What comes to mind when you think of Japan? Hi-tech goods, super fast bullet trains, precision and order? Or maybe ancient temples, beautifully prepared sushi and carefully preserved history and tradition? Kyoto has it all. It really is the Japan of your dreams. But when you arrive at Kyoto station, a stunning modern building and emerge into a modern city, initial impressions are a little disappointing. It's not that the city is unpleasant, it's actually very well organised and easy to get around, it's just that you came for the history.
However, all around the edges backed up against the mountains are wonderful historic areas with centuries-old temples and streets. And higher up into the hills are crumbling shrines hidden in the woods. During the day you can wander through dark enigmatic forests of bamboo stalks waving in the breezes. At night geishas glide gracefully along lantern-lit lanes. Step away from this back into the modern Kyoto and you can eat sushi off conveyor belts and attempt to come to grips with the space-age toilets.
I've spent a full six days seeing the sights and have still not seen everything. My hotel was near the Southern Higashiyama district, one of the best areas. The narrow streets are lined with old wooden houses, shops and restaurants and there also temples and exquisite gardens laid out in traditional Zen style. The highlight was the Shoren-in temple set in tranquil gardens. In the temple itself are panels with paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries and when you're not looking at those you can gaze out at the gardens as the rooms have open sides. I splashed out on lunch in one of the local restaurants and was surprised to find myself sitting next to two geishas.
The next day I explored the Arashiyama area in the west, most famous for its bamboo groves. Thursday started a little grey, but the rain held off for the Aoi Matsuri festival. It's an annual event originated centuries ago and designed to appease the gods and pray for a good harvest. The costumes were great, but the lack of music or smiling made it all solemn. A greater contrast with carnival in Brazil you couldn't hope to find! In the afternoon it started to rain heavily as I wandered around the Northern Higashiyama area, but it somehow made the temples all the more atmospheric, as rain dripped from the pagodas and the moss looked more verdant than ever.
On Friday it was time for a trip out of the city on a little train that climbed up into the mountains. I started in the small town of Kurama and climbed up to the temple there before hiking across the hill to the other side of the valley and the neighbouring village of Kibune. It's strung out along a very picturesque stream and many restaurants have built covered areas over it and laid down tatami mats so you can dine alfresco to the sound of gushing water. For a price!
On Saturday I took things a little easier and spent time seeing the free temples. I almost didn't leave enough time for one of the highlights, the Fushimi-Inari Taisha, situated on the slopes of Mt. Inari. I wandered off the beaten track and then discovered on my way back that there is an official pilgrim route to the top. It's a steep climb through the most amazing red arches past little shrines with statues of foxes. There's not much of a view from the top, but the reward is the achievement of getting there. The light was fading as I made my way back down and it made the shrines and temples all the more mysterious.
Kyoto has definitely been one of the highlights of the trip so far. Next stop Mount Fuji.