Everyone loves Kyoto. When I said I was coming to Japan so many people told me to just make sure I go to Kyoto, and Matt had heard the same. This earned it top billing on our mental list of places we would like to get to, and why we tried so hard to find somewhere to stay there after Tokyo and Lake Yamanaka and eventually just went for it from Hiroshima. So when we finally made it there imagine our surprise when both of us had an immediate negative reaction.
It’s freaking crowded. Tokyo is busy, but Kyoto felt congested. From the packed train station to the pedestrian-filled streets it was a game of dodge the people, not a fun task with our backpacks on. Then the ease of finding a good manga cafe that we had just experienced in Hiroshima didn’t exist in Kyoto, and after choosing one because we didn’t want to go back on those streets with our bags it took half an hour to even arrange where to store them until we checked in for our 12 hours at 9 pm. We ended up having to rent a karaoke room for them. The next day we left them in a hotel lobby that took pity on us, and the next in a locker at the train station.
We tried to regain our positivity as we ventured out to see the city. We had three days in Kyoto and allocated one each to our top priorities: 1) see the city center and Geisha district Gion; 2) temple hop; 3) walk through the bamboo forest.
As we wandered through the city center that first afternoon my impression of Kyoto was like a yo-yo, constantly fluctuating between liking the city and finding it overrated. We walked and shopped in the covered arcade, which I’ve now learned is the center of every city in Japan. They love these things. They are great on a rainy day, but they’re also just lined with stores, and when you’re traveling on a budget shopping can only entertain for so long. The one in Kyoto had a temple right off the main street, which was an interesting contrast to the commercialism surrounding it.
On our way to Gion we encountered a canal lined with full blossom sakura trees, which made for a lovely stroll one way, and then we had an equally lovely stroll back next to the big river, where Kyotans line the banks and enjoy a beverage as the daylight fades to dark (and well into dark too). Gion was again pretty to walk through at first, an area seemingly stuck in an age long ago, but then we realized it was just upscale restaurants. When we did return for dinner one night we had delicious shabu shabu (thank you Matt for the amazing early birthday dinner) and did actually catch a glimpse of a real Geisha, so in the end Gion came out on the positive side.
Temple day was fantastic and exhausting. We started big: Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. It’s gorgeous. The gold leaf-covered building reflecting in the pond beneath it is a site to see, that is if you can see through all the people. Just like the rest of Kyoto, it was a tainted experience; to get a view of the pavilion required a lot of patience (or an aggressive move) to get to the front of a mass of tourists who only saw it through their electronic device screens. Have I become jaded? Maybe. I know at this point I like the less traveled locations, so when tourists overrun a place I can be easily peeved, and since Matt is the same way we probably just encouraged each other. I took a deep breath and refocused on the temple. That’s the reason we were there, and it was beautiful.
We moved on to Ryoan-ji, known for its rock garden, and enjoyed the serenity of the landscape. The garden was nice, but it was the lake and the plants surrounding it that captured our attention. Next up was Ninna-ji, a large complex that took way more time than expected but was a great display of the variety of temple architecture. We followed a raised wooden path through large and small pavilions within a sandscape on one side and a lush pond on the other, culminating in a shrine. We craned our necks up to marvel at the five-tiered pagoda. We peeked through a gate at the colorfully painted Kyusho-myojin. And we quickly walked past the other buildings once we realized we were starving. The only problem with these temples is part of the reason they’re so wonderful to explore: they’re far from the center of town.
Once satiated we had time for one more shrine in a different part of town, Fushimi Inari-taisha. The main draw of this shrine is the thousands of torii that line a path leading up and around Inari mountain. The seemingly infinite line of orange gates are stunning, and instead of letting the crowds get to us this time we turned the walk into a game of “try to get a picture alone before anyone else shows up.” We were actually pretty successful. It was a fun end to the day.
Our last day in Kyoto it rained. Bummer. Our plan had been to go to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, an outdoor day, and for a minute we hesitated, considering indoor options. But when the rain seemed to lighten we decided to go for it. The rain was not lighter where the forest was, it was in fact more constant, but there was no turning back. What started as a wet depressing walk turned into an awesome sight. Bamboo towered up above us on either side, thousands of stalks deep. It was like a fantasy land, and I didn’t care that I was soaked. It’s not like I could get any wetter. So I slowed down and took it all in, my final view of Kyoto’s allure.
In the end, Kyoto is a wonderful place. While the city itself may have overwhelmed at times, it has an undeniable beauty and importance in Japanese history. If I went back, which I think I should at some point, I would stay on the fringes of the center of town, but not quite outside it. Our last two nights we stayed in a hostel (which luckily had opened early for the busy season, which is why we were able to get a reservation and were among its first guests) outside the main part of the city and we felt stranded at night out there. I feel like Goldilocks who never found the perfect in between. Maybe next time Kyoto.