For as long as I can remember, I have felt a deep and undeniable connection to Japan. Whether it was movies, books, or simply playing too many video games, even as a child a strong affinity was formed with this mystical and fascinating country. My first visit to Japan was in 2008, where I spent time in Tokyo. I was completely blown away by the city, the interconnectedness of it all and the underlying logic amidst what would appear upon first glance to be utter chaos. Suffice it to say I had experienced my first hit, and the years between did nothing to quench my desire for more.
Enter Kyoto. Recently I found a cheap airline that flies from Korea to Japan as well as a few other locations. After two cheap international flights to Kansai (Osaka), and JR Rail passes direct from the airport into the heart of Kyoto, we had arrived. The first thing that struck me about Kyoto was the cleanliness of the city. Trees adorn the sidewalks, rivers flow, there are more bicycles than cars, and it is illegal to smoke in the street (trust me, for east Asia this is progressive). As the former imperial capital of Japan, to say there is a lot to see in Kyoto is an understatement. Trails of brilliant orange gates line the path of Fushimi Inari Taisha, sprawling bamboo forests provide seclusion from the outside world amidst Arashiyama, and it seems than everywhere you turn there is a palace more splendid than the last.
The beauty of Kyoto is that you don’t need to have each step meticulously planned out. It’s just as much fun to wander around and get lost in the mix of traditional and contemporary Japan, a new and interesting place to visit (or eat at) at every turn. Wandering the streets of Gion at night provides a remarkable opportunity to sight geisha hurriedly walking with their heads down through the back alleys, moving onward to their next appointment. Roaming the streets aimlessly is the literal definition of lost in translation, and I couldn’t have been happier. Of course it would not be doing a Japanese city justice to forget about the food. I’ve always appreciated that Japanese cuisine is something of an art form, and in a mere twenty four hours we managed to consume a multi-course soba lunch, perhaps the best dinner of my life in a teppanyaki style meal consisting of foie gras, lobster, and kobe beef, as well as an incredible conveyor sushi breakfast the following day. It’s not a stretch for me to say that if I were forced to choose exclusively one cuisine for the rest of my life, it very well might be Japanese.
Travelers be forewarned! I must admit that both of my trips to Japan were for short intervals, and each involved spending a much larger amount of money in comparison to the ‘shoestring’ budgets that I normally employ when traveling for months at a time. Similar to New York City, Japan is not a place that I would find overly enjoyable to do on the cheap. Stay for a shorter interval if need be, but experience Japan the right way, by throwing yourself right into the fire and immersing yourself in your surroundings. I assure you that you will not be disappointed. For me, Kyoto was truly the place I had dreamt of as a child, and I urge you to see it for yourself.