We went to Kyoto for its ancient architecture, glorious temples and working geisha district, but were equally seduced by its great natural beauty, distinctive food culture and warm, friendly people.
It’s been fairly said that if you had time to visit just one Japanese city, that city should be Kyoto. Bounded by mountains to the west, north and east and bifurcated by the Kamo River, it’s a manageable size and easy to navigate by public transport and by foot.
Three Temples, Two Shrines and a Castle
Kiyomizu Temple is most famous for the terrace off its main hall, supported by 139 wooden pillars and constructed without nails – a marvel of joinery. The endless school groups that climb up to and descend from the temple along a picturesque lane are well catered to by shops selling traditional sweets and ice-cream cones in green tea or black sesame flavours.
Right next to the temple is the jolly Jishu Shrine, a huge hit with young people as it’s dedicated to love and the God of Matchmaking – a sort of 15th-century Cupid. Contrary to The Beatles’ opinion on the matter, it seems that money can buy love; or at least a lucky love charm. Interesting that it costs just 500 yen for a charm to “find a partner”, but 2,000 yen to “bind your love closer”.
It’s a pleasant hike from the hotel to the massive gates of Nanzenji Temple. We’re startled by the anachronistic appearance of an enormous and authentic-looking Roman aqueduct near the gates, until Miya-san explains that it was built in the late 19th century, after scholars visited Europe after the end of Japan’s self-imposed Isolation Period (1625 to 1968). Other ideas they brought back with them included British-style school uniforms and – more up-to-date, certainly, and perhaps a tad more useful – driving on the left side of the road, the steam engine and the railway.
From here, the pleasant mile-long Philosopher’s Walk winds across the mountain, past cosy-looking traditional houses and along a pretty little canal. It leads to Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion, which boasts a fine garden and steep stone steps up to a lovely view of Kyoto.
At the bright-orange-painted Chinese-style Heian Shrine, a little girl glorious in kimono is celebrating her seventh birthday with proud parents and grandparents; apparently, this is traditionally done on the third, fifth and seventh birthday.
Nijo Castle is a highlight of Kyoto. In the reception rooms of the stunning palace within its fortress walls are exquisite murals and tableaux of the shogun, with his female attendants or receiving the homage of feudal lords. We enjoy its “nightingale floors”, specially constructed so as to squeak and chirrup under the weight of a tiptoeing ninja spy, and evidence of the shogun’s paranoia.
Arts and Crafts
Also a walk from our hotel, the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts has extensive displays of kimono-dyeing, fan-making, stone lantern-carving, Buddha altar-gilding, pottery glazing and other skills indispensable to the creature comforts of the shoguns of yore.
For more cultural immersion and souvenir shopping, head for Nishijin Textile Centre. One venerable craftsman hand-weaves his gorgeous versions of famous traditional paintings; each one takes a year to complete. And, half-a-dozen times a day, you can watch a charming, 15-minute fashion show featuring a series of exquisitely hand-woven kimonos.
After dark is the time to visit Hanamikoji Gion Kobi and Gion Shinbashi, genuine working geisha districts. Miya-san explains the signs nailed next to the doors of the traditional geisha houses: licence plates, the names of the geishas past and present, and other vital statistics. Entrance to them, or to the Ichiriki Tea House or Geisha Party House, is strictly by invitation only. She also points out a couple of geisha schools, which display their curricula on signs at the front.
All day, we’ve seen plenty of Japanese tourists dressed in kimonos hired for the day, but tonight we’re delighted to almost bump into just one apprentice geisha, or maiko, whose three-inch geita clatter along the cobbled lane as she hurries along.
Where to Stay
Our choice of The Westin Miyako Kyoto, a two-minute walk from Keage Station, proved a perfect complement to Kyoto’s cultural attractions. In a country where small hotel bedrooms are the norm, our spacious Superior King is the exception.
This is a huge, rambling hotel with great facilities, including a gym and an indoor and outdoor lap pool with a wonderfully bubbly spa bath; a variety of restaurants and bars.
Best of all, behind The Westin Miyako’s main edifice is its Kasui-en traditional Japanese guesthouse. Most visitors to Kyoto fancy the idea of spending at least one night in traditional style and this has to be the most painless way. We did it on our last night.
The bird trail and sanctuary that starts next to Kasui-en guesthouse is an 850-metre loop around the mountain that forms the backdrop to the hotel. I have it and the view to myself, and it’s delightful.
When to Visit:
Spring cherry-blossom time is the favourite season for visiting Japan; the red-and-yellow maple leaves of Autumn make November a close second. Our late-October trip was just too early for the full glory, but in retrospect that was perhaps a good thing: popular sites were less crowded – apart from the continuous stream of school groups who visit Kyoto to learn about their cultural heritage.
It’s an 80-minute train trip to Kyoto Station from Osaka’s Kansai Airport, or – if you’re coming from Tokyo – take the high-speed Shinkansen train from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station, which leaves at frequent intervals. It’s so much more convenient than flying! Treat yourself to a pre-booked seat in a super-comfortable first class Green Car; 18,000 yen (about S$300) per person for a trip that takes about two hours and 10 minutes.
Country Holidays* for travel arrangements in Japan, including guides. www.countryholidays.com.sg
The Westin Miyako Kyoto*
The author was hosted by both Country Holidays and The Westin Miyako Kyoto.