Kyoto holds the reputation of Japan’s most “beautiful” city, however, visitors may be surprised by how much work they have to do to see Kyoto’s “beautiful” side.

Nestled among the mountains, Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the residence of the Emperor from 794 until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo.

During its millennium long reign at the centre of Japanese power, culture, tradition and religion, it accumulated an exceptional collection of palaces, temples and shrines, built for the city’s emperors and monks.

View over Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera temple.

Today this city is also an important industrial centre, suffering, as all Japanese cities, do from overcrowding, transportation bottlenecks and environmental pollution. In response to these problems, the government passed a law, which attempts to manage land use, transportation, and air quality in the area.

Kyoto was initially included on the first list of atomic bombing targets. It was, however, the only city on the original target list that did not provide a clear military benefit and the only city that was identified as likely to understand the true magnitude of an atomic bombing. That’s right. In this respect Kyoto had the advantage of its population being considered of higher intelligence and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon used against them. Nevertheless, among the Japanese cities on the list Kyoto eventually escaped the bombings and was replaced by Hiroshima. As a result, Kyoto retains an abundance of pre-war buildings, such as the traditional townhouses known as machiya. However the city is continuously undergoing modernisation with some of Kyoto’s traditional buildings being replaced by newer architecture.

There are over 2,000 temples in Kyoto or even more, if you include the ”modern” ones.

These numbers might blow you away, however in reality they’re not as mind-blowing as you might think. But something most people don’t realise until they’re actually there is that most of Kyoto is not filled with glorious temples, palaces and gardens, but instead very small, modern, boring concrete buildings.

View over Kyoto from Daimonji Gozan Okuribi hill.

The most interesting fact about these buildings is that the city’s original grid pattern is still followed today. Though most of the buildings were destroyed in the 15th century, the fact that they were rebuilt on the same grid is curious. The buildings may look different, but they are all built to the same plot plan; the plot’s width was traditionally an index of wealth: roughly 5 – 6 meters wide and 20 meters deep. So the standard size in Kyoto has remained unchanged since the medieval period, when Kyoto was first divided into plots. Therefore even if a building is a modern twelve-story concrete monstrosity, it will still be built in the shape of an ancient machiya that stood on that same spot for hundreds of years.

View over residential area in the north of Kyoto.
As the highly condensed city its cemetery is clinging in-between the houses.

Having retained it’s old town planning the streets of Kyoto, similar to those in London, have remained narrow.

Speaking of roads I cannot skip a fact that impressed me about the cabs here; why is it we hear so little of taxi drivers in Japan? Japanese taxi drivers are like ninjas, quietly slotting into the transportation system. They are like wise sensei, with a face that remains calm when you try to impress him. Their cabs are perfectly polished, squeaky clean and in perfect condition. The interiors are decorated with lace-linens and the doors open automatically. The white-gloved drivers are impeccably polite, and would put cabbies from every other country to shame. Having said that I never tried to get a cab myself after I found out how ridiculously highly priced they are.

The taxi driver’s stoic face easily hides the fact that the name of his taxi also stands for unconventional sex practices and debauchery.

Those who prefer to avoid any sorts of fetishistic taxies can take the most convenient, reliable and fast public transport – the metro.

Man in metro reading the book.

Kyoto was originally chosen as the Japanese capital for safety reasons. Geographically it’s far enough inland that it doesn’t suffer typhoons, and is one of the least geologically active areas in Japan. However, Kyoto has mountains on three sides – the open plains lead towards the ocean – which sometimes makes for some interesting weather.

Walking in the outskirts of Kyoto, surrounded by hills where locals burn dry grass.

I’ve mentioned already the benefits of boxy cars in Japan, however some residents prefer to own a European giant, in this case a Swedish Volvo, parking can be an issue though.

Trunk of Volvo sticking out past the fence.

For those wandering along its narrow streets, the doors to Kyoto’s Pachinko arcade centres are open 24/7. Pachinko, aka noisy, bright and tacky machines, perhaps best described as a fusion of slot machines and pinball, is a favourite Japanese pastime. What’s interesting is that gambling in Japan is illegal, but Pachinko is not technically gambling, since people do not win cash prizes. Instead players win shiny steel balls, which they can later take to a neighbouring, but “independent”, establishment to exchange for cash prizes.

Typical Pachinko game arcade.

In addition to the game centres, Kyoto is also full of convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson etc. Most of them used to operate from 7am to 11pm, which is where the name 7-Eleven comes from. However, today most of them are now open 24/7 in order to stay competitive. Back when these stores first appeared, you didn’t find many businesses that would operate for that many hours, especially not places selling food. Generally in Japan’s convenience stores you can find fresh bakery, fresh salads, pastas, fresh desserts and even fresh meats. Everything has been pre-prepared, but if you’re in a rush, a convenience can offer a fairly balanced meal.

Japanese couple in traditional clothes in 7-Eleven.
One of the town’s biggest claims to fame, and one of the most photographed sights in Japan, is the Sagano Bamboo Forest. Its narrow paths are flanked by a tall bamboo forest on either side creating an almost other worldly atmosphere that exudes a sense of calm and peacefulness.

One of the most interesting facts about the Sagano Bamboo Forest is the sound that the wind makes as it blows amongst the bamboo. Bizarrely, this sound has been voted as one of the “one hundred must-be-preserved sounds of Japan” by the Japanese government. Ridiculous.

Japan is a fairly small, densely populated island nation that has been explored inside out and it feels like some of the facts visitors are told are are far-fetched. While some excellent palaces in Kyoto are off the beaten path and have few visitors, most crowds are concentrated around the paid entry tourist spots, all offering similar views and invented histories.

The thin and tall Sagano Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama.

Arashiyama is located on the outskirts of Kyoto and also refers to the mountain located across the Oi River. While this western edge of the city is dismissed in most Western guidebooks with a brief paragraph under the heading “other attractions”, the area is rightfully very popular with Japanese tourists and well worth a visit.

Hozu River goes through the Mount Arashi of Kyoto.
Togetsukyō Bridge. This picturesque bridge spans over the Hozu River, which usually has at least a bit of water in it.
Sunrise on the Hozu River.

Today, I learned about the colour vermilion. Apparently, this orange-red colour is disliked by evil spirits, which is why many shrines in Japan are painted in this bright hue. One of the most iconic sights painted with this colour in Kyoto, is the shrine famed for its multitude of red-orange Torii gates – Fushimi Inari Taisha.

Fushimi Inari Taisha pathway are signed from one side only.

The shrine was built to honour the god Inari Okami, the god of rice, fertility and sake. Far from being Russian orthodox priests, Inari is also a patron of business. To honour Inari, businesses across Japan donate a Torii gate, or a dozen. In fact each one of the over 4000 Torii gates that line the paths of the shrine has been donated either by a Japanese business or other foreign businesses to insure them luck. Today it has became a major tourist attraction. How convenient! Sponsors are able to purchase one of the shrine’s brightly coloured Torii and have their names written upon them. The inscriptions on the gates themselves show the business name (on the left) and the date their sponsorship started (on the right). The largest gates cost 1.3m yen which is about $15,000.

Complete price list.
Gate donated by a head of Russia’s largest hydro power corporation.

Judging by the sheer number of them I can only imagine that if a business competitor donates a Torii gate to the Fushimi shrine, you better do the same, if you want to stay on the god’s good side.

Individuals who wish to pray for happiness and success – but don’t have thousands of dollars to pay for a large gate to be installed on the mountain path – can buy a smaller, ornamental sized gate, and have their name painted on it. These are about the size of the average hand.

Gates on the hill.

There was one last thing left to do in Kyoto and it was to seek out a true geisha. Someone mentioned that the remaining true geisha and maiko (apprentice geishas) can be found in the Gion district. The best time to spot them is at dusk, and then for a few hours after that. Around dusk, most geisha will go to their first appointment. The geisha then moves from tea house to tea house to attend their other appointments throughout the evening.

I only visited Kyoto once, but was told that most of the geisha and maiko you see walking on the streets are fake. As I understood it, most of them are Japanese tourists who have paid to get dressed up as a geisha. Some even pretend they’re the real deal and take pictures with tourists. One way to tell if a geisha is real or fake is that real geisha will not allow themselves to be photographed with tourists and take care to avoid having their photo taken at all. Which makes sense as they probably just want to do their job and go home.

With the only opportunity I had to see a true geisha I took a very dark photo of her, which is probably for the better as there is around hundred geishas left.