Kyoto was the flourishing capital of Japan for a thousand years before Tokyo took its crown, and yet it has refused to bow its cultural importance to the frantic tempo of the modern world. The classicism of the city, with its museums, traditional restaurants and temples is magnified by a new wave of chic galleries, packed micro-bars, and innovative start-ups.
It is, simply put, well worth a visit.
If you have the time, exquisite Kyoto is best seen slow; after all, it is considered to be one of the most romantic cities in the world. I, for worse rather than better, only had a long weekend in early May to to immerse myself in the old-world mystique of the city. My ephemeral affair with Kyoto was a caffeine-fueled passionate high that left me wanting more – though perhaps, the nature of Kyoto is such that it would leave even its natives yearning for its embrace.
What burns bright in my mind about Kyoto now that I’m back scribbling away in my handkerchief-sized studio in Korea its feel. Originally founded in 794, Kyoto has existed over a millenia in a swiftly-changing world, but yet it retains its quintessential, vintage charm. Perhaps it’s simply its age, but Kyoto seems to move at a different pace than the rest of the world. It forced me to slow down from my normally somewhat frenzied lifestyle in order to take it in. It’s a city which demands your attention at its fullest, which is easy to give as Kyoto is, as they say, a beauty.
The architecture – and perhaps more importantly, the interwoven nature – of Kyoto is nearly as well-known as its sister city Paris’s is in the West. The glittering gold temple Kinkaku-ji, the bright orange gates of Fushimi Inari which snakes seemingly endlessly up a mountain to a sacred temple, the lush green bamboo of Arashiyama, the traditional houses bordering the stream in Gion where geishas walked, and a plethora of Shinto temples dotting the city are all enduring Kyoto emblems. Despite its traditional initial appearance – and stereotypes – Kyoto’s cityscape is as fluid as the Katsura River which flows through it: stunning contemporary buildings cohabitate peacefully alongside their venerable counterparts.
If one goes to Japan, one must, of course, eat.
I am perhaps the antithesis of a picky eater. When traveling, I fully believe that tasting is one of the most important things one must do, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Food – both its preparation and consumption – can tell one an incredible amount about a culture. It’s not only about what’s available, but also, what’s important.
Japan’s reputation for its cuisine precedes it, though in the West, Japanese cuisine is often tragically limited to sushi (which is often westernized for the consumer’s palate), instant ramen, and cheesy hibachi grills. Kyoto, especially, offers a rich culinary tradition. Whether you seek a cozy, inexpensive neighborhood sashimi joint or the meal of a lifetime at a Michelin-starred restaurant, every establishment prides itself both preparation and presentation of fresh, quality ingredients. Perhaps the epitome of tasting Kyoto would be to have kaiseki ryori, a coursed dinner spotlighting fresh, local ingredients. Many travelers – such as myself – have enjoyed such a meal whilst staying at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel which I’ll write more about soon), though there are, of course, restaurants which specialize in kaiseki ryori alone.
As I biked through the crowded streets of Kyoto towards the train that would begin my journey back to my current home in Korea, flashes of color caught my eye: women in kimonos, bright neon signs advertising cheap grub, crowds of tourists jostling shoulders with locals as they both take in what this spectacular city has to offer. If you ever get the chance, join them: chances are, you’ll discover something new for yourself in a city spanning millenia.