As feudal Japan’s capital for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto is a fascinating city. As the birthplace of the famous Japanese Matcha green tea and the traditional tea ceremony; as the seat of politics, religion, art and culture, Kyoto offers a multitude of sights and experiences for the curious traveler. I, for one simply couldn’t have enough of Kyoto’s vibrant nightlife – it’s plum wine in particular and its upbeat gastro pubs. Here’s a quick checklist of what you must definitely try on your trip to Kyoto:
Gion district: Many of the remaining 27,000 traditional Kyoto-style houses can be seen in the ancient Gion district. Also a seat of culture, Gion is home to the traditional entertainers of Kyoto- namely the geisha and maiko. Gion is irresistibly mysterious and daunting with its beautiful cobblestone streets and traditional lamps that fill the district in a subtle orange glow. Girls like to dress in kimonos and sometimes even paint their faces for the geisha experience but the real geishas and maikos are very elusive and distant – never to be found mingling with the public on the streets.
One can see the cultural show at the Gion Corner for 3,500 yen (AED 107) which includes a Kyomai performance by maiko, the ikebana –art of Japanese flower arrangement, tea ceremony, a Gagaku court music performance, koto zither- a stringed instrument performance and Bunraku, which is Japan’s traditional puppet theatre, and was put on UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.
Nanzenji temple: One of the best temples in the Northern Higashiyama district, Nanzen-ji Temple is a sprawling Zen paradise surrounded by lush green hills.
Ginkaku-ji temple: Known as the “Silver Pavilion”, has magnificient halls and gardens.
Kinkaku-ji, the famed “Golden Pavilion,” is Kyoto’s most iconic sight and must- visit.
Kyoto International Manga Museum: Browse a collection of over 300,000 manga comic books and graphic novels or check out the galleries that show both the historical development of manga and original artwork as well as they portrayal of Manga in international media. Entrance: 800 Yen (AED 25).
Cooking Sun – Japanese cooking school:
Learn to make your own bento box from scratch- including sushi, tempura, tamago, miso, Japanese salads and pickles and a lot more! I recommend ‘Cooking Sun’ which has English speaking staff and translators to help international visitors learn and understand Japanese cooking and culture. Amazing experience!
Book through: Beans Travel Japan: http://www.beans-kyoto.jp/
Teramachi Gaming arcade: Its very loud inside one of these famous Japanese gaming arcades but colorful, bright and exciting as well! I tried my hand at a game or two but most of it was in Japanese so I’d like to blame my bad spell on my ‘lost in translation’ situation.
Eat & drink:
Teppenyaki restaurant: After struggling to try and like sushi and sashimi, I was almost about to give up on Japanese food for good, when I stumbled into this teppenyaki ( grill) restaurant that grilled everything served everything on a hot plate. Feeling adventurous, I opted for the most popular dish that came highly recommended from the bartender to the cooking school chef- Okonomiyaki! They said it was something like a Japanese version of pizza r crepe- with a grilled base and toppings that can vary from tofu to shrimp to beef or even nutella! Absolutely the best thing I’ve eaten in Japan!
I also tried the yaki udon- the grilled version, not soupy and again, I was absolutely delighted. I’d urge you to pop inside this teppenyaki restaurant for a taste of home-styled Kyoto cuisine, run by the ever charming Keiko San. Found at the end of Gion street, turn left at Gion Corner and continue uphill –after four restaurants you’ll find the very homely and cozy ‘ Hanakimi.
Kiyamachi dori for the vibrant pub street:
I challenge you try and find this highly recommended ‘Ishimaru Shoten’ pub on Kyoto’s famous pub street- Kiyamachi dori. It was like trying to locate the Shangri-la! But totally worth it, once you do! It has a very distinct Japanese bar vibe but is very warm , friendly and welcoming to outsiders and solo travelers.
Try the Umeshu- plum wine- One of the most delicious wines I’ve ever had. EVER.
Matcha icecream ( Shijo street)- Okay I found people having this bright neon green matcha icecream everywhere so I decided to buy one myself. I think its best to describe it as an acquired taste. I found it rather repulsive but if you’re into intensely bitter flavored icecream, then this might be your jam!
Check out Tea Palace on Shijo- Kawaramachi if you’re into the green tea- they have a mind-boggling variety and some very specific, exclusive green tea available only in Kyoto. Heads up- these taste very different from your regular supermarket green teas so be prepared for a rollercoaster ride for your taste buds!
Nishiki Market: The 400 year old market has some of the best street food that Japan has to offer- from rice cakes to wagashi ( Japanese dessert) to fried octopus and crunchy fishtails. Some of my most striking, colorful, astonishing and unforgettable memories are from Kyoto’s Nishiki market.
** Add ‘san’ after everyone’s names. For example, Priyanka-san or Kelly-san. And get used to saying ‘arigato dai mas’ with a full bow to everyone including cabbies. I love how respectful and courteous the Japanese culture is; the rest of the world could take a cue!