I love Kyoto. For me it’s infinitely better than other cities in Japan, for example the ridiculously popular mega cities such as busy Tokyo with its skyscrapers, staggering amount of people – or the forever bustling Osaka where you get bothered by hawkers and where even the Japanese people seem somehow less Japanese than elsewhere in the country.
No, I am not impressed with its famous siblings, they hold no candle to Kyoto.
To be fair when I first arrived in Kyoto a couple of years back my first impression wasn’t much to talk about. Sitting in a bus trying to figure out where my guesthouse was located I looked outside and saw the same grey concrete buildings that plague the view in every Japanese city. It was a late afternoon when I arrived to my accommodation and since the museums, temples and other attractions were closed I pondered whether as a weary traveler I should just stay in. Luckily I decided to venture out despite my tiredness.
That’s when it started. I began falling in love with Kyoto. I reached Shijo Dori, the main street, as the evening was slowly taking over and the business men (and women) headed home crowding public transportation. I wandered aimlessly around the city streets taking in all the sounds, sights and smells. I felt intoxicated by what I can not describe in any other word other than the vibe of the city. I stumbled upon a traditional looking Japanese restaurant and ventured inside. My heart fluttered with joy and excitement as I realized it really was one of those old fashioned restaurants where you take off your shoes and sit down on cushions. This was my first week in Japan and the novelty of such things truly tickled my fancy.
After a wonderful dinner I ventured to the riverside and basked in the atmosphere of paper lanterns glowing their soft light in the ancient, narrow streets. I was feeling more content than before – or after – during my three week holiday in Japan.
So it probably is no surprise that I stayed in Kyoto longer than I had planned. And leaving the beautiful city was almost heart breaking: I was in love with the city and needed to return. Hence my holiday finished, I went back to China where I was at the time living and working and realizing that I absolutely needed to return to Japan I booked flights.
It wasn’t until some 6 months later that I returned to Kyoto but that time around my life was in my suitcase. I had desperately missed the local people’s subdued and polite manners, the incredible food, the gorgeous Kamogawa river, the fascinating Nijo Castle, the Imperial Palace’s gardens and everything I hadn’t even experienced yet.
My daily routine was, besides job hunting, exploring something new every day. Before moving to Kyoto I hadn’t realized that Kyoto has THOUSANDS of shrines and temples – no joke, there are at least 2000 according to estimates. So needless to say I never grew bored. One could easily dedicate a year in Kyoto for sightseeing and still not be done.
Did I get templed out, though? Yes, I did. I reached a point where I did not want to see another temple nor shrine as long as I lived. I over indulged. Luckily after what has been almost a year I have recovered and can wholeheartedly recommend temple hopping to visitors in Japan.
But what makes Kyoto special, then? It’s not the abundance of temples nor is it just the beauty of the green city that I find appealing, completely compelling. I get a kick out of walking around Gion, which was the hub of the geisha culture – not only in Kyoto but in all of Japan. I also adore the locals in Kyoto as for me they are the most Japanese people of all: shy, polite, traditional. I enjoyed taking the subway and often being seated next to a woman wearing a kimono on her way to work.
Kyoto is full of events and quirky places. One of my favorite events are the light shows the city organizes at the Nijo Castle, where lights are projected on the castle walls along with music that makes your skin tingle. During sakura, cherry blossom time, they also illuminate the beautiful castle garden and it’s transformed into a magical place.
And I feel like one can not talk of Kyoto without mentioning the ¥200 drink bars called The Moon Walk. For a small entrance fee of ¥500 you get to order any drink from a very varied drink list for only ¥200 each. That’s around $2 USD a pop. I have almost felt guilty indulging in the variety of their alcoholic beverages for such a measly sum charged. Just almost. If you are going to Kyoto I suggest you make one of The Moon Walk Bars a spot to visit.
All in all, I think if Kyoto was the only city a tourist visited during their time in Japan it would be time well spent. What is not to love?
Tragically I was forced to leave Kyoto due to not finding employment in the city. Living in Kyoto for two months was not nearly enough and I am ultimately planning my return, hopefully for the third and last time.