72 Hours in Kyoto
With a slight departure from the house updates, this week’s post takes you on a 3-day whirlwind through the beautiful city of Kyoto in Japan. A couple weeks ago, we were fortunate enough to be able to tack on a few days of exploring to the end of a recent business trip to Tokyo. Unlike the sprawling mega-city of Tokyo (still the world's largest at 30+ million people), Kyoto is an ancient imperial capital of Japan and still very much the country's cultural capital for all things traditional. It is a city of temples, gardens, palaces, and wooden houses - all of which were spared from the destruction of WWII. To call it quaint however, would be incorrect, as Kyoto is a gridded city (inspired in the 8th century by the even more ancient imperial cities of China) and it's currently home to more than 1.5 million people.
We could never even begin to capture all of the beauty we found as photos just don’t do it justice. Kyoto completely fills a broad and flat valley ringed by unspoiled green mountains that beckon, as they frame views to the east, west, and north, on all the major roads in the city. In fact, it is the powerful and ever-present contrast between the city and its verdant setting that makes Kyoto exceptional.
In a city of 2,000 temples and 50 million visitors a year, you could imagine how one barely scratches the surface in 72 hours. In our attempt to summarize the mystique and beautiful mossy moments the city has to offer, we’ve put together a photo journal of our explorations of the city.
So many gardens, temples, and sweeping overlooks. What an amazing place. So here it is - our trip in a brief, but enchanting series of photos.
The moss in this town was unreal. It was by far one of my favorite aspects of the city. The filtered light through the towering trees creates the most luminous experience. I can’t quite explain why I had such an obsession, but it brought out some serious awe and amazement. The most striking characteristic of the gardens and landscape we visited (and perhaps of Japanese gardens and landscapes in general) is extraordinary range, complexity, and contrast achieved by the color green. Seriously. The deep green Cryptomeria, Enoki Cypress, and camphor trees anchor a woodland landscape offset by the bright yellow-greens of Japanese maples and the intensely saturated hues of the seemingly endless variety of mosses that carpet every surface. Pines, bamboo, ajuga, sakura (cherry trees), ferns, photinia, and azaleas all lend their own take on the color green to complete the effect.
We visited the two imperial estates, the great gardens and villas of Shugakuin and Katsura. We were quite lucky to be able to visit these places thanks to the generous assistance of a local work colleague in Tokyo. I had to go the the imperial palace in Tokyo days prior to our trip to Kyoto to reserve our spots and get specific permits to visit the grounds. With a limited group of about 40 people (compared to thousands at the other temples throughout town), the touring the imperial villas was a great was to kick off our first day in Kyoto.
Instead of ostentation, these 17th century gardens strive for an even greater extravagance: aesthetic perfection. Every tree, shrub, and clump of moss is perfectly trained and position to achieve a naturalistic ideal. Each stepping stone is carefully selected and deliberately placed, and the choreography of every new vantage point or place of pause is fully considered but always subtle.
It’s so difficult to identify one thing as the highlight of the trip. One of the many that stands out, however, is our morning hike through the 2,000 vermillion gates at Fushimi-Inari. We arrived early to beat the crowds and it really paid off. There were many times we had parts of the trail entirely to ourselves. The photos just can’t begin to describe the beauty of climbing to the summit through these deeply wooded forests with the fresh air and seemingly unending Tori.
Lastly, a trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without all matcha, all the time. From mochi to gyoza, we had it all. It doesn’t quite show but this over-the-top, somewhat silly gold leaf ice cream was consumed beneath a 5-tiered wooden pagoda. Not bad for a Sunday afternoon.
A few of the places we visited and loved:
Omen | an udon noodle shop
Ryoan-ji Yudofu | traditional tofu
Kyoto Gogyo | black broth ramen
Teramachi Dori | antique district
Shinbashi Dori | old canal street
Sannen-zaka | hillside district