Welcome to the epicenter of Japan's unique culture, Kyoto. Once a capital of Japan, it is now the spiritual center of traditional Japan. Experience Japanese tea ceremony, visit beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and seek out the elusive resident Geisha who go about their mysterious daily rituals of performance art - dance, music and conversation - behind closed doors.
Here in the heart of Kyoto is historic Gion, Kyoto's famed district of entertainment and geisha. This is the most famous place in all of Japan to see and possibly meet an actual geisha. Rows of wooden machiya teahouses line the streets here. Bring cash as you might need it. Dine here on Hanamikoji-Dori if you can afford to. As the sun drops below the horizon, you will begin your rite of cultural transformation with the small indulgence of a beautiful meal, followed by a good nights rest for the adventure that lies ahead.
Begin your new day fresh and early. If lady luck is smiling, you might spot some apprentice geisha, also known as maiko, practicing their floating like grace of walking along the streets of this old place. It takes years of practice (5 whole years!) and perfection of their artistic performance(s) to make it to "geisha school" graduation, when these fine young women become officially known as geiko.
We cross gentle streams to move over to Hokanji a few streets down South East. On this autumn day, the beautiful colors of fall are still glowing.
Nice, other folks are just only starting to flow in towards the spiritual grounds of this temple. It's not crowded this early. Before us, the picturesque five story Buddhist pagoda rises straight up towards the sky for seekers of enlightenment.
We push on up the colorful inclined street of Matsubaru Dori. There are lots of shopping temptations here to stall even the most experienced of tourists. We stroll past these shops for now, there will be plenty of time later. For now, we look in awe at a most celebrated shrine in all of Japan, the Kiyomizudera ("Pure Water") Temple.
Here, tourists enjoy pandering around dressed in rented yukatas (Japanese casual summer kimonos) with the hope of just getting that perfect Instagram picture. That's, a perfectly legitimate way to spend a good day wandering about on holiday. Some do take a while to just get that right shot, so I hope they don't mind if we take a photo with them in it. Onwards we go!
The main temple is renowned for its large wooden platform which stands out from the hill side. Unfortunately, the platform was covered for renovations, so a picture of the temple pagoda will have to make for a substitute photo.
We descend to the base of the hill. There is an orderly queue here for the Otowa Waterfall. Drinking from one the 3 water streams here is said to grant an associated benefit to the drinker. Which stream will you taste from? Success, love or longevity?
Ahh .. ok. Having experience the awesomeness of the Kiyomizudera, we switch gears to a slightly more relaxed place. We shop for cultural knick knacks and chew on matcha ice cream as we let gravity bring us downhill away from the increasingly busy hill top.
A slight detour and a feeling of time shift starts to set in as we stroll into streets of traditional wooden houses, with even more to buy and more to taste.
After all that, we decide to pay our respects to the some 2 million fallen of the Pacific War, at the Ryōzen Kannon war memorial. In war, no side really wins. Here is a memorial hall in honor of the unknown soldier. The colossal statue of the buddha watches over them and may they be granted peace.
Tonight at Gion Corner, we watch the beautiful silent dance of the maiko, as we contemplate grace and traditions hundreds of years old.
This has been an eventful day for sightseeing. The lanterns of Yasaka Shrine start to dim as today's excitement starts to make way for some well deserved shut eye ..
Spirit Sanctuaries, Royal Villas
The sun rises to illuminate the land of the rising sun, and the glistering Zen temple of Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion). Like most things in Japan, this gold leaf covered temple sits exactly where it has always meant to be, on the edge of a large pond within a garden of serene natural beauty.
Nearby, we visit Zen temple Ryoanji to mediate on the stones. As we are nowhere near enlightenment, we cannot see all 15 rocks at once. Unfluttered, we head on to Ninnaji Temple, walking with shoes off, treading softly on the wooden walkways of the previous Omuro Imperial Palace.
Over the next couple of days, at the risk of being templed out, we visit the Kinkakuji's sibling Zen temple, the Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji. We walk the Philosopher's Path, see Nanzen-ji Temple, the Heian Shrine, and visit Nijo Castle (an imperial villa).
And so, we visited Arashiyama (aka Storm Mountain), the amazing Sanjusangen-do (home of the Thousand Armed Kannon) and of course, the top place to visit in Kyoto according to TripAdvisor - the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine.
Plenty of tourists are still scrambling to get to this shrine. We tried Octopus Balls (takoyaki) and stepped onto the spiritural grounds - keeping our eyes open for the messenger foxes of the Inari.
Passing under its ten thousand Torii gates, is a truly surreal experience of a lifetime.