The Streets of Kyoto

Kyoto has a magical ring to it. The city is often said to be the spiritual center of Japan — the Lonely Planet calls it “a walk in mysterious places.” So I was expecting a city of great beauty. And a few of the streets of Kyoto do have a great deal of charm. One Edo-era neighborhood boasts wooden slats …

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… and twisting alleys …

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… and some scenes on and near Kiyomizu-Zaka Street may even remind you of what the city might have been like over a century ago:

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For the most part, however, I found the streetscapes of Kyoto surprisingly drab. Trees are few and far between, and parks are rarer. Wires hang everywhere. As for the houses and apartment buildings, the paint colors of choice seem to be (1) brown, (2) grey, or (3) grey-brown.

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We learned that finding the beauty in this city is all about looking for the details, from paper lanterns …

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… to stone lanterns …

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… to bound rocks …

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… to sudden bursts of spring in along the edge of the sidewalks:

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As my mother, sister and I walked along, we found people engaged in a wide variety of activities, including wedding photography …

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… a game I called “dirtball,” which looked to be some kind of combination of golf and bocce …

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… and elaborate geisha costuming …

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… of all sorts:

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Indeed, if you walk around the eastern temple district, you’ll find women dressed in geisha garb all over the place.

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But geishas aren’t the only dress-up you’ll find. We saw an adult version of Strawberry Shortcake (minus the frilly cap) at one temple, and this outfit at another:

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If you go to Kyoto in late March or early April, the streets will be brightened by cherry trees bursting into blossom — it’s sakura season!

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And you never know when you’re going to turn a corner and find blossoms lining the way.

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One of the most famous places to go see cherry trees in bloom is Maruyama Park, the oldest park in Kyoto.

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This park has over 650 cherry trees …

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… and they set up dozens of food stalls, put tatami mats on the ground …

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… and give visitors all of the space they could possibly want to take pictures under the trees.

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Some of the trees are so old or fragile that their branches need to be propped up by large poles:

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We even found a lemon tree!

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You also never know when you’re going to run into a temple or a shrine — they seem to pop up everywhere. We found this temple gate in the middle of a busy shopping street:

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One of the best parts of walking around Kyoto is the food. We loved our lunch at Tofu Restaurant Rengetsujaya, where we had “10 courses of tofu.” My favorite was the tofu hot pot (yudofu), but I also loved the “bean curd hardened with agar (looks like water fall)” …

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… the “fried wheat with miso” …

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… and the “dessert” (though to this day I am not sure whether we were supposed to eat the leaf — I can only tell you that each one of us tried a nibble and no one died).

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This lunchtime outing was fairly expensive and absolutely worth it. But if you want a simple meal instead, you can do that, too — you might opt for onomiyaki (a sort of cabbage pancake) …

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… or stop at a yakatori place (we went to Torisei) that serves yummy soy eggplant and fried tofu:

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And if you’re hankering for a quick, sweet snack, there are soft serve shops — offering flavors like black sesame and sakura in addition to the more usual options — everywhere.

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You can also shop to your heart’s content in the touristy areas of Kyoto.

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Here you can buy fantastically overpriced (and delicious) dried fruit out on the street …

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… silk (or faux silk) fans and purses …

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… or tiny cookies and candy …

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We found ourselves captivated by the beautiful bowls and sake cups at Tosai Ceramics (which, unfortunately, live in a “no photo” zone). And I loved being invited into this entryway by Totoro!

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It’s impossible not to love some of the signs you see as you walk around.

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I especially liked the notion of offering an understanding of English at no extra charge:

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We found a number of places that we did not expect as we wandered around Kyoto. For example, we came across an elaborate set of canals …

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… one of which was rushing with the rain …

… that flowed into this small lake (there’s also a canal museum there in the background).

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We were also surprised by the enormity of Kyoto’s central train station.

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Two side notes: (1) Japanese trains stations are phenomenally complicated and (2) the trains are 100% on time. So it’s worth getting to the station early if you need to catch a train and are not familiar with the station set-up. But if you’re just at Kyoto station to enjoy yourself — and you could be, because the station is at the heart of shopping mall heaven — then you can ride the escalators up, up, up to the 10th floor …

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… and find yourself at a giant food plaza with over a dozen restaurants, many of which  offer spectacular views of the city. Or you can go to the 6th floor, where a trip to Malebranche cafe inside of the Isetan department store will yield you delicious pastries — including a sort of creamsicle delight and a mont blanc!

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We took these to go (the line to sit and have tea on a Saturday afternoon was far too long), walked north, and ate them outside of the Kyoto Handicraft Center.

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The Handicraft Center is a fascinating place — it’s two buildings with a combined four floors of shopping, featuring crafts of all kinds from all over Japan. I bought a silk wrap and cinnamon-flavored mochi slices while narrowly escaping the purchase of extra-cute bento boxes, origami paper, and tiny lacquered spoons. We did stop to take some photos with this guy before we left:

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On our last night, Jocelyn and I wandered over to the Gion neighborhood for dinner. Here, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves under rows and rows of towering cherry trees:

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It was an incredible scene; even though it was crowded, we were both captivated. We sat and had a drink at the W bar (where they do not know what a whiskey sour is) and looked out over the canal at the trees …

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… before going out underneath them ourselves with our newly-purchased umbrellas:

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