Au­then­tic Ky­oto

Travel Bulletin - - JAPAN -

Ky­oto is a city that has much to of­fer. Ben Ground­wa­ter ex­plores both the tra­di­tional and the new in this fas­ci­nat­ing city.

It’s a hoary old cliché, but to­day it’s true: this re­ally is like step­ping back in time. Wan­der­ing the streets of his­toric Hi­gashiyama, you could have stum­bled right into the 1700s – or at least a very con­vinc­ing mock-up. There are no cars, no trains, no ding­ing chimes or flash­ing lights. About the only sign of moder­nity, if you look close enough, is the odd vend­ing ma­chine, boxy and unloved, tucked into the cor­ner of a quiet back street. This part of Ky­oto has re­mained un­changed for cen­turies. It’s the Ja­pan of misty-eyed dreams of days gone by, with its im­mac­u­late tem­ples and man­i­cured gar­dens. It’s the Ja­pan of wood-block prints and Hoku­sai draw­ings, a Ja­pan that only re­ally ex­ists now in small pock­ets like this quiet part in Ky­oto. Hi­gashiyama is some­thing of a fan­tasy, a her­itage-listed and beau­ti­fully pre­served relic of a time when em­per­ors ruled, geishas en­ter­tained, and samu­rai de­fended. It’s a sub­urb of wind­ing paved streets, of tem­ples and shrines, of forests and gar­dens. It’s also a sub­urb that’s very pop­u­lar with mod­ern tourists, for all of those rea­sons. They come to wan­der the streets and soak up the feel­ing of liv­ing in an­other time. They come to visit places like Kiy­omizu Tem­ple, a beau­ti­ful se­ries of build­ings and shrines with views over the city. The come to see the Ky­oto Na­tional Mu­seum. The come to stay in “ryokans”, or tra­di­tional Ja­panese inns, such as Ta­makan, with its for­mal ser­vice and stun­ning gar­dens. They come to Hi­gashiyama for th­ese and many other things, and then, even­tu­ally, they leave. But the city of Ky­oto doesn’t be­gin and end in Hi­gashiyama, even though the pho­tos in the tourist brochures would prob­a­bly tell you so. This is only scrap­ing the sur­face of this amaz­ing city, be­cause once you step out­side those his­toric bound­aries you find there’s still so much to see and dis­cover. There are no geishas, for ex­am­ple, wan­der­ing through the cov­ered mar­ket area of Nishiki, a 10-minute walk across from the Kamo River that de­lin­eates the steep hills and wind­ing streets of Hi­gashiyama from the rest of the city. That doesn’t mat­ter though – what you get in­stead is a bustling area of tra­di­tional food stalls, their dis­plays packed with in­gre­di­ents fresh and pre­served, pack­aged and un­wrapped. Nishiki is as good a place as any to feel the real, lived-in Ky­oto, the place where lo­cals go to avoid the crush of tourists across the river. And it rep­re­sents, as well, one of the Ky­oto res­i­dents’ great loves: food. This is a city with more Miche­lin stars per capita than any in the world. The restau­rants here range from the small­est, cheap­est ra­men bars to the most ex­pen­sive, lux­u­ri­ous “kaiseki” meals. Whether you’re duck­ing into a Gion yak­i­tori bar or a sukiyaki joint on the banks of the Kamo, if you’re go­ing for yakiniku – a Ja­panese ver­sion of Korean bar­be­cue – near the cen­tral sta­tion or sit­ting down for a for­mal, multi-course meal at a ryokan, there is al­ways some­thing good to eat in Ky­oto. You could treat that food as de­li­cious fuel for the ad­ven­tur­ing ahead, be­cause while Hi­gashiyama is the per­fect place to walk off those calo­ries, the rest of the city is built for bik­ing, with wide, quiet streets and flat ter­rain. There’s no short­age of shops of­fer­ing rentals ei­ther, be­cause a bi­cy­cle is the ideal ve­hi­cle for ex­plor­ing the rest of the city. Be­gin your ped­al­ing jour­ney at Ky­oto’s cen­tral sta­tion and head north, past the Ky­oto In­ter­na­tional Manga Mu­seum and on to Nijo Cas­tle, a her­itage-listed, for­ti­fied palace built in the 1600s. Fur­ther to the north you’ll find Kinkaku-ji, the fa­mous Golden Pav­il­ion, a beau­ti­ful spot nes­tled by a lake in forested grounds. Even with­out th­ese world-renowned tem­ples and mon­u­ments, how­ever, Ky­oto is an amaz­ing place to just ex­plore, a city in which you stum­ble upon shrines and gar­dens and tem­ples so nu­mer­ous that they can’t pos­si­bly all be cov­ered by guide­books or tours. They just ex­ist, and ev­ery­one is wel­come to dis­cover them. Fur­ther still to the north, how­ever, lies an at­trac­tion that gains a men­tion in ev­ery guide­book, and that ev­ery tourist will come to know: the bam­boo grove of Arashiyama. It takes a train ride from cen­tral Ky­oto to reach this outer sub­urb, a quiet place with streets that are most of­ten filled with an ever-mov­ing line of vis­i­tors mak­ing their way up the hill and into the for­est. There lies a grove of the most enor­mous bam­boo trees, an eerie, stun­ning place in which you can walk around for hours sur­rounded by the thin, sway­ing trunks of this most Ja­panese of flora. It’s peace­ful and serene, a place the no­ble­men of Ky­oto must once have loved to visit and con­tem­plate. And – as with many ar­eas in this his­toric city – noth­ing much has changed since those days.

Ky­oto is an amaz­ing place to just a ex­plore, a city in which you stum­ble upon shrines and gar­dens and tem­ples so nu­mer­ous they can’t pos­si­bly be cov­ered by tours...’ guide­books or

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