It was dark and slightly raining when I first got a glimpse of her. Almost looking like a mythical creature, only visible to chosen ones. There I was, standing eye to eye with a real geisha in Kyoto, not knowing what to do.
Drinking whiskey in the middle of the geisha district
It took me a ten hour flight and a two hour train ride to get to Kyoto, but walking through those narrow streets, making me witness how it must be to walk through here as an ancient samurai, made it all worth it.
In Gion, anyone can be that chosen one. This charming district in Kyoto is the place to spot real geisha and to take part in the world of traditional Japanese art.
Gion, also known as Kyoto’s entertainment district, has always been associated with Geisha, but it’s also one of the top spots to witness beautiful traditional architecture. Hanami Lane is a prime example of that architecture. Walkin through here, I noticed that a lot of people were dressed in kimonos, taking pictures between the wooden houses. After all, with all these unique buildings, it makes for the perfect locations for photo shooting.
I ended my first day in Kyoto with a walk through Pontocho, a narrow street only accessible for pedestrians. In here I discovered a jazz-bar called Hello Dolly, where I had the opportunity to try two new Japanese whiskeys: Hakushu and Yoichi. Many people think Japan is only known for their exquisite food and culture, but trust me when I say that their whiskeys are top notch. Back outside, I was just in time to spot both a geisha and a maiko, the living museum of Japanese traditional culture right here in Kyoto. You can spot the difference between the amount of ornaments in their hair, but that’s just one way of many. Whatever you do, don’t ask her for a picture. It’s not only not done in Japan, a dressed up geisha is usually on her way to work and just doesn’t have the time.
6 must see Unesco sites in Kyoto
Of course I didn’t travel all the way to Kyoto to see geisha. From 794 to 1868, a time where Japanese culture and traditions flourished, Kyoto served as the capital of Japan. So it wouldn’t be a complete trip if I didn’t at least see some proof of that time period. Kyoto has dozens of Unesco sites and here’s my list of the ones that are definitely worth a visit:
As I expected, this place was packed with people who wanted to catch a glimpse of the Golden Pavilion. I couldn’t blame them, the view with its reflection on the water was breathtaking. I could see how it’s been an inspiration to many artists before me. Kinkaku-ji has to be Japan’s most iconic site. The top two floors are covered with gold leaf making its reflection in the pond unforgettable.
Ryoan-ji, also known as the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, is a former zen training temple. Not only is there the famous zen rock garden, which is perfect to contemplate the meaning of life, but there’s also an enormous pond filled with lelies. If I was a painter instead of a writer, this would have been the perfect place to immortalise on paper.
I had the most stunning view when I passed through the magnificent Nio-mon gate, where I could see another prime example of Japanese craftsmanship, the Ninna-ji temple. Ninna-ji is a five-storied Pagoda, literally the grace of the royal dynasty at its best. The best time to visit Ninna-ji would be around mid-april, because of the late blooming cherry trees.
Nijo castle was the official residence of the shogun during the Edo-period. This is truly a stunning monument to the power of the warlords who ruled Japan before they eventually returned the power back to the emperor. Inside there are incredible wall paintings. A fun fact I learned here were the nightingale floors. Intruders were detected by the squeaking boards, which sounded like a bird singing. There should be an amazing garden as well, but due to typhoon Jebi, I wasn’t allowed to visit it at the time.
Kiyomizu-dera, a stunning temple high on a hill overlooking Kyoto, was once on the shortlist for the new 7 wonders of the world. Unfortunately most of it was under construction the time I was there, otherwise I’m sure it would be even more beautiful. They say if you drink the sacred water from the waterfall below the hall, it would improve your health and bestow wisdom and longevity.
Ginkaku-ji, or also known as the Silver Pavilion, is often overlooked by its more famous cousin, but let me tell you it’s definitely worth a visit. The whole scenery, including the raked zen garden, is just postcard-worthy. It’s also the start of Philosopher’s Path, one of the most picturesque spots in the city especially during cherry blossom season.
More than just geisha and Unesco
Of course Kyoto is more than just Unesco sites and geisha. Take Sagano bamboo forest for one, how is that not even on the Unesco list? Just in the outskirts of Kyoto, you can hear the sound of swaying bamboo stalks, creaking in the wind. In my opinion it does look better on picture than to actually walk through it. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still one of the world’s prettiest groves out there, so absolutely worth a visit.
On the opposite side of the river is Iwatayama Monkey Park, which holds over 140 macaques (snow monkeys), the only monkey species that is native to Japan. Make sure to stop at a shoebox sized coffee bar called % Arabica. This place is quite popular, so be ready to wait up to 20 minutes to get your coffee. The place is located with a view on the mountains, so that made my wait at least a bit more bearable.
Another spot worth visiting is Inari-Taisha, a Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of torii gates (allegedly 10 000). They lead all the way to the top of Mt. Inari. I didn’t go all the way to the top because I have to admit it was quite exhausting to hike up in the rain. Along the way I saw several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in may fox statues across the mountain. To make it all complete, I even came across several cats along the way.
Reading comics in Kyoto
Japan is also famous for manga. These are comics or graphic novels originating from Japan. Of course there’s also a museum dedicated to this art form in Kyoto. It was close to my hotel, so it wouldn’t be right to skip it. Besides, it was quite interesting to see how manga evolved throughout the years. If you’re traveling with kids, or if you’re just a fan of manga, this is a place to put on your list.
I love Japan and Kyoto is a must-see when you’re traveling to this amazing country. Make sure to follow my travels to keep informed.