There is something strangely beautiful about Kyoto that no other city I have been to can match. Not as glitzy as Tokyo, Kyoto is a window to the way things were back in the day when, instead of fast cars, hand pulled rickshaws ruled the roads of Japan. Dotted with temples and parks that stand alongside modern buildings, Kyoto can very well be called the city of contrasts.
7-11 and Lawsons cropping up outside the old Kabuki Theatre. Cars zooming past wooden establishments of Gion District where in the evenings, if you are lucky, Geishas and Meikos may still be seen rushing off to their appointments. Narrow alleyways, with old izakayas and traditional restaurants, branching out from popular shopping streets with the latest in fashion and electronics. Ladies dressed in colourful kimonos travelling on the city’s high speed subway trains, fiddling on their phones on their way to the city’s century old temples and shrines.
To me however, more that the temples and landmarks, Kyoto is synonymous with great walks. A wise man once said, a walk along the streets will tell you more about a city than any monument ever can.
One of my favourites was the hour long stroll on The Philosopher’s Path. It is said that Nishita Kitaro, one of the most influential professors of Kyoto University, used this route for his daily meditation. The path is along a canal with blooming cotton candy like cherry blossom trees lined up on both sides. As you walk, fishes in the canal will swim along, trying to keep up with you. There are several cosy looking coffee shops, boutiques and temples along this route where you can make side visits to. You may sit on the benches overlooking the canal under the shade of lush green trees and take in the mesmerizing beauty all around.
A walk in the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, though a little touristy, can be the highlight of your stay in Kyoto. While walking through the forest with golden rays of sunlight seeping in and chirp of birds emanating from the sky high bamboos that surround you, you will soon find yourself in a zen like state. After the bamboo forest, you may walk to the iconic Togetsukyo bridge. It is said that Emperor Kameyama claimed the bridge stretched all the way to the moon and hence it is also called the Moon Crossing bridge. Young children after taking blessings from the nearby temples are made to walk across the bridge without looking back as an initiation of faith. Looking back will bring bad luck that will last their entire life. (Avoid going on holidays and Sundays as it gets really crowded. Try early in the morning or afternoon on a week day instead. )
Fukushi Inari Shrine is one of the most revered Shinto shrines in Japan and is dedicated to Inari, the God of rice. Apart from religious reasons, people also visit it for its hiking trail that begin from the back of the main temple. On this trail, you will need to walk through thousands of tori gates and at several points, you can enjoy great views of Kyoto. The trail takes about 3 hours and though it can be a bit strenuous to a first time hiker, it’s totally worth it! (Again, this being a major tourist landmark, avoid Sundays and holidays to beat the crowd)
The walk up the hilly road to the Kiyomizu Temple is best enjoyed when the shops along it are open and teeming with people. On your way up to the temple, you can try various local dishes and exotic ice creams, including sakura and green tea flavoured ones at the roadside eateries. Being one of the most touristy part of the city, the place is full of shops where you may buy souvenirs. You will need to buy tickets to enter the temple halls but in case you are not the religious type, you may skip that and enjoy the vistas from the temple terrace. The best thing about this walk is, in case you want a break from the crowd, you can easily take a side alley and explore the quieter parts of the area or visit a quaint cafe to sample some authentic Japanese tea and sweets.
An evening walk along the Gion District is a must. In fact, it is mandatory. With sidewalks lit with traditional lights, aroma of different dishes from the roadside joints, scandalous dark alleys and sub alleys with mysterious izakayas, you will feel like you are in a scene from the Memoirs of Geisha. This is the old part of town where the wooden buildings and houses are still intact. Not far away is the Kamo river where locals take their evening walk or relax by the banks after a day of work. It’s a popular hangout with the young as well, and if you are lucky you may catch a live music event. In case you have time to spare and calories to burn, you can follow the river all the way to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. (Note, while the gardens of the palace are free, you will require a permit to enter the palace building.)
Among all the cities I visited in Japan, Kyoto was undoubtedly my favourite. Though it is one of the bigger cities of the country, it still has a relaxed, historical vibe to it, which sets it apart from the others.