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Exploring Colorful Kyoto

Friday, December 20, 2019

I'm overcome with a sense of calm as soon as I step off the bullet train in Kyoto. The city is filled with quiet alleys, mountainous vistas, and ornate vermilion temples juxtaposed with tranquil zen gardens. Charming, humble, and enchanting, the serene storybook escapes of Kyoto are the antithesis of Tokyo's organized chaos.




As opposed to jet lag, does train lag exist? Maybe my brain is still catching up to the speed of the bullet train. Or perhaps I'm still recovering from the sensory overload of Tokyo. Four straight days in the bustling capital was too much for this introvert. I desperately need to recharge.

As soon as I drop my bags off at my ryokan, incredulously gaze at the straw tatami mats that I am to sleep on instead of a bed, and fuel up with a green tea, I hit the road to explore Kyoto. I immediately feel more at ease. I amble towards my first destination, the colorful Kiyomizu-Dera Temple.



I'm greeted with a kaleidoscope of colors. Fall is in full swing, and I'm treated to a sneak peek of the bright foliage to come. I quickly realize that one of the best parts about Japan is its abundance of tranquil escapes, sometimes even hidden in the middle of the city.

Everywhere I go, large groups of adorable kids on school trips ask to take pictures with me. Chatting with them brings me back to my glory days of teaching English in Madrid. Not to mention, I feel like a local celebrity. Just what every Leo wants!

Tourists dressing up and taking selfies in traditional kimonos are also ubiquitous, which brings to mind many silent questions about cultural appropriation. But the locals seem to love the foreigners' interest in their culture... or they at least love making money off of it. I am perplexed by the irony of constantly dodging a sea of selfie sticks and wannabe-influencer photoshoots in the most sacred of temples. Alas, is this what travel has come to?




I wander back down the hill, along the Kiyomizu-Zaka Street lined end to end with souvenir shops and hidden gardens. Between shops selling matcha, noodles, teapots, kimonos, fans, and sweets, I'm bombarded by everything marketable about Japan. Though I've graduated from acquiring kitschy souvenirs, I amusedly observe the flurry as I make my way to the geisha district of Gion, in search of an elusive gluten-free dinner.

I'm a big fan of Kyoto


Quiet corners of Gion, the geisha district


At this point in the blog post, I'd normally start gushing over the local cuisine. I'm sorry to report that you won't find that here. Unfortunately, Japan is the most difficult place I've ever traveled as a Celiac. Though the Legal Nomads GF Restaurant Card in Japanese is a huge lifesaver, as well as Jodi's comprehensive blog post about eating gluten-free in Japan, I still struggle. 

The unlikely hero in this situation is 711, which has safe options like hard boiled eggs, rice, and mochi. The 711's in Japan are actually quite elevated, asserting themselves as a haven for healthy snacks, clean restrooms, and free wifi. 

Almost every night in Kyoto, I venture to Shishin Samarai for traditional Japanese cuisine altered to be gluten-free. The food is delectable and inclusive, and I also enjoy taking my shoes off and sitting on the floor (which is how I usually eat at home in my living room). The staff is incredibly kind and accommodating, even when I accidentally wear the designated bathroom slippers back into the restaurant... oops. 


Despite my struggles to find gluten-free food, I'm still wowed by Kyoto, especially the quaint streets of Gion. The city smells like fresh wood and pine. The immaculately clean streets are lined with traditional houses with creaky wooden floors, geometric paper screens, pronounced roof tiles, and minimalist gardens. Though I don't spot any geishas (nor do I care enough to try), I wander down each alley and back towards the river, aimlessly soaking up its charm. 


Strolling along the river is a rite of passage in Kyoto

Believe it or not, I actually slept here



I wake up surprisingly refreshed from sleeping on the floor on my ryokan's tatami mats. I make my way downstairs for a hearty breakfast of rice, rice, and more rice. Thinking I'd be ahead of the game by visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha's iconic vermilion torii gates at the crack of dawn, I arrive only to find out that everyone had the same idea as me.

Knowing full well I won't survive the sea of crowds without a little more caffeine, I treat myself to a frothy matcha at the shrine's elegant teahouse. Though overpriced, I relish the tranquil ambiance before braving the hordes of tourists and ascending the mountain.

This pastry, filled with delicious gluten, was sadly only used as a prop




Good thing I dressed appropriately to climb a mountain. Typical.

The higher I climb, the less tourists I encounter. Suddenly I start stumbling onto mossy mountaintop shrines with barely anyone in sight. The torii gates become sparser as I rise to the top. The stillness is staggering. Every leftover bit of sensory overload from Tokyo has now washed away, leaving me with just calm and wonder. I savor every moment of serenity before beginning my descent down the mountain through the thousands of brightly colored gates. 









After an invigorating morning at Fushimi Inari Taisha, I head to the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji. I've witnessed a lot of picture perfect, postcard-worthy moments abroad, but this one probably wins. It hardly seems like real life.

As the name suggests, this temple is actually covered in real gold leaf. Not only is the temple itself breathtaking, but so are its immaculately landscaped gardens.




The serene landscapes of the Nanzenji Temple fit my mood. Nestled at the base of Kyoto's Higashiyama mountains, this renowned Zen temple is surrounded by lush nature. The vast grounds are punctuated by a brick aqueduct that feels seemingly out of place, but ultimately adds to the temple's charisma.

Exhausted after my day's fill of temples and shrines, I spend a good amount of time here sitting, reflecting, and wanting to nap in a puddle of sunshine. It's the perfect way to polish off another magical day in Kyoto.


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I start my day fueling up at Arabica Cafe, perhaps the best coffee in all of Japan. I've found the coffee in Japan thus far to be pretty underwhelming, but this place is full of redemption.

I follow my tastebuds to Nishiki Market, where all other markets pale in comparison. Getting caught in the throngs of hungry visitors, I slowly make my way down the narrow shopping street for all five blocks. One thing I love about Japan is its covered arcades that are seemingly endless.

I occasionally stop to admire or investigate local delicacies that I've never before encountered. Though I can't indulge on many of the unique dishes, I still find persimmon, my favorite fruit!


My aimless wandering through the center takes me to Mr. Tom's hedgehog cafe, which at first sounds like a dream come true. Upon further contemplation, I do question the ethics of this - or any sort of animal activity tied to tourism - but hindsight is 20/20. Plus, there are a ton of rules about how to interact with the hedgehogs respectfully, and most of the hedgehogs are only allowed to hang out in "shifts" so that they aren't overstimulated. 


Yakasa Shrine

Nijo Castle

Japan is one of those places that gets under your skin, and Kyoto is no exception. As soon as science finds a cure for Celiac disease, I'm immediately booking a ticket back to Japan so I can go back and truly experience the cuisine, as well as explore the things I missed the first time around. Until then, I'll be dreaming of going back.

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