As I traveled out of Tokyo on one of the shinkansen (bullet trains), it became to feel as if I was starting to travel back in time. Although watching the countryside and towns streak by did make me a little dizzy (the shinkansen go about 200 mph), I began to notice temple after temple pop up. I began to see more ancient looking streets and infrastructures. And by the time I arrived in Kanazawa, it felt like another world entirely.
Kanazawa (the sister city to Buffalo, New York of all places) is often called “Little Kyoto.” And it definitely set the mood for me before I headed to the former capital of Japan. It was quieter, much more subdued than Tokyo but it offers a lot of see. There are beautiful gardens (Kenroku-en Gardens), castles (Kanazawa Castle), food markets (Omicho Market) and an old geisha district with some of the few still functioning teahouses (Higashi Chaya District.) And there was still plenty more that I didn’t get to – there’s a ninja temple that’s supposed to be pretty entertaining, for instance.
When I had been researching Japan and figuring out my trajectory on this trip, many reviews/blogs/guides said that Kyoto was often a bigger tourist area than Tokyo. And boy, was this accurate. I had thought that Tokyo was a little crazy with their crowds (never ride their trains during rush hour, trust me on this one). But I encountered WAY more people in Kyoto.
Kyoto is rather like what I picture when I think of Japan. It’s this really cool mix of modern and ancient life. And being there during cherry blossom season? It made the city downright magical at times. At some points I would find myself just strolling around with no particular aim because it was so peaceful. A popular tourist activity is renting a kimono and taking pictures beneath the trees. Not to repeat myself but it makes you feel like you’re back in the Edo period of Japan.
Don’t mistake the wandering for idleness as there is no shortage of things to do in Kyoto. With over 200 temples to visit, that alone could keep you occupied. As for myself, I ventured to Arashiyama (the western part of Kyoto) to check out the mystical bamboo forest and also to visit some monkeys. (Full disclosure if anyone wants to visit those monkeys, it’s a complete uphill climb so be prepared for that…as I was not). The monkey park is not a bad way to spend an hour as the monkeys roam around this hilltop freely. I was lucky enough to even feed a couple of them. Also, if you want to venture outside of Kyoto – less than an hour outside of Kyoto is a town called Nara. It’s a quaint little place with several temples but it also home to many many tame deer. As deer are seen as envoys of the gods, these critters are protected and fed very well by the many tourists. It’s a little disconcerting to have deer walk straight up to you expecting the deer cookies (which are sold everywhere). But it’s also pretty nifty too. You can walk around feeling like a Disney princess since the deer will also usually let you pet them.
Kyoto and Kanazawa were a nice antithesis to Tokyo’s lights and glamour. Much quieter but bursting with history and beauty, it was a great place to unwind and simply soak up a different side of Japanese culture.