Kyoto: The Japan we think of as Japan

written by Glenn S. Tenney KOTJ

Earlier this year I was fortunate to be able to take my wife with me on business and show her a little of a wonderful city I've been to before -- Kyoto. Most Americans know something about Japan having heard of the crowds of people and the flashing lights of Tokyo. But that's only a small part of Japan. Kyoto is the Japan we remember reading about with men and women often dressed in traditional clothes. Kyoto is a city where you can visit thousands of temples, an ancient castle, museums, etc. all within easy reach of wherever you stay.

I've found that it is a great city to take walking tours -- often using a taxi at the end of the day. The tourist information center (near the Kyoto train station) or the Japanese National Tourist Organization (JNTO) in San Francisco have many brochures available. You can get a good feeling of Kyoto in one very long day (easier to do when you're traveling by yourself) of walking, but two or three days would be more reasonable and a week or two would be wonderful.

A good walking tour is in the eastern part of the city. You could start by visiting the Sanjusangen-do Temple which, among other things, has 1,001 gilded wooden statues of Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy). You can then walk up narrow cobble-stone streets lined with many interesting shops to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The temple buildings sit on a hill top affording a great view of the city. Walking down more old streets you might find a temple with a Zen rock garden and a forest of large bamboo, but you'll have to get the walking-tour map first because this temple is hidden with just a narrow stone staircase going up from the street.

In Central Kyoto there are two "must see" places: the old Imperial Palace, and the Nijo Castle. The old Imperial Palace includes many interesting old buildings and several gardens on 27 acres. If you're fortunate, you might be there when there's a tour in English or, like me, you might find a very friendly tourist who speaks both English and Japanese who can translate for the tour guide. The Nijo Castle is a huge area complete with steep stone walls, secret chambers, moats, gardens, etc. built in 1603 for the first Tokugawa shogun. You'll even get a chance to walk on the famous "nightingale floor" that "chirps" like a bird when you walk on it, no matter how lightly you try to step. As you walk around the city you'll find that not all the buildings are ancient, some are avant garde examples of modern art.

Why go to Japan, especially Kyoto, only to stay in a Western-style room at a Hilton or a Holiday Inn? On our last trip we used the JNTO's web site (http://www.jnto.go.jp) to check out the Welcome Inn's database of hotels as well as their brochures of hotels and "affordable" places to stay. We wanted to stay at a Ryokan in a Japanese-style room. We found one (Hotel Iida) that in America might not sound ideal -- a five story hotel a 3 minute walk from the train station. But, in Kyoto, that location was fine and very safe. We had a very large Japanese-style room with tatami mats and futons for sleeping. Our room had a private bath (the bathtub and toilet were separate), a foyer, and a very large main room (about three times the size of the room we had in Tokyo). The cost for the two of us was 8,000 Yen (ie. less than $80)! The hotel also had a shared bath area (since they also had rooms without baths) where you could soak in the evening if you wanted, instead of using your own private tub.

Not only are the temples and castles 400 - 600 years old, but so are some of the restaurants. Lunches are almost always a great deal, while dinners are often more expensive. Lunches, and some dinners, can be had for under $10 per person although the special tempura lunch we had at a 400 year old restaurant cost closer to $20. Ramen and udon places are generally less expensive dinner choices while sushi and tempura are great deals at lunch time. Of course, the sky's the limit if you go to "formal" traditional restaurants for dinners or if you want "Western-style" meals any time. An interesting option for dinner is to try a restaurant in a department store. They're unlike department store restaurants in America as their quality is more like that of a local restaurant. At one of the department stores near our hotel they had eight restaurants, each with a different specialty such as Chinese, sushi, ramen, tempura, etc. That department store also had one entire floor dedicated to food -- everything you could imagine was available, often for take-out. They even had a French bakery, a Harrod's outlet, and made their own ice cream and gelatto.

A special feature of a Ryokan or Ryokan-style hotel is to have a full Kaiseki dinner served in your room. We only had one such dinner, but would have been thrilled to have had many more. This dinner (costing only about 2,000 or 3,000 Yen per person) was a ten or twelve course dinner including sashimi, sushi, grilled beef, cooked fish, vegetables, miso, and desert. Everything was presented beautifully and there was more than enough to eat.

When you go to Japan, don't be afraid of adventuring out. Don't let the language be a barrier -- just relax, slow down, and don't expect everyone to understand spoken English. In some parts of Japan, especially outside of Tokyo, don't expect all of the signs to be in English. You can get by very easily if you follow the maps and aren't afraid to ask for help. Finally, be sure to find out more about the culture before you go (the Lonely Planet travel books can be a good resource). Remember that things are not going to be as they are at home even if they do look similar.


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