Kyoto doesn’t need much introduction – most people have seen photos of the beautiful temples, shrines and the old architecture which have been well preserved. As such, I will only focus on my strongest impressions and favourites.
We timed our trip to coincide with the sakura (i.e. cherry blossoms) season, which enhanced the beauty of Kyoto. A few of the temples have extended opening hours and special lighting to allow night viewing during this time of the year. We took advantage of this and visited Kiyomizudera which is elevated and has a stage overlooking the city. To get to Kiyomizudera, we walked through the Higashiyama historic district which has rows of small shops selling local specialties and snacks. During the sakura season, this area gets pretty crowded and has a great festive atmosphere. I highly recommend visiting around sunset, as you get to see the area and the temple surrounded by sakura with some daylight but also enjoy the night illumination, which is beautiful.
I first heard of geishas when I read the Memoirs of a Geisha. It amazes me that till this day, geishas still exist. Gion is the home of the geishas and has preserved the traditional wooden houses very well. It is worth spending an evening walking around the area, but we did not see any geisha while we were there. Instead, we went for Miyako Odori, a dance performance by maikos (geishas in training) which only takes place in April. I have to admit that we were pretty bored after 15 minutes into the dance, but it’s an affordable way to see a performance by the maikos. Unfortunately, we were not able to take any photos as there were people standing near us who would dash out to stop us the moment they spy a camera. We also saw a couple of geishas up close at the train station. They were not fully made up (I guess it wouldn’t be comfortable for a train ride) but were still beautiful and carried themselves with the grace and poise that I read about in the Memoirs.
If you can spare a day while in Kyoto, hop on a train and you’ll be in Nara within an hour. You’ll be welcomed by more temples but most importantly, hundreds of deer roaming around the city. Do not be deceived by the docile looking deer – these are not like Bambi. There are signs in the park warning visitors that the deer can be violent. We saw children trying to feed the deer and ended up throwing the food at them to avoid getting attacked! An unlucky tourist was in a tug of war with a deer which was aggressively chomping on his guidebook. The end result – deer 1, man 0. It was certainly a memorable sight.
On the way back from Nara, we got off at Inari Station to visit Fushimi-Inari Shrine. In my opinion, this was one of the most beautiful places that we visited during our trip. Located in a forest, the shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. There are thousands of red torii gates which form tunnels of mountain trails. Torii gates act as a divide between our world and the sacred spirit world. As foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, there are also many fox statues around the shrine. We were there just before sunset and it was already getting dark and deserted. It was still possible to go on the trails which have lamps lighting the way. It felt spiritual, eerie and mystical as we walked along the mountain trails with just the gates and foxes to keep us company.
I hope to visit Kyoto again soon, maybe in autumn to catch the beautiful fall colours.