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.
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.
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.
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.