Kyoto is a great place to visit at any time of the year, with each season providing its own unique perspective to this historical city, that was once the imperial capital of Japan. However, the first few weeks of summer (around June) are particularly nice, as mild spring days give way to pleasant twenty something temperatures shortly before the sticky summer heat eventually arrives. Sure, this is also the rainy season, but the occasional heavy down pour only adds to the rapid regeneration of the tree foliage and helps to top up the many streams that flow from the nearby mountains. With my cousin visiting us for quick-fire, one-day trip from Tokyo, Jules and I could think of no better place to spend a pleasant summers day than in Kyoto. His immanent arrival prompted us to reflect upon some of our favorite spots and attempt to put together a 12-hour itinerary that would somehow highlight the essence of this unique city.
We knew instantly that the famed Tori Gates of Kyoto would be an invigorating way to begin the day, promising both a brisk uphill walk and a welcoming view of the city. However, we were also keen to include one place that we also hadn’t seen before. Nanzen-ji Temple sits in the foothills of the Higashiyama Mountains and is one of the largest Buddhist temple complexes in Kyoto, with a history that dates back to the 13th century. As expected, there are numerous traditional Japanese buildings that are dotted within the picturesque grounds, yet what makes this place particularly different is the presence of a structure that appears remarkably out of place…a large brick aquaduct! It was built in the late 1800’s to carry water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto, but the solid looking arched design suggests that it could have been almost air lifted straight from Victorian England and dropped into Kyoto. In actual fact, the hundreds of thousands of bricks that were used for its construction were all made locally and apparently transported to the site by the women of the town. Considering the structural designs that were common in Japan at the time, the building of a Romanesque aquaduct must have appeared to be a very radical departure from tradition and a particularly adventurous undertaking.
A more familiar location that is always on our must see list when visitors are in town is Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which is as beautiful for its setting as it is for its magnificent wooden structure. Jutting out from the Kiyomizu no Butai Mountain and built upon 139 pillars, the main building is particularly striking in summer set against the lush green foliage of the hillside. In fact it looks amazing at just about anytime of the year, with each of the seasons offering a fresh vision on this remarkable construction. Standing some 13 metres above the ground, it is simply an amazing feat of engineering for its time and also offers one of the best views of Kyoto. One of the other things we also enjoy about visiting this particular temple is wandering around the traditional laneways that surround it. It is a wonderful spot to enjoy a traditional Japanese noodle lunch or to just observe the various foods and handicrafts of the region.
However, for the hardcore gourmet traveler, a walk through Nishiki Market is a real eye opener to the mysteries of Japanese cuisine. Being totally undercover, it’s a nice respite from the summer sun and the narrow laneway, known as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’, provides hundreds of stalls spanning five city blocks. While most Japanese supermarkets package fresh produce to within an inch of its life, here it is presented much more authentically in traditional barrels and trays that are open to the elements. Most of the stalls are highly specialized selling all manner of locally grown produce, which for the most part remain a mystery to us westerners. While fish in all its forms can be seen everywhere, reinforcing the popular notion that its almost daily consumption is in part responsible for the longevity of the Japanese.
As late afternoon drifts into early evening, the temperature is still warm so we head toward Pontocho, the most atmospheric of the restaurant districts. This area is full of character, which is further enhanced by the increased number of traditional kimonos that are worn by its Japanese patrons during the summer months. As the paper lanterns start to glow, the narrow laneway begins to fill with locals scrambling for a table at one of the many restaurants offering Kawayuka dining. These are specially constructed platforms that are built over rivers and streams to take advantage of the cool natural breezes of the evening. As you can imagine, such al fresco style dining is particularly popular in the summer months and it is certainly a terrific way to enjoy a meal as the sun begins to set behind the mountains.
As the evening progressed, we observed many of the locals sitting alongside the banks of the Kamogawa River enjoying the evening breezes and sipping a glass of something cool. While Kyoto truly comes alive at night, the hectic pace and the heat of the day had taken its toll and a final visit to one of the many cocktail lounges was just about all we could muster. We knew that our legs would be tired tomorrow, but I guess that’s the inevitable result of visiting a city that encourages you to walk and explore. Kyoto is just such a place and there’s no better time to do that than in those first few balmy weeks of summer.