During Kyoto’s annual Mifune Matsuri (Three Boat Festival), beautifully decorated boats float down the Oigawa River, transforming it into a gorgeous, colorful spectacle. Three decorated with dragons lead the way, followed by numerous smaller boats.
Kyoto – Been There

Kyoto, Japan's truly wonderful cultural hub

Photo by Floris Leeuwenberg

Kyoto – Been There Kyoto, Japan's truly wonderful cultural hub

Tokyo is not the best place to get acquainted with traditional Japan, if only for the fact that the city was largely destroyed – not once, but twice – in the last century. Kyoto, a two-and-a-half-hour bullet train ride away, has had a much different fate. With more than 2,000 temples and an astonishing 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, the former imperial capital of Japan is one of the richest cultural cities in the world.

Jurriaan Teulings
Jurriaan Teulings Travel Writer

Gion is Kyoto’s timeless entertainment district. The cobbled streets are lined with machinya – traditional wooden houses – that spark to life as the sun sets over the temple-clad hills. Time seems to stand still in the warm glow of the street lanterns, though geiko (as geishas are called in the local dialect) are much more of an anomaly today than they were a century ago. Even so, the odd geiko can still be glimpsed on her way to an appointment at one of the secreted ochaya; teahouses that aren’t so much about tea as they are about the refined entertainment.

The most famous ochaya is the 300-year-old Ichiriki Ochaya, an exclusive establishment that, according to legend, hasn’t changed since the time of the samurai. These days it is wealthy businessmen that frequent Ichiriki; only the right connections will get you in, and very few foreigners have ever been granted the honor.

Much more accessible than the elusive geiko culture of the ochaya are the city’s myriad gardens, temples and palaces. In fact, there is so much to see that it requires a bit of planning, given the relatively short period of time most visitors have to spend. It can feel rather daunting to grasp 1,000 vibrant years of history in a few days, but that shouldn’t – and doesn’t – stop anyone from trying.

A good start is a visit to the Zen gardens of Ryoanji, whose deceptive simplicity hides a complexity that subconsciously evokes a feeling of calm and well-being. In fact, It took a team of scientists to properly demonstrate the garden’s mathematics. In an article published by Nature, they analyzed the rock garden and found that along a central line of sight the appealing shape of a branched tree emerges in relief. If one of the rocks is moved, the magic disappears.

Less abstract is the beauty of the 1,001 statues of the Sanjusangen-do temple which, like Senso-ji in Tokyo, is dedicated to Kannon, this time in a 1,000-armed incarnation. Not to be missed are the splendid gardens of the imperial palace (the palace itself is not open to the public) and the Golden Pavilion, after which more than 2,000 places of interest remain. Even the most dedicated garden and temple aficionado could spend years visiting the sights of Kyoto without seeing the same site twice.

Granted, Kyoto is bite-sized in comparison to the megalopolis of Tokyo. But with 1.5 million inhabitants, its small-town feel can be misleading. To properly unwind and digest the many centuries of wonder, it’s best to escape urban vibe and head for the spiritual mountain retreat of Koya-san. It is only half a day trip away from the big-city buzz of Kyoto and many visitors come to stay in one of the numerous monasteries.

Here, Buddhist monks encourage them to join their daily meditation routines, in incense-filled sanctuaries – a truly unforgettable experience of uneventful bliss, and an excellent opportunity to reflect on the wondrous ease with which Japan allows you to pulse between the future and the past while keeping you keenly aware of the present.

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