There are over 1600 temples in Kyoto alone. Add a couple of castles, historical neighborhoods, a vibrant shopping scene, and you’ve got years worth of adventure packed inside one city. We didn’t have time to visit all the places we noted on our to-go list, but here are some of the things we did visit and fell in love with.
In the olden days, Gion was the heart of Japan. Imagine this scene: royal ladies walked down the street with their entourage, face hidden under pastel paper umbrellas. Merchants lugged their carts around, heaving from the weight of their ceramic bowls, hand-painted fans and pungent leather. Samurais walked with their heads held high, one hand ready at the base of their katana, eyes scanning the horizon for any trouble. And geishas, too many to count, roamed the streets: they departed from the teahouses in early mornings, ran errands in the afternoons and entertained patrons at night.
For those who are not familiar with the term, a geisha is a female entertainer well-versed in various art forms, including dancing, music, games and conversation. Some offered sexual services but most acted as hostesses or entertained at social gatherings. Gion is one of the most famous geisha districts in Japan and the tradition persists today; many tourists visit Gion hoping to catch a glimpse of a geiko (a geisha in Kyoto dialect) or a maiko (a geisha apprentice).
Shirakawa Canal is located within Gion, lined by willow trees, upscale restaurants and teahouses overlooking the canal. Early in the morning, it is quiet and sleepy. We snapped plenty of pictures that, to us, are reminiscent of the atmosphere in olden Japan. Consider some of our photos below and tell us whether you agree or not!
Kinkaku-Ji Temple is, in our opinion, the greatest sight in all of Kyoto. The temple, originally built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for the emperor, shimmered bright gold in the early morning sun. Its reflection on the water was undisturbed, save for the occasional ripple from an adventurous stork. Along the street were little stone bowls where visitors threw coins…legend had it that if one managed to get a coin inside the bowl, one would be awarded blessings.
It was crowded but at the end of our visit we rested at the teahouse. We had very bitter matcha paired with crumbly sugar cookies, creating a perfect combination that teased our taste buds and left us wanting for more.
Our only advice: do not go to Nijo Castle one day after the New Year. While we had the chance to explore the garden and read about the fascinating symbolism in their architecture, the castle was closed to the public. We didn’t get to see with our own eyes the home of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo period, with its beautiful painted ceilings and sliding doors.
We took our favorite picture in Kyoto (not counting our day trips outside the city) in Nijo Castle, on an elevated platform overlooking the entire complex.
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