By Igne Aleliunas for Summersalt Yoga
Kyoto welcomes us with blistering heat. After a full day of walking, our feet are covered with dust and the sun ruthlessly shines in the vast blue sky. Later, when asked, if such weather is the norm in May, a local just laughs at our bewilderment, “Why, yes, it gets even hotter!”. Two days in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, leave us in awe not only because of the heat. It’s a bustling city full of energy, a place where freedom and old traditions go hand in hand.
The ancient capital
Kyoto lies in the central part of Honshu island, in a valley surrounded by low mountains. Compared to Tokyo, it’s a small city with barely 1.5 million inhabitants, but together with Osaka and Kobe it forms a seemingly unending urban landscape. This flat city is full of historically and culturally important places, since for more than a thousand years it was the capital of the empire of Japan. This ancient splendor is still alive in palaces, shrines and temples, the latter two numbering in thousands. They’re everywhere in the city – dotting remote green hills and occupying space in central markets, right there between food stalls. The people of Kyoto, too, have not forgotten their heritage. The streets are full of people wearing kimonos and geta – traditional wooden sandals. There are martial arts centers and even a geisha school in the city. Kyoto, contrary than, say, Tokyo or Osaka, often feels like a small town, with quaint and quiet alleyways intersecting busier streets. However, the rich history and cultural heritage that attract so many tourists don’t make the city and its people dull or, heaven forbid, boring. On the contrary – Kyoto is full of joie de vivre, it is a mecca for pleasure-seeking hedonists.
Once the sun sets, people flock to the old center of Kyoto – the Gion district and Pontocho street. It’s a place that barely sleeps, a place for tourists and locals to wash away the dust and languor, to stuff their bellies and feast their eyes. Ordinary people find their way to cramped izakayas, full of cigarette smoke, laughter and short-lived friendships fueled by snacks and sake, or, as they call it in Japan, nihonshu. The rich and powerful choose kaiseki restaurants and high-end tea houses called ochaya, where they’re entertained by geishas – professional entertainers, trained in conversation, music and dance. Before the sun sets, geishas and maiko – apprentice geishas – can be spotted in the Gion district on their way to such banquets. The modern equivalent of a geisha is called hostess. There are dozens of establishments in Kyoto where one can spend some time in paid pleasant company. Women and men alike offer their services, so anyone can buy a couple of hours of personal attention. We, on the other hand, did not lack attention from the locals. The people of Kyoto are very friendly and sincere, hurrying to chat up a foreigner whenever they see one. Not everyone responds kindly to such attention – one especially chatty man even drives away a Korean traveller from an okonomiyaki restaurant, after suggesting she joined their mixed party of three for dinner…
The sake district
Water is definitely one of the most charming aspects of Kyoto. A network of rivers and channels crisscrossing the city provides much needed reprieve from heat and instantly attracts people. In the ancient times it was an important transportation grid that connected all corners of the old capital. Nowadays it is an attraction for dogs and kids, tourists and locals. And after dark the channels create a stunning backdrop to buskers, crooning away their melancholic songs. The southern part of Kyoto, where the Horikawa river flows, is called the Fushimi Sake District. Since ancient times, it has been known for soft and clean water, perfect for brewing sake. It is home to several dozens of sake breweries. Some of them welcome visitors wishing to know more about the sake brewing process and taste some limited edition brews. Visiting the Fushimi Sake District can easily take whole day – from sake tasting and sightseeing to taking a boat ride along the channels. Beside the largest and most popular brewery “Gekkeikan”, which houses a small sake museum, it is also worth visiting “Kizakura Kappa Country” – his brewery features a restaurant offering dishes made with sake.
The city of palaces, temples and shrines
For architecture and history buffs, Kyoto is a real treasure trove. Anywhere you turn, you end up at a temple, shrine, palace or other historical building that has survived the tumultuous 20th century. The city emerged from World War 2 unscathed, mainly, it seems, because of the rich historical and cultural heritage – the Allies could not make themselves to bomb such beauty. So now travelers can visit the impressive imperial palace of Kyoto (free of charge). Its minimalist design and an elegant garden, once created for the emperor, completely mesmerizes and leaves us in awe. A few blocks from the imperial palace stands Nijo Castle, built in the 17th century under shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s orders. The ensemble, now part of UNESCO’s World Heritage list, is amazingly decorative and luxurious, boasting intricate gold plated ornament. Inside wooden floors squeak and chirp whenever a foot touches them – it’s the so-called nightingale floor, built to alert about unwanted intruders.
And the Buddhist temples in Kyoto are equally spectacular, especially Kinkakuji – a pavilion located in the northern part of the city. Its walls are covered in gold leaf. It used to be a palace but the son of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu turned it into a Zen Buddhism temple according to his father’s will. The pavilion has been neglected and at one time completely burned down, but it has since been restored to its full glory. Meanwhile, at the other side of the city there’s Ginkakkuji. It was supposed to be a silver twin to Kinkakuji, but, according to locals, the person who ordered it built ran out of money, so the walls were covered in lacquer finish.
And no trip to Kyoto would be complete without visiting the iconic Shintoist shrine Fushimi Inari-taisha. Everyday hundreds of tourists flock there to admire thousands of bright red gates, called tori. They stretch along a winding path for 4 km, although not everyone is inclined to finish the whole route. A lot of them give up after the first section, so if you want to experience the peace and quiet, all you have to do is walk an additional couple of hundred of meters… and you’re left alone with numerous gates, dedicated to small and big dreams.
After feeding the soul, it’s time to feed the body. Luckily, Kyoto is ready to feed all the hungry travelers. From fresh sushi and sashimi to Kobe beef and simple, yet filling street food – foodies will definitely find something to satisfy their cravings. Perhaps the biggest variety of dishes awaits in the Nishikawa Street Market. This roofed passage is full of sellers offering various delicacies. Rice cakes, fermented and marinated vegetables, called tsukemono, deep fried snacks and fresh seafood that can be eaten right there, on the street – the variety is dizzying and mouth watering. There’s also something for the adventurous eaters, for example, fried sparrows. After stuffing our bellies full with local fare, we go in search of something to drink. It turned out that on a hot and humid May’s afternoon the best choice was cold and refreshing shougayu – a traditional ginger drink.
In the evening, after the heat has subsided, we sit on a river bank and listen to songs. City lights dance in the water, somewhere behind us people rush about, looking for fun on a Monday night. It occurs to me that Kyoto is a city that never rests, since it constantly bustles and hustles. But once you step away from the busy streets, you see a quieter, cozier and simpler life unravel on the banks of shallow channels. Preparing to depart, we say a silent ookini to Kyoto – thanks for the warm welcome and for the generosity!