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.