priced hotel downtown 400 meters away from a subway station (VERY convenient), but I think next time we may try a capsule hotel!
Summary

    I think Kyoto is a must see for anyone visiting or living in Japan, and particularly if you want to get a feel for "Old Japan". Switching between temples and downtown if you have time will provide the best effect, but if you only have one afternoon then head to Southern Higashiyama and check out Kiyomizu-dera!
Picture
Kiyomizu-dera in autumn during a special lights ceremony.
 


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