Formerly the country’s capital and relatively untouched by war, Kyoto is said to be one of Japan’s most well-preserved cities.
Historically speaking, Kyoto has over 2,000 notable landmarks, so I knew I had a lot of ground to cover. In order to visit as many sites as possible, I purchased a bus pass with my friend Chenyi to tour some of the most beautiful temples and shrines. 😀
First up was Golden Pavilion- formerly a villa for an important military dictator, it has recently been converted into a Zen Buddhist temple.
Even the entry ticket was pretty. Definitely going to frame it. 😉
Each floor of the temple represents a different architectural style: shinden, samurai, and zen.
Quite possibly one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen.
The top two tiers of the temple serve as shrines, housing sacred Buddhist antiques, which is why they are covered in shimmering gold leaf. The temple is simply stunning from every angle.
The Japanese garden extending from the pavilion exudes such elegance, with great attention to detail, from the pruned evergreens to the pristine pond. Almost screensaver worthy. 😉
In between temples, we passed by street vendors and grabbed some tasty food-on-a-stick.
Tempura battered fish ball with seasoned cod roe
Loving the fresh cabbage bouquets ❤
The next site was Fushimi Inari Taisha- Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the God of rice, as well as, his messenger, the fox.
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Cleansing our hands before enteringFushimi Inari Taisha is an immense complex of vibrant orange temples, pagodas and torii gates. There are many ways to wish for good fortune at the shrine, including writing wishes on prayer plaques.
Women in kimono writing wishes on plaques
You can also boost your luck by lifting this heavy pillar. Note the look of agony on my face. Hah.
Maybe I’ll just fill out a plaque. 😛
The surrounding mountainous area was simply stunning, with eye-catching orange temples strewn amongst the vast hills of deep-colored evergreens.
The path leading up the Shinto shrine is made of over 10,000 torii gates. Miraculously, each one of the torii gates has been donated by individual organizations, in hopes of receiving continued success in their business. If you can read Japanese, you’ll be able to decipher the company names inscribed on each gate. Old man drawing in the forest. So beautiful! 😀
After passing the torii gates, visitors can continue following the path up to Mt. Inari. The path was lined with both towering pine trees and stalks of bamboo.
Apparently, it can take 3-4 hours to reach the mountain, so we decided to head back and continue exploring more sites.
Kiyomizu-dera – an impressive Buddhist temple constructed without using a single nail! The main deck was built using Japanese Zelkova pillars and cypress boards, and offers a fantastic city viewpoint. You can even see Kyoto Tower in the distance.
Next door to the temple is the well-preserved Sannen-zaka neighborhood.
Sannen-zaka Historic Neighborhood
Many women come here for a maiko makeover, to experience the process of becoming a geisha.
Afterwards, we headed to a local noodle joint for a hearty bowl of Japanese ramen noodles. 😀
Chicken ramen with bamboo, egg, seaweed and soy
On Day 2, we ventured out to a few more temples and then took an educational course in tea making.
Chion-in- 17th century Buddhist temple whose ‘sanmon’ or main gate is the largest surviving structure of its kind in Japan.
Ryōzen Kannon- 20th century war memorial commemorating soldiers of WWII.
Higashi Honganji Temple To-ji Temple- Japan’s largest pagoda, standing almost 200 feet tall.
Nijo Castle- originally a villa for a 17th military dictator, then an imperial palace, and finally donated as a historic site.
Important note: many historic sites and museums are closed from December 26th until January 4th for the holiday, which I sadly learned after arrival. Still pretty to admire from afar. 🙂
Anyway, we eventually made our way back to Sannen-zaka for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Passing by shops with origami cranes and lucky cats along the way
Camellia: Matcha Tea Ceremony
We organized the tea ceremony at Camellia, with our host Asuka, who had received professional training in art of Japanese tea ceremony, and now provides educational courses and demonstrations for visitors.
Here she is wearing a traditional silk kimono given to her by her grandfather.
We learned from Asuka about matcha tea, whose leaves are picked when young and ground into a fine powder.
Matcha tea leaves in Kyoto are found in Uji. The taste is light and bitter. Matcha leaves in Eastern Japan have a much sweeter taste. Matcha is originally from China and was brought here about 800 years ago for medicinal purposes, then later used by monks and samurai men for its energizing effects.
Preparing matcha tea can be as simple as adding powder to hot water, but the act of a tea ceremony is a true art form. 😀
The tradition began over 400 years ago and involves certain steps and utensils.
To begin, water is heated in a cast iron Japanese rice cooker, while a traditional bamboo whisk and spoon are laid out alongside a ceramic dish and canister. The ceramic bowl designs change depending upon the season.
Matcha has no added sweetener, so people consume this sugar jelly filled with lemon zest beforehand as a sweet amuse–bouche. 🙂
After preparing the utensils, the bowl is cleaned and warmed with water and a silk cloth, then matcha is added using a bamboo spoon along with an additional pour of boiling water. The two ingredients are whisked back and forth vigorously until a nice froth is formed, like a cappuccino. 🙂During the demonstration, Asuka moved so slowly, with such elegance, lifting the ladle from the pot and letting individual drops of water drip into the bowl. We sat in absolute silence, listening only to the sounds of the steaming water, almost in a trance as we watched the ceremony unfold.
Traditionally at a tea ceremony, regardless of the number of guests, one bowl of tea is prepared at a time. Truly fascinating considered the rushed lifestyle we now live. The four elements of the tea ceremony are harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. Just beautiful! 😀
Taking turns, drinking our bowl of tea. 🙂The bowl is always grasped using both hands, with the floral design facing outwards for all to admire. We ended the ceremony by preparing our own cup of matcha to demonstrate what we had learned. It was a very peaceful environment, and I felt like I left understanding more about Japanese culture and tradition. Highly recommended. 🙂
After the tea ceremony, I was totally ‘templed’ out and my friend Chenyi had to take a train to Osaka. I spent the evening in the Gion district at a standing room only bar sipping beer with a British man from my hostel, who had spent the last three months training martial arts in the Shandong province of China. The joys of traveling. You never know who you’ll meet. 🙂
On that note, my last day in Kyoto was spent wandering around.Shiba Inus everywhere. 🙂 Unique architecture and public restroom. 😉 I enjoy slow travel, and want to get to know a place and its people. Not just snap a bunch of pictures.
I feel like it was much easier for me in Mexico, since I spoke ‘OK’ Spanish, but I was struggling here, since I only know the greeting, ‘konnichiwa.’ That can only get you so far! Hah. 😛
As luck would have it today, some Japanese guy approached me, and asked if he could practice his English. His name was Matsaharu, and he was studying Chinese history at the University nearby. He had spent time in San Francisco and his English pronunciation was fantastic, although he asked for clarification on words like ‘women’ and ‘thesis.’ We spent an hour or so walking through the market, talking about Japanese produce and his hobbies.
He loves playing baseball and he’s originally from Kobe. He’s studying The Three Kingdoms period in China, and after our walk, he was off to the library to continue studying. What a nice guy! 🙂After that wonderful chat, I continued to walk through the Nishiki Market to search for a few local bites.
The market offered plenty of yummy samples, like pickled veg. My favorite! 😀 The highlights for me were the nutty sesame seeds and warm roasted chestnuts. Perfect on this chilly day!The produce here is so beautiful, with great attention to detail, as each vegetable is purposefully laid out, or hand-carved into intricate designs.Making individual cakes, filled with sweet bean
After walking the market, I decided to get a more substantial late lunch.
My friend Chenyi from Munich is a big foodie, and she had recommended that I try to a local dish called Okonomiyaki. I found a place in Pontocho Alley called Issen Yoshoku and decided to give it a try.
Okonomiyaki is a savory crepe, filled with egg and a variety of local ingredients.In this restaurant, their speciality included scallions, chikuwa(fish), konjac root, ginger, wagyu beef, all topped with a worcestershire-style bbq sauce.
Phenomenal! 😀Overall, Kyoto has really shown me a new side of Japan, in contrast to the chaos of Tokyo. Everything here seems so beautifully simple, with great effort spent perfecting each individual detail.
From the immaculate tranquil gardens to the fine art of drinking tea, each process and element of nature seems appreciated and admired.
What an exquisite and complex city, filled with many layers of history and culture.
Now tonight I’m off to Tokyo to ring in the New Year, before heading back to Thailand.
I have a few more must-dos on my list in Japan. Looking forward to sharing it all with you real soon. Until then! Enjoy your week! 😀