Welcome to Kyoto: Initial Thoughts

A view of Kyoto Tower from the free 8th floor observation deck at Kyoto Station
 There are two things westerners think about when they think of Japan: Tokyo's daily crush of people and modern, geek-driven, technological consumerism, and a historical and traditional way of life very different from our own. Tokyo is probably the number one destination for visitors to Japan, and rightfully so - it has the shops, restaurants, and modern cultural experiences that let people really see what Japan is like today. But number two, and almost equally important, is Kyoto.

Why isn't Kyoto as important as Tokyo? Well, the "experiences" you can have in Kyoto are generally available or replicated in Tokyo - it has its own traditional temples, tea houses, historical arts, traditional foods from all over the country, and great museums. That doesn't mean Kyoto isn't worth a visit, because a day in Kyoto is a different experience from a day in Tokyo.
Kyoto Station
 The train station and the area around it have been modernized. There are skyscrapers and an observation tower around the new train station building (seen in the pictures directly above and below this writing). Buses get people around town and the historical districts have mostly been rebuilt and reconstructed rather than having original structures.
At Kyoto Station, a very modern structure in a historic town.
 But Kyoto was spared from air raids and the atomic bomb during World War II, and whilestructures get old, and Kyoto has seen several battles over the centuries, the temples are original, generally, some reconstructed several decades or hundreds of years ago, some dating back hundreds of years. And the important districts may not look old, but they are traditionally built or designed and if you can ignore the thousands of tourists around you, you might feel as if you're strolling down a Kyoto street from long ago.

I had a busy schedule in Kyoto, and I did a lot of walking in each of the historic districts. But even so, my urban exploration felt unique from other Japanese cities. In my "walking" photos in the next couple of months, you'll see some young women wearing kimono or yukata. Going to Kyoto, especially during Golden Week, is an experience even for many Japanese, and it was so much easier here to stop and snap photos of a cat taking a nap, or watch a preschooler feed some ducks in a lake, or admire cute ladies trying to take the perfect picture in their traditional clothing in front of a flowering bush.
These tracks near Keage, in Kyoto, were used to move boats along a portion of the Lake Biwa Aqueduct due to a difference in elevation. Restored tracks, boats, and rail cart along this area help with the historic flavor of Higashiyama, near Nanzen-ji.
 Kyoto is a city of contradictions, with the ultra-urban train station and city center area, but tradition and history a short bus ride away. It has fast food and food carts and convenience stores with fine dining establishments and tea houses right next door. It's an interesting mix of the old and the new, and its setting as the home of Japanese culture means it's the go-to place for those who really want to experience some of Japan's tradition.
Kyoto Tower at night
Because I had a limited time in Kyoto, I didn't get to do everything I wanted. And while Kyoto is known for traditional dining, and it is the "home" of matcha green tea and hatsuhashi snacks, it's not really known for a specific dish. So you'll see a little bit of food, but not much. But you'll get to see some fantastic sights as I post my trip for Kyoto, Kobe, Himeji, and Osaka.

I think this is probably the best post to make this note as well: Kyoto is the number one "traditional Japan" destination. As such, the traditional experiences - wearing kimono and yukata, tea ceremonies, traditional meals, shows, and so on - are very expensive. If you have a lot of money to spend on such things, go for it. But it is possible to have several of these experiences at other places in Japan at lower prices, if you're willing to look for them. Many open-air museums have these kinds of events on the weekends. Abashiri Prison has what I've heard to be an outstanding traditional Japanese lunch - just like the prisoners eat. Traditional restaurants are everywhere in Japan, and tea houses aren't that tough to find (check the gardens, especially). Even Koshigaya, a suburb of Tokyo, has a garden with a tea house and a Noh theater, so if you think outside the box a little you can save some money and still experience Japan.

As for the kimono and yukata, I haven't seen anywhere reasonable yet, but you can probably buy a nice but somewhat-lower quality yukata for less than the experience of just trying on a kimono, and I'm sure the store clerks will help you dress. Ladies, putting on a kimono is pretty complicated and time consuming. And both kimono and yukata experiences seem to include some hair styling and makeup. In Kyoto, you can be done up fully like a Maiko girl, which includes the white face makeup and hair styling too. If you're planning on taking photos, you might not want the full Maiko treatment, but you should probably pay for the extra attention to looking traditionally pretty. In the summer, though, most women will wear yukata, and you can too. I think they're just as attractive as kimono, and much cheaper, too! Kimono wearing is generally saved for very special events like graduation parties and coming of age ceremonies.

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