Visiting the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto, from classic temples to street markets.
KYOTO, Japan — Kyoto is a place that embodies everything I love about Japan, its serene ancient beauty mixed with already-tomorrow modernity.
Many visitors arrive on the platypus-nosed Nozomi bullet train from Tokyo. The countryside in between is a blur and often blocked by walls to keep the roar of the train away from locals. Across the Kanto plain, from Tokyo to Yokohama, Nagoya, the flatlands are filled from horizon to horizon with low buildings and occasional skyscrapers. It is a dense world. Attendants with a food cart come by. I purchase a bento box — unagi, eel. The smoking car is packed — a sign that Japan still loves to puff.
The modern world doesn’t stop at Kyoto’s door. Visitors disembark into Japan Rail Kyoto Station, one of the world’s most modern, a seven-story erector set world that’s part transportation hub and part shopping mall. It’s connected to two huge shopping arcades, The Cube and Porta, packed with restaurants for every taste. Not only traditional udon, katsu, ramen and sushi, but also Subway, Starbucks, Mister Doughnut and Cafe du Monde, a transplant from New Orleans.
Many visitors like to get away from the train station as soon as possible and out toward the temples to the north and east. But I suggest visitors linger. This helps set up the juxtaposition from new to old that makes Kyoto so special. Stay the night at Granvia, a sleek boutique hotel that feels transplanted from New York. Rooms are large (and come with a discount if you have a Japan Rail Pass). They look out at the bullet trains — called shinkansen — coming and going below. Visit the malls and eat in a subterranean restaurant. Some visitors will stay the entire trip to Kyoto at the Granvia because they can get so much more hotel room for their yen than if they stay in traditional ryokan guesthouses in the older districts.
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So far, Kyoto seems nothing like its ancient image. That comes when visitors head out toward the temple districts. Because my trips are usually short, I stay at a hotel instead of a guesthouse. When I can afford it, my favorite is the Hyatt, which fuses Japanese and Scandinavian influences of wood and soft lighting into a hotel that is modern but not out of place in the old quarters. It’s across the street from the Kyoto National Museum and next door to the Sanjusangendo Temple, where the great annual archery contest is held in January. The temple is famous for 1,000 carved cypress wood statues covered in gold leaf of Kannon Bosatsu, the goddess of mercy. They surround a large statue of Kannon. These are protected by 30 other statues, which include deities over the wind and thunder.
Stroll the streets
After seeing the museum and temple, my favorite thing to do is stroll the streets. Kyoto was spared the bombing of World War II, so it is still a city of tiny stores. Within five blocks going down the river are a shop selling secondhand shoes, another selling knock-off but nice samurai swords for about $100, a Kmart, a store selling traditional sweets, two small wood-frame restaurants, a bicycle-repair shop and a McDonald’s.
There are so many temples in Kyoto that it is impossible to see them all in a two- or three-day trip. I like the Chion-in temple, resplendent with its dozens of cherry blossoms that bloom in the spring.
Nearly every visitor to Kyoto heads to Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It’s a rare place in the world where even amid the crowds there is an air of serenity. I’m drawn to the temple not only for its beauty, but also for its story. Originally built in 1398 by the shogun Yoshimitsu as a pleasure home, he ordered it turned into a temple upon his death. But the pavilion visitors see today was built in the 1950s to replace the original, which was burned down by a crazed monk. I first heard about the place during college when I read a story about the burning by the great avant-garde Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who committed hara-kiri, the traditional ritual suicide, when an ultranationalist coup d’etat he organized failed in 1970.
In rebuilding the temple, designers didn’t just replicate the original, but instead looked to the intent of the shogun. The original temple had a roof of gold. Its replacement is sheathed entirely in gold leaf. Even on a cloudy day it shimmers, the water of the small lake that surrounds it sparkling over the orange and white spotted koi fish. Above the temple are areas where visitors can have their fortune told.
About 100 yen ($1.20) buys amulets granting good health, good grades, release from tension, career advancement, a strong marriage or good luck in “traffic safety.” Candles for 50 yen with the same themes are bought and burned. Packets of three pieces of incense are sold for 30 yen. An offering can be given and a prayer made, then perhaps granted by the swinging of a large rope that, when done properly, sets off a gong high on the temple rim.
Metal bowls are set about the grounds and people throw coins to make wishes, the rare lucky shot ringing like a bell as the 100-yen piece rattles around the bowl. Most end up on the grass, rocks and gravel. For 300 yen, you can buy a wooden, painted plaque with various themes and have a message written on it — or write it yourself — and hang it on hooks outside the temple. Among the wishes I saw on my last trip were several in English, including “Stop Annoying My Parents.”
To the market
After a day at the temples, I like to head to Nishiki Market, a wonderful little world of inexpensive thrills in an expensive city. The narrow, covered arcade with stalls that sell everything — a variety of seaweed, dried fish with the heads still on, soy doughnuts, octopus balls, dozens of varieties of sake (the very best are cold), roasted coarse green tea, incense, candles, Hello Kitty dolls, kimonos, some kind of huge vegetable slathered in a brown paste, the traditional Kyoto gelatinous Warabi mochi bean cakes, kitchen utensils and daito, a kind of pickled radish.
There’s also a store selling military-themed clothes and surplus — much of it American. The military goods are reminders that Kyoto was the seat of the myth-based and often racially tinged supremacy policy underpinning the Japanese war effort in World War II. The professors of Kyoto University drew upon the traditions of the ancient city to promote the war as a way to purify the nation. Even in a place of harmony so peaceful, ideas of a different sort once held sway.
Just outside the market is the tiny canal along Kiyamachi-dori, with its small bridges. Some of the city’s most beautiful cherry blossoms hang over the water. Old men; female college students in their de rigueur black skirt, black jacket and white blouse; families with babies; and even the counterculture types stop to pose for pictures with this momentary blaze of white and pink.
When the sun begins to set is the time to head to the old section of Gion. This is the heart of the world of the geishas, who still work here, entertaining longtime clients in tiny private clubs where outsiders are not welcome without an introduction. But there is also recognition that this old world is of great value to Kyoto. So each evening at 7 and 9, a traditional show of dancing is put on at Gion Corner. Geishas and their apprentices, called maiko and differentiated by their long-sleeve blouses, put themselves briefly on display.
My favorite experience is to be strolling one of the alleys around 5 p.m. and see a geisha in full ensemble — white face, intricately folded and pinned hair, beautiful wrapped dress — and an assistant (sometimes inexplicably in conservative western business dress — perhaps the earliness of the hour) shuffle by. The tight dress and shoes creating the signature rapid, small steps. A moment that lasts not more than 15 seconds but is a window into a strange but lovely world.