Old Vs. New: Kyoto
June 5, 2010
“Kyōto was the capital of Japan for over a millennium, and carries a reputation as its most beautiful city. However, visitors may be surprised by how much work they will have to do to see Kyoto’s beautiful side. Most first impressions of the city will be of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto, around the ultra-modern glass-and-steel train station, which is itself an example of a city steeped in tradition colliding with the modern world.
Nonetheless, the persistent visitor will soon discover Kyoto’s hidden beauty in the temples and parks which ring the city center, and find that the city has much more to offer than immediately meets the eye.”
So begins the Wikitravel article on Kyoto, and similar words get dropped in every travel guide talking about the city. Nearly everyone gushes about the history on display all over the city, as the city boasts all sorts of famous temples, shrines and other relics of “old Japan.” It’s one of those “must-do-in-Japan items.” Naturally, I avoided the city for nearly an entire year despite it being a short two hour train ride away. I finally got around to going to Kyoto, though, and got to see the past for myself.
As Wikitravel noted, though, Kyoto isn’t just Ye Olde Colonial Towne recreation center. It’s an actual city loaded with people who require services and entertainment. Most of the city is just that…a city, complete with loud pachinko parlors and UNIQLOs and McDonald’s every other step. The historic sights…the things most people come for…can be tricky to find. Not all of them though, as some old landmarks have been gelled into the rest of the city. Big, old shrines a block away from the United Colors Of Benetton. Others require a bit of exploring to locate. I wandered across the old sites I saw on my first trip to Kyoto, no planning at all. I’m not a model tourist.
So many shrines dot Kyoto trying to see even half of them in one day is totally futile. Going in more or less unprepared, I did not see many famous landmarks my first day in the city, but the ones I did see were all unanimously gorgeous. Ignoring the plethora of ice cream stands and groups posing for photos, it does feel a lot like falling into some wormhole and ending up in ancient Japan. An ancient Japan populated by white people, but ancient nonetheless.
I also came across the biggest shrine entry gate in all Japan. Unsurprisingly, it’s very big.
All of these historic treasures, many of which I still haven’t seen, are great. Definitely worth seeking out if you decide to ever spend time in Japan and want history overload. Yet I’m going to reveal my total low-culture being by saying I really prefer Kyoto the city to Kyoto the history book. Spend ten minutes around me, or save the time and just ask for my opinion about the Chipotle fast-food chain, and this shouldn’t come as a shock. Temples and shrines are great but…I’ll take the buzzing of a city any day. Especially one as gorgeous as Kyoto.
Unlike Osaka which can often feel too narrow, Kyoto has a lot more open space while managing to retain the same rush that makes Osaka so great. The way older, historic building get integrated into the layout helps to, as does the vast natural beauty on display around every corner. The river cutting through the city, in particular, offers some of the most mesmerizing scenes.
Osaka feels like a city made for young 20-somethings…it’s a semi-dirty place famous for its nightlife and street food. Kyoto, meanwhile, seems built for those in their late 20’s – the same perks as Osaka, but also feeling like a more stable place, a place to start sorting out the rest of you’re life. The Kyoto Zoo also apparently has a red panda, which is also great. Kyoto…great for more than just history.
(Japanese Fun Fact #65 – Kyoto also has “The Tintin Shop,” a small little establishment selling nothing but merchandise featuring Belgium’s premier animated journalist.
Coming across this store has caused me to watch old episodes of the Tintin cartoon on YouTube. Dude’s a good journalist! Though I still like his dog the most.)