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. 

Pressing the Reset Button

OK, I know that was a really negative post.  I do have some good things to say about Kyoto, though, I promise!  While the main attractions may not have been my cup of tea, these are the experiences I enjoyed most:

img_2206Rendezvous on the Riverfront:  The Kamo River runs thru the heart of the city and its banks are bustling with life.  While nearby restaurants open balconies in the summer where patrons can sit riverside, you can also grab a couple of beers and some snacks from a nearby Family Mart and have your own sunset picnic.  That’s exactly how we spent our first early evening, and it’s one of my favorite memories.

img_2283Just Peddlin’:  While bike lanes come and go, Kyoto is a surprisingly bike-friendly city.  We biked to and from Arishiyama, approximately a 45-minute ride from central Kyoto.  Despite our route being along a busy main street, it was an easy, flat ride.  We encountered several other bikers, and cars were mindful as they passed.

Monkeying Around:  The Iwatayama Monkey Park is home to more than 100 wild snow monkeys.  They roam freely across the grounds with visitors, and you are allowed to feed them in a designated area.  We had a great time watching and interacting with them.  The park is also located on a mountain from which visitors are treated to beautiful views over the city.

Geisha Hunting:  I successfully achieved my mission of finding a real live geisha!  As it turns out, with a bit of patience, they’re not that difficult to locate.  Once seen, however, they’re gone in a flash.  Hanamikoji Dori, just south of Shijo Dori, is the central thoroughfare of the Gion district.  img_2431There’s a gate marking the entrance to the street, and immediately to the left after you enter is Ichiriki Ochaya, the most famous of Kyoto’s teahouses.  It is here, at the intersection across the street from the teahouse, where you should wait for a glimpse of a passing geisha.  Primetime is said to be from 4:30 – 6 p.m., as this is when the geisha are leaving for work.  I waited here during that time period on a Saturday evening and was treated to three passing geisha, one of whom I saw twice.  I chose to use my iPhone instead of my camera, with the thought that I could more quickly take pictures with the phone.  I didn’t take into consideration that the iPhone’s poor zoom meant that I would need to be quite close in order to get a decent shot.  Since I didn’t want to stalk or invade their space (as I saw one girl do, who quite literally followed a geisha down the street, only a mere one to two feet behind), I was left with low-quality photos but a lot of excitement.

img_2467Teppankayi Time:  We had the best meal of the trip, and one of our best dining experiences ever, at Teppankappou Sou.  From the moment we entered, every aspect of our evening was exceptional – from the attentive service to the outstanding cuisine.  It is a tiny establishment, with counter seating for two parties.  The counters are separated by a wall, resulting in a private and personal meal.

img_2513It’s All in the Family:  On our final night, we trekked through a torrential downpour for what proved to be a perfectly lovely sushi dinner at a third-generation family-run establishment.  The sushi was prepared by a father-son team, and the mother was also onsite.  The son has spent time living in America, Canada and Australia and recently returned to help with the restaurant.  It was also here that we finally tasted the Kyoto-style sushi sabazushi, pickled mackerel.