Kyoto was probably the city I was most excited to visit as a result of my preparations for our Japan trip. From all I read it seemed a beautiful city, steeped in tradition, with fine food and appreciable culture, while offering a relaxed pace not found in a major megalopolis such as Tokyo, the type of city which accounts for most of the population of Japan. I didn’t realize that 2/3 of Japan is generally inhabitable, it’s an extremely mountainous country, which has driven most people to the major cities, a self perpetuating trend which only fuels further urban growth.
The bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, just a few hour ride, offered a different perspective from the urban jungle to which we’d become accustom, a view of these green, rolling mountains, the agrarian landscape and rice patties, of humble homes briefly glimpsed by the passer-bys on the 170 mile per hour trains, which were a lovely mode of transportation.
We arrived at the Kyoto station, one of the more modern and controversial constructions in the city. The train station is in the middle, on right is the Isetan department store, and on the far left, the Hotel Granvia, where we stayed for most of our visit to Kyoto.
Across from the hotel is the Kyoto Tower Hotel, not necessarily a fine hotel, but infamous for its profile, which dwarfs the otherwise level and modest city.
One thing I knew I must see was the Nishiki market, a famous covered alley type mall, filled with all sorts of vendors of prepared foods, touristy take-away food items, street food, teas, pickled items, and cookware. It’s a must visit for a food fanatic.
Just a few samples of the great amount to be consumed on-site were chicken skewers, and tamago (omelet) stand, made to order, where one could also buy farm eggs to-go.
Crabs and katsuobushi, the cured and smoked tuna, of which you could grab a sample as you walked by.
Inside the market is the famous knife shop, Aritsugu, founded in 1560. This is not the original location, and by some accounts is not the most “authentic” of local, hand made knives, but the carbon knife I purchased is fantastic, my one major material memento from our journey. Cash only (they provide directions to the nearest 7-11), and can generally only be purchased on-site.
The knife is sharpened to order, after which a salesperson sits down with you to explain care of the knife.
One of our favorite meals of the trip was in Kyoto, at Honke Owariya, a famous soba restaurant. We visited a secondary and more commercially located version of the restaurant, of which the original is hundreds of years old. Never mind the wonderful tempura (why don’t I see more tempura nori?), the chilly soba with dipping sauce on a hot day was perfection.
We also had a tempura meal inside of Hotel Granvia, which was good, but not as epic as some of the tempura places I had read about prior to the trip.
We visited many shrines and gardens in Kyoto, most of which are unfortunately replicas or renovated version of the original, due to Japan’s troubling history of wars, natural disasters, and fires, which are a major hazard when your structures are generally made of wood. One of the best visits was to Nijo Castle and its famous nightingale floors, as well as the surrounding gardens. The ruling shogun had the floors of his castle constructed to chirp like birds, so his many enemies would be unable to sneak up on and kill him. Men were disallowed in most areas of the building, and in each room were subtle cubbies in the walls, in which trained shoguns defenders were lying in wait, should a would-be assassin tempt fate.
The gardens are perfectly manicured, with numerous attendants taking great care to pull weeds, or trim trees just so.
Another of my most anticipated meals, our first reservation of the trip, was kaiseki at Kitcho, a third generation haute cuisine restaurant rooted in the tea ceremony and shojin ryori cuisine of the Buddhists in the area. While modern version of kaiseki are often progressive in technique, the meal is often presented in a beautiful and deceptively complex manner, with a focus on seasonality, experience, a structured progression of dish types, and the appearance of simplicity.
There are a couple locations of Kitcho, the most famous on the Western edge of the city, in what appeared to be a serene and naturally beautiful back-drop, should one be able to afford $1000 for a dinner served in a two person private room. With the extreme costs of our trip, and Katie being a vegetarian, we decided we wanted to experience high quality kaiseki, but opted for the branch located within our hotel, only a few hundred dollars. It may not compare to the original location, but we had a fantastic experience.
Every dish was artfully presented, precisely prepared, colorful, and delicious. I can’t say I know enough about this style of eating to say I truly appreciated each dish, but I did my best to understand and enjoy the raw, the cooked, the braises, the textures, and the beauty.
uni, crab, short rib
Rice prepared and served in a traditional manner. The rice at fine restaurants in Japan is of such amazing quality.
Dessert – fruit in gelee.
Our last night in Kyoto, we stayed at Yuzuya Ryokan, a ryokan being a traditional manner of hotel, many of which have been hosting customers for hundreds of years, with very formal service, only a few rooms, and meals often included. They are usually quite expensive. This one night cost more than our night at the Park Hyatt ($550 or so), though there are only eight rooms at this ryokan, which are meant to be a place to rest the body and mind outside of the busy city.
Porters handle your bags from the moment one enters, while shy women in traditional clothing offer tea as you sit on the tatami mat. For the overseas traveler who has done nothing but lug bags around and walk for a week, it’s a welcome change of pace.
We didn’t opt for the dinner, which I regret as I’ve heard they are famous for their yuzu stuffed with tofu, so we walked around Gion, the heart of Kyoto, spying two Geisha shuffle past us, off to appointments on a lively Friday night. We were told it was quite lucky to see Geisha on the job, there are only a couple hundred left in the whole country. When we returned our table had been removed, and a futon laid out for our rest.
Our room included traditional clothing, which I put on here in style, before leaving to find the baths in the ryokan, in which one is required to bath nude. Thankfully, I was the only dude in there – just me, my junk, and a few dozen yuzu fruits bobbing around in the steamy water.
Breakfast was so peaceful and perfect.
It was a giant spread of chicken, salmon, tamago, rice, pickled things (pickled plums are my new favorite), and little tiny fish which we cautiously ate whole.
A huge portion of Japanese eggplant soup was also presented to us. It was more food than I could ever eat, but such a great memory of a traditional, formal Japanese breakfast.
Just a few last shots, one of our favorite visits was to the Heian Shrine, another reconstruction, but we had the luck of seeing a bride getting ready for her wedding day photos in traditional garb.
The real sight to see at this shrine is the surrounding Shinen Gardens. The immediate, lush cover of these green gardens was amazing, wild but constructed just so – look at the way the rocks in this creek were assembled. The photo at the very top of this post is also from this garden, which I highly recommend paying the few bucks to visit.
While I probably had more fun in other cities, Kyoto is a special place in Japan, an absolute must-visit beyond any city I saw. The tradition, beauty, service, and tranquility is unparalleled. Posting these shots and re-living the journey makes me happy, and I cannot recommend the experience enough.