From the first instance we stepped off the bullet train and onto the platform at Kyoto Station, I knew we had reached a destination so wonderful. Unlike the romanticized image I have conjured up of most places in the world I haven’t yet visited but constantly dream of, I had no idea what to expect when it came to Kyoto. My mind was completely blank, without any expectations or any real idea of what I’d find there. But almost immediately, it became clear we’d arrived in a city unlike any other.
Of course Japan had been at the top of our wanderlust list for months, but we didn’t travel to Japan for Kyoto. We went in search of some of the best snow and snowboarding in the world (we found it in Hakuba Valley) and Kyoto just sort of happened along the way. And I’m so glad it did. From our first glimpses from the taxi window, while speeding through narrow streets underneath a heavy crisscross of power lines, past restaurants billowing forth weird and wonderful smells, and past the juxtaposition of modest wooden huts and majestic and imposing temples, it was apparent that Kyoto was unlike any place we’d ever been to. I didn’t just feel like I was in a different country, I felt like I’d stepped into a different world – one that existed in a time and space long, long ago.
After arriving at our traditional Ryokan (Japanese guesthouse) and taking a few moments to settle in while sipping a lovely green tea, we set out to explore the ancient district of Gion. Dazed by the mass of intertwining streets of never-ending windiness and the realisation that every single laneway looked exactly like the one before it, we wondered whether we’d ever find our way. Right then, the Yasaka Shrine loomed before us like a mirage in the desert and we found ourselves in the district’s centre, surrounded by tourists taking photographs and Geisha girls hurrying off to work.
It was beautifully sunny on that very first day, and we paused in the sunshine to bask in the otherworldly beauty of this ancient yet bustling city. We visited Yasaka Shrine, peeked in many a restaurant window, spied dozens of beautiful Geishas, took an excessive number of photos and generally just soaked up the atmosphere, the feeling and the experience of it all. The culture, the food, the sights, the colours – all of it was captivating.