Kyoto is kinda a perfect city. There. I said it.
Japan, as a whole, is a mind-blowing experience. If you’ve read my lead up to this post you will have an understanding that in a world where I have made love to many countries, Japan is probably be the one I’m thinking about while traveling in another. Sorry Canada, I didn’t mean to call out “Oh, Japan!” while singing your anthem, promise. And the hottest part on this sexy country is it’s big, juicy, Kyoto.
Go get a kleenex… it’s gonna get messy.
Kyoto has all the things that a foreign city should have; captivating culture, excellence in cuisine, and a true love for itself. No matter where you roam in this jewel of a city it’s hard to not find an element of all three of these ingredients. So, let’s just start at the top of the awesome list, cause I know what you came here for: Geishas.
Geishas are awesome. They’re beautiful, exotic, secretive, and for all intensive purposes shouldn’t really exist in the modern age. There is lots to know about Geishas to even get a small understanding of this unique facet of Japanese culture. First, there are two types of Geisha’s, those that have sex, and those that don’t. I suppose that could apply to any occupation, but it seems to be an important classification for Geisha’s. In the entertaining kind (i.e. non-sex version) there are two types; dancing and singing Geisha’s. Those that want to become Geishas can apprentice, and are usually younger then 18 years of age. These are called Maikos and they have a slightly different dress with a longer tail, and shorter hair.
For me Geishas pretty much sum up why Japan is so interesting. When a country has a closed border for millennia, and refines every aspect of its own culture ad infinitum, even its courtesans, it can only produce something like a Geisha. They are stunning to see, beautiful and mysterious, and like something out of a fairytale.
The place to see them is Gion, which is just over the river, and it will pretty much make you want to move immediately to Japan. Gion is like a movie set, except real. Delicate streets that wind around a village-type atmosphere, where paper lanterns light cobblestone roads or age old wooden doors lead into exquisite restaurants where the best meal of your life is served. Here Kyoto holds on to its rich history and keeps it pristine, and instead of making it a cheesy tourist attraction it is very much alive and well, with a valid reason to be existing; it is simply charming and beautiful.
Here we went to a superb restaurant called Gion Karyo. Traditional in every way, we were invited inside this ancient home, took off our shoes, and proceeded downstairs to prepare for our meal. It’s surprising that they don’t hand out some sort of shower-cap for your head because everyone that eats here has their mind completely blown. Cleanup must be a bitch.
A set menu the meal lasts for a good 3 hours. The plates of food are more work of art then sustenance; flavors color your senses and you leave each setting more emotionally drained then full. It was a dance not a dinner, and truly something not to be missed.
While it is impossible not to fall madly in love with Gion there is a whole other city out there in Kyoto. Crossing the bridge back into the modern era you are greeted to a vibrant and modern city that has lots to offer. Just over the Shin-Jujo Dori bridge from Gion you will find what could be equated to 5th Avenue in New York. Fashionable high end shops and modern city folk all bustling along like any other major city in the world. Go one street in however and you are transported to another world, half Blade Runner and half Willie Wonka is the Kurisunouchikoshicho market. This street runs along side the modern shopping thoroughfare and offers anything from octopus on a stick to wacky costume shops. Perhaps most lovely was a drink where they take a whole cold grapefruit, cut a hole in the top, pulverize the fruit inside and add a type of frozen rum and give it to you with a straw. Yes another please.
For the brave, try ducking off the main strip to one of the side alleys. Here you can find strange little shops and bars that couldn’t quite find a way to squeeze into the party. As such, they are pretty much guaranteed to be old school and hardcore. Here is a little place we found that had no name. The cast of characters contained within can only be described as characters Kafka rejected from his novels. We decided to order some “snacks” of the menu which included shoshito peppers and foreskin. Yeah, foreskin. Of what we don’t know, but really, does it matter? I imagined this is where Mohels come for a wrap party. Honestly, it was like being in a strange bar in some rum-running town on the fringe of society. I half expected to see Hans Solo sharing a sake with Gredo.
Cruising a few blocks north you run into Nijo Castle, literally. It’s smack dab in the middle of the city, and impossible to miss. It’s a fantastic place to visit with its imposing 100 foot walls and impossibly beautiful architecture. Heading in and taking off your shoes, as not to disturb the centuries old wood floor, you shuffle through some of Japan’s most prolific history, experiencing first hand what it would have been like in during the Edo period. Im not sure who their interior designer was, but I’m sure he wasn’t cheap.
Moving further north you start to enter the Kamigyo Ward which is where Kyoto for me really started to come into focus. This is the city, where people work and live, and the true flavor of this town hits the palette. Here you can find a funky little place called Coffee Shop Brazil where I watched a man make the most involved, albeit slowest, cup of coffee using what I could only assume was high school science lab equipment. He only asked me if I wanted regular or strong, and the regular was so jammed with caffeine that I started remember homework assignments I missed in College. And I went to UCSB. It was a foggy time.
Immediately starving from the caffeine that was giving my bodies tremors and melting fat from my frame, we found this very ordinary noodle shop where we had, not even kidding, the most amazing bowl of noodles ever to enter a mouth, ever. It must have been good, because even at an odd hour, there was a steady stream of people slurping and moaning through their hot, delicious bowls of delight.
Belly’s full, we continued to wander through the Nishijin section, where we came across a little door with a sign and arrow; the international sign of “hey you, peek your head in here please”. Inside we found a small textile museum; Nishijin it turns out is the third largest producer of fine silk fabrics, along with Milan and Lyon. The man inside spoke no English, but offered us some warm tea, before letting us into the ancient house to see the display. Interesting old machines, and beautiful garments lined the walls, and the building itself was as eye-catching as its contents. I’d love to tell you what it was called or where it was, but sadly, I have no idea. There lies the point; wandering around Kyoto you are guaranteed to find some magic.
At this point getting low on film (we brought the old AE-1 out for a spin this trip, and that is it’s own blog post). So, looking around I spotted a faithful yellow and orange Kodak banner and made a B-line for it. Inside I found what a photographer only dreams of. A little ol’ ma and pop shop overrun with old camera gear. Everywhere, on every surface, was a little miracle waiting to be taken home. My eyes widened and a small gasp exited my broth scented lips. “Dear God. It’s El Dorado” I murmured. The little old Japanese man who owned the shop was equally surprised and excited. “AE-1…” he said wide eyed, pointing to my 40 year old camera. We locked eyes and then both relaxed into a wide grin, as montage music started to play in our minds.
After a good hour of digging through decades of camera history I walked away with 4 prime lenses, a Canon Coronet that I’ve never even knew existed, and a Mamiya medium format BEAST loaded with a fresh 120 roll. Happy? Hell yeah.
Fully photorific, we continued deeper into Kamigyo Ward to find what we were aiming for: Hosoo Kyoto. Hosoo is a textile company dates back to the 6th century, and its based in Kyoto since 1688. It’s not easy to find; there is no real signs or advertising to visit, which makes it all that more special. This is the genuine article and the textiles they produce using their 3 dimensional Nishijin weaving technique has clothed emperors, samurai and made countless kimonos and is as fundamental in Japan’s history as the people who wore their garments. We were therefor super excited for a tour of their showroom to just be able to get a glimpse of these amazing fabrics.
Unfortunately we had not made an appointment.
Here’s the thing though; I have mentioned before how Japanese people are extremely accommodating, stating that even the word “no” is seldom, if ever, heard in a conversation. When we told the woman who happened upon to random people sitting in their front office that we did not make a appointment, she without hesitation closed down the front shop, stopped whatever she was doing, and gave us a private tour. Now, by no means am I saying you should ever exploit this level of kindness, but I am saying that the Japanese deserve the utmost respect when it comes to customer care. They go not only above and beyond, they go to a whole other dimension.
I’m certainly glad they did because what we saw was so exquisite, so beautiful, that it felt like a crime to be able to touch the various swatches of fabric. These articles deserved to be behind vacuum sealed, humidity controlled class in some very large marble building, not running through the fingers of a commoner wearing denim. They are works of art, and you can sense the deep routed history not only in the product, but in the building where they design and fabricate it; amazingly old and perfectly kept Hosoo is living history, and those that appreciate such things will fail to find a more perfect example.
Heading westward and rounding out the trip, we decided to see a bit of ancient Kyoto and visit Tenryu-Ji Temple adjacent to the Katsura river. We were really surprised how much of a mob scene this part of town was. Truly a tourist destination this was more people then we saw anywhere else by far, the streets literally clogged with wandering sightseers. Everyone was Japanese mind you which was perhaps even stranger to us. The temples were beautiful, as was the bamboo forest, but really the sheer number of people made it impossible to fully enjoy.
Seeking refuge we decided to duck into Saganoyu, a “coffee style resort”, for a bite to eat. This place was darling in every aspect; clean, white and open, with a lovely little outdoor space and even a little shop to buy some memorable items. The pancakes are king here, and come with a special drizzle sauce which conveniently can be poured directly into your mouth. They think of everything here you know. I opted for a fresh tofu carbonara because I’m Italian and like to be disappointed. I can’t say I was though; the pasta was perfectly al dente, the sauce was rich, and the tofu, while not buffalo mozzarella, added an interesting savory tartness that made this dish entirely unique. It even came with cute directions which made me feel like Ikea sponsored the meal.
Wandering back toward the station we enjoyed getting lost in the little streets and river walkways. Lots of little shops, moody gravesite, and tons of people watching led to a small repose in a pachinko parlor. Dropping in some coin thousands of little balls begin firing down a pegged wall with such cacophony and fury that even the most severe OCD case in the world would be wholly focused on the action. In the end we won, something, somehow, not knowing the rules, and received a token to buy a little gift. Yeah, like Chuck’e’cheeses. Or Skeeball. We thought we were gambling.
“Go around the corner. You can trade that crap in for money.” A man said, cigarette defying multiple laws of physics, without shifting his view from the chaos happening on his Pachinko machine. Apparently gambling is illegal in Japan. So, you play to win toys. However, there are conveniently located stores near Pachinko parlors where these toys can be bought for various sums of money. Basically Japan invented a toy economy to get around a legal issue. A country so polite that instead of changing a law dealing with morality they will just create a loophole. Genius.
Pockets full, hearts soaring, and legs truly exhausted we hopped back on the bullet train and 15 minutes later were in Osaka where our little Air B&B was. A more perfect day I can’t really think of, but that didn’t stop us from visiting Kyoto 2 more times during our stay, just to try out some other places.
Those days were as magical as the first, but in consideration of not being repetitious, we will move on to our next city … Tokyo.
Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.