Kyoto is the kind of place that will haunt you and follow you around, days later after having visited. Unlike Tokyo which is sometimes pegged as wild, absurd, intimidating, irreverent, and confounding, Kyoto feels like its bashful stepsister. It is the type of place not quite crowded with bucket-listers.
Burrowing in a relatively quiet corner of the world, especially in the winter when it is cold and damp, Kyoto is as quiet as the hushed footsteps of the endangered geishas in their elegant, expensive kimonos. Tucked away in the bellybutton of Japan is a slice where time seems to have left untouched. Beyond the temple hop and the geisha stalk, like all of Japan’s regions must be, Kyoto is a marvelous place for food.
We woke up to a wet, cold morning in Kyoto, Japan. We had arrived the night before in Osaka from Manila and not long after, promptly jumped on the Japanese Rail (JR) train to Kyoto, where we will be spending the next two evenings sleeping on traditional futon mattresses laid on a tatami mat floor. It had started raining as soon as we dropped off our bags about 10PM in search of a hot bowl of ramen which we judiciously found a few blocks from our guesthouse. We would survive the soggy weather, thanks in part to an umbrella purchased from a 7-11 where we (joyously) found that the American dollar was stronger and the Japanese yen, weaker.
My initial observations of Japan lack profoundness and sophistication, to be honest. They were pretty rudimentary from:
1. Wow. They really don't speak any English around here. Maybe only 2%.
2. And. Wow, they have the best toilets in the world. Think very clean, heated seats, standard built-in bidets with adjustable pressure, noise-concealers. At the Intercon in Osaka, they had those that are like soldiers that suddenly stand in attention and salute when you walk into the cubicle (where the doors are actual, real doors, mind you).
3. And. Wow, this must be the cleanest country I have ever set foot on. The train stations were brimming with people, even late at night, and yet, there would be no litter, pee smell or graffiti typically found in train stations everywhere else. It's utopia for germophobes!
Kyoto Temple Hop
We had no time to spare so rain or shine, we set off with our umbrella, our guidebook and not much else to explore Kyoto. We've never traveled to any country where our itinerary comprised mostly of hopping from one temple to the next. But in Kyoto, there are seventeen sites that belong to the UNESCO World Heritage List, most of which are temples. If we were to try to delve as much as we can into Japan's rich heritage and culture, we might as well visit a few temples.
Kyoto Food Tour
While in Japan, we purposely did not bother with a guide. I figured our senses is our best guide. The absence of someone initiated into Japanese cuisine allowed us to have a puritan experience. We shaped our own impressions and experiences. It is a little bit like grappling in the dark, but hey, monumental things come out of the blindest of tastings.
Singapore claims to be the food capital of Asia. I stand to debate that assertion. After spending equal amounts of time in both countries, I dare say that Japan gets this one.
For me, there is something special about wandering around somewhere foreign after sundown. A city looks completely different when a place is aglow. This is especially true in Kyoto, where one could run into a geisha on her way to an appointment. Kyoto is one of the very few places where even fewer geishas still exist. I nearly squealed when we ran smack into this party tonight. They lowered their gaze when our paths crossed. Whereas I stared. Shamelessly. I was mystified by their white face, beautiful kimono, colorful makeup, pristine hair. It was one of those typical moments when traveling when I completely lost myself to a place. And time.
Cappuccino Snobs: Arabica in the Gion District
An American barista on the fringe of the Nishiki Market district tipped us on Arabica. After a fail to joe it up at Vermillion in Fushimi Inari, we were dying for some artisanal kicks of caffeine.
Modern minimalist aesthetic with a color palette of white and wood I would die for, bonafide baristas totally geeky about their coffee, and well, some kickass coffee. They don't serve any pastries at all, but that snobbery is just as well since any accoutrement is simply a distraction from how your coffee is meant to taste.
Arabica in Kyoto is located in the Gion District. Website can be found here. It's located at 87-5 Hoshinocho, Kyoto.
Stay: Sim's Cozy Guesthouse
509-2 Shimoma-cho, Kyoto, Kyoto-fu, 605-0873 Japan
This guesthouse is located in the Higashiyama district, a five minute bus ride to Gion on one direction and maybe 10 minutes on the other direction to the central station.
We stayed in their small standard room with tatami floors and futon you arrange on the floor yourself. Bathrooms are shared but were never a problem. Clean and great location. For $52/night, this one's a gem!