If you ever come to Japan, make sure you drop by Kyoto. In fact, take a whole week to visit the city. Springtime in Japan is truly magical, when flowers come bursting anew and every step is a breath of fresh air. Naked tree branches are suddenly beautiful again as lush Sakura trees drape the whimsical landscape; almost as if I was wandering through a painting. A stretch of loveliness envelops Kyoto, and the weather is just right. I just missed the snow that fell upon the city the day before I arrived, but it wasn’t a bad thing. Just three days and two nights in Kyoto, and even that was enough to make me fall in love all over again with Japan.
The last time I was in Japan was a good five years ago. Hokkaido in the winter is something special, with world-class ski resorts, mouthwatering Japanese cuisine and tranquil onsens (hot springs) when the cold gets too close to your bones, but that’s a story for another day.
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You might have noticed that Kyoto is an anagram of Tokyo – fascinating opposites of each other as if to suggest they were in fact, opposites, divided as each end in an imaginary spectrum. There is no actual significance between the two names, however. The anagram only applies when you Romanize the city names. In kanji, the characters are entirely different.
Yet, the two cities being opposites of each other seems more than a mythical coincidence. While Tokyo is a sea of eager tourists and city folk jostling through the streets past more streams of people and cars pouring in from all directions, Kyoto is a laidback cultural core in the heart of town. As Japan’s ancient capital for centuries, Kyoto boasts an extremely rich history with enchanting landscapes. It’s where the Imperial Emperor lived, where a thousand years of history still stands strong in the modern world, and where countless of magnificent shrines and temples still exist.
Unlike Tokyo’s towering skyscrapers and blinding neon lights, Kyoto has an almost uniform skyline of homogenous, shorter buildings with the same stonewall grays and streets lit by warm lamps and ancient Japanese lanterns. One tour guide joked that if you were lucky to see a McDonald's, you might be surprised to notice, on occasion, an unusually monochromatic theme that observes the city’s strict building and color restrictions.
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In Kyoto, I was struck by the silent streets. People walked by in hushed conversations and hardly anyone laughed too loudly. For someone like me who lives in a bustling metropolis, which some deem “the city that never sleeps”, Kyoto is a breath of fresh air. Literally, too, counting the gorgeous panorama and crisp, spring air in a comfortable kind of cold. Even the cars zipped by in total silence, cruising through the silent city, past buildings that share similar architecture. It’s not hard to imagine the ancient city holds 1000 years of Japanese history. Despite looking very modern, there is always something to remind you of their rich history filled with exciting stories of powerful emperors, stealthy ninjas, coquettish geishas and brave samurais.
The drive from Osaka International Airport to Kyoto was 1.5 hours, and it wasn’t a boring ride. We cruised past a beautiful, clean skyline and the occasional chrome trucks with their mirrored behinds that gave you a fascinating vortex-like view of its surroundings. Kyoto itself was a fascinating sight. Japanese people littered the streets in a mix of casual wear and corporate garb, and every so often a couple of riders would whiz by in their fashionable bicycles, often with a quirky front basket. As we continued to ride on, it became apparent that the city had a healthy bicycle culture – and an infectious one. 10 minutes into the city past countless of riders and I was itching to get myself a bike, too.