It is a mistake to think of Kyoto as a high-rise supercity like Tokyo or Osaka; this is a place of culture, tradition, and vibrant colour. Kyoto is filled with treasures – beautiful, peaceful, ancient places. Imagine geisha wandering through old quarters, escorting clients out of the cold and into warmly lit teahouses for fine dining. On the outskirts are soaring bamboo forests, whispering in the wind high above, dark and silent and filled with wonder on ground level. You might imagine a sunset spilling rays of light through the torii gates at Fushimi Inari, painting golden stripes on the stone steps, making the gates glow a rich vermillion. Or Kinkaku-ji, a temple in the middle of a lake and painted entirely in gold, its reflection dancing in the water.
Kyoto is hemmed in on three sides by green mountains and tall forests. To the south is the mega metropolis of Osaka, only about an hour away. Many beautiful sights are located on the fringes of Kyoto city, so they are both easy to access, and still feel far away (these special places, like Fushimi Inari and Arashiyama are coming up in future posts).
We left our Airbnb to explore on foot, starting in our suburb of cute, compact houses, and plenty of cyclists. The aim was to find Gion, home of Kyoto geisha culture. We passed by the city centre, busy shopping avenues and crowds and subway stations. As darkness fell, we found ourselves surrounded by glowing red lanterns along Pontocho, a long, narrow avenue lined with tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants. There were some geisha here, arm-in-arm with clients, enjoying the atmosphere of the city.
On the other side of the river was Gion, where we found more geisha still, realising that most of the kimonos we saw were tourists in costume (You could examine the material, or the makeup, but the easiest way to tell the difference? Look for the presence of a selfie stick)!
We wandered around and got lost, and then, we stopped suddenly. This was no ordinary street, and we were all alone on it. Cherry blossoms, wooden teahouses (illuminated and glowing through the windows, with people dining on tatami mats), immaculately sculpted gardens, weeping willows, a low vermillion fence, and a whispering canal trickling beside us. It is called Shirakawa Dori, often considered one of the most beautiful streets in the world.
For our dinner, we sat down at a sushi restaurant. Rather than the usual sushi train, this was a place with more talented chefs using huge knives to perfectly slice the salmon and unagi. An old chef prepared his sushi with great care, placing it not on a plate, but directly on the wooden bar in front of us, with a big glob of ginger.
With such an expensive dinner, we didn’t order a lot. So with plenty of room for dessert, we stopped at a stall selling Taiyaki, custard-filled cakes with a pancake-like batter, cooked golden brown in a fish-shaped mold. Within a minute, we finished them. We looked at each other, and read each other’s minds. Let’s go back for seconds!