Kyoto streets: the blast from the past

On our first day in Kyoto, we thought it would be more interesting to walk than to bike. As a result we walked for more than 8 hours, starting at Nijo castle in the morning and ending our visit at Miyozudera temple as the sun set. It’s a fantastic itinerary to discover the old streets and habits of Kyoto, but if I did it again, I would definitely rent a bike!

Nijo castle

If you want a good feel of what Kyoto looked and felt like in its glory as the capital of Japan, the best is to start from Nijo Castle. There are actually two castles in Nijo: one for each (douve). The first one is open to visitors and is well worth a visit. There are also scenes of local life to witness, although most of the rooms seemed to have been planned for the shogun to meet his lords (daimyo) or his close relatives. Compared to European castles interior decoration is pretty minimalistic, yet very rich and formal to Japanese standards. The attention to detail is particularly striking in Nijo castle.

Take a walk through Nijo’s garden before you head back to modern Kyoto, and don’t miss the incredible peony trees growing close to the Northern walls.

Old Kyoto districts

As we were a bit hungry we decided to head towards Nishiki market, a famed Kyoto market for gourmets. And indeed, we saw appetizing food there, including krill, hundreds of different fish and vegetables (mostly pickled) and many street vendors. We did resist the temptation though until we found a homey local restaurant serving tempura. Wish I could do these at home too. Anyone with a good tempura dough recipe, please send it my way!

We walked through Pontocho street which is full of fancy restaurants to dine out. Most of them have a terrace with a view over the Kamo river (Kamogawa). It must be a lovely (and expensive) experience at night, though beware of the early dinner times of the locals.

Next we headed towards Gion, the most famous old district of Kyoto, where you cannot walk more than 500m without seeing a temple or shrine. And it’s true! The streets and houses there look really like in the old time, and the impression is reinforced by the fact that Japanese tourists dress up as lords and ladies from the Heian and Edo periods. We were tempted to rent some costumes too but seeing how hard it is to climb up temple staircases with zuri (traditional flipflops) we decided against it. Next time if we go with the kids we’ll do it 🙂

Geisha and maiko spotting

Take a look at the map of the area and just follow the tourists. There are also a couple of nice shops, with less touristy or at least better quality items than the usual tourist traps selling fans and chopsticks. In one of them, we found a nore, one of thoses pieces of fabric that hang in the upper part of the doorway. Nore have several uses: they allow to leave the door open but you cannot see what is going on inside, so when samurai came into a place they had to do so carefully. I guess today they also serve to capture smells and fumes from the kitchen, as I have mostly seen them used at the entrance of kitchen or restaurants.

All in all Kyoto is a must-see city if you want to experience traditional Japan. With enough money you can also be entertained and served tea by a geisha, and you’ll see plenty of maiko (future geisha) in the streets of Kyoto.

To recognize them, here are some tricks:

  • geisha use their real hair and keep it tight with one or two elegant brooches, they wear very white makeup and full red lips. Their kimono is rather monochrome with a color or golden rim at the bottom.
  • maiko have elaborate hairdo and they use a wig, which shows because they always keep a strip of their face unpainted at the top. Their face is white with pink at the cheeks and their kimono are flowery and colorful.

We loved visiting the temples all around town and spending time in Saga-Arashiyama.

What is your preferred district in Kyoto?

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