23rd July
written by Hope

Picture it: It’s sundown, and Hope and Jeremy are walking down a Hanamikoji, a ridiculously picturesque cobblestone street in Kyoto. The street is lined with tea houses and exclusive restaurants, and all of the buildings are constructed in the traditional Japanese style, with thin wood slats backed by rice paper screens. Hand-dyed noren (Japanese split door curtains) flap in the slight breeze, exposing tatami-matted interiors where geisha entertain Japanese businessmen until the wee hours of the morn.

Hope: Can you believe how gorgeous Kyoto is?!?
Jeremy: Yeah, it really is.
Hope: Beautiful.
Jeremy: …
Hope: Hmm…I wonder how expensive this restaurant is? [Studies menu furiously.]
Jeremy: Hope! Hope!!!

[Geisha enters and exits scene. The sound of wooden sandals clacking against pavement fades out.]

And that’s how I missed our one and only geisha sighting in Kyoto.

We were completely set up for the shot—she was walking directly towards us, and had I been paying attention, rather than looking at the menu (the stupid menu!), I would have been able to take at least 2 photos of her before she passed. Yes, it was very depressing, but I felt even more sad for the poor geisha, who had at least 5 tourists literally running after her, trying to take her photo. This made me feel better about not getting my own shot—the poor gal probably feels that she’s been documented enough, thankyouverymuch.

Oh well, on the bright side, it’s hard to stay depressed in Kyoto. Man, is it beautiful here! To be fair, Kyoto is a big city, so if you ever make it out this neck of the planet, don’t expect to step off the train and into a scene like the one described above. You do have to deal with a bit of urban sprawl. But the delightful thing about Kyoto is that between all those congested city streets is a charming and vibrant town of cobblestoned pedestrian walkways, Japanese teahouses, and a myriad of other cultural treasures, just waiting to be discovered. For a big city, Kyoto feels like an intimate little town, and a quaint and traditional one at that.

women in yukata (summer kimono), kyoto
Women in yukata (summer kimono) walking on one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric streets, Sannen-zaka.

Temple-exploring is the name of the game in Kyoto, and we were happy to oblige.

kiyomizudera, kyoto
One of the most famous temples in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera. Perched in the eastern Higashiyama mountains, it offers gorgeous views of the city.

kyoto view
View from Kodai-ji Temple.

It has been really cool to see the differences between Buddhism across Asia, and how local culture gets infused into the architecture of the temples and the way in which people worship. Japanese temples are all about natural wood highlighted with gold accents—compare this with highly decorated Chinese Buddhist temples (like Kek Lok Si Temple in Malaysia), or the gilded surfaces of Laotian temples (like those in Luang Prabang), and you’ll see how differently Buddhist devotion is expressed across this continent. I have to say, the natural wood and simplicity of Japanese temples is really quite appealing, and makes the few gilded surfaces and colorful accents stand out more since there isn’t SO much to look at.

amazing roof tiles, kyoto
Detail of a temple’s roof tiles.

In Japan, we notice a few differences in the way that people worship as well. You will usually see a small fountain of running water at the entrance to a temple…you are meant to scoop the water out of the fountain to wash your hands before you enter, as these schoolkids are doing below:

schoolkids washing before entering kiyomizudera, kyoto
Schoolkids washing their hands before entering Kiyomizudera.

Second, there seems to be some sort of bell-ringing ritual in Japan…usually a bell is hung at the top of an altar, with thick, beautiful rope running from the bell all the way to the floor. Worshippers can ring this bell (usually after they throw a coin into a slotted donation box). This is pretty different from other Buddhist worship we’ve seen, where bell ringing seems to be done exclusively by monks.

worshippers ringing bells at yasaka-jinja, kyoto
Worshippers ringing the bell in front of Yasaka-jinja.

We also see these folded paper strips dangling off the roofs of many temples…and they are so beautiful and simple that it seems like there must be some sort of metaphor behind them.

folded paper at temple, kyoto
Folded paper strips hanging off the roof of a small shrine we encountered in the middle of the Imperial Palace Park.

Finally, we’re not sure what this is all about, but Japanese people put little aprons (and sometimes wee little hats) on all the stone figures scattered around a temples’ grounds. Are they trying to clothe the statues so they aren’t hanging out there in the open with everything exposed? Keep them warm? We have no idea! But it’s pretty cute, and delightfully Japanese.

little shrine in the mountains behind nanzen-ji, kyoto
Stone figures covered modestly in aprons near Kotoku-an.

But Kyoto isn’t only about temples…there are also some incredible gardens that you can stroll through, admiring the beauty and appreciating the silence.

nijo-jo gardens, kyoto
The gardens outside of Nijo-jo Castle.

gardens of konchi-in, kyoto
We were in Japan while the hydrangeas were going off, shown here in the gardens of Konchi-in.

kodai-ji, kyoto
Kodai-ji gardens.

If the temples and gardens weren’t enough to make your heart skip a beat, the city is freakin’ gorgeous too. Most nights, we walked along the Kamo River around sunset, which has tons of outdoor restaurants/bars lining it’s western bank. If, like us, you don’t want to pay the inflated prices along this picturesque stretch of water, you can stroll along it’s pedestrian pathway, watching egrets and crows bathe themselves in the river waters.

the kamo river at nightfall, kyoto

OK, I just wrote a book and I have barely covered half of what we did in Kyoto! But I’ll happily continue on in a second post…I’m enjoying reliving our memories of this place (hopefully) as much as you are. :)



  1. Laurie Hermann

    LOVE YOUR BLOG!!! xoxo

  2. Bunny

    Sooo, just how expensive was that restaurant of the geisha sighting? Did you eat there?

  3. 25/07/2009

    Hi Bunny- We didn’t eat at that particular restaurant…on Hanamikoji, the restaurants where geisha entertain are very expensive and exclusive. You must be introduced by an established patron, so very few Westerners get to see the inside of one of these places…which makes my missed geisha connection even more painful!

  4. Bunny

    Thanks for satisfying my curiosity. And I totally understand the $$(yen) factor. Sorry you missed the geisha. I have a feeling there will be other opportunities.

  5. Lisa

    I like the phrase “hydrangeas were going off”. Delightful imagery.

  6. Tomkat

    Hi Guys
    I mention this because you might go back to Japan.
    We’ve now done 3 trips there in 3 years and your impression of it being expensive is not so true neccessarily.
    We use a chain called Toyoko Inns in every big town,usually near a major station. Yes you do the Ryokan thing sometimes but Toyoko Inns are a great double bed,full computer setup,own bathroom and great free breakfast - easy internet booking and always $75-$100 night. Business people hotels.
    The other top tip - go to the basement food hall in every Dept. store around 5 pm. You’ll gorge on free samples and buy up excellent sushi bento boxes and beer at 50% off already cheap prices - they have to get rid of it! Also the 7/11 type convenience store on every corner is stuffed with cheap food, sake,chocolate,icecream etc. just so cheap! …and better quality than we are used to.
    Also we don’t get railpasses . Too restricting and the slightly slower trains are much cheaper! Ferries overnight to Shikoku and Kyushu etc are fun and a bargain.
    So we travel Japan for less than home (Australia) and still in style.
    Rent cars through Tocoo.com are cheap too and driving, except in cities of course, is easy.

    Love the blog guys. Planning to do Turkey this May in your footsteps somewhat.

  7. 24/01/2010

    Hi Tom + Kat! Thanks so much for your suggestions. Funny enough, because we were traveling in the rest of Asia for so long prior to Japan (where prices are significantly cheaper), $75 to $100 for a room seemed *really* expensive to us! We never did the dept. store thing (great tip), but definitely did breakfasts and lunches at the 7-11 occasionally. And, re: the rail passes, i think it worked out for us this trip to get them, but we will definitely be doing the math next time, as they took a big chunk out of our daily budget!

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