Wednesday 21 March 2018

Flying Visit to the Old Capital: Kyoto Travel Tips (Part 1)

While Tokyo has its fare share of attractions, Kyoto is the more popular tourist destination, and rightly so. As is commonly known, Kyoto or 京都 (made up of the characters for capital and seat of government) was the capital for over a thousand years, up until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Tokyo is the "new" capital which is reflected in the kanji characters 東 and 京 - "Eastern capital". Whereas in the UK we talk of a north/south divide, in Japan the division is East (kantō =関東) vs West (kansai =関西) and the culture and language are rather different. Top tip: if you want to sound like a local remember to pronounce the cities using two syllables - Tō + kyo and Kyo + to, not three syllables as is typical in the English speaking world (To-ki-o and Ki-yo-to).

Travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by bullet train (shinkansen) takes around two and a half hours, a little faster or slower depending on the type of train you take. The shinkansen is expensive even for Japanese though you'll save a little if you don't reserve a seat (trains are frequent and queueing efficient). If you're a tourist though the Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited travel for 7, 14, or 21 days, is an absolute bargain. Once you're on board, eating an eki-ben (駅弁 - literally station boxed lunch) is a must and you can buy these before or after you get on.

Once you arrive at Kyoto Station - a huge and futuristic building completed in 1997 after years of controversy over it not being "traditional" enough - you'll need to find a place to stay. One Japanese inn (ryokan =旅館) I've used a few times which is just a few minutes from the station is called Heianbo. It has Japanese style tatami rooms, yukata to put on after you go in the (Japanese-style) communal bath, and provides a (hefty) Japanese breakfast for a little extra.

Once you've dumped your bags and are ready to begin sightseeing, you need the right garb for visiting those historical temples, shrines, and gardens. One fun thing to do is to rent a kimono for the day - both male and female versions are available. Aiwafuku Fushimiinari has an English page with a lot of different plans available, including hair arrangement and ornaments plus accessories such as Japanese sandals or zōri (pictured). Be warned though, the plus-size tourist may struggle: male kimono go up to 185cm in height (taller men will have a shorter kimono!) while hips  (hippu=ヒップ) only up to 110cm/120cm for women/men are catered for. See part 2 for the next instalment: places to visit.