Revisiting Kyoto

Silver Palace Garden

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in Kyoto, Japan. In fact, and if my memory doesn’t betray me, it has been around 24 years since I set foot on this ancient capital. Over these years, however, it became impossible to get thoughts of Kyoto off my mind. The shrines, the Shogun castles, and the well-worn streets of Gion were almost reaching the level of fantasy in my mind. I simply had to go back, someday. Just didn’t think it would take me this long to return. But even if late, I couldn’t be happier to get back to this wonderful city of geishas and polished wood temples. It is indeed a special place, and one of the “must see” cities of the world that lives up to its reputation, but also a somewhat changed city from the one I visited as a relatively young man.

View of Kyoto City

Ancient Kyoto remains as wonderful as ever. The squeaky, labyrinth halls of Nijo Castle, the magnificence of Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), the lush gardens of the Imperial Palace, and the mysterious streets of Gion are all there, and more. With 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and about 160 temples, Kyoto will keep you as busy as you want to be. But while this impressive array of famous places to see are reason enough to book those plane tickets, for this old traveler it was a more serene part of Kyoto that held the greatest attraction. These were the empty streets of Gion very early in the morning before the crowds appeared on the streets, the narrow lanes of Nakagyo Ward with its hidden temples, and the twisty, steep streets around Minamimachi and the Kyoto Ryozen Gokoku Shrine. To walk these ancient streets as the first rays of sun are appearing over the horizon is nothing short of subliminal, an imaginary trip to the times of Shoguns and merchants who once roamed the city streets. And when the crowds inevitably show up, there’s no better place to hang out than at the Nishiki Market between Teramachi and Shinmachi or the incredibly busy Shinkyogoku shopping district. No personal space here, just wall-to-wall people in search of all sorts of delicacies, from the familiar to the absolute bizarre. These two sides of the city, the contemplative and the mercantile, pretty much appear everywhere you travel in Kyoto.

Ancient Kyoto

But something about Kyoto has definitely changed in the past 24 years. The biggest change has to do with the amount of people traveling there for holidays. From the Golden Temple to every major shrine in the city, the amount of visitors borders on the incredible. New hotels and a greatly renovated central train station appear to struggle to accommodate the onslaught of tourists like “yours truly” descending on the city from all corners of the world. A city that has always been famous is perhaps even more famous today than ever, if that is even possible. The result is that if you are looking for that Zen feeling that comes to mind whenever we think of Kyoto, you really have to work on the time of day you plan to visit most neighborhoods there. It’s still there, but not at all times of the day.  The good news is that all sorts of modern transportation options are available throughout the day, so getting to places is relatively easy.

Geishas

Busy or not, Kyoto and its ancient cultural heritage are not to be missed in a lifetime. In contrast to Tokyo’s forward looking personality, Kyoto is all about looking back. History, that much neglected concept in so many parts of the world, becomes something that like the wind, you can actually feel in Kyoto. A sudden realization that while much has been gained with time, much has also been lost. And as in other great and ancient cities around the world, the forces of modernism and history are engaged in a fearless battle for people’s feelings and attention. These dual forces define modern Japan, and make it one of the best travel destinations in the world. Can’t wait to get back.

 

… And Spring Made All The Difference

Japanese impersonators added color to the Cherry Blossoms Festival.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
Japanese impersonators added color to the Cherry Blossom Festival. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
No photographic angle was left unexplored by the thousands of photographers who descended on Washington for the Cherry Blossom festival.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
No photographic angle was left unexplored by the thousands of photographers who descended on Washington for the Cherry Blossom festival. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
The delicate flowers that attract tens of thousands of national and international visitors to Washington every year.  Nikon D800, AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED.
The delicate flowers that attract tens of thousands of national and international visitors to Washington every year. Nikon D800, AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED.
A city that prides itself on moving fast during during the rest of the year slows down during the yearly festival.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
A city that prides itself on moving fast during the rest of the year slows down during the yearly festival. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
At daybreak, musicians welcomed visitors to the Tidal Basin with the sound of rhythmic percussion instruments.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
At daybreak, musicians welcomed visitors to the Tidal Basin with the sound of rhythmic percussion instruments. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.

Some of the great things that come with living in large metropolitan areas are the mix of cultures and people that constantly come in contact everywhere you go.  Granted, that for some folks those are also the very reasons why they wouldn’t be caught dead in such places.  But no matter how anyone feels, there is no denying that cities are beehives of activity for just about every interest out there.  And the more international the city, the more diversity its citizens will experience on a daily basis.  This diversity has been quite evident during this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC.  Take a stroll any morning around the uneven shores of the Tidal Basin and you will experience a slew of foreign languages being spoken, people dressed in varied outfits that reflect their country of origin, musicians banging away in some sort of ritualistic rhythm, lovers kissing under trees that glow with the majestic colors of spring, and the sweet aroma of exotic foods competing with nature for your attention.  Photographs may not do it justice, but for the thousands of photographers out there who tried to capture the essence of this brief flowering and human spectacle, there was no better place to be.  And to the Japanese people who kindly made all this possible with their incredible gift, ありがとうございます。(Thank you very much).