Great Expectations

A few months before our trip, a colleague of my husband traveled to Japan.  Upon her return, she sent him an email with some recommendations and thoughts on her trip.  Her section on Kyoto began, “We really did not enjoy Kyoto.”  Upon reading that, I immediately thought to myself, “This girl is some sort of crazy person.  I’ve never heard of anyone not enjoying Kyoto!” and went about my day.  In retrospect, I would have been better served to ask for more specifics about her time there and then undertaken additional research seeking out perspectives on the city that challenged my own expectations.

With that, here are my thoughts on Kyoto, which likely go against the grain of what you’ll typically read elsewhere…

As I reflect on Kyoto, I believe I would have had a better time had my expectations been more grounded.  For starters, you should understand what Kyoto is and what it is not.  Kyoto is a modern, bustling midsize city.  It is not a collection of scenes from Memoirs of a Geisha.

img_1589Also, while a picture may be worth a thousand words, it can also tell a million lies.  Have you seen those photos of the Bamboo Grove that seem to show a long, winding forest full of peace and serenity?  Have you read about it as akin to “being in another world”?  (I’ve just now Googled “bamboo grove Kyoto,” and summaries from three of the top five results include this phrase.)  So had I, and I was so excited to wander through it.  While I expected it to be crowded, I hoped that the farther along we walked, the fewer people there would be and we could capture a few moments of wonder and solitude.  This dream came crashing down when I discovered that the grove is no more than a few feet long!  I’m not great with estimating amounts, but I would ballpark it at 100 yards (or as I’m more likely to describe it, about a football field long).  When I first saw the terminus, I believed it to be a sharp turning point, as I could not conceive that that’s all there really was.  When we reached it, I exclaimed, “Are you freaking kidding me?!”  I just could not believe that after all of the hype, that was really it.  This sounds incredibly dramatic, but I would describe it as one of the greatest disappointments of my traveling life.  Of course, that didn’t stop us from grabbing some photos that make it look as though we had the bamboo grounds all to ourselves.

Once I accepted the grove for what it was, I was able to find it enjoyable enough.  But a place to put at the top of your travel bucket list?  Hardly.  On the other hand, Derek had no expectation for the grove.  I don’t believe he had any idea what it was until a few moments before we entered.  And he really enjoyed it; he found it quite amazing, in fact.  So again, it all comes down to having the proper expectations.

img_1566Unfortunately, I continued to experience several more of these moments as we made our way to other areas of interest.  The Tenryu-ji temple gardens, the Philosopher’s Path and Ginkaku-ji and the surrounding gardens all left us underwhelmed.  They were nice, sure, but from the things I had read, I expected more.  As it were, we walked thru the gardens with a line of people in front of us and a line of people behind us and were left saying “eh” at the end.

img_2337What was perhaps most upsetting about this is that we enjoy parks and gardens.  We often spend a decent amount of time in local parks when we travel.  Among our favorites are the Englischer Garten in Munich, Hagley Park in Christchurch and Parc de la Tête d’Or in Lyon.  I understand that as large urban parks, these are not wholly similar comparisons.  I’m simply trying to stress that we are not grinches, if you will, with regard to these types of places.  We wanted to enjoy them but we just didn’t.

Granted, I can imagine these destinations being spectacular when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and when the colors are changing in the fall.  Of course, you would have to survive the swarms of people and img_1694what I expect is an even more palpable amusement park feel.  Would the visual display outweigh the misery of being crushed in a sea of humans?  I couldn’t say.

Given these impressions, we forewent visiting most of the other major temples and shrines.  We did go to Fushimi Inari-taisha, which like the Bamboo Grove, had been at the top of my list.  Unlike the Bamboo Grove, the torii gates seemed to go on forever.  While it’s very crowded, the further you walk, the fewer the people – but also the fewer the gates, as they become more widely spaced apart. 

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3 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. Your experiences mirror mine exactly! It seems that you go to these famous places in Kyoto and keep waiting for the big reveal, and then, there’s nothing. I first came to Kyoto in 2000 (I live here now) and remember being disappointed that it was just another Japanese city that happened to have some famous sites. Many people I’ve known (as residents in Japan, not tourists) were similarly disappointed with Kyoto. I think the reality can just not measure up to expectations. And now that the numbers of tourists here are increasing exponentially, it further adds to the disappointment. I think most people tend to have more success in Kyoto if they avoid the top ten “must sees” and instead focus on lesser-known sites, explore neighbourhoods on foot, and spend some time out of the city in some of the smaller towns that surround it.

    • Thanks for your comments, Rachelle. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one. Not that I wish for others to have disappointing experiences, of course; it’s just nice to know I’m not a lone weirdo. 🙂 Interesting to hear of residents having some of the same feelings. Unfortunately, I seemed to have dropped the ball on our visit to Kyoto. We typically avoid the main tourist hotspots in favor of lesser known and oftentimes more interesting places, and I failed to do that here. Live and learn… Thanks again for reading!

      • You’re definitely not alone! I’ve even read articles in major travel magazines, where, if you read between the lines, you realise that the author feels the same way, but can’t actually say it directly.

        I think it is hard to travel places and NOT see some of the main sites, but as you said, it’s important to find other things to do too.

        Rereading your post again, I would also say that the amusement park/circus/”I-think-I-might-get crushed” feeling is 100 times worse in cherry blossom/fall foliage season (also, any kind of nighttime “light-ups” is also problematic). I know some locals who deliberately get out of town, or stay indoors, to avoid the hordes at those times. The unfortunate thing is, some places are really spectacular to see, so sometimes it’s just a matter of grinning and bearing it. 😉

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