I’ve always wanted to return to Japan, and even more so during cherry blossom season. Although this blog focuses on Italy and Europe, I asked my colleague Helen Farrell, Editor in Chief of The Florentine, to write up an itinerary when she returned from a recent trip to Japan, gloating about her four floral days in Kyoto. These are her words.
Kyoto is a bucket-list destination. Clouds of cherry blossom floating along the Kamo river, Buddhist temples teetering over green hillsides and kimonos of all patterns and shades worn by locals and Westerners alike. A trip to Kyoto is all of this and much more.
Kimono watching in Southern Higashiyama
Crossing the bridge into Gion is like stepping back in time. First up are the traditional wooden storefronts that line Shijo Street with their touristy fare, teahouses and restaurants. Then suddenly the striking red Yasaka Shrine appears at the end of the long avenue and the countryside of Kyoto begins. With its ponds populated with koi carp, Maruyama Park is a pretty place to spot hanami in action, the furore among locals as the spring blossom begins to flourish. Mentioning all the temples worth visiting would turn this post into a listicle; our approach was atypical.
We wandered around Southern Higashiyama, the only Westerners ostensibly taking part in the Shinto purification ceremony at Kiyomizu-dera, the striking temple at the highest point of the long and rambling shop-filled alleyway called Chawan-zaka. Resisting the kimono-hire places (with hindsight we should have done the dressing-up thing and immortalized it on Instagram like all the locals!), Kodai-ji called to us with its zen gardens.
Nibbling at Kyoto Nishiki Market
When you’re feeling temple fatigue, a few hours at Kyoto’s food market will bring you back to reality. We took a Nishiki Market Tour from Context Travel, an informative way to figure out exactly what you’ve seen displayed in restaurant windows: nobody does plastic meal models quite like Japanese! Our docent Kana, resplendent in kimono, explained the difference between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and why gratitude for food and nature is so central in Japanese culture. Senbei were a highlight, traditional crackers somewhere between sweet and savoury, as too were the bizarre but delicious octopuses filled with a quail’s egg. We also learned about Japan’s finest green tea, known as gyokuro, powdered green tea, now famous all over the world as matcha, and roasted green tea for a totally different tea experience. It’s not all food at Nishiki: wonder at the bowls, linger over the chopsticks, and invest in handmade knives where they’ll inscribe your name on the blade at Aritsugu, a mainstay among international chefs.
Basking by bamboo in Arashiyama
You can’t go to Kyoto and not be blown away by the bamboo grove in Arashiyama. Granted, it’s touristy, but strolling through the grove as the hollow-sounding sticks sprout up into the air is a moment of unadulterated exoticism. Arashiyama has far more to offer than oversized grass. Wander around the Okochi Sanso gardens, once owned by the twentieth-century film star Denjiro Okochi: the wide-ranging views over Kyoto and the verdant Arashiyama hills provide a purity of peace often rare to find (a complimentary cup of matcha and a sweet treat are served in the relaxing teahouse). Head for the Hozu riverfront and hire a traditional boat before going wild at the Arashiyama Monkey Park, home to 120 or so Japanese macaques. There are temples worth seeing in northern Arashiyama too of course: walking aimlessly brought us across the picturesque Jojakukoji temple with its maple trees, the hilltop Adashinonenbutsu and its stone memorials, and the more isolated Toriimotohachimangu Shinto shrine.
Sipping sake in Fushimi
As a wine lover, sake was firmly on my list of things to taste in Japan. A short ride on the Keihan electric railway takes you first to the must-see Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine whose red torii gates stretch endlessly into the distance, once seen, never forgotten. Back on the train to Japan’s second largest sake production area, Fushimi-ku, whose name means “hidden water”. Aspiring sake sommeliers, or simple sippers, will love the Gekkeikan Okura Museum, which explains how the fermented rice wine is made, why water is key to the flavour and illustrates the expansion of the Gekkeikan company down the centuries. Plus, you get to taste three different sake styles at the end: delicate and bold, sweet and salty.
The sake master, in ceremonial gown, asked where we’d come from. To “Florence, Italy,” he replied, bowing, “Our cities are twinned. Wine, sake, we understand.”