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Published: February 18th 2020
One of the first train tickets we reserved when we arrived in Tokyo was our ticket to Kyoto; at nearly a week out we got some of the last seats on the right side of the train (it’s essential to get a window seat on the correct side of the train in order to view Mount Fuiji). Fortunately, we had already seen Mount Fuji earlier in our trip as this time it was shrouded in fog.
After an early and still-amazing (if Fuji-san less) bullet train ride we arrived in Kyoto, the pinnacle city of Japanese culture and tradition. Full of thousands of temples and gardens and hundreds of teahouses it was a highlight of our trip and even after a week there is much I want to return to see.
Our first sight was Nijo Castle, built in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu. Its palace buildings are possibly the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan's feudal era. The palace rooms are tatami mat covered and feature elegantly decorated ceilings and beautifully painted sliding doors. Completely different from any castle I'd seen before. Outside the Ninomaru Garden, a traditional
Japanese landscape garden with a large pond, ornamental stones and manicured pine trees, is also delightful. There was an art and food market outside the castle, with beautiful crafts such as painted fans and samples of sparkling sake.
Afterwards we sought out more serious sustenance at Nishiki Market, a five block long busy shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. Known as "Kyoto's Kitchen", this lively market specializes in all things food related, including knives and cookware, and is a great place to find seasonal foods and Kyoto specialties, such as Japanese sweets, pickles, various types of seafood and sake. Almost everything sold at the market is locally produced and procured. The market has a history of several centuries, and many stores have been operated by the same families for generations. Shopping here was a delight and well worth an afternoon.
Our first evening was spent watching the 62nd Gion Odori, a wonderful performance of dance and music by the geiko
of the Gion Higashi geisha district of Kyoto at the Gion Kaikan Theatre, with the theme of Thousands of Flowery Colors in Japan. Eight fun and beautiful dances named after different
colors, we particularly enjoyed the blue one where the women enacted the exploits of two fisherman-shaped puppets possessed by spirits (although we didn't have the full story until we reviewed the program). The autumn dance performance is a smaller version of the spring performance, but it's still recommended to get tickets in advance. Totally worth it!
During our visit to Kyoto we stayed at the charming Gojo Guesthouse (http://gojo-guest-house.com/), a budget guesthouse in a 100-year-old former traditional Japanese ryokan in a usefully central location. The shared facilities were a little bit more basic than our guesthouse in Tokyo, and the space was equally cold – no central heating in these guesthouses at all – but also lovely and with friendly and helpful staff. The private rooms, particularly the largest one, are highly recommended if you want someplace atmospheric to stay.
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