Kyoto is a fantastic juxtaposition to its sister city of Tokyo: where Tokyo is filled with everything bright, colorful, modern, and electronic, Kyoto has quietly continued to keep its traditions and cultural icons the center of attention in the city. It has its quirks, like every city does, but its love of the simpler joys of life, tea, nature, and beautiful temples, are what truly bring out the best of Kyoto and its people.
Modern Japanese culture is still very much steeped in respect and reverence for the past, and traditions continue to thrive for generations. Public bathhouses have been a mainstay in Japanese culture for centuries, becoming one of the few places in society where noblemen, warriors, and the common man could all mingle together. Today visitors can also step into one of Kyoto’s many onsen, or public bathhouses, themselves, and sink into the hot steaming waters. International visitors with tattoos will want to call ahead to find out the onsen’s tattoo policy; traditionally tattoos were associated with crime in Japan and thus tattoos were forbidden in onsens, but with the influx of tattoo-adorned tourists, many of these bathhouses are relaxing their policies in an effort to welcome those from abroad.
Much of the heart of Kyoto’s history and cultural center is in the district of Gion. Once considered the “red-light” district of Kyoto, Gion began as a development in order to accommodate visitors and devotees to the local Yasaka Shrine. Over time the focus shifted to becoming one of the premier geisha districts in the country, although the Kyoto geisha refer to themselves as geiko; geisha translates to “artist”, while geiko specifically means “a woman of the arts”. The city of Kyoto has taken great pains to preserve this historic district as much as possible, and travelers will delight in visiting the local tea houses, seeing the local geiko walking the streets, or participating in one of the many local festivals.
Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most popular sights in the entire city of Kyoto. This gorgeous golden temple is covered in shimmering gold leaf sits on a placid pond, creating a beautifully tranquil sight of the water reflecting the golden image. Originally the building was built in the late 14th century as a retirement home for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, but his son converted it to a temple. In the 1950s a monk obsessed with the temple burned it to the ground, and the pavilion was restored with gold leaf covering the exterior. The temple is open to the public from 9 AM to 5 PM daily, but it can get quiet crowded so plan to visit either early or late in the day to avoid the crowds.
When you’re ready for a break from sightseeing, step into one of the city’s shops and see if you can find some of Kyoto’s signature matcha treats. Matcha, or green tea powder, is incorporated into all kinds of sweets and snacks here, not limited to:
- matcha ice cream
- matcha chocolates
- matcha terrine
- matcha pastries
- matcha parfaits
- matcha tiramisu
- and more!
If your tastes are more sedate (and less sweet), then you can either purchase simple matcha powder for green tea or visit a tea house to experience traditional Japanese tea at its finest.
The perfect way to end your a long day of sightseeing and shopping for matcha sweets is to take a deep breath among Kyoto’s beautiful and lush nature. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is an otherworldly experience much like one would imagine how insects feel walking between blades of grass. The light is tinted a distinctly emerald shade as it filters between the bamboo stalks, and the path is illuminated by lanterns to help visitors make their way along the path. The trek through the grove makes its way slowly uphill until you reach the top, where you’ll see the entrance to the Okochi-Sanso Villa.
Many travelers wonder when is the best time to take their trip to beautiful Kyoto; the answer is, anytime! Winter blankets the temples and landscape with a delicate frosting of snow, and is often one of the quietest times of year with the fewest number of tourists. Spring is one of the most magical times in the city, when the cherry and plum blossoms bloom on the trees, framing the city in shades of pink and white. Summer in Kyoto can be humid with the frequent rains, but the warm weather makes it the perfect time to explore the outdoor and riverside dining options. Last but not least is Autumn, when the leaves begin to change from green to vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and fiery red; much like watching the cherry blossoms in spring, many visitors come to see the Autumn colors in the fall when the city is painted in these brilliant hues.
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