A whirlwind tour of Kyoto’s attractions
by Melissa Feineman
Do you feel overwhelmed by the chaotic pace and high-decibel drone of Tokyo? If so, Kyoto offers a welcome respite from this heaving metropolis of ours. At only two and a half hours away by shinkansen, it makes for an easy weekend trip, although you’ll probably find that two days isn’t enough for all the sightseeing and relaxation that you’d like.
My perfect Kyoto day begins at Heian Shrine. It’s nearly impossible to miss the large orange torii. Most visitors simply see the main grounds of the shrine, though, neglecting the garden behind it, easily one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in the city. Don’t miss the stepping stones on the pond here, immortalized by Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. I then head for the Path of Philosophy, where I admire the foliage along the stone pathway. There are numerous temples and shrines along the way, but my favorite is Eikando-ji, unique because of its sculpture of the Amida Buddha looking over his shoulder. I then stop by Cafe Peace, a wonderful vegetarian restaurant near Kyoto University, before heading back along the Kamo river to the heart of the city — the Sanjo Kawaramachi area.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Nozomi Super-Express shinkansen will whisk you there in two and a half hours for about ¥27,000 (return). If you have a little time to spare, then you can take a night bus for around ¥8,000 return. Buses generally depart from Shinjuku in the late evening and arrive in Kyoto the next morning.
Kyoto has two subway lines (it is worth riding the Tozai line simply to hear the shamisen sound before the doors close) and a number of buses, most of which pass through Kyoto station. However, by far the easiest way to get around is by bicycle. Kyoto has the twin advantages of being relatively flat and being arranged on a grid system, which makes it fairly easy to navigate.
WHAT TO DO
Of course, Kyoto is famed for its temples, shrines, and gardens, and no trip to Kyoto is complete without visiting at least a handful. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is all Kyoto has to offer. If you are longing for romance, nothing beats an evening stroll along Pontocho, one of the renowned geisha quarters of yesteryear (if you get your timing right, you may still run into a maiko or trainee geisha gracefully swishing along to her next appointment). Gion is also an ideal spot for a romantic meander. Start along Shijo-dori and take a detour on Hanami-koji-dori and explore the small side streets with some of Kyoto’s machiya or traditional-style houses. Once you’re back on Shijo-dori, head up to Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park, both worth visiting by day, but breathtakingly eerie at night. The Kamo river also provides a lovely backdrop to your romantic tryst. You may notice an interesting trend that one of my friends pointed out to me — all of the couples seated alongside the Kamo river are spread an equal distance from one another. Why is this? No one is quite sure, but don’t be afraid to join them!
One of Kyoto’s other great treasures is its culinary-offerings, and it won’t take you long to discover the delights of yatsuhashi, Kyoto’s signature sweets. They come in two varieties, fresh or dried. The fresh ones are triangle-shaped pockets filled with goodness such as anko (adzuki bean paste), strawberry, or chocolate, while the dry ones are cinnamon-flavored cookies. Some of Kyoto’s other signature foods are tsukemono or pickled vegetables. The variety of tsukemono is simply astounding, and most shops have extensive free samples for you to munch on. Don’t be shy about trying these, because you will most likely find some varieties to be scrumptious and others to be prohibitively sour or bitter. Tofu is another one of Kyoto’s specialties, and if you’ve always wanted to try tofu ice cream, here’s your chance. All of Kyoto’s culinary delights can be found in Nishiki market, a must-see for foodies, but worthwhile for just about anyone.
Kyoto is also great for shopping, and you’ll be surprised to discover how much cheaper it is than Tokyo! The shopping arcades that run parallel to Kawaramachi have a lot of Kyoto originals, and they’re great places to go on a rainy afternoon or pick up some fun souvenirs.