View of the Kyoto Tower from our hotel.
The next day we woke up bright and early in order to arrive at the train station on time. We were heading off to Kyoto for a few days so that we could visit this city that was known for being a traditional, cultural hub. I had made this visit to Kyoto a priority while planning our trip to Japan after having read "Memoirs of a Geisha" and familiarizing myself with the sector of city in which much of the story took place, Gion. I researched Kyoto and found that a visit there would be necessary in order to gain a complete, balanced perspective of Japan instead of solely walking away with memories of Tokyo.
Hallway in the Granvia Kyoto that leads to restaurants.
I did not want to base my experience on just one facet of a country that is so complex. The excursion to Kyoto would provide me with a more complete picture of both urban and rural Japan, as well as a closer look into the struggle of modernity and technology with traditional and spiritual Japanese culture.
The bullet train (a.k.a. shinkansen) turned out to be quite impressive in terms of both comfort and speed. Even though it was the fastest train I have ever been on, I was still able to enjoy the view while looking out the window. We passed through many cities, most of them looking pretty industrialized, but we also passed some very beautiful sights including Mt. Fuji and several forested areas that looked almost magical because of the low-hanging mist that loomed between the trees. A food vendor passed by us in a cart, so we bought bento boxes and cereal bars for lunch, which were really tasty.
A Kimono-clad woman walking in a shopping center in Kyoto.
All in all, I really enjoyed the train ride. We purchased our ticket in the U.S. because as foreigners, we were eligible to purchase JR passes. This is a really good thing to buy if you are planning a trip to Japan because it allows unlimited use of JR trains for a certain time period, no matter how many cities you stop at! We bought a 7-day pass in San Francisco about a month before our trip and it cost us a little bit under $300 USD. We only used it for a roundtrip between Tokyo and Kyoto but if we had wanted to we could have traveled throughout the entire country during the 7 days permitted by our rail pass. Next time I go to Japan I am going to take full advantage of that.
As we got closer to Kyoto the landscape started changing, sort of flattening out. We passed a couple of rivers and several rice paddies with several Japanese people wading around in the knee-high water with pans and wearing triangular bamboo hats- this was exactly the way I had always imagined rural Japan to look like, so seeing this from the window of the shinkansen felt pretty surreal to me.
Kabuki Theater in Gion.
Then we passed what seemed to be an older, industrial area and before we knew it our train was slowing down. "So, THIS is Kyoto?", my sister turned and asked me as our train came to a stop. We were all kind of surprised at what we had seen from the train because we had always been under the impression that Kyoto would be very garden-like. This, on the other hand, kind of resembled an industrial wasteland. I later came to find that although Kyoto might appear to be a run-down, industrialized city that seemed to be stuck in the 1980s, there is still a whole other dimension to it. In fact, the way I had originally imagined Kyoto was not entirely incorrect. As a city, Kyoto definitely had a lot of character and mystique, perhaps due to its impressive history and the fact that it is a very important cultural landmark in Japan.
Cobblestone alley ways in Kyoto, a few blocks away from the main street in Gion.
It also had all of the gardens I thought it would have, perhaps even more! These gardens were often not in plain view, though. The beauty of Kyoto is something that may not be apparent at first, but that slowly unravels itself to you and leaves you filled with feelings of awe by the time you leave the city.
I will write more about this later, as well as:
1- We stayed in Kyoto for a couple of days. We saw geishas and hung out with other young tourists we met randomly in Gion and had a fun night of drinking and exploring the city at night. We also went to the Golden Pavillion, Nijo Castle and the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
2. We were able to experience the extremely impressive Todai'ji temple in Nara and the Kasuga Shrine. I also tried petting the deer in the infamous Deer Park, who seemed to be practically smothering all of the other tourists, but didnt like me for some reason. Oh well!!