Visiting Kyoto brought back fond memories for me. Back in my university days, I had stayed in Osaka for summer exchange, and during my six weeks there, there was a student trip organised to Kyoto where we met Kyoto University students and learned more about the beautiful city steeped in history and traditions. There were several places I re-visited, and new places I discovered. Kyoto has changed quite a bit from what I remembered, it is a lot livelier now, with the influx of tourists.
The Iconic Golden Pavilion Temple of Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji.
While there may have been many tourists, the beauty of Kinkaku-ji remains unsoiled. The floating golden pavilion, oh the sheer opulence of the past. Now I think I have visit it in other seasons. A brilliant gold popping against warm reds or softly kissed by a pure white blanket of snow. Yes, I can totally envision it in my mind.
Exploring Nijō Castle
We also visited Nijō Castle, which was spacious, but its low-rise structure struck me as less impressive than the towering Himeji Castle. However, there is an interesting feature within the castle that you have to personally experience, for it cannot be captured in pictures. It is the squeaking sound of the nightingale floor in Ninomaru Palace. It was said to be specially constructed this way so that the palace inhabitants will be instantly alerted to night intruders attempting to steal across their corridors.
Arashimaya Bamboo Grove has lost its magic.
I was sorely disappointed by Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I still remember how it was like ten years ago. The very distinct drop in temperature once I entered the bamboo forest, which seemed to have transported me to another realm altogether, much like the forest trail leading up to Engyoji Temple. But the bamboo grove today is inundated with people, it was as warm as the rest of Kyoto. The bamboo trees remain picturesque and dreamy, particularly if you shoot from a low angle upwards towards the sun beams. But trying to get a shoot of the forest without a soul in sight much like the stock images in Google was near impossible. A pity, for the bamboo grove is such a beauty.
I didn’t realise it in the past, but there is a small shrine within the bamboo grove itself. Though small, Nonomiya Shrine is a shrine famous for its blessings of love and matchmaking. The heart-shaped ema (wooden plaque) were terribly adorable, but the most beautiful part of the shrine is the tiny but tranquil moss garden, complete with a mini-bridge overgrown with moss.
Some pockets of tranquility remain in Kyoto, if you know where to look.
I do miss the Kyoto I knew, when it was still quiet and tranquil. But you look beyond the main attractions, there are still places where remnants of the tranquil Kyoto remain, the peace is yet to be disrupted by endless streams of tourists with their busy cameras. One temple, in particular, Ninnaji-temple, retained the serene atmosphere of its place. I was particularly enchanted by Hokuteki (North Garden) which had the grace of a royal palace garden with its large pond of emerald waters reflecting the green above it. I could sit at the viewing terrace forever, such was the calming quality of the garden.
Summer is the best time for ice-cold desserts.
It may not be best to travel in Japan during summer, for its summers are notoriously hot and humid, but there is no better time to treat yourself to some traditional summer desserts! When you have a long day out in the sun you deserve not just one, but two ice-cold desserts. That’s what I tell myself anyway. Along the way to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove we came across a shop selling yuba soft-serve. Yuba is actually tofu skin made from curdled soy milk. It is a Kyoto delicacy that embodies the unique Kyoto culture in its exquisite mildness. When we were visiting one of the temples, there happened to be a summer yatai (traditional street stalls) outside the temple and we indulged in a strawberry-flavoured kakigori (shaved ice) topped with a huge dollop of whipped cream and condensed milk drizzled generously over the ice.
Dining by the River in Kyoto
After a hot day of touring and sweating, we needed to cool off and at the same time, our stomachs needed a luxurious dinner. What better thing to do than kawadoko (noryo-yuka) where we get to achieve both activities with an amazing scenery to boot? Kawadoko (Noryo-yuka) is a Kyoto dining tradition whereby one can dine in wooden terraces along the river. And Kamogawa Noryo-Yuka is perhaps Kyoto’s most famous river-dining establishment yet, located by Kyoto’s iconic river, Kamo River. The wooden terraces are lined with a great variety of restaurants whereby one can enjoy delicious food (albeit most of the prices are on the steep end) in a traditional alfresco setting. As the Pontocho area is known for geishas, it would be best to check out the area before settling down in a restaurant. We came across one hurrying to work, and while her face and clothing looked exquisite, she was pretty much sending out death glares at any curious tourist who dared to raise a camera her way.
We chose to have a hearty meat and seafood BBQ feast by the riverside, serenaded by the gurgling of river water that flowed right before our eyes as we tucked in to our meal and clinked glasses. Actually, the restaurant we visited was nothing to rave about, and the price was too exorbitant, but well, it is a touristy area after all. I guess we were really just paying for the scenery. There is a famous restaurant in Pontocho, whereby the chef creates the most delicious-looking omurice in front of your eyes. But it was full, and not situated by the river, so I would only have to visit it next time. .
While it was indeed refreshing to see wooden stilts around us and the natural river bank across, I would really much prefer to be even closer to nature. There is another place for dining by the river called Kibunesou Kawadoko, where the terraces are only a few centimetres above the river, so one can actually feel the cool rush of water bubbling through the fingers whilst dining! This is definitely going to be my next go-to place the next time I visit Kyoto. Kyoto is a huge city, there are still many places I have yet to discover, so far I have been to its more touristy attractions, so I believe that there will definitely be more places whereby its traditional beauty shines uninterrupted by crowds of tourists (I know I know I’m one of them).