If you’ve ever seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, your expectations of Kyoto are likely to be limited to images of red-lipped hostesses with porcelain white skin entertaining men with their conversation, dance and song. Don’t be fooled! Once Japan’s capital city, Kyoto is a cultural heartland where the Japanese themselves go to experience the true, ancient Japan.
The icing on the matcha cake is that Kyoto’s highlights can be explored in just a few days. Our guide to spending a long weekend in Kyoto will have you saying “miso happy” in no time.
More than just a place to sleep, ryokans are an opportunity to experience true Japanese culture, hospitality and service. But don’t expect the modern comforts of a western hotel; Ryokans are comprised of minimalist tatami (mat) rooms. You will be expected to trade your clothes and shoes for Japanese-style robes and slippers, sleep on traditional Japanese futon bedding and indulge in a kaiseki (multi-course) dinner.
If you’re eager to experience an urban ryokan, then Kyoto is the best place to do so. We stayed at Arashiyama Benkei that has its very own onsen (Japanese hot spring). Immersing yourself in these hot baths can be both therapeutic and just downright interesting… mainly because bathing suits are strictly not allowed!
Located in Arashiyama, the Bamboo Forest has been labelled as one of the most beautiful groves on earth. While the beauty of its towering and interconnected green stalks is what had us lusting for a visit, it is actually listed as one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan, as set by the Japanese Ministry of Environment. Rightly so, due to the interplay of eerie and unique sounds created by the rustling and bending bamboo as it sways in the wind. Be sure to get there early though; you’ll want to avoid the onslaught of photographers keen to get a shot of this natural wonder.
A little known fact about sushi is that it has various regional styles – such as the Kyoto-style sushi offered by the restaurants Izuju and Izuu in the city’s famous Gion district. Centuries ago, Kyoto had a tough time acquiring fresh food, so Kyoto-style sushi had to incorporate a lot of cured fish. Give the sabazushi a try – pickled mackerel with sushi rice. Our favourite is the inarizushi – sushi rice in pockets of sweet bean curd skin, simmered in a traditional hearth.
Shrines And Temples
In a city with over 2000 shrines and temples, beggars actually can be choosers. Perhaps the single most iconic sight in all of Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine. Dedicated to the gods of rice and sake, this magical 8th century shrine is comprised of a seemingly unending path of over 5000 vibrant orange torii gates. If navigating your way through this maze doesn’t strike your fancy, head to Kamigamo-jinja Shrine instead – the perfect sanctuary for those seeking calm and solace.
Of course, no trip to Kyoto is complete without having spotted a real life geisha. Though they can be found throughout Japan, Kyoto is considered the birthplace of geisha culture. Gion Corner is where you’ll want to be, but you’ll need some serious luck. Tracking down a geisha is like finding a needle in a haystack!
If playing Where’s Wally isn’t your idea of a good time, then arrange for a private geisha meeting at one of Kyoto’s many tea houses. For a fee, you’ll be able to sip green tea and observe a unique geisha performance. It’ll be the perfect end to your getaway in majestic Kyoto.
This story was originally published on Wanderluxe by The Luxe Nomad.
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