Did it ever occur to you that Kyoto is just a few switched letters away from Tokyo? Me neither. The name apparently means capital, which is what Kyoto used to be before eventually ceasing the crown to Tokyo. Fitting, since Kyoto is famed as a place where the traditional meets the new.
First impression: Kyoto has an incredibly modern train station, a black cube of light-sucking surfaces, a maze of corridors and bento kiosks. The city immediately outside of the station features mostly concrete buildings and shopping establishments. Upon arrival, it feels as though the city wants to shake off its traditional image and it took is a while to figure out why it had that reputation to begin with.
The people certainly seemed different from the rest of Japan as well. Gone was the hesitance of Southern Japan, menus were occasionally in English and I was thrilled beyond words to get the first warm meal in a while; a steaming wooden pot of udon noodles, served from a giant tub of pasta water. There were also a lot more tourists than in any other place we visited. Still not a lot, due to the rain season, but noticeably more than what we had seen in the South of Japan.
We rented bikes and explored. The bike rental guy, a thin Japanese man with extremely tight jeans and exceedingly hip sunglasses warned us of the traffic. What he hadn’t mentioned were other bikers, one of which cut Anika off, who fell and scraped her knee. “I’ll consider it a souvenir”, she said and we soldiered on, trying to locate the city center.
In Japan, searching for street names on Google maps doesn’t work (the language barrier’s latest triumph), and so you have to look things up beforehand, mark them on the map and pray that Google maps won’t forget your pins while you are offline. Or you buy a map, which we were of course too cheap for – never mind our reluctance of walking around with a map. There is no way we could have passed for anything but tourists, but one hast to try, right?
With my map on strike, we skipped many of the temples (Anika, in typical pragmatic fashion: “If you have seen one, you have seen all”) and instead biked along the river that crosses the city center. We also visited a bamboo forest in the outskirts of the city, which most people seem to pass over in favor of the adjacent monkey park. In fact, several signs alert you that ”this is not the monkey park“. We were rewarded with an eerily quiet park, where the stems swayed in the wind of the upcoming storm. By the time the rain came, we had found refuge in an ice cream parlor that charged such astronomical sums for matcha ice cream that we elected to split a bowl. Another nice thing about Japan is that people are so friendly there that they won’t even frown upon the sharing of ice cream bowls.
Before moving on, we did see one temple: The Fushima Inaachi shrine that is famous for its endless orange gates. We went in the early morning hours, trying to get ahead of the crowds and still ran into groups of tourists. Let’s just say my photos make it seem a lot emptier than it was. Still beautiful.