While Tokyo has something for everyone, Kyoto was more my speed. I could've spent weeks browsing pottery shops, visiting some of their hundreds of temples, and eating my way through Nishiki Market and been a happy lady.
Kyoto, Japan's ancient city, was spared during World War II giving present day travelers a glimpse into the past. And for this reason, and many more, Kyoto feels much more like a tourist destination. If you want see all that Kyoto has to offer, start your day early and be ready to walk.
There are so many wonderful things to see and do in Kyoto but I think a good place to start the day is Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We were fortunate enough to stay nearby, but even if you're staying elsewhere in the city, this acts as a great starting point. We arrived in time to see the vibrant, autumn leaves decorate the city and surrounding mountains. The garden at Kiyomizu-dera was no exception. The temple was surrounded by the richest reds, oranges, and yellows. Even with all of the other tourists, the grounds were peaceful and quiet.
From Kiyomizu-dera, we walked down the main road leading up to the temple, Matsubara Dori, to visit some of the many pottery shops and food stands. I could spend hours looking at pottery--and I did. So many of the shops featured beautiful, handmade pieces, some of which came home with me. We made a lucky right turn and headed down a staircase towards Masuyacho. These pedestrian walkways are packed with tourists wearing kimono in search of an authentic Kyoto experience and lined with artisanal tea houses and incense makers. Almost in camouflage, a Starbucks stood in plain sight beneath a tile roof and wood siding. But this isn't like every other Starbucks in the world, it's the only one in the world with tatami mats for seating. The drinks and food were the same but it was interesting to see a big company try to blend into their surroundings. Even in the midst of hundreds of people, all enchanted by the side-street, I couldn't help but feel like a new part of history, a new part of the world was seeping into me.
Not far from Kiyomizu and Maruyama Park is Gion. The Gion neighborhood straddles the Kamo River. It's home to the Kyōto Minami-za, a kabuki theater, and many fantastic restaurants. But my favorite place to eat in Kyoto was, without question, Nishiki Market. The market, known as Kyoto's Kitchen, runs six blocks. For about a half-mile, we were surrounded by fresh seafood, pickled foods, wagyu beef, and the most vibrant fruits and vegetables I've ever seen. While in Kyoto, I fell in love with persimmons. Persimmons are a winter fruit that's about the size of a peach and tastes, in my opinion, like a peach crossed with a cantaloupe. They are delicious! I could've eaten them by the handful.
Reese and my dad enjoyed some of the freshest, and cheapest, sushi they had ever eaten but it came with a catch--they had to eat it at the fish stand. Some markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona have counters where patrons can eat their freshly ordered food. But at Nishiki, they were invited around the counter to eat at a small clearing on a table next to where they were preparing other cuts of fish. It was a different kind of ambiance.
Two of the mornings, we started our days a bit outside of the city. The first morning we headed east to Arashiyama Park, or the bamboo forest. By 9am the town around the park was already filled with people. Walking along the path, surrounded by bamboo stalks was incredible but in my opinion there are two spots along the way that are far more incredible--the Ōkōchi Sansō Garden and Tenryuji Temple.
The Ōkōchi Sansō Garden was built by a silent film actor in the 1930s and 40s. Nestled on the side of Mt. Ogura, this villa and tea house are privy to sweeping views of Kyoto and has some of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen. The forests around us were bursting with reds and yellows and oranges as if it were on fire. It was the most peaceful fire I have ever witnessed.
On the way back down, we stopped at Tenryuji Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site. If I stood in the right places (like I did for the photo above) this was one of the most serene places we stopped at on our trip. However, behind me were thousands of other eager visitors clamoring to see the vivid trees reflected on the lake. Despite volume of tourists, I highly recommend visiting.
After walking through the bamboo, and tea houses, and temples, we headed to Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. Lining the fence around the koi-filled pond were bus-loads upon bus-loads of tour groups fighting for space to see the gold-leaf covered structure. Patience is a virtue when one wants calm photos (that's how the saying goes).
By mid-day we were back to city center visiting Nijō Castle, the residence of the last shōgun. Walking around the main building we saw paintings on the shoji screens and listened to the tweets of the faux nightingales summoned by each step visitors made. In order to prevent covert attacks, they built the floors in such a way that each step someone takes, the floors squeak to sound like a bird, warning occupants of unwanted visitors. With all of the tourists walking around, it sounded like a flock of nightingales were following us around the palace halls.
The second morning we headed south to the Fushimi Inari Trail, dedicated to the god Inari--god of foxes, sake, tea, and fertility. Though it is clearly listed at the top of the Wikipedia page that this trail goes up a mountain, we went here under the recommendation of several people and did very little follow up research. I absolutely echo their recommendation--it was a spectacular way to start the day. Though it's safe to say that none of us were as prepared as we should've been to go on a wee hike that morning. The hike takes about 2 hours (despite all the signs saying it's 20 minutes to the top) and is lined with orange Torii gates the entire way.
By the time we were leaving Kyoto, I couldn't get enough. I'd fallen in love with a new city for its old-world charm. For me, there will always be a beautiful balance between the ancient and modern coming together.
If I'm being honest, I was nervous about Tokyo. I don't like grocery shopping during peak hours because it feels like I have no space to process what's going on around me. As someone who's never lived in a city with over a million people, the thought of being in one that's 20 million strong was daunting. I was nervous about not knowing cultural traditions (and things that might be considered disrespectful). I was concerned about hitting a point of sensory overload in markets and neighborhoods that had countless bright signs in a language I can't read in a city I'd never been to before.
But Tokyo didn't end up being all that I was nervous about. Don't get me wrong--Shinjuku and The Robot Restaurant heightened any anxiety that I thought had been managed. But I did okay. I even enjoyed myself. Tokyo is a multi-faceted city. In many ways, it felt like any other international metropolitan city. Then you'd turn a corner and knew you couldn't be anywhere else but Tokyo.
For starters, Tokyo is organized unlike any other city I've lived in or visited. If you need anything, you go to the corresponding district. Need a book? Go to Jinbōchō, home to 160+ bookstores. Need a camera? Television? Obscure electronic part? Head over to Akihabara and get lost in one of the many humungous electronics stores. We went to Yodobashi Camera. Don't let the name fool you--only one corner of one floor (out of eight) was dedicated to cameras. It was heaven. I've been debating what kind of camera I'd eventually like to upgrade to and I got to try out all of my prospects and all of the lenses I've had my eyes on. It was magical. But on that same floor were designer handbags, high end pens, cosmetics, scrapbooking materials, kitchen gadgets, and hair styling products. There was not an inch of exposed wall. Each shelf was stocked and well organized even though it looked like a Black-Friday spectacle. We didn't even make it to the TV floor.
One of the things that I loved about Japan is that everything was art--from everyday, utilitarian items to the niche interests, it seemed that everything was made with the intention to be consumed as art. At Meiji Shrine, sake barrels were intricately painted and displayed. Manhole covers were casted with illustrated scenes of their purpose. Wrapping cloths were folded around gifts as if they were paper origami. Everything seemed to have a purpose and an intent to delight.
There was no better display of this than when we went to Roppongi Robataya, a robatayaki (meaning fire-side cooking) restaurant. From the moment we walked through the front door our eyes were greeted with a colorful array of fresh vegetables, meats, and seafood (including a tank of still-swimming tiger prawns and abalone). Two chefs knelt in front of their charcoal grills and made each dish to order. This was not a line kitchen--each chef knew how to prepare, cook, and plate each dish masterfully, treating every ingredient with respect. From start to finish, each bite was delicately seasoned to heighten the true flavors of the main ingredients. If you have a few hours in your schedule and some room in your budget, please do not leave Tokyo without eating here.
I'm not an overly adventurous eater but in Japan I pushed past my comfort zones. For me, Robataya was not only an artful culinary experience, but the start of me trying new things. It felt wrong to travel all that way and not taste things that were of such significance. That night I tried raw tuna, tiger prawn, lotus root, and mochi for the first time, all of which I would eat again. The seafood was a particularly big feat for me as I do not like fish.
For an entirely different experience, I give you The Robot Restaurant. After Reese and I went, people asked if we liked it, which is usually a yes or no question. But neither answer felt sufficient. There was too much to take in to just like it or not. Instead I've decided that I experienced nothing else like it and it will forever be engrained in my memory. It felt like a live-action version Dance Dance Revolution combined with a story line from the cartoons I used to watch as a kid. For 90 minutes colored lights flashed and electronic music filled the air while the characters of the show danced and interacted with the animatronic robots.
The Robot Restaurant is filled with 99% tourists, however I still think it's worth going. While they serve food, book your show before or after dinner and enjoy some drinks instead. There's too much good food in Tokyo to waste a meal here.
If you're interested in visiting shrines or temples, make sure you plan a trip down to Kyoto (there are hundreds). But we visited a few in Tokyo as well. Meiji Shrine and Sensō-ji Temple are the two larger spiritual monuments in the city that we visited. But my personal favorite was Hie Shrine in Akasaka. There's a large white gate that you can enter through, or if you walk north for a bit, you will find a smaller staircase lined with Torii gates. For a couple minutes, it didn't feel like I was standing in the center of a giant city.
Planning a trip to Tokyo?
If you're reading my blog, this post is not the first, but it is the inaugural post of Pen & Lens Collective.
A few months ago I was notified that my previous domain was going to expire. While I still wanted a personal site, I had no desire to renew under that domain name. In the two years that I ran the site the way I curated my thoughts and photos changed.
I had two options - I could rebuild the site with the content as it stood and rebrand or start from scratch. Being a glutton for creative punishment, I chose the latter.
Even if my readership remains an intimate group, I wanted a site that reflected the things I've learned over the past few years. I spent several years working in marketing - the least I could do is create a site map that made sense for the user experience I wanted. Not to mention all of the life lessons I've collected at the same time.
What I learned during my time as a marketer is what inspired this change. That coupled with my constant mission to keep my life relatively clutter-free, I wanted to simplify things. Gone are the attempts at posting daily adventures while I'm traveling (sorry, Dad). No longer will I set goals for myself based on quantity over quality. Though I know Google's algorithms favor frequent post, that's not my end game.
Thoughtful content - that's what this site is about. Be it my writing or photography, I want to put thoughtful content into the world.
So to that end, I made some changes.
For the most part, I've kept my archived blogs as is. Blogs I kept aren't necessarily evergreen and forever relevant; they're just a little more thoughtful and reflective rather than ranting and reactionary. The biggest updates made were to my travel posts. Over time, the blog style of mine that changed the most was how I talked about my adventures. Somewhere in 2016 the current style began to take shape and I really found my groove in the summer of 2017.
Even how I approach writing blogs like this one have changed. Since I work better with deadlines, I used to set them for myself with every blog. But they felt rushed and offered little insight or perspective. I wrote this over several weeks as I redesigned the website. When an idea crystalized and I thought it was important to share, then I added it in (or edited something out).
Photos are organized in a similar fashion, by geographic regions, however I've designed it so only one photo is consumed any given moment. One of the things I've enjoyed about this redesign is that it forced me to go through my collection of work and see how my creative eye has changed over the last ten years. Even though my older photos might not be up to the same creative standard I set for myself these days, they hold some of my favorite memories.
Some things to look out for:
All that being said, please peruse and enjoy!
I've taken photography classes since I was in high school. And I was interested in photography long before that. Let's say I've been shooting for 15 years, all of them amateur at best.
For a while, my high school courses were the only formal training I had. Easily, those were one of the more useful high school classes I took. I use that information on a daily basis. Whether I'm shooting or designing something at work, I use skills I gained from photography class every day.
One of the most important skills photography taught me often has nothing to do with photography at all. It taught me to look back. In the context of photography, they're specifically talking about the act of turning around to see the image that is behind you. There might be two sides to any story but there are many sides to any photograph.
This concept of looking back is one I try to apply to my entire life. It's a concept of self-reflection.
Thinking back now I, ironically, don't remember how they taught us to get in the habit of doing this. I just know it stuck and most of my best work has been done when I remember to look back. Whether I'm looking back at my writing and making my red pen do a lot of work or figuring out how I could've handled a particular situation better, I credit this photography habit.
Even if you're not trying to capture the perfect moment through the lens of your camera, take time each day to look back. I find this especially useful when it feels like I'm stuck in tunnel vision and not actually taking in what's going on around me.
When's the last time you looked back?