Hidden History in Downtown Kyoto.

Kyoto is the old Japan, the ancient capital, a place of tradition. You go to Kyoto to see the old that is slowly becoming overgrown with the new. Yet when weaving through the cars and dodging large crowds and tour groups crossing the streets, you’ll still occasionally catch a glimpse of the tippy top of a pagoda popping out over a train station or a brightly colored shrine situated behind a wall along a sidewalk. There are many small, hidden treasures letting you know that Kyoto hasn’t all succumbed to modernity. Little things, like the extremely narrow sidewalks and alleyways (practically only wide enough for one person), or the locals wearing traditional kimonos, or geisha’s randomly roaming the side alleys, still prove that ancient Japan exists and isn’t going anywhere.

Sadly, there is an ongoing debate on whether or not to turn Kyoto into a contemporary city like Tokyo, destroying its traditional cityscape and putting up modern buildings or for Kyoto to remain a kind of living museum for Japan’s cultural heritage. It’s a kind of preservation vs. development kind of situation. Luckily, there are political forces working to preserve the city and develop ways to continue to celebrate their past. For instance, the city government enacted a law that places height restrictions on new buildings, and has also restricted large and intrusive billboards and neon signs. Personally, I hope that Kyoto continues to uphold the traditional homes, dress, cultural sites, and lifestyles. If someone wants flashing lights, honking at all hours of the night, and overly large skyscrapers, then visit America, or even Tokyo. The oriental aspect is what keeps people coming to Kyoto and what makes the locals feel at home.

Downtown Kyoto contains a handful of famous sites, but sightseeing here is also more about soaking up the vibe. This small area has the thickest selection of restaurants, shops, hotels, and businesses in all of Kyoto.

Pontocho/Gion.

Sometimes these areas aren’t much to look at during the day, but at night, the streets come alive with brightly shining lanterns and people bustling about, disappearing into the doorways of bars and restaurants. Pontocho is between the Kamo-gawa (river) and Kiyamachi-dori. It makes for a nice stroll in the evening, even combined with a walk in nearby Gion. Gion is the famous entertainment and geisha quarter on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa.

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Night lights of the Gion district.

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Night life in Pontocho.
Night life in Pontocho.
alleyways
alleyways

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Restaurants and bars sitting on the river.
Restaurants and bars sitting on the river.
Rainy evening, eerie night sky.
Rainy evening, eerie night sky.
City streets by day.
City streets by day.

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Nijo-jo.

Standing like a direct challenge to the power of the Emperor in the nearby former Imperial Palace, the shogun castle of Nijo-jo is a stunning monument to the power of the warlords who effectively ruled Japan for centuries. For those with an interest in Japan’s feudal past and an eye for magnificent interiors, Nijo-jo is the perfect place.

Nijo-jo was built in 1603 as the official residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The ostentatious style was intended as a demonstration of Ieyasu’s prestige and to signal the demise of the emperor’s power. To safeguard against treachery, Ieyasu had the interior fitted with ‘nightingale’ floors (intruders were detected by the squeaking of boards, sounding like a nightingale, as they walked across them) and concealed chambers where bodyguards could keep watch and spring out at a moments notice. In 1868, the last Tokugawa shogun, Yoshinobu, surrendered his power to the newly restored Emperor Meiji inside Nijo-jo. No-jo is built on land that was originally occupied by the 8th-century Imperial Palace, which was abandoned in 1227. The Shinsen-en Garden is all that remains of the original palace.

The Kara-mon gate features lavish, masterful woodcarving and metalwork. It is absolutely stunning! To get to Ninomaru Palace, you first go through the Kara-mon gate.

Kara-mon gate.
Kara-mon gate.

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So beautiful and intricate!!
So beautiful and intricate!!

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Ninomaru

After passing through the gate, you enter Ninomaru Palace, which is divided into five buildings with numerous chambers. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed to be taken of the inside, which was a shame because it was gorgeous (and it would have been cool to get a video of the ‘nightingale’ floors! However, just to see it was well worth it! The Ninomaru Palace is characterized by the elegant, yet simple shoin-zukuri architectural style, which was favored by the warrior class. It consists of many linked sections. The entire floor area of the palace totals 3,300 sq.meters, with a total of 33 rooms and over 800 tatami mats (the straw mats used in traditional Japanese rooms)!! There are also superb wall paintings and spectacular screen paintings!

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Ninomaru.

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Side view of the palace.

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Ninomaru Garden 

The Ninomaru Garden is a large-scale garden called shoin-zukuri. In the center of the pond stands one large island (representing Horai-jima; The Island of Eternal Happiness) flanked by two smaller islands (representing Tsuru-jima, Crane Island; and Kame-jima, Turtle Island). The original garden is said to have been the creation of Kobori Enshu, a master garden designer. This vast garden is meticulously maintained and beautiful.

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Honmaru Palace

The neighboring Honmaru Palace was added to the castle complex in 1626. A five-story castle tower (donjon) was part of the original construction, but it was struck by lightening and burned down in 1750. In 1788, the Honmaru Palace was destroyed in a large-scale fire. The present structure (built in 1847), a part of the former Imperial Palace of Katsura, was transferred here from the Kyoto Imperial Garden.

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Moat surrounding the palace.
Moat surrounding the palace.

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Gorgeous landscaping and greenery!

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shrine

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Walking through the plum tree grove on the way out.
Walking through the plum tree grove on the way out.

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Fushimi-Inari Taisha. 

This shrine is quite simply one of the most impressive sights in Kyoto. Beginning at the bottom of a cramped, busy city street, a seemingly endless arcade of vermillion torii (shrine gates) begins and spreads up the entire mountainside. You look up and all you see is a row of orange coloring a line that disappears upwards into Inari mountain.

The shrine was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake by the Hata family in the 8th century. As the role of agriculture diminished, deities were enrolled to ensure prosperity in business. Nowadays, the shrine is one of Japan’s most popular and it is the head shrine for some 40,000 Inari Shrines scattered in the country! The entire complex consists of five shrines sprawled across the wooded slopes of Inari-san, reachable by a 4km pathway around the mountain. You will also notice dozens of stone foxes. The fox is considered the messenger of Inari, the god of cereals, and the stone foxes, too, are often referred to as Inari. The key often seen in the fox’s mouth is for the rice granary. (The Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred, somewhat mysterious figure capable of ‘possessing’ humans- the favored point of entry being under the fingernails). The path upwards through the torii gates can be tiring, yet there’s something peaceful about getting lost in all that orange.

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Peeking through the dozens of torii into the woods.

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Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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