Our next stop on our grand tour of Asia was Kyoto, the heart and soul of Japan. Kyoto is what you think of when you imagine traditional Japan, with gorgeous landscapes, shrines everywhere you look, and Geisha rushing down the streets to get to their next party. It is worlds away from the chaotic and metropolitan Tokyo, with small buildings lining the narrower streets and less people per square foot than even the quietest Tokyo neighborhoods.
When visiting this historical city, we opted to stay at a traditional Ryokan style inn that are known for their exceptional hospitality, and cuisine. Essentially you are staying in a room with very minimal furniture. When you walk in, there are tatami mats lining the floor, a small table, and two “chairs” without any legs in the middle of the room. We were lucky to have a small alcove off to the side to put our suitcases (as I had read many of these inns do not.) When you are ready for bed, you move the table and chairs off to the side, unroll the mattresses from the closet (where you put them away in the day,) cover them with a sheet and pillow, and then unroll the comforters provided to you. Voila – bed time!
Some of the Ryokans are fancier than others, with private traditional wooden baths, or a common bathing room with one of the traditional Onsens (usually baths filled from natural hot spring water,) but these can run you anywhere from 250-500 per person per night. We opted for a “budget” Ryokan, which was far from it, but was likely a bit more rugged than the more expensive counterparts.
Speaking of, the region surrounding Kyoto is famous for their Hot Springs and Onsens. Everyone will tell you to take the time to visit these healing baths, and after days of walking around non-stop, you will definitely appreciate the advice! We managed to find a traditional Onsen in the city which was meant for the local community to go for their weekly bath. It was such a strange experience as a Westerner to be in this bathhouse with 15 or so other women cleaning and grooming themselves in front of the mirror and then relaxing in one of the 9 baths on offer, ranging from traditional wooden, super hot with jets, electrical (this one was a bit more frightening to me as I could feel the electricity running through my body,) two outdoor options – one hot, one freezing, and a couple of others that I couldn’t quite tell the difference between, but there were some different scents or materials used for each of the options.
The cleaning procedure, as I learned after studying everyone else, is to choose a mirror and a spigot (don’t forget your soap or a bucket to clean yourself, as I had!) then you sit on the bucket and start to cover yourself with water (yes you are only a few inches off the ground as a bucket would imply.) Run your hair under the water, lather it up, do the same with the soap on your body, and rinse yourself clean. Or if you choose, as was acceptable for both men and women, feel free to shave or groom yourself in any other way most westerners would be ashamed to do in public! Once the bath is over, leave your cleaning supplies by your spigot and feel free to enter the baths as you please, for as long as you want.
After our bathing experience (men and women are kept separately, by the way,) we headed off to the city for an incredible dinner chosen by the chef of a small restaurant we happened upon. This might sound a bit fancier than it was in reality, given that every menu in Japan is in Japanese characters with little to no explanation of what you are ordering. We found we generally had to order randomly by pointing to scribbles on a page and just waited to see what would arrive to our waiting lips. Sometimes we were lucky enough to find a waiter or hostess with minimal English who could understand the basics, such as chicken or noodles, but very frequently we were not. Also important to note, the “thumbs up” is understood everywhere.
The Japanese are very proud of their culinary traditions, many of the options varying from region to region, so you can usually rest assured you will be eating the freshest, tastiest preparations of the season. And if you eat fish, (which I don’t,) you are in for an even better surprise as you will find the freshest fish in the world throughout Japan. Regardless of this, you are in for a treat almost anywhere you go.
Generally speaking, Kyoto is the traditional and cultural hub of Japan. There are some 400 shrines in Kyoto and the surrounding regions, and every shrine is surrounded by beautiful nature and manicured gardens, including a gorgeous Bamboo forest we took the time to explore one day.
Every local you tell that you are exploring this region of their country is excited for you to get a glimpse of the “real” Japan. And from sampling the local foods, to biking around the markets on the weekend, to dodging rain in a quiet cafe nearby, I’d say we most certainly did see what real Japan is like.