Once I got to Japan, I realized I was just a tad too early this year for cherry blossom season. But honestly, I think it all worked out in my favor. Most people I talked to said Kyoto is just crazy with tourists once April hits – so crazy, you can’t even use public transportation because it’s too crowded.
So even though my cherry blossom sightings were limited, I still absolutely fell in love with Kyoto. It’s hard not to. This ancient capital is built of mostly wooden structures with intertwining Japanese gardens throughout the city. The mountains as a backdrop is just such a lovely sight as you’re walking through the slender back roads of Kyoto.Luckily enough for me, the hostel I booked is actually a traditional Kyoto home, called a machiya. They are typically quite slender on the street front, and then extend far back, almost like my Philadelphia rowhome!
They stay slender for historic tax reasons – your tax rate is set by the width of your lot. Sometimes, I noticed there weren’t even house fronts, just gates to a home further back.
And you might notice the bikes… I mean I wouldn’t say Kyoto is any Copenhagen when it comes to the amount of people biking, but I think that might be the direction the city is heading! And most bikes have wheel stands and locks, so you’ll see rows of bikes neatly standing next to each other without being locked to street lamps, signs, you name it.
Once you walk in the house, there are a number of sliding partitions which exist to help moderate the temperature; in winter, nearly all of them stay closed, and in summer, the entire house opens up.
But what sets these kyoto homes apart is their internal gardens, integral to each home.
In the kitchen, there is a tall, double height space to allow the smoke to vent and also a skylight to help light the space.
And lastly, many of these homes open up further to more outdoor space. This particular house used theirs as a garage workspace, dying linens.
And of course, the markets are exceptional. Beautiful layouts of foods and sweets, scarves and kimonos, and all within the setting of old traditional Kyoto houses and markets.
Might I add, this trip has made me realize that Japan might just be my perfect food country: sushi, ramen, soba, and udon provide enough variety, and the Japanese love their sweets. Many vendors sit with free samples of roasted peanuts, mochi, dango, and matcha flavored everything!
Now, onto the touring!
Katsura Imperial Villa
Sophomore year of college, I wrote my semester paper for architectural history comparing traditional English homes and gardens to Japanese villas. I used Katsura Imperial Villa as my main case study, and was 100% nerding out when I got the opportunity to take a tour of it.
This imperial Villa was completed in the late 1600s, and is comprised of multiple buildings which are dispersed around a Japanese garden.
Generally, all of the structures are open to the outdoors. Most of the spaces are built with the intent of “viewing nature.”
The thatched roof is one of the oldest means of building, with the styles of the structures changing as you move through the garden.
All of these buildings are made out of wood. Many of the structural pieces are unchanged tree trunks, whereas nearly all of the wood screens and partitions are of a much finer quality.
The rooms are all designed to maximize the sense of scale without necessarily making the room any larger than it needs to be. For instance, you’ll see the walls don’t actually go all the way to the ceiling, which is to help make the space feel taller.
The spaces also have a lot of openings to the outside. Not only is it to provide a view from the inside out, but as you’re walking through the garden, there is an extra layer of transparency through the structure.
At Katsura, the garden and the buildings are equally important, but compliment each other to provide an overall humble experience as you’re walking through this rich villa.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
There is a neighborhood in west Kyoto called Arashiyama, and there are tall bamboo forests which attract many to come to its area. But, there’s quite a bit more than just bamboo.
In order to physically get to bamboo groves, you have to cross this wooden bridge, which is pretty spectacular all on its own. In fact, it’s become an icon for Kyoto, on a handful of post cards and t-shirts, and definitely listed as a must see on most websites. I think the mountains in the background is what makes this bridge really so spectacular.
And you still have to walk about a mile just to get to the bamboo grove, but thankfully there are a ton of shops and markets to keep you entertained!
This is a “strawberry treat”, which is cherry blossom flavored mochi with sweet bean curd filling and a fresh strawberry on top. I kept seeing it, and figured I had to try it. All I have to say is, don’t knock it until you try it! (And don’t worry Philly friends, I’ll be bringing some of these bad boys back with me!)
And then… you see the bamboo. So much bamboo.
And with this much bamboo, comes just as many tourists.
But it is still a remarkable landscape. And even with all these people, the noise from the street seemed to quiet as soon as you enter the mythical natural cathedral.
Another side note, you see so many girls in traditional kimono outfits around Kyoto! I also think they enjoy posing for photos, I mean, it must be nice to see us westerners gawking at them. Plus, when I took this, the girl turned around and started waving and smiling. So I think they’re okay with it.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
In the south eastern portion of Kyoto, there is a sacred mountain, Mount Inari. Inari is the Shinto God of Rice, but has also been worshipped as the patron of business by merchants. Since 1603, businesses throughout Japan have donated a single Torii gate to represent their gratitude to Inari.
There are literally over thousands of these gates, and they span over a network of trails on Mount Inari, equalling over 3 miles of trails dotted with these gates.
When you first get to the trailhead, there are large Torii gates leading you to the main path. Then when you get there, you are in a near full canopy and walls of gates, with slotted views to the landscape beyond.
As you ascend, you can see the Japanese text with which business donated that particular Torii gate.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this journey as much as I did. I assumed it was going to be a tourist trap, and not nearly as big as people made it out to be.
But really what I enjoyed the most about it, was that it felt like I was just going for a hike.
Once you start, you’re moving upward pretty quickly and really in the natural tree line, well, except for the Torii gates surrounding you.
And with the bright colors of he gates, there’s a really beautiful contrast between the man made and the natural.
And once you get to the top, you have a beautiful view overlooking Kyoto.
Gion & A Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
I knew I wanted to attend a traditional Japanese tea ceremony while I was in Kyoto, but I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go. I literally did a 5-minute google search, found an English speaking one with a company called Camellia, and started walking to it.
I got so lucky that this was located in Gion, a beautiful, old area of Kyoto that is actually known as the Geisha district. Honestly, I wasn’t planning on walking over to Gion otherwise – so what I found was such a pleasant surprise!
The streets of Gion are just stunning. The small scale, windy roads, and historic shops create such a uniquely Kyoto experience.
And, I saw some geishas!
The area is nestled into the mountains, so you feel the elevation as you’re walking around. But that elevation leads to some really fantastic views – like this temple and pagoda I stumbled on.
This is the Hokanji Buddhist Temple and Pagoda. It caught me off guard, but pleasantly so.
It’s nestled into the small, windy streets of Gion and it’s easy to sit near the astounding 5 story Pagoda and admire its detail and scale.
And then, finally time for the tea ceremony!
Although tea ceremonies are not practiced as regularly as they once were, the concepts still remain an integral part of the Japanese Zen Buddhism philosophy.
At Camellia, our host for the hour was a woman, Maya. She was dressed in traditional Japanese kimono and we sat in a traditional tea room, but since the ceremony was meant to be more informative than sacred, Maya was pretty casual with us. She let us ask questions along the way, and when we messed up the order of something (which I definitely did) she just laughed and said “not quite!”
When we started, she explained that tea ceremonies are stemmed from the practice of Zen Buddhism. In a tea ceremony, they drink matcha. Traditionally, the matcha was considered medicinal, and was used primarily for monks to aid in their concentration – with a healthy little caffeine kick.
Tea ceremonies started spreading to all classes, not just monks, to be used as a way of entertaining guests and relax with friends. Typically, the tea ceremony would come after saki and dinner, as a way to end the night of hosting.
You typically are served a small Japanese sweet first (I’m telling you, they love their sweets!) and then the host prepares the tea. And the preparation is definitely worth admiring!
There are many steps which I won’t go into here, but I will say that the steps are insisted upon to nurture respect and gratitude. For instance, the host visually cleans the utensils in front of the guests prior to making the tea – this is to show respect for the guests, that you are only using your cleanest, most pure utensils.
Once the tea is made, you and the host bow to each other in deep gratitude.
I was Maya’s guinea pig sitting in the front, and she asked me to be the receiving end of the traditional ceremony. I’ll tell you, there are a lot of things to remember! You can only pick up a tea bowl with your right hand, you have to turn it counter clockwise twice, if you enjoyed the tea, you should give a loud, short slurp as you finish it – there’s more, but I definitely messed up somewhere in there.
And then we all made our own matcha. We used the bamboo whisk and fresh matcha from Uji, a town south of Kyoto, where all the best matcha comes from.
So if you haven’t caught on the matcha trend yet, let me explain what I can to you! Matcha is ground green tea. Whereas tea is usually steeped in hot water, matcha is a powder that is mixed with hot water (not boiling!!)
Two teaspoons of matcha is basically equal to 10 cups of green tea. So all of those health benefits of green tea? Times 10 in your matcha tea!
Since it’s ground leaves, it does go bad. Fresh matcha is a staple in Kyoto, and really all of Japan. This trend is definitely spreading – so if you’re interested, make sure to look for fresh matcha, preferably from Uji!
Now, matcha time! You add water, and whisk with the bamboo for about 3 minutes very vigorously. And only back and forth! This is also why you really need a bowl, not a mug…
Maya’s looked and tasted better than mine… which makes you respect the tea ceremony host even more!
Ryoanji Temple and Rock Garden
The Ryoanji rock zen garden is world famous. It is a zen Buddhist Japanese garden which was designed to facilitate meditation. Most people come to see the rock garden, but the temple and surrounding landscape is just as beautiful.
The site is pebbles with beautiful details, like rock trenches, small lanterns or bamboo water drops.
The temple is a traditional wooden structure, generally open with emphasis to the rock garden.
The rock garden itself is fun to get lost in. I’ve read that these gardens are meant to disillusion your sense of scale: are you looking at a small lot of rocks, or a vast ocean with islands? And after some time staring into the sea-like pebbles, I could understand how this helped to facilitate meditation.
Today, it’s used much more by tourists and travelers than Buddhists looking to meditate.
Kinkaku-ji Temple : The Golden Temple
Nearby is one of the famous temples in Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji, or better known as the golden temple.
Between this and the White Temple in Chiang Rai, I’ve realized that people love things that shine. If this same Temple weren’t plated in gold, the lines to see it would really be much shorter!
The temple was nearly burned down in 1950 by a monk trying to commit suicide. Initially, the pavilion had a thin, gold plating on it, but most historians don’t believe it was quite as luxurious as the remodel.
Regardless, it’s shiny and people are really intrigued by it. I find the reflections on the lake particularly stunning, with the gold standing out strong against the natural backdrop.
There are other buildings throughout the complex as well. They are more subdued and traditional, but their detailing was quite nice.
I found the most enjoyable part being walking around the lake. It’s fun to catch smaller moments with glimpses of shiny gold in the backdrop.
Kyoto Botanical Garden
And then, it rained. And what did I think would be a good idea to do in the rain? Check out the botanical garden and conservatory – but it turns out, gardens aren’t terribly fun in the rain. But I tried to make the most of it!
And once I sought refuge in the warm, relatively dry indoors, I took my time with the different kinds of plant species.
They were generally all written and explained in Japanese, so, I can’t tell you much!
I did see that there were a handful of leak around the building. Cleverly, they used potted plants to handle the drops rather than buckets. At least I found it clever and amusing!
And then in the middle of this dull, rainy day, cherry blossoms!
I returned to the Kyoto Imperial Palace near my hostel to find a host of newly blossomed trees!
And now I can leave Kyoto with no regrets. Keep in mind, most of these cherry blossom pictures were taken in the pouring rain – dedication will take you far!