Whilst Kyoto is a lot smaller than Tokyo (9th biggest in Japan), it is a significant player in Japan. A tourist mecca, it is the capital of the Kansai prefecture and combined with the nearby Osaka and Kobe forms a regional powerhouse.
It is also beautiful, nestling in a valley surrounded by green and verdant mountains. A combination of all of these factors plus the Sakura season made for an busy city with the tourist areas mobbed. Kyoto’s charms shone through, despite the hustle and bustle.
As a David Bowie fan, Kyoto has a special interest too. The “”Heroes”” track “Moss Garden” was inspired by Saiho-Ji temple. Bowie loved the city and referenced it again in “Move On” from his “Lodger” LP, when he:
Spent some time in old Kyoto, sleeping on the matted ground
He even shot an advert there for Crystal Jun Rock shochu, a distilled spirit made from potatoes. The music was used for “Crystal Japan” released as a b-side to “Scary Monsters”.
Bowie spent Christmas there in 1978, almost moved there in 1979 and honeymooned there with Iman. He was a serious Japanophile, creating a zen garden at his Mustique holiday getaway with Japanese kabuki theatre influencing the Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane era. Eventually he settled in Manhattan and the rest is history. The photos below are from his visit and taken by his frequent collaborator Masayoshi Sukita.
Our first day was spent getting our local bearings. Kyoto is famed for its temples and bit like Thailand, call me spiritually bereft, we found it is easy to get overwhelmed and get “templed out”. Therefore with a teenage daughter along for the trip, we erred on the side of caution in terms of the number of temples we visited.
We headed up the hill to Kiyomizu-dera. The shrine complex was built in 778 and you can sense the history as you walk around. The main building is perched dramatically on the edge of a hillside, surrounded by smaller temples and an elegant pagoda. There is an underground waterfall from which one can drink to bring good luck.
The temple was also our first hit of temple stamps and calligraphy. There is a good explanation here but essentially for a couple of hundred Yen (less than £2) you get a beautiful example of this commonplace art, hand dried with a domestic hairdryer. These are available at many major temples and are highly collectible.
Next stop was a tea ceremony at the Camilla Tea House. Matcha tea is “the” hipster beverage in London at present but it was explained to us that originally it was used by Buddhist monks as an ancient Red Bull or espresso alternative to fuel their epic meditation sessions. Having spent time enjoying the raku bowls in Tokyo, drinking matcha tea out of bowls based on the ancient design. The powdered green tea is carefully added with hot water to the bowl, it is whisked to a froth similar to the crema on an espresso and then the drinker selects the most attractive side of the bowl to drink from from. The tea itself when made correctly obviously has stimulating qualities but is also a lot less bitter than the drinks served up in Hoxton or Shoreditch. The Camilla team were excellent, giving accurate and easy to follow directions to their premises and an ongoing explanation of what was involved in the process as the ceremony progressed.
As we walked around the crowded Kyoto streets, we came across a recurring site – visitors dressed in kimonos. Mostly women but some men, they took advantage of the sakura season to enjoy and be photographed enjoying the town’s charms. It sounds cheesy but it really was quite touching to see people dressed so beautifully in such a historic setting.
The more we saw of the Sakura festivities and the Hanami viewing, the more we liked that a country wants to get dressed up and celebrate a link to both its own history and to nature and the passing of the seasons. It is something that we have touch with en mass in the UK.
We made our way back down the steep local streets, stopping for another incredible and in this instance, unexpected lunch. As the father of a girl, Hello Kitty was an ongoing fascination in our daughter’s early years. The neutral cartoon character was beguiling. In Kyoto they have a Hello Kitty shop, which stocks all manner of paraphernalia. Behind the shop though is a themed restaurant. Now imagine what an equivalent restaurant in the UK would be like – tacky with deep fried awful food, with a headache inducing soundtrack.
The Japanese version was the polar opposite. Excellent food (noodles, sushi, salads etc), comfortable and calm with a background of jazz (which was commonplace through the country), it was also excellent value. Plus you had the opportunity to have your photograph taken with the character herself. It was so classily done – thoroughly recommend if you are travelling with children.
Our evening was spent enjoying the immaculate delights of a Japanese laundrette. Travelling for three weeks, we needed to be light on luggage, which necessitated a trip to the local laundromat, something which was made easy by this excellent blog post and the, as expected, immaculate facilities. They even provided slippers for you to wear to prevent the floor getting dirty and contaminating your clean clothes, should they accidentally fall on the floor.
After our trip to Nara, we were back in Kyoto and headed out to Nijo Castle, via the rather excellent Kyoto bus system using the Passmo travel cards that we had bought in Tokyo – the joined up nature of public transport in Japan continued to pay dividends.
Nijo was the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the last Japanese feudal government. For someone used to British castles (Edinburgh, Harlech, Leeds), this is far less imposing but more beautiful. It is in a flat part of town, rather than the strategically imposing headlands that we are used to seeing in the UK. There are two concentric rings of fortification with a palace in the centre. The palace is made from native cypress timber and as one walks around can hear the floor boards creek – at least one could but for the large crowds. The floors are “nightingale” floors, designed to be squeaky so as to alert bodyguards to potential interlopers.The rooms are open, spacious and subdivided by wood and paper screens. They are also empty, devoid of the historic memorabilia and artefacts that you would see in a similar British property.
Use your imagination and you can imagine the palace starring in a classic Akira Kurosawa movie. The rooms have hidey holes for bodyguards to keep watch and are lined with exquisite paintings.
The surrounding gardens are beautifully designed by a man who combined landscape design and tea ceremonies as well as flower arranging and poetry, Kobori Masakazu.
After leaving the castle, we headed to a recommended nearby ramen house. Menbakaichidai specialises uniquely in fire ramen. Seated around a counter, you are kitted out with disposable aprons and advised not to touch any of the bowls. The noodles are served in a broth thick with spring onions and then hot oil is added which is spectacularly set alight. The food was rather good, not the best ramen we had but not at all bad. However the theatricality of the experience plus the friendliness of the staff made it a must do if you were visiting the nearby castle.
We headed back to our hotel via Nishiki market, looking in vain for the elusive knife that we eventually picked up in Osaka. It was impressive but as with many holiday markets a) how do you eat most of the stuff and b) how do you get it home?
The final day in Kyoto started with a train journey out to Arashiyama for some more unique Kyoto experiences.
West of Kyoto, we first headed out to the Bamboo Grove, stopping on the way to get tofu skin ice cream, a lot nicer than it sounds – creamy with some matcha tea stirred through.
The Grove was just incredible. A series of paths through soaring closely planted vertical bamboo trees, it is evocative of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”. The trunks of the trees are a beautiful deep green and seem to go for ever.
We exited the Grove to Tenryu-Ji, a 700 year old Buddhist temple. We were on a bit of tight timetable so we didn’t go into the temple, instead walking through the Zen gardens around the Sogen pool with its immaculately raked gravel and imperious Koi carp.
By now the area was filling up with the day trippers, so we crossed the Oi river and climbed up the steep hill to the Iwatayama monkey park.
There are almost 200 monkey living wild in the park but they are comfortable around humans. At the top of their home you can see across the river and its valley to the mountains that surround Kyoto.
In summary, whilst we spent five nights in Kyoto, it felt like we didn’t quite touch the sides of it. The city worked perfectly for taking the two day trips to Nara and Osaka, so staying another couple of days in Kyoto wouldn’t have been a problem. Equally two days rather than one in Nara would have been pleasant too, exploring more of the ancient city. Too many place, too little time.
It’s always bitter sweet to come this far and not feel that you’ve “done” a place. The problem is Japan has so much to offer in all of the places we stayed. I hope that we get the opportunity to spend some time in old Kyoto again.