Kyoto | Volume 1
For more than 1,000 years Kyoto served as the capital of Japan. And while Japan has had many capitals during it’s lengthy history, none of them are today as vibrant and alluring as Kyoto. Today Kyoto serves as both a cultural hub and a vivid tourist attraction that draws in excess of 30 million visitors per year.
If you’ve been to Kyoto you can attest to it’s allure. There’s something about Kyoto that other cities in Japan simply don’t have. It’s something that is not easily put into words and a far more visceral an experience than I’d ever expected. In part, this same unnamed feeling is what keeps me coming back.
For those that have never been to Japan, Kyoto checks a lot of the boxes. Shrines: they’ve got ‘em. Geiko (geisha): you’ll probably see them. Food: it’s off the hook. I could go on, but you get the point. On the most basic level Kyoto is exactly as you would imagine Japan would be, but on a deeper level there’s a lot here that’s not to be expected.
Small details like the smell of Kyoto is even different. If you’ve ever spent an afternoon walking through the concrete jungle of Tokyo then you’ll be able to appreciate the woodsy smell of a neighborhood like Gion. The buildings in this historic neighborhood are constructed of wood and the smell or cedar planks carries through the air day and night.
The streets of Gion are lined with Ochaya, or tea houses, and if you’re strolling through at the right time you may just have the surreal experience of having a Geiko scurry past on her way to an engagement. On pretty much any given night you’ll find interesting characters doing their daily routine in these streets. You could easily spend an entire evening people watching here.
During the summer months you can travel to Arashiyama which is just outside of Kyoto to see what is called, “Ukai,” or fishing with Cormorants. Now, before I go on I should mention that I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and have some fish stories of my own, including catching a steelhead barehanded, but Ukai is something worth seeing. During my last trip to Kyoto I had the opportunity to do just that, and I have to say it was something else.
From the year 794 to 1185 Ukai was used as a traditional method of catching fish. Although it is now largely for show and the purpose of maintaining tradition it is impressive nonetheless. It is art, performance, and sport all in one and truly a spectacle. If you’re in Kyoto you must see this. Viewing from the bank is free, and possibly one of the coolest things you could do in Japan for free, so take note.
Kyoto is said to have some 2,000 shrines and an equally impressive 1,600+ temples. It’s a spiritual place, and I think that adds to the inability to describe how different it feels from the rest of Japan. Kyoto’s list of spiritual sites includes Fushimi Inari as well as the Golden Pavillion, Kinkaku-Ji. These two are but a tiny fraction of the hidden treasures that Kyoto has to offer which range from UNESCO level popular to relatively off the beaten path.
As a photographer it’s easy to get lost in the streets of Kyoto. If you’re out at night it’s easy to follow one paper lantern to another and down back alley after back alley until you’re so turned around all you can do is retrace your own steps. I think one of the greatest parts about Kyoto is on nights like these when you’re retracing those steps you get to see some of the smaller details of Kyoto that really make it shine.
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