Saturday, 22 March 2014

Higashiyama by Lantern Light

Higashiyama is one of the most traditional and prettiest areas of Kyoto, providing a buffer between bustling downtown and lush green mountain forests beyond. It is a great place to experience old Kyoto with many traditional wooden buildings and shrines as well as a myriad of food and craft shops that cater to its constant stream of visitors. The area is particularly popular in mid-March when its picturesque narrow lanes are adorned with small lanterns for 10 days of evening illuminations. While officially this is one of the many local events that signals the start of Spring, the temperature is still a bit brisk at that time of year, particularly when the sun goes down. However, Jules and I decided to brave the chilly evening in order to experience a very different perspective of this wonderfully historic part of town.

 We arrived there late in the afternoon and noticed that despite the cool temperature, the area was particularly busy in anticipation of the lights going on around 6.30pm. One thing you can say about the Japanese is that they organize such events with passion and efficiency. There are always plenty of people to direct you, delicious food stalls and extra decorations. In response such festivities are always well patronized, with crowds of all ages filing in with cameras in hand. In Kyoto the wearing of traditional dress is also very popular with many women wearing the kimono, adding to the visual spectacle set against of the traditional buildings of Higashiyama.

This area is one of our favorites at any time of the year, but it was wonderful to see pavilions such as the Yasaka Shrine lit with traditional lanterns, while the nearby pagoda was illuminated with golden lighting. Here, professional and amateur photographers queued in anticipation of the setting sun and the chance to get a once a year shot of this magnificent historic spire under lights. Having skirted around the major attractions, Jules and I then wandered into some of the quieter laneways, which we found to be just as appealing as the little lanterns beautifully set off the traditional architecture. We were also able to discover a few hidden restaurants whose simple wooden entrances might have been quite easily missed during the day.

Having spent plenty of time exploring, we were both starting to feel a little frozen and in need of a warming drink. Thankfully Jules had heard about a place that was not too far away, so after a quick taxi ride we found ourselves walking down an inconspicuous street looking for what is regarded as one of Kyoto’s most secretive bars. Eventually we came across a magnificent old Buddhist temple and true to the theme of the night, we were led along a lantern-lined pathway to its doors, where we discovered something quite special. With no signage to be seen anywhere, it was inconceivable to imagine that just to the side of the main temple was a small, yet classy 10 seater bar. Established by the enterprising monks in 2008, this tastefully designed watering hole, set amongst a beautifully manicured Japanese garden is only now beginning to be discovered by visitors to Kyoto. I must say that sitting there with a warming glass of Yamazaki whisky in hand and looking out of the floor to ceiling windows toward a lantern lit courtyard garden was all a little bit surreal. However, it was clearly the perfect way to end an illuminating evening of sights and discoveries.

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