A Day in the Culturally Rich City of Kyoto, Japan

By far Kyoto stands as my favorite city in Japan.  Once the head of the Imperial Expire for over 1,000 years, it’s now the epicenter of traditional Japanese culture.   Consequently strolling down the stone streets of Gion I felt transported back 300 years to the Tokugawa Period.  Despite modernization Kyoto has retained much of its heritage and charm.  It bustles with beautiful architecture.

A Day in the Culturally Rich City of Kyoto, Japan

The Silver Pavilion, a Zen temple in the Sakyo ward of Kyoto, Japan.
The Silver Pavilion, a Zen temple in the Sakyo ward of Kyoto, Japan.

Kyoto, Japan brims over with 17 — USECSO World Heritage sites.

From 1600 Buddhist temples to 400 Shintu shrines, it’s one of most interesting and visually pleasing cities architecturally.  Weeks are required if not months to properly appreciate Kyoto in it’s entirety.  Unfortunately Allan and I came for only a week.  We arrived on the super-fast 2.5 hour bullet train out of Tokyo at 298 km/hr (185 mph).

Since we came to Kyoto for a real Japanese experience, we secured lodging in a ryokan.  Ryokans are long-established Japanese inns which have existed for over a millennium.   Rooms are built using classic methods with sliding wooden doors and rice straw flooring called tatami.  Indoors we used the provided slippers and bathrobes instead of outdoor shoes and clothing.

A couple getting married at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. I jumped in behind the wedding photographer to take this photo.
A couple getting married at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. I jumped in behind the wedding photographer to take this photo.

The experience was unique though I can’t say we slept well because we prefer beds.  Residents in ryokans sleep on mats laid out on the floor.   Rolled up pillows called sobagara are filled buckwheat husks and are provided for sleeping. Regardless if you can easily get up off the floor I advocate the adventure at least once.

Sleep aside our main priority was witnessing the shimmering temples and shrines of Kyoto.  We began with Kinkaku-Ji, also known as the “Golden Pavilion” for its gold color.  Travelers worldwide recognize this as the most photographed shrine in all of Japan.   It’s golden beauty radiates off the adjacent reflecting pond.  The shrine merits its well-deserved reputation.

For me Kinkaku-Ji, holds the #1 spot as my favorite photographic place in the whole country.

From the Golden Pavilion we hailed a cab over to the orange shrine of Fushimi-Inari-Taisha.  Thousands of vermilion torii gates wind in succinct succession over a network of trails.  The paths spread over the sacred Mount Inari.  Most visitors come to explore the trails and network of gates, but the shrine itself is picturesque and worthy of your attention.  For us the visit exceeded expectation.  However, we wished we had arrived earlier to bypass the masses.

The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan whose top 2 floors are completely covered in gold leaf.
The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan.  It’s appropriately named since its top 2 floors are completely covered in gold leaf.

Continuing with our tour, from orange shrines we wandered over to the Silver Pavilion.  Officially known as Ginkaku-ji, this magnificent Zen temple exemplifies some of the most alluring and authentic Japanese gardens.   We meandered through the winding paths observing perfectly crafted sand and separate moss gardens.  Well-manicured bonsai trees framed the terraces.  The ornate gardens enhanced the innate gracefulness of the Silver Pavilion.  A paradigm of Shoin architecture, the temple comprises a series of smaller rooms divided by paper and wood.

The simple yet clean design showcased what I felt like was true Japanese craftsmanship.

After our visits to the temples and shrines we ended our evening with a Geisha show.  Geishas are entertainers and hostesses who dance, sing, converse and gratify a primarily male clientele.   Nowadays sightings outside of Kyoto and Tokyo are rare.   Numbers are dwindling of these alluring figures dressed in colorful kimonos and white facial makeup.

For our show we headed down to Gion, the entertainment district of Kyoto.  The group performance at Gion Corner unfortunately was more a theatrical spectacle with acting, dancing and live music.  Since we failed to plan ahead, we neglected to procure the intimate and platonic Geisha encounter we desired.  In light of the real thing, Gion Corner was the next best option.  It entertained but came up short.

A geisha dancing at Gion Corner in Kyoto, Japan. Now a days Geishas are harder to find. You really have to go to Kyoto or Tokyo.
A geisha dancing at Gion Corner in Kyoto, Japan. Now a days Geishas are harder to find. Therefore you really have to go to Kyoto or Tokyo.

Fortuitously our exit from the spectacle was met with 2 real life geisha.  Gliding down the street ahead of us they wore red floral kimonos with white flowers in their hair.  I stopped and asked for a photo, but was swiftly and politely rebuffed.  They earn money through entertaining not photo opportunities.  Professionals apparently don’t play dress-up and pose for pictures.

Overall our first day in Kyoto, Japan was divinely pleasurable.

The mixture of dazzling shrines and temples combined with a good helping of Japanese culture.  As a result we satiated our appetites for an authentic Nippon experience.   To me one of the benefits of traveling is learning about the world first hand.  For example, I’ve seen and read about Japanese gardens, geishas and shrines in books back home.  But actually seeing the originals, experiencing them myself is remarkable.  As a result I’ve developed a better understanding of the world, history and consequently myself.

Traveling expanded my horizons.  Hence I’ve realized what a very big and diverse world in which we live.

Furthermore, Kyoto, Japan in my opinion is at the top of that long list of marvelous wonders.

Happy travels,

Matt Weatherbee

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Matt Weatherbee
Matt Weatherbee

Hi, I’m Matt.  In 2008 I quit my job, sold everything and drove from Boston to Mexico to start a business.  Now I live and work in the Carribean, and spend my free time traveling the globe.  Learn more.

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