Take me to a place once and I usually know how to get there again. I make a mental map in my head and I’m good. But apparently I cannot read an actual map. That morning, we had more than an hour before we were to meet our guide Atsuko from VisitKansai.com, who was going to accompany us around Nishiki Market, and I thought it was a good idea to look for the streets of Ishibei-koji, Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. They were part of the Lonely Planet guide book’s Southern Higashiyama Walking Tour that we wanted to follow on our first afternoon in Kyoto, but couldn’t because it was so freaking cold—which was, by then, taking its toll on me. So even though I woke up with a headache, a stuffy nose, and a sore throat, I insisted to my husband that I was fine. I was determined to find those streets. Or at least one of them.
After we went inside Yasaka Shrine, I tried to make sense of where we were in the map. We were not on a main road and there wasn’t a street sign I could understand. I thought maybe I was looking at the map in the wrong way. Minutes of standing in the cold wasn’t helping my map-reading skills, so we decided to simply walk down the street to the right of Yasaka Shrine, because it seemed like it was the right direction. We kept walking until we saw a quaint, little alley with a short covered walkway. It piqued our interest. We saw three elderly folks enter. It didn’t look like a private property so we followed them. We figured if they lived there they would have turned us away. But they ignored us. So we kept walking along that almost empty, narrow cobbled street lined with shrubbery over a long concrete wall.
P and I didn’t know where in the map we were or where we were going, but it didn’t really matter at that point. Aside from the fact that we could easily retrace our steps, for the first time, we felt like we were exploring Kyoto on our own. Searching for a place and anticipating what we would actually find. Then we saw two girls dressed up as geishas turn to another alley. We followed them and there it was Ishibei-koji. Though there was no street sign, I knew it was the street Lonely Planet calls, “perhaps the most beautiful street in Kyoto,” because (1) it was indeed beautiful (though not sure of being ‘the most’) and (2) because I had been watching this video on Kyoto hundreds of times before flying to Japan and for a few seconds it shows Ishibei-koji—an immaculate cobbled alley lined with traditional Japanese inns and restaurants. Sometimes, even without a map, you end up where you’re supposed to be, anyway.
I was going to write a part of the trip for my editor in a food magazine so I wanted to explore Kyoto’s famous Nishiki Market with a guide/translator. We met our guide Atsuko at a train station along Shijo-dori before walking to the centuries-old marketplace dubbed as the Kitchen of Kyoto. Atsuko, who lives in Osaka is a licensed guide who teaches English. The tours are a way for her to practice her English and she was very patient answering our questions, such as: What were those pasty or powdery concoctions covering the vegetables and the fish? (Answer: nuka, which is rice bran, or miso) What were the tasty black beans called? (Answer: Kuromame. You can eat it as a snack or cook it with rice for flavoring) What did you call those gelatinous, salty-sweet preserves of seaweed, fish, or meat served as a side dish to many Japanese meals? (Answer: Tsukudani).
We explored the 400-meter long marketplace lined with around 140 stores. It was a food (and kitchen) paradise; I would be happy going there every single day. We tasted some kuromame and tsukudani. Checked out the knife shop dating back to 1560 that sold a variety of hand-crafted knives. Saw how bonito flakes looked like before they were, well, flaked. Found our mouths watering at the sight of mochi, onigiri, fish cakes, sashimi tuna on a stick, and the one I looked forward to the most after months of stalking Kyoto-based food blogs, the tofu doughnuts.
After ogling at so much food (even though we bought and snacked on some octopus on a stick, kuromame, bean jam buns and tofu doughnuts), by the time we had walked from one end of Nishiki Market (Teramachi) to the other (Takakura) we were hungry for lunch. Atsuko recommended her favorite sushi-ya in Kyoto—at the basement food hall of the Daimaru Department Store. (Now, a basement food hall or depachika is another food/consumerist phenomenon in Japan altogether. Check this article from Food & Wine.) We walked past shiny stalls of every Japanese food and western delicacies packaged and presented so elaborately, and found the corner sushi-ya Atsuko was talking about.
It was a small restaurant where everyone sat in front of the counter, behind which the sushi chef worked. Interestingly, enough when I asked Atsuko for the name of the restaurant, she realized she hadn’t bothered to find out. Like our friend C and his Japanese friend whom we met in a dinner in Ginza, having a favorite ramen or sushi place did not necessarily mean knowing its name by heart. They all just know where it is and what its specialty is. Atsuko chatted the sushi chef and turned to us: “Kiyomaru,” she happily reported. Each of us had one of the set sushi meals. And what I like about the set sushi meals is that the chef prepares it in front of you and presents it one by one. Like different courses in a meal.
Before we said goodbye to Atsuko, she helped us find a drugstore and asked the pharmacist what medicine I could take. We still had an afternoon of kimono-wearing class (P’s idea) and whatever Kyoto attraction we could squeeze in afterward (my idea), so I needed to survive the day in spite of the worsening sniffles. (Mental note: on the next trip, don’t just bring headache medicine, pain reliever and vitamins) Once we got the medicine, we said our goodbyes at the train station—Atsuko back to Osaka, P and I to Karasuma Oike Station.
Women’s Association of Japan (WAK Japan) offers many introductions to Japanese culture—tea ceremony, origami, Japanese cooking, calligraphy, and yes, even something as simple as wearing a kimono. Our instructor was a very gracious and sweet lady named Yukiko. While she deftly adjusted, tugged and tied the gorgeous fabrics of kimono and obi around my body (it wasn’t that simple, after all), she talked about her life and Japanese culture. She talked about kimonos, being given a drawer filled with them by her parents for her wedding day, and her hopes that her daughter would cherish them as much as she does. For the next 20 minutes, even as the obi belt felt so much like a corset, I beamed in that kimono. It seemed silly, but–damn it–I was going to make her feel proud that I was wearing that kimono with pride.
We didn’t get to meet up with our friends, who were returning from their day-trip in Himeji afterward, so P and I decided to check out the other sights we hadn’t seen yet on our own. We hadn’t visited a castle and Nijo-jo is right smack along busy Oike Street, so it seemed a logical choice. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nijo Castle—or at least the palace building, Ninomaru—is said to have survived in its original form from 1603. We left our shoes by the entrance and joined the flow of tourists inside, walking through the squeaky hallways (a security measure, back in the day) and looking at the beautifully decorated sliding doors. By the time we toured the entire Ninomaru and most of the grounds, it was almost closing time.
We rushed back to Southern Higashiyama on our way to Kiyomizu-dera. The Buddhist temple closes at 6 pm so we were hoping to make it by then. If we didn’t reach it, I thought we could at least see the temple and the cherry trees around it lit up at night from the outside. (I hoped.) When we got to Kiyomizu, it turned out that the temple had closed by six, but was opening again in half an hour for the special evening illumination of the cherry blossoms. Oh, the simple surprises.
Founded in 780, Kiyomizu-dera is said to be “one of the most celebrated temples of Japan” and you can see why the moment you get to the main hall. The wooden stage jutting out from it affords visitors a stunning view of the many cherry trees below and the city of Kyoto. Though it was the fourth temple we visited in the city, we didn’t feel the onset of any sort of temple exhaustion. Every one of them was beautiful. And even though we were often going from one place to the other, rushing at times, there was a certain calm in Kyoto. In spite of the throng of tourists that descend upon it every day, it still felt like a very relaxed city. I could imagine how anyone coming from Tokyo or any place where life unfolds in breakneck speed would fall in love with it.
VisitKansai.com is an online travel guide to the Kansai area, which includes Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara. It offers a Volunteer Guide service, which is really helpful and FREE.
Nishiki Market Nishikikōji-dōri (between Teramachi and Takakura), 9 am to 5 pm. The market is parallel to the main avenue of Shijo-dori. It’s a five-minute walk from Shijo Station on the Karasuma Subway Line and from the Karasuma or Kawaramachi Stations on the Hankyu Line (via japan-guide.com).
Daimaru Department Store 79 Shijo Takakura, Shimogyo-ku Kyoto (along Shijo-dori, north-east side of Karasuma Station)
WAK Japan 761 Tenshucho, Takakura-dori, Nijo-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto. See its access map
Nijo-jo From Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Subway Line to Karasuma Oike Station and transfer to the Tozai Line; or take bus number 9, 50, or 101 and go down Nijojo-mae station (no transfers required, but the train would be faster)
Kiyomizu-dera From Kyoto Station, take bus number 100 or 206 and get off at Kiyomizu-michi bus stop, then walk uphill(for 10 minutes) to the temple. The nearest train station is the Kiyomizu-Gojo, which is a 20-minute walk away from the temple.