AROUND THE WORD – Magical Kyoto

To most discerning travelers, the thought of a trip to Japan is enough to fire their souls with pure inspiration. Japan is a place which can surpass the boundaries of imagination; a place where modern innovative design co-exists in perfect harmony with the beauty and elegance of ancient architecture. In my journey to Kyoto, the cultural beating heart of Japan, I begin my search for a truly transcendent experience…

Gion and the Geisha
With over 400 shrines and 1,600 Buddhist temples listed for Kyoto in my guide book, it’s difficult to know where to begin my exploration of the city. Ancient or modern? For me it has to be traditional, and so I head towards the old entertainment district of Gion, hoping to catch a glimpse of the geisha as they glide timelessly between tea houses, wearing their exquisitely designed silk kimonos. I catch my breath as a stunning apparition appears right in front of me; her emotionless face as white as alabaster and her lips as red as freshly picked cherries. After she has passed by, I turn and stare, unable to avert my eyes from this strangely hypnotic vision of traditional Japanese beauty.

The Death of Your Dreams?
Wanting to experience something a little more intriguing than the usual Japanese architecture, I decided to visit the home of a mysterious Buddhist sect resident at the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. It is an alluring place with a fascinating history. According to my guide book, in past times, people believed that if they survived a jump from its platform of 13 metres, they were granted their hearts desire! Apparently, of the 234 people who engaged in this risky activity, only 200 survived. I wonder if anyone had ever checked to see if any of the surviving dreamers had achieved their hearts deepest desire? Today this ancient practice is strictly forbidden by law: but are there still those who are tempted to bargain with fate, I wonder?

Silent Ninja?
At first glance Nijo Castle portrays the perfect image of a story book Japanese castle, with its sky-high walls, moats, stately entertaining rooms, exquisite gardens and collections of traditional art. The castle is steeped in cultural history as it was the primary Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns, who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867. I follow my map to find the famous ‘nightingale floors’ and indeed they do sound like small chirping birds when you step upon them! These floors were specifically constructed to make this irritating noise to warn against an impending attack of silent but very deadly, ninja assassins! From a security point of view I am sure they were priceless, but the constant chirping noise can become irritating, if you spend too long exploring this castle.

Time for Tranquility
No trip to japan would be complete without an experiencing the peace and tranquility of a traditional Japanese Garden and with the chirping nightingales still singing inside of my head, I felt in desperate need of some peace and tranquility. My guide book helpfully states that Kyoto is a garden lovers’ paradise! There is a lot of choice, but I feel that a classic Zen garden would be most appropriate in my current mood, and so I visit Karesansui gardens at the Ryoan-ji Temple. It’s Kyoto’s most famous Zen garden, but what I had not realised is that this particular Zen garden is actually a concrete structure, consisting of 15 carefully placed rocks that float mesmerizingly on sea of gravel, in what appears to be an example of carefully calculated, randomness. Not quite what I had in mind but soothing nonetheless.

Downtown Pontocho
Once my energy levels felt restored, it was time to head downtown to Pontocho, which is a Japanese geisha district similar to Gion. It’s becoming dusk now, and its narrow, ancient streets glow a hypnotic red with traditional lanterns. I wander passed some very exclusive and expensive Kaiseki restaurants. Kaiseki is considered to be very high culture in Japan; the food is completely original and as I glance at the menus, there appears to be no standard dishes from one restaurant to the next. The Ingredients they use look very exotic and the dishes almost too beautiful to eat!

Pontocho also has its share of more modest places to dine, and as I am unable to resist sushi, I find an unassuming place with a riverside view, in sight of a traditional geisha tea house; where I eat my delicious raw tuna, while listening to the intense warbling of a man at the karaoke bar next door. After finishing my excellent meal, I reflect on my wonderful day, which has been filled with fabulous, new cultural experiences – if anyone ever tells you that a visit to Kyoto is a truly magical experience – believe them, you won’t be disappointed!

By Sonia Kilvington