An explosion of colour, Kyoto in Spring truly rejuvenates the soul. The crisp air, the lush green and petals of red, pink and purple line the trees and cobblestone paths. This was my favourite part of my trip to Japan in late April and here’s why. Warning. This post is going to be picture heavy!
Japan’s most famous geisha district, Gion is like a mirage, a dream. It’s dripping with history and yet bustling with modern activity. The geisha blend in with the visitors decked in kimono enjoying the perfectly-pruned trees and manicured gardens, stopping to rest in the old, elegant teahouses.
Wanting to get the full cultural experience, I got tickets to the Miyako Odori or ‘Capital Dances’. And boy, was this one of the highlights in Gion. Spectacular costumes, gorgeous sets, and talented, dedicated geisha performers made this a truly immersive, one-of-a-kind experience you shouldn’t miss.
You can get tickets from the theatre and VIP tickets include a tea ceremony performed by maiko (apprentice) and geisha.
One of the amazing things about Kyoto is that while exploring the beautiful temples and quaint old streets and alleyways, there are lots of fuss-free food options like this mouthwatering wagyu beef sushi snack that I got while exploring temples. Freshly-seared and made fresh, I loved how they served it on a senbei cracker. An edible plate! Delicious and eco-friendly.
Another must-try is yuba or tofu skin sashimi. It’s a dish Kyoto is famous for. If you haven’t tried it, you have to. it has a gorgeous milky texture and a subtle flavour that goes perfectly with light soy sauce and wasabi.
Served chilled, it’s light and refreshing and works as a topping for hot noodles as well.
When it comes to dessert, I couldn’t resist these dango or rice cakes. My favourite flavour is this one drenched in a sweet soy sauce. Just look at it glisten! The combination of sweet and savoury with the chewy texture of the mochi really goes wonderfully together.
If you want to stop and rest your feet, there are a good many cafes selling all kinds of dessert. I stumbled into this delightful little cafe called Anon tucked away in one of the more popular streets of Gion.
This right here are some delicate, delicious desserts including — Anpone which are monaka shells filled with sweet bean paste and mascarpone cheese cream. On the right, the Kyo-Ohagi in red bean flavour. These are riceballs with the most amazing texture and a filling that isn’t too sweet.
Washed down with a frothy matcha and overlooking a zen garden, this is so simple and satisfying on so many levels. A Japanese meal is never just food. It’s a whole sublime experience.
Gion bustles with activity in the day and night and it’s definitely a must-visit to get a glimpse into an old lost world of the geisha. There are also a good many restaurants, souvenir shops and a great place to buy desserts and sweets home for loved ones.
Another breathtaking place to visit in Kyoto has got to be the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. There are also a good many famous temples and scenic lakes in the area, perfect for long walks and leisurely picnics.
The forest itself is at once staggering and serene. It gets quite crowded with visitors, but it’s still amazing to walk amid such gorgeous green stalks of bamboo lined to a seeming infinity. We even spotted a local artist painting silently in the corner. What a peaceful way to spend the afternoon!
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Ogurayama, Saga, Ukyō-ku
And when it comes to temples, one of my favourites was the Tenryu-Ji Temple which is just a stone’s throw away from the bamboo grove. The most important temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, it’s a Zen temple dating back to the 1300s, featuring tea houses and expansive gardens.
It was there that I was lucky enough to come across one of the last cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the end of Spring. And the landscaping was just so soothing and poetic.
Sitting for nearly an hour just enjoying the tranquility in the grounds, I particularly enjoyed the painstakingly-built sand gardens. Just peace, quiet and complete immersion in nature.
Isn’t it just remarkable? It was such an invigorating place to explore in the cool afternoon.
Tenryuji Temple 天龍寺
Address: 68 Saga-tenryuji-susukinobaba-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City
Japanese Tea Ceremony
A great way to take a break from the crowd or the bustle of the city is appreciating and enjoying the art of the tea ceremony or cha do. I’ve always been fascinated by tea ceremonies and the meditative rituals of making tea. And the Japanese version is one of the more elaborate forms I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. I found rave reviews of Tea Ceremony Ju-An online and decided to give it a shot.
It was an educational yet relaxing one hour of learning about the basics of the Japanese tea ceremony. Tea master Masumi was a lovely host who spoke perfect English. She explained the significance of the ceremony and served us some bitter, frothy matcha that was actually really delicious. It is said that monks sipped on this to help keep them awake during mediation.
The bitter, almost creamy flavour of the matcha went perfectly with the Japanese sweets. Just pure, perfect balance. Definitely recommend the experience if you’ve time to kill and want to experience yet another fascinating aspect of Japanese culture.
And finally, another must-visit when in Kyoto is the famous…
Fushimi Inari Shrine
An important Shinto shrine in Southern Kyoto, it’s famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which is part of the shrine ground.
To be honest, I was a little worried this was going to be an overrated tourist spot. But after asking around, I was told the best time to head down was actually nearer to their closing time around 5-6pm. The crowds had dissipated by then, and I got to enjoy the shrine by the light of the setting sun.
There were giant prayer bells at the entrance where visitors could write their wishes on wooden lots before ringing them in hopes of getting them answered.
Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, and you’ll notice many fox statues across the shrine grounds. The shrine has ancient origins, predating the capital’s move to Kyoto from as early as in the 700s!
If you’re planning on heading down and want some great pictures of the shrine, or to experience it in its silent splendour, definitely try heading down later in the day when the tourists have drained out of the area and you can get the place to yourself.
And if you’ve worked up an appetite walking up the mountain, why not indulge in some deep fried chicken karaage or takoyaki after?
The place is lined with street food stalls for the famished. Slightly pricey but a great reward for a day of exploring and adventure.
To me, Kyoto really is the crown jewel of the Kansai region. There’s a wonderful mix of old and new, nature and culture.. and most of all, it’s a city so much character. Definitely dedicate at least 3-4 days here to experience it in its full glory and I promise you won’t regret it one bit. Have a great time if you visit and do share your stories with me (: