By Gabriel Phillips
What strikes you first about entering Kyoto is how short it is compared to the rest of Japan. When I entered the Shinkansen, I was with my family in Tokyo station surrounded by the designer skyscrapers that dominate the central Tokyo skyline. Just over 2 hours later, I was greeted with an impeccable blue sky that was determined to show off how pretty Kyoto was to the world.
While Tokyo is a very international city, you get the impression that Kyoto is very much a tourist city, with the high streets dominated with large, international chain stores that you could place in any capital city of the world. With that, large groups of tourists flock in and out of the stores, determined to make use of the tax-free discounts and rental kimono shops. The real beauty of Kyoto can be found by ignoring the department stores and finding the tiny alleyway shops that stock elaborate fans, kimonos and artisanal treasures. There, you meet the master craftsman whose eyes possess a passion for their work which light up when you ask them about it.
Despite threatening to cheapen the Kyoto experience, it still reaps wondrous benefits. For the benefit of my parents and brother, signs and pamphlets are printed in all the needed languages, giving you the ability to understand the significance of the spots that you visit, while various establishments actively encourage more people to come. For me, it ranged from the yakisoba restaurant on Christmas Day that insisted on each member of my family, the only restaurant’s patrons, on standing behind the grill for commemorative photos with them, while the owner of a barbershop insisted on chatting to my father about European history. If you look past the initial tourist traps and glorified fancy dress shops, you can find some genuine jewels that make the experience worthwhile.
Additionally, the expat scene is thriving, providing a fascinating niche that sets Kyoto apart from most of Japan. Sake Bar Yoramu is run by an Israeli expat who gives you a whirlwind tour of the finer points of sake, acting as a superb guide who explains how to drink and understand sake as an expert would, while serving traditional Jewish soul food. As a North Londoner living in Japan for almost a year, I don’t think I’ve ever been relieved to taste such good baba ganoush.
Kyoto has always been a conflicted place for me. In its defence, the first time it I visited was over 10 years ago when I was 11 and I barely understood Japanese food past the point of sushi, chicken katsu and rice. Back then, the consumer led internet of food blogs and tourism guides were still in its infancy and that was reflected by an inability to find a restaurant that was willing to accommodate my family. 10 years later, parts of Kyoto still maintain a general unwillingness to interact with foreigners even if they speak Japanese. Whether this is due to wariness of loud, foreign tourists or general hostility I will never know. The thought of going into Kyoto restaurants without a reservation still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
Todaiji in Nara
Nara serves a tranquil reprieve from the worst of Kyoto’s busyness. Kyoto is the city of ancient treasures, but Nara is where you can actually enjoy them while seeking some peace of mind. Wandering among the deer, you get the sense that they are bolder and braver than you give these herbivores credit for. While you can buy stacks of biscuits to feed them for about 100 yen from vendors across the city, you run the risk of being nibbled or even head-butted by the ferocious creatures. That being said, they are inexplicably cute while doing so and make for a fantastic story whenever you recount your visit. This merely adds to the adventures of Nara, whose labyrinthine network of alleys lead to an impressive hill that dominates the network of temples that seek to educate you both spiritually and physically, as you climb the imposing hills to view small and large temples that are guarded by the monks who look after Japan’s legacy.
Many people have written books and made various travel movies just about Kyoto and Nara and it is clear that they are justified in doing so. The buildings are masterfully preserved that lend to your imagination what they must have looked like almost a thousand years before. Despite my winter visit, I wasn’t lucky enough to see Kyoto or Nara in the snow. Regardless, the blazing sunlight provided a perfect backdrop to the golden walls of Kinkakuji which reflect off the surface of the lake to form a beautiful mirage of light and colours.
As a rule, I’m not overly appreciative of temples. While obviously I understand their importance, being in Japan has somehow nullified my wonder about them. Too much of a good thing is sometimes a problem. Kyoto and Nara solve all that. Whatever preconceptions you may have about Japan’s lore and history are smashed when you visit. Journeying through the essence of Japan’s history and being takes you to another time and place, where the modern world is somehow irrelevant, lacking in the sophistication of most often the simplest things and nature that surround it. Looking at the wonders of the old world, it makes you wonder. If a temple or statue can stand for a thousand years, what else can mankind do?
Kasuga Taisha in Nara
Daibutsu at Todaiji