Kansai trip: Kyoto

It’s been a slow-going return to the real world after spring break, but I need to talk about our trip to the Kansai region. I had a nasty cold, so I was spaced-out on meds with a backpack full of used snot rags, but it was still spectacular. We spent the majority of our time in Kyoto, but we also hit Nara and Osaka. For the sake of length, I’ll give each city its own post.

I was worried that our travel dates meant missing Nakatsu’s cherry blossom season, which is just before Kyoto’s and lasts a week tops. Instead, we got lucky and caught the blossoms in both places. This meant an influx of tourists, but it was so, so worth it. By our third day in Kyoto, the sakura were fluffy perfection. Gion at night was the stuff of fairytales.

Speaking of fairytales, I was Disneyland-excited on our first night to see a Maiko, shuffling with a purposeful, forward gaze with a group of suited salarymen.

Kyoto is one of those places I had to promise myself I’d return to, because otherwise I’d drive myself mad trying to see everything.

Here are some of the historical sites we made it to:

Kinkakuji (金閣寺)

It’d be pretentious to call national world heritage site Kinkakuji “overrated.” But I will say that its garden path is somewhat tight and limited, especially when it’s packed with people. You can’t get very near the palace, so the best you can do is push through tourists to take your distant waterfront picture—gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but probably identical to everyone else’s.

Ryōan-ji (龍安寺)

The vast gardens around the Zen Buddhist temple Ryōan-ji are much more my speed. Primordial trees climb out of the pond. Haphazard frames hold up drooping sakura branches.  Trees are trimmed into strange, Dr. Seussian silhouettes. Ryōan-ji Temple itself is dim and elegant, made of natural wood. The platform overlooking the temple’s famous rock garden was crowded, but the garden’s striking calm overshadowed the commotion.

Arashiyama Bamboo Groves (竹林の小径)

arashiyama bamboo grove kyoto japan

At first, the Arashiyama bamboo groves are like part of the city, with widely-spaced stalks and telephone wires in view. But deeper in, we were enveloped in a dark, damp, chirpy forest that felt miles from civilization (apart from all the tourists with selfie-sticks).

Ōkōchi Sansō (大河内山荘)

The bamboo forest path leads to Ōkōchi Sansō, the former villa and gardens of samurai movie film star Denjirō Ōkōchi. I loved the winged roof and the way the gardens overlook sakura-spotted mountains.

Nijōjō (二条城)

The last site we hit was Nijōjō. The Edo-period palace is much more decorative than other sites we visited, with elaborate nature-inspired wall murals and ceiling motifs. The front half of the complex also features uguisubari (鴬張, or “nightingale floors,” purposely-squeaky floors that once warned of intruders. They’re really high-pitched and sing-song; I’ve never heard anything quite like it. (No photos were allowed in Nijōjō’s interior).

Next time, we hope to hit Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari-taisha Inari.

Accomodations

Most of our trip, we stayed in the Arashiyama area. Still touristy, but a nice retreat from central Kyoto. We found what we lovingly deemed “the old lady coffee place” that served nothing but coffee, gossip, and salty seaweed tea. We spent part of a morning sipping a beer on Arashiyama’s riverside rock wall. We were walking distance from a pastry shop. Our Airbnb host Yasushi even recommended a really snazzy nearby onsen called Hot Water of Tianshan.

A snafoo in our Airbnb reservation—we forgot to reserve a night—meant we had to make a last-minute move. But Yasushi saved the day. He answered our frantic late-night messages and offered us a similar apartment, even though it meant he had to buy a futon for the new place. (I will talk more about kindness-guilt in my upcoming post on culture shock.)

Food Highlights

Our friend recommended Pizza Salvatore not too far from Gion. There was a wait, but it was delicious. The day we moved accommodations, we stumbled upon JuriJuri Café, which had amazing brioche French toast. Our last night, we met up with friends and ended up at a really tasty French restaurant. I wish I remembered the name of the place for next time.

We also went to the famous traditional sweets shop Kagizen Yoshifusa. The atmosphere and treats were pretty, but it can’t hold a candle to our beloved Nakatsu tea cafe.

kyoto tea Kagizen Yoshifusa

Next post, I’ll talk about our afternoon in Nara!  ❤

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