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Kyoto – Japan’s Imperial City

December 8, 2011 by Chelsea Slone

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Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan, is a vibrant hybrid of an ancient city electrified by the breathtakingly new. You find yourself zipping past the futuristic department stores and neon wonderland to stumbling onto a street of old wooden shops with tatami matted floors and tea ceremony implements. Probably spend your days here wondering through a few of the thousands of ancient temples and shrines, then dining at the top of a sleekly modern sky scraper when nightfalls. Then you finally catch a glimpse of a geisha gliding down a cobblestone road wrapped perfectly in her extravagant silk kimono and feel catapulted to the 18th century, only to see her duck into a modern day taxi with a passenger door that opens and shuts automatically.

We spent our first day in Kyoto learning how to cook traditional Japanese cuisine with a lovely Japanese family of three in their home. We began the day at the Nishiki-koji Market, a seven block arcade chockablock with tiny stalls of produce, seafood, an array of japanese pickles, and specialty foods like takoyaki- fried yet gooey balls filled with octopus. We also saw a licensed fugu (blowfish) chef slicing and selling this potentially fatal if not prepared correctly fish!

After spending a few hours at the market exploring the unique goods we made our way to Taro’s home to meet his wife and daughter and begin a wonderful day of cooking. We were greeted at the door by their adorable two year old little girl, Haru-Chan and as all Japanese people do we took off our shoes at the door and entered into their beautifully simple traditional Japanese style home with low ceilings and tatami matted floors. As we got to know their family and learned about Japanese tradition we learned how to cook miso soup, grilled eggplant, a Japanese omelette, and delicious Kobe beef steak with a birth certificate! Interesting enough every piece of Kobe beef sold comes with a birth certificate of the cow the meat has come from and it’s family history for proof that they have all been born and raised in the Kobe region. We had such an amazing time playing with little Haru-Chan and getting to know Taro’s wonderful family. We had already noticed how nice and helpful the Japanese people were, but spending a day learning how to cook with a family showed us just how genuine and kind the Japanese people really are. We had a great day at Haru’s cooking class.

Since it was our first day in Kyoto we decided to try out a local sake bar, Jizake Bar Zen, that we had heard great things about before calling it a night. Being a Tuesday there wasn’t exactly a crowd, but we had the best time trying some of the local sake and getting to know the owner of this swanky sake bar. When arriving we used our favorite Japanese word “Osusume” so he would serve us a glass of his recommended sake to try and before long he had gotten out his computer to chat with us back and forth using google translator. We found out this adorable well dressed older Japanese man had the nickname “Punch” and had a long time dream of driving across the United States. He has never visited the US before, but he was a truck driver in Japan for 35 years and says he loved the power of American cars and hoped to drive an American truck across the country some day. He was the sweetest man I think I’ve ever met, and I hope he one day fulfills his dream!

After spending our first day getting to know the local people and cuisine we woke up early the next day ready to explore the ancient temples and shrines for which Kyoto has grown to be so famously known. Our first stop was at the revered Kinkaku-ji Temple, famously known as the Golden Temple. The shinning pavilion of the temple is covered with gold leaf on Japanese lacquer and glistens in the sun like you couldn’t imagine. The temple was originally built as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in the late 14th century, and converted into a temple by his son. After his death it was turned into a Zen temple according to his will. The beautiful landscaping and the reflection of the temple on the face of the water made for a striking sight.

From there we walked to Ryōan-ji to admire the beautiful autumn colors of the Japanese maple trees. Ryōan-ji is famous for its Zen garden, which is considered to be one of the most notable examples of the “dry-landscape” style. Surrounded by low walls, an austere arrangement of fifteen rocks sits on a bed of white gravel. That’s it: no trees, no hills, no ponds, and no trickling water. It is said that you should sit in front of this zen rock garden for a long period of time to ponder the true meaning. I’m assuming you have to have some zen practice to do this, I however quickly left to explore the gorgeous gardens and Lilly pad pond surrounding the temple… Which was more my idea of a zen garden.

Later in the afternoon we set out for the Gion district to learn a little bit about the fascinating geisha of Japan. A couple of years ago the city enacted a law protecting the city’s heritage districts which have been largely destroyed by modernizations, and so fleeting fantasies of Old Kyoto is sure to be found in Gion. This entertainment district where geisha and maiko (geisha-in-training) can often be spotted around dusk flitting down Hanami-koji like exquisite rare birds to meet clients. The atmospheric streets surrounded by preserved wooden structures have been home to these infamous tea houses since the beginning of Kyoto. We saw men carrying boxes of freshly pressed kimonos, and dressers flying by on their bicycles to their different houses to help dress the girls in their attire, and finally as night was just beginning to fall we saw both geisha and maiko step out of the doors and float across the street to quickly duck into the cars hired to pick them up and deliver them to the engagement of the evening.

After a magical evening through the alleyways of ancient Kyoto we woke early to visit a site that quickly became a favorite of ours, Fushimi Inari Taisha. Dedicated to Inari, the Japanese fox goddess, Fushimi-Inari-taisha is the head shrine for 40,000 Inari shrines across Japan. Stretching 230 meters up the hill behind the shrine are hundreds of bright red torii gates. Tyler and I both could have spent all day walking through the beautiful red gates and taking photos, but we knew we couldn’t skip out on our day trip to Nara.

In a short train ride we arrived in Japan’s ancient capital city, Nara. Nara’s well preserved ancient sights, including temples, shrines and famously mercenary deer are all concentrated in the wide pleasant area of Nara Park. According to legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha came riding a white deer in the old days, so the deer are allowed to freely roam the area and enjoy protected status as envoys of the god. The main reason of our day trip to Nara was to visit Tōdai-ji, which is home to the famous Daibutsu, the largest Buddha statue in Japan and one of the largest in the world. The Daibutsu-den, which houses it, is said to be the largest wooden building in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

After our visit to Nara we jumped on the train and arrived back in Kyoto just in time to experience an incredible Japanese dining experience at Giro Giro. We heard about tiny restaurant from some locals just the night before and made a reservation to ensure we would be two of the twenty people that could fit around the bar and be apart of their pre fixed seasonal menu prepared before the guests nightly. Everyone dining here is to arrive at the same time as all twenty people will be served the same dishes at the same time. Like most other local restaurants in Kyoto, they spoke very little English, but they did their best to explain each dish as it was set in front of us… However explanation or not everything we tried was fresh, local, and amazing!

Our last day in Kyoto we decided to visit one more of the temples and spend the rest of the day wondering through the local shops and enjoying the city’s unbeaten paths. Our first stop of the day was at the Kiyomizu Temple beautifully overlooking the entire city of Kyoto. This was another one of the many incredible spots to enjoy the colorful trees of the season. From here we wondered through the amazing little wooden housed shops and found ourselves lost in time looking through all of the ornate kimono’s, beautifully decorated chopsticks, and delicately made pottery. We then found ourselves where ancient city meets new on the trendy Sandjo street. After browsing through the way overpriced boutiques we stopped at the famous Kyoto coffee shop, Yojiya. This little shop used to be a place where they sold lip gloss and make up towels for the Japanese tourists who came to visit Kyoto, but it became so popular they began an entire make up line and accessory souvenir shop with a trendy coffee bar attached. Every cappuccino is served with a geisha face drawn into the foam.

We spent our last night in Kyoto on the lively street of Pontocho-dori. The narrow alley packed with bars, restaurants and giant glowing paper lanterns is just how you imagine a street in Japan to look. With It’s picture perfect representation of the Japanese culture we enjoyed a casual yakatori dinner and drank sake with some locals who happened to speak a bit of English! What a great few days we had in the vast city of Kyoto.

Next stop, Osaka.


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