Thousands of tourists flock to Kyoto, Japan each year towards the end of March and the beginning of April, hoping to catch the pink and white cherry blossoms that color the city. It’s understandable. They are beautiful reminders that winter has passed and spring has arrived. That heavy, bubbly coats and tall fleece-lined boots can be put away. That sunny, warmer days and crisp blue skies are here again. That picnics in the park — hanami as it’s called in Japanese — can be had again. Certainly, if you can time it just right, though well in advance, they are worth planning an entire trip around.
Kyoto is much more than pretty flowers, so while the cherry blossom trees are a big draw, it’s not as if there is no other reason to visit. There are so many to-dos in Japan’s first capital city that it can be hard to narrow down any type of must see, do, or eat list. I mean, how do you choose which of the seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites to visit or which of the thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to explore? Do you stick with the well-known options where the crush of tourists can potentially overwhelm or do you opt for off the beaten track?
My family did a bit of both on our trip last month. Some days we plodded from this temple to that shrine, from that shrine to this temple. At the time, I thought I’d remember each site for its uniqueness, collecting (and keeping) my entrance tickets at each stop and snapping photos here and there. I was sure the images would jog my memory of which place was which when I got back home to China (a country so geographically close to Japan, yet so culturally different the topic deserves its own post). I was wrong. The temples all looked similar with their sparsely decorated interiors, simple tatami mats spread over the floors, delicately painted scenic walls, and incredibly intricate gardens. The blaze of orange from the torii gates — hallmarks of Shinto shrines — blurred together in my brain. It took some time and some digging into my memory to sort out all the places we had visited.
Now, I could give you a numbered list of what I think you — as in other travelers — should include on an itinerary for Kyoto, but those are already plastered all over the internet on travel sites and other blogs (all invaluable sources of information for any travel planner, to be sure). I’ll save the facts and figures, too, which you can read about in your guidebook. My most vivid memories of Kyoto didn’t have anything to do with all the stuff I read about prior to our trip. They are more personal, as I’m sure yours will be, too.
The Buddhist Zen concept of rock gardens would have been completely lost on me had it not been for my little nephew who found awe and wonder in each pebble he picked up, examined, and refused to let go of at the temples we visited. By the time we arrived at the most famous of Kyoto’s rock gardens within Ryoan-Ji Temple, I was able to grasp how serenity might be achieved by staring into a compact space full of gray-white patterned bleakness.
Had it not been for my mom, who boldly walked through what looked like an off-limits area, I never would have discovered the cemetery hidden in the hills above Chion-in Temple. We spent a good chunk of time meandering through the narrow walkways, fascinated by the tombstones that were adorned with flowers, incense, and quirky gifts like a small bottle of liquor left at one. I climbed a set of stairs and discovered that a funeral was quietly taking place before one tombstone. It felt invasive to witness such a familial life event, so I didn’t linger long but continued up the stairs. I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the cemetery and the city down below.
That’s another thing I’ll never forget about Kyoto: the rolling hills that surround the city, making you feel like you’re in a perpetual valley, especially on the two-hour drive between Kyoto and Osaka, where we flew into.
Or, how sore my legs were at the end of each day. Kyoto is a walkable but big city, and some of my favorite moments were strolling the streets with my family. My mom and sister would stop in the many cute stores selling Japanese jewelry or housewares and I’d get to mind the toddler (along with my brother-in-law) out on the sidewalk and watch the people of Kyoto do their thing.
One night, after a late dinner near our hotel, my sister suggested going for a moonlit walk. We passed by sights we had already checked out, including Shoren-in and Chion-in, before we happened upon Yasaka Shrine, all lit up and empty, it was practically begging us to venture around it. It felt like we shouldn’t be there. When Iggy tugged on one of the many heavy ropes hanging at the shrine entrance, it made the attached bells jingle loudly. I scolded him, thinking that someone would come find us and kick us out, ruining the rare experience of being the only tourists around. No one came for us and, I must admit, a few days later at the Fushimi Inari Shrine I learned that you were supposed to ring the bells. All of us agreed that Fushimi Inari was our favorite shrine. The thousands of orange and black toriis that frame the steep climb up and down the mountain were like nothing we’d seen before, making the arduous climb more than worthwhile.
After eight days in Kyoto, we had seen and done what we had planned to do. We spotted a few elusive geishas in Gion. We slurped up udon noodles at Oden. We heard the bamboo smack and clack together in Arashiyama as we made our way to the beautifully landscaped Okochi-Sanso Villa. We took the train to Nara, fed the wild deer, and marveled up at the seated bronze Buddha at Todaiji Temple.
We happily, accidentally stumbled on to things we couldn’t have planned. We chose a hotel that was even better than we had imagined, nonchalantly tucked away in a pedestrian shopping arcade lined with fishmongers, fruit stalls, and a butcher. We ate with locals more than once in the tiny Cafe Hebagari across from the arcade. We just so happened to go to Arashiyama on the day that the mayor of Kyoto cut the ribbon on a new shopping plaza serving traditional Japanese foods. What else could we do but join in the festivities and sample some matcha? We had a surprisingly good dinner in a hole-in-the-wall diner one night in Gion where the other patrons (businessmen in suits) cooed and smiled at my nephew as they ate their greasy food and threw back beers.
Despite everything we did, I think Kyoto has much more to offer. Luckily for me, it’s just an hour plane ride away. I hear the fall foliage gives the cherry blossoms a run for their money…