I’ve traveled to Kyoto before, twice. The first time was several years ago for only a night I think, and then I took just a day trip there once again a year later. I traveled to completely different but equally touristy places on each trip. Both trips were fun and very memorable in their own way, but because of the short and hurried nature of the trips, I felt like I really didn’t see Kyoto, if you know what I mean.
I left rather unimpressed, rushed, and still couldn’t understand what all the hype was about. I’ve traveled around a lot of Japan and frequent the Machiya streets of Kamakura, so a part of me felt like what I saw there really wasn’t all that much different. But Kyoto is constantly ranked as one of the best cities in the world, so after going there twice, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was seriously missing something.
So in my typical travel planning fashion last week, I booked a last minute trip this past weekend to Kyoto. Just a note, this is not recommended, especially this time of year! I told a Japanese friend of mine today about this and she looked at me and gasped “honto!” That means “really!?” She claims she usually books at least 8 weeks in advance this time of year.
But the last two weeks in November are some of the busiest weeks out of the entire year because it’s the peak time for viewing the autumn leaves all around the city. I was concerned that a ton of tourists may compromise our enjoyment, but honestly, it didn’t feel crowded at all, at least at the places we chose to go to.
But after seeing some incredible pictures of Kyoto in the Fall, I knew that if I wanted to give this city one last chance, I might as well go at the height of its beauty. Fortunately, I found a very last minute hotel right in the heart of the Gion district called Hotel Sunline Gion Shijo.
I’ll write a review on it later but it was a pleasing stay. Almost every other hotel on TripAdvisor was either sold out, located all the way in Osaka, or $800USD a night. This one wasn’t cheap, but neither is any hotel this time of year, especially in the Gion district. But we considered 35,000 yen a night a bargain particularly because of its fabulous location.
I was thrilled that my husband could finally see Kyoto as well. He really hasn’t traveled as much of Japan as I have, mostly because he says he’s not interested haha. Let’s just say this trip helped to change his mind a little!
We stayed from Friday through Sunday and I had four missions that I wanted to accomplish this trip:
- Photograph a REAL geisha on the streets of Gion. And get a good picture.
- See and photograph some amazing autumn leaf spots
- Go back to the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen in Asia (Sannenzaka, Ninenzaka)
- And really see Kyoto. Fall a bit in love with it.
Well, I’m happy to report that we accomplished ALL of this and more. Kyoto truly is a fabulous city and I’m so happy that I was able to finally experience the peak of its glory during autumn. I just knew there was more to it and of course the trick to really traveling is to travel less. Staying in one spot, soaking up a single location, and really getting to know a place is my preferred travel style and it always yields a richer experience.
In addition, we ate some incredible kobe and wagyu beef in a private tatami room, I discovered my all time FAVORITE Japanese sweet, and Daniel loved Kyoto so much he’s already talking about coming back. We spent nights wandering the ancient cobblestone streets of Gion, peeking into dimly lit windows, and waiting for geishas to turn a quiet corner. Daniel was “on watch” and we were both armed with our cameras.
Spending a great deal of time in the Gion district is precisely what was missing from the equation on my first two trips to Kyoto. It felt like the Japanese version of Bruges or Disneyland. Wandering the narrow streets packed full of tiny shops and cafes, you can turn a corner and find yourself on the path to a beautiful zen garden or an ancient temple.
The homes and buildings are all of Machiya style, yet despite its proximity to the main road, you still feel a distinct quietness and sense of peace while walking the streets. We peeked in windows, often secluded by bamboo blinds, only providing a faint outline in the glowing light of the life happening inside.
Parties, private gatherings, tea, and entertainment all of which beckon both the presence of geisha and maiko. Yet these beautiful females remain as elusive as ghosts, scurrying down a dark alley out of the light.
Well, we both shot a ton of photos. Daniel has picked up a lot over the years from my photography so he’s really gotten pretty good with the camera. He ended up capturing the best geisha shot of the trip! But Kyoto in the Fall truly is stunning and there were times when I honestly couldn’t stop staring at the light coming through the vibrant orange and red leaves or the stunning vivid landscape of colors in front of us.
There were quite a few pinch-me moments on this trip, and after three whole years in Japan, I’m really not at all surprised when I continue to discover such beauty. This is why I’ll never tire of traveling; something surreal is always there awaiting your discovery. This trip was simultaneously relaxing yet also packed full of sights – but just a few really incredible selected sites. Less traveling, more wandering.
Below are some photos of highlights from the trip, though I will write several more specific posts related to Kyoto travel as well later. But here’s a bit of why I finally fell in love with Kyoto.