Kyoto: simply mentioning the name evokes endearing images of kimono-clad, white-faced geisha using their colorful parasols to protect both their complexions from the sun and their modesty from the stares of those on the street, of leisurely strolls through an endless parade of vivid-orange torii gates gently winding their way up a sloping hillside, of the austere and contemplative nature of minimalist gardens that require no more adornment than a bed of raked sand and a few choice stones, or of the solemn whispers of prayers, fragrant incense smoke, and occasional sound of three claps that one is greeted with upon crossing the cedar threshold of a local temple. Kyoto is a convergence point that encapsulates much of the history, spirit, and essence of that which we know of as Japanese — where even the Japanese come to learn about their own culture.
Yet while all of the above sentiments can certainly be found within this city (though you’re exceedingly fortunate if you chance upon one of few remaining geisha), it is still easy to forget that Kyoto isn’t merely a remnant of the past, a living history museum maintained for the visitors and travelers to gape at in awe, but that in fact, it is a very modern, vibrant city that continues to march forward into the present, bringing with it all of the shopping arcades, fashionable cafes, tourist shops, fast food restaurants, and designer brand merchandise that that moniker entails. Rounding the next corner, you’ll as likely to encounter the neon-lit cacophony of a pachinko parlor echoing the momentum of commerce as you are the tranquility of a lantern-lit shrine still clinging to memories of deities nearly forgotten. The traditional side is present, but it does take a more dedicated search than many of the guide books and travel shows would have you belive. That’s not to say that it isn’t without its own charms, however:
There are still a few streets and neighborhoods within the city limits that take on the historic feel of years past, however, so a visit to Kyoto certainly doesn’t doom one to a fate of disappointment and despair:
The attractions of Kyoto that draw in visitors from faraway lands don’t consist of simply tranquil streets lined with tea houses and shopping plazas decked out with the latest fashions. The city boasts one of the largest concentrations of both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines found anywhere in the world, let alone in Japan. Add to that the bounty of gorgeous gardens and manicured temple grounds, many of which are remnants from the over 1,000 year period that Kyoto served as the nation’s capital (until the late 1800′s, when it was moved to Tokyo), and it’s easy to understand why Kyoto is always a favored destination for folks of any culture.
A personal favorite destination of mine was the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, a relatively normal temple on the face, but one that conceals one of the most photographed and familiar images in all of Japan. Once past the initial shrine and main hall — to which many merchants and manufacturers worship for success, as Inari is the god of rice, meaning in today’s age that he is seen as the patron of business — you’ll come to a pathway leading up the hillside, only instead of a simple walkway, this one is lined with thousands upon thousands of red-orange Torii gates, creating an atmosphere like nowhere else I’ve ever been. The best part is that although it is easy to think that the Torii-gate-encrusted pathway is only a few hundred yards, as might be expected, it actually extends for several miles up the hillside, the whole pathway also being littered with stone images and tributes to the fox spirits, seen as messengers of the gods.
Having traveled through Kanazawa already, I’ve gotten a pretty good feel for the aesthetic of Japanese Gardens. Arriving in Kyoto, however, was a quick eye-opener that not all gardens follow the same style, utilizing moss carpeted greenscapes dotted with elegant willow trees and pleasing-to-the-eye bridges crossing the deliberately located streams. Here, a new style of garden has taken over the reins: that of the minimalist kare-sansui style, in which the only other objects besides the sand or small pebbles used as a base (often with a pattern raked into them) is that of a few thoughtfully placed stones to anchor the abstract landscape:
Finally, as you may have noticed, up until now I’ve neglected to describe any of the food options that are present in Kyoto. The reason is three-fold: one, having been in Japan for close to a month now, I’ve burned myself out trying everything in sight (and my budget is basically a big ball of flames to boot); two, I have Osaka coming up as my next destination, where I know I’ll be indulging in every inventive creation know to the Japanese culinary scene; and three, I was ultimately saving up to indulge in one particular style of eating that Kyoto excels at while I’m still here: that of Kaiseki. This indulgent (and expensive) experience takes the diner through a carefully prepared, multi-course meal designed to appeal to all five senses, where each dish is served in its own unique and carefully chosen plate or bowl, the setting often overlooks a small garden or aesthetically pleasing space, and the entire theme reflects nature through the changing ebb and flow of the seasons. So with that in mind, I’ll leave you off with a few of the dishes that the chef prepared for me on this occasion: