Time & again, whenever I asked friends what their favorite thing they’ve done in Japan was, Kyoto came up. Famous as the birthplace of geisha, a former capital city, and left largely untouched during the American bombing runs of WWII all mean that Kyoto has spectacular history and architecture that is incredibly unique, even within Japan.
We took a last-minute three-day weekend and after arriving by Shinkansen, we were in the midst of Kyoto. I was immediately disappointed.
After hearing so much about the unique, ancient city, to arrive into a train station in the midst of a modern, bustling metropolis was something of a letdown. My struggle with our time in Japan is that I have an overwhelming need for everything to be the MOST fun and the MOST spectacular in order to feel like we’re making the most of our time here, and if something doesn’t live up to these incredibly high expectations then I immediately get frustrated and upset. So starting off on that foot in Kyoto was definitely fun for my family.
We chose to stay in a traditional Western-style hotel, partly after our murder hostel experience left us a tad wary of trying something smaller and partly because I’m a bit leery of bringing our two-year-old to a traditional ryokan, where the the literally paper-thin walls might not allow him the privacy for his customary 5:30 AM wake ups and cranky afternoon tantrums. Coming from a parent who has now brought her son to a B&B, multiple bars, and an art museum, I think this restraint ought to be lauded, but I’ve been dying to stay in a ryokan, and the Western hotel – The Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa – was another disappointing decision… until we arrived.
I’d picked it because it was the opposite of murder hostel and also because it was centrally located, allowing us to walk to most of Kyoto’s high points easily. We set off toward a brewery a friend recommended for lunch, no particular plans for the afternoon other than to see the city and enjoy the cherry blossoms. When the brewery was closed, I was convinced that Kyoto had it out for me.
We regrouped, finding a delicious organic restaurant just in the nick of time (i.e., before a toddler meltdown). We headed toward the Philosopher’s Path, a walking path of Kyoto that an acquaintance had recommended, passing women dressed in traditional kimono all along the way.
We never made it. Instead, about halfway there, we stumbled upon Heian-jingu, an enormous Shinto Shrine in the heart of Kyoto with an enormous garden. I wandered off toward it, my son wandered through the park toward a group of children with a soccer ball, and my husband was happy not to be dragged another thirty minutes through the city in search of the ‘perfect’ afternoon. Instead, I took the chance to leisurely explore, stumbling upon a gorgeous Japanese garden within the shrine that showed the fleeting cherry blossoms off to the best of their glory.
And it ended up being a perfect afternoon.
Heian-jingu is located in the heart of Kyoto, a short walk from downtown and the Gion district. For more information, visit their site.