(as published in Experience Travel and Living magazine)
One of the most interesting areas to visit in Kyoto would be the eastern region of Higashiyama. Our travel group knew we were on the right track because the moment we stepped on the bus, half of the passengers were men and women dressed in traditional Japanese attire, which is also the first and most prominent thing you’ll notice upon arriving at your destination.
A Cultural Walk Uphill
Several buses stop at the Kiyomizu-michi bus stop and upon getting off, you can’t really tell what to expect because the vicinity looked like any other regular road. But once you make your way uphill on Kiyomizu-zaka, as well as the surrounding streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka, that’s when you can start to see and feel the authentic Japanese culture seeping in.
On some days, it could get a little crowded. You have of course tourists, locals, followed by older schoolchildren. I was surprised to find out that most (if not all) of the individuals donning beautiful Japanese attire were actually also tourists like us. They had simply rented the outfit, together with hair styling and makeup for the ladies, for some JPY 3000 or so. Don’t be mistaken; what they’re wearing is called a yukata which is lighter, made from cotton and usually worn during summertime or in hot springs, as opposed to the more formal kimono that’s meant to be worn at formal events. To see authentic Japanese geisha, head over to the nearby Gion neighborhood.
There are many Buddhist temples in this area (which explains its popularity among Chinese tourists) and the most popular one of which is the Kiyomizu-dera (Temple of Clear Water), part of UNESCO’s Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Admission is an affordable JPY 300. Before reaching the ticket booths, you will go through the Niomon Gate, and then a wishing corner to the left, a fountain to the right where temple-goers pour water on their hands for cleansing, and in front is a bell to be rung for good luck. Upon entering the main complex, you can find several halls and the Otowa Waterfall, where one can drink its water, also for good fortune. The peak also offers fantastic views of the city. Other attractions in the lower regions include the highly visible five-tier Yasaka Pagoda and the Shinto Yasaka Shrine; as well as the Kodai-ji, Chion-in and Shoren-in temples.
As you make your way down after seeing Kiyomizu-dera Temple, why not visit the shops you passed by for some complimentary cups of green tea and free samples? Now is the perfect time to purchase meibutsu (products certain regions are famous for), wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) and omiyage (souvenirs) that are unique to Kyoto, particularly some yatsuhashi.
Sold at a relatively affordable price, yatsuhashi is a chewy mochi-like treat that’s also made from rice flour and dusted with sweet kinako (roasted soybean flour.) Some are made into flat sheets while others come folded with fruit or other fillings, like a fusion of crepe and ravioli. It’s very difficult to exercise self-control when there is an abundance of free samples in various flavors. These range from Japanese favorites such as matcha (green tea) and black sesame, to more typical ones like cinnamon, strawberry and choco banana. This treat is simple and eating it evokes a sense of home-made goodness.
Lastly, note that some of the offerings, such as the kuzumochi and warabimochi (gelatin-like mochi) served chilled during summer, are seasonal so it’s best to grab them while you can so you can also try more varieties the next time you come back.
It’s a given that travel takes you on an adventure to a place and lifestyle far different from what you’re accustomed to. But it’s also another thing to travel somewhere that lets you be taken back in time, and that’s precisely what Kyoto does. The presence of geisha, yukata being worn as if it were contemporary, traditional shops and stone-paved pathways contrast beautifully with the anachronisms of ubiquitous vending machines and individuals’ smartphones – a testament to Japan’s utmost regard for its heritage and reputation for technological advancement. As you bring some yatsuhashi back home while you fondly recall experiences of walking along the slopes of Kiyomizu, like me, you too would have discovered the heart of Japan in Kyoto.