It is a little after sunset and a day of rain has given way to a calm, balmy evening, the puddles on the cobblestone streets reflecting red and green lanterns the only remanence of the day’s earlier deluge. I’m only one block away from a bustling street full of taxis and buses, yet you wouldn’t know it as a respectful hush hangs in the air. The only exception to the silence comes from a nearby group of tourists and photographers clamoring around a stopped taxi. Highlighted in the flashes of camera phones, a geisha gracefully steps out of the car's backseat, the door held open by her escort. She is dressed in traditional kimono, excellent examples of which can cost well-heeled travelers tens of thousands of dollars to take home, and she has on a face of perfect, pearl-white make up. With an umbrella held over her, she subtly but silently smiles and nods to the crowd, before being lead behind the curtain of an unassuming entryway, leaving the crowd to chatter and speculate about what they just saw. The intrigue and mystery lingers long after the taxi pulls away. The whole event took perhaps three minutes, creating more questions than answers, and yet this is why people travel thousands of miles to this spot in Japan. This is Kyoto. Hundreds of miles away from the neon sprawl of Tokyo, this is what comes to mind when the world thinks about traditional Japan. Some of it actually is, some of it is theater, but all of it is beautiful.
I glance around the still rain-soaked street, taking in the stunning architecture within which secretive and prohibitively expensive tea ceremonies take place, in meticulous detail, over the course of hours. The crowd of tourists disperses a bit. A few meander to the signs outside of the restaurants scattered throughout the tea houses and theaters, small establishments that serve outstanding multi-course Japanese meals in this most traditional of settings. Of the few that stumble upon a menu they can understand, most balk at the prices. Alongside them, groups of teenage girls walk awkwardly in wooden sandals. They’re dressed in kimono in a rainbow of gorgeous color, posing for pictures and laughing, their hair and make-up done with a touch of professional perfection. Throughout Kyoto, young women can play make believe, with studios dressing them up in ceremonial wear and accessories, complete with make-up and their choice of hairstyle. Then, for the rest of the day, they can walk the hallowed streets of Gion like celebrities, returning their kimono in the morning through their hotel concierge.
That’s the interesting part of Kyoto. The city has a reputation for being the hub of secretive and ancient Japanese traditions, and in some ways it still is that, with its expensive tea ceremonies and exclusive restaurant scene. But simultaneously, the city of almost 1.5 million people sees some 50 million tourists walk its streets every year. Among the temples and shrines, there is an ultramodern glass train station in the center of town, one of the best in the world. Blocks away from the wood-framed streets of the Gion district are ultra luxurious five-star hotels and riverside restaurants experimenting with cosmopolitan fusion menus. Sharing the same streets as geisha are employees of Nintendo and a world-class mass transit system.
Kyoto has become such a tourist hotspot that it was a hard adjustment for me coming from the megacities of Tokyo and Osaka. Tokyo, so massive and dense, is an easy place for a tourist to disappear into the pulse of the city. At some truly wonderful places, we were the only western faces to be seen. Osaka, especially outside of bustling Dotonbori, is a city that typically falls off of most tourists’ itineraries, and we felt even more assimilated there than in Tokyo, content to follow the gracious lead of its locals. In either case, there was a wonderful sense of anonymity that came from being an insignificant fish in some very, very large oceans. In contrast, Kyoto is like Times Square. I don’t mean that to sound like everything in Kyoto is artificial or superficial, because that would be an egregious lie. But I couldn’t help but notice the sudden influx of western and Chinese tourists in our hotel in Kyoto. We were no longer those lone fish, free to explore a large and alien ecosystem, but part of what felt like an invasive species of locusts descending upon a small and treasured forest.
Part of the issue is that there is a lot to do in Kyoto. Gion district, the seat of tradition and a protected exhibit of Japanese customs, is one of the biggest international draws. Equally alluring are the Torii gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha, thousands of fire-orange structures that serve as good luck for Japanese businesses, an offering to the patron of business and merchants, Inari, also the Shinto god of rice. (Walking through the gates, set in the forested foothills of a mountain, you should keep moving uphill as the crowds dissipate the farther up you go.) There are also the Golden and Silver temples, Buddhist structures of staggering beauty and breathtaking backdrops, and thousands of other shrines and temples that are scattered throughout the city, each one worthy of a lifetime of study.
A short subway ride west from the city center is the area of Arashiyama. Its epicenter is the Hozu River and it has two of my favorite sites in Kyoto, as well as being a beautiful town to explore in its own right. You can rent a bike (electronically boosted bikes are great if you've had a few too many balls of fried octopus) and get to all of these sites under your own power (or with the help of a battery.) First up is the bamboo forest of Arashiyama. You’ve undoubtedly seen pictures of this magical place in all of the tourist books, but it’s worth the visit. For the photographers out there, the quality of light here has no equal. (One protip: there is a bamboo forest near the Torii gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha, arguably more beautiful and it's less crowded.) Then it is on to the monkey park. Nestled high up in the hills, the sanctuary provides a breathtaking view over all of Kyoto, framed by emerald green mountains. Oh, and there are monkeys. Lots of them. They are wild, and even though they’re protected by the sanctuary, they are allowed to roam freely around visitors. Behind the only fenced area you can feed them from bags of apples or peanuts, and interact with the Japanese macaques personally. It’s a humbling experience watching these intelligent animals standing watch over the gorgeous Kyoto skyline, but be warned, the hike up can be demanding. Afterwards, take your bike, aim it in any direction, and just ride along the river, exploring local neighborhoods and street corner cafes until you’re ready to head back into town. My fondest memory of Kyoto is pulling my bike up to a fence along the river, taking a seat on a bench, and watching the sun start to set over the mountains as the town’s lights began to burn to life. If this is what local life in the area is like, I'm in.
When it’s time for dinner, and the thought of spending $150 USD or more a head for a traditional Japanese meal makes your wallet squirm, head back to Kyoto and the riverfront downtown. Settled along the banks is a row of stilted restaurants, each with a patio overlooking the river and its own set of string lights overhead. The food along the promenade varies in cuisine and quality, but the experience is tough to match. You’ll pay extra for a seat on the patio, but they tell you up front, and it’s worth it. (I’m being intentionally vague on food here, unlike my last two articles, mostly because each person visiting Kyoto will have their own gastric desires. The traditional meals are excellent, although expensive, and their chefs pride themselves on using simple ingredients of unparalleled quality and presentation. Some dishes only use a single one. These are experiences of a lifetime, but they’re not for everyone, or for every budget.)
After a day of incomparably iconic Japanese culture, you will return to your hotel or your ryokan and settle in for the evening. If you’ve already been to Osaka and/or Tokyo, the night will seem still, quietly serene and almost surreal. There is less neon, less noise, fewer people. This is your break from it all. You’ve earned this. But then, just as you’re about to fall asleep to dreams of monkeys and mountains, you’ll hear the cacophony of tourists spilling out of the elevator, eagerly chattering about their encounter with the geisha in Gion, laughing loudly before slamming their hotel doors shut to drift off to their own dreams of monkeys and mountains. You'll be left awake and dreading the morning, when you’ll have to see those same obnoxious tourists, dressed in Hard Rock Café t-shirts and tube socks with sandals, down at breakfast.