It was Monday morning, and I was enjoying a long overdue cup of tea with Annabel Candy, a British expat friend I had met years ago when she had submitted her travel blog to our Expat Women blog directory.
“You scored a trip to Japan?” I asked in amazement, impressed that someone, somewhere, had again found Annabel’s travel blog and offered her an incredible trip.
The next morning, I woke to an unexpected email from New York... “Andrea, would you fancy a trip to Kyoto, Japan, courtesy of the Kyoto Tourism Council? There is one place left on this month’s trip and Annabel suggested that you meet the criteria [of 10,000+ readers] and might like to join us?”
“Would my son like to be an astronaut and my daughter a singing star?” I pondered, rhetorically. “Of course I want to join you!” I busted to exclaim.
Meeting in Kyoto
Three weeks later, after having enjoyed a wonderful trip over on Korean Air, I was standing in the gorgeous Kyoto Hotel Okura foyer, being introduced to my travel-writing peers. In addition to the talented freelancers in our crew who could boast credits in big-name publications the world over, we were joined by the super-stylish editorial director of Hombre magazine (United States); an illustrator for Condé Nast Traveller (Italy); the publisher of Weekends for Two and a stable of other travel guides (Australia); the founder of DINE Magazine (Canada); the editor in chief of Leader Chic (France); a representative from the Association of Russian Travel Journalists (Russia); and one-time Oprah guest, travel expert Marybeth Bond.
I was still pinching myself.
My Kyoto Top 10
With only three days in Kyoto, we literally only scratched the surface of this beautiful former-capital of Japan. Nevertheless, here are my top ten highlights, which I hope will inspire you to consider visiting this exquisite city.
Dessert at Hoshinoya
1. Indulging in a Nine-Course Meal at Hoshinoya Resort
Everything about this dinner experience was sublime: from the peaceful boat glide to reach the exclusive Hoshinoya Kyoto; to the stillness of the resort’s night-lit sanctuary; to the indulgence of being served a nine-course meal by their resident chef, the renowned Ichiro Kubota. Every piece that came from Chef Kubota’s kitchen boasted an immaculate presentation and a tantalizing flavor to match. My favorite dish was dessert: chocolate mousse with passionfruit sorbet, crowned with a gold flake encrusted spider-web (pictured).
2. Soaking Up the Mystique of the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple Complex
Located halfway up Otowa Mountain in the eastern part of Kyoto City, Kiyomizu-dera is a huge, historic Buddhist temple complex registered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. Blessed (literally) with spectacular city views, it was a joy to walk around both the public areas of this lovely complex, and the private VIP room we were shown by the American-educated son (who shared with us his personal struggle with religion... but that is another story) of one of the owning families. The room featured 1,000 stone-carved Buddhas in the walls and a pair of huge symbolic feet of Buddha on the floor.
3. Wandering Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka Streets
A short stroll down from the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex, lie the charming Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka Streets. The quaint shops and unified wooden cityscape in these mostly pedestrian-only streets, were perfect for meandering tourists like us, who were en route to our delicious Italian-Japanese fusion meal-with-views at The Garden Oriental.
Maiko Girl & Andrea Martins
4. Learning from Japanese Maiko
At the Gion Hatanaka restaurant and traditional townhouse complex, we enjoyed both a traditional Japanese meal and Maiko show. (Maikos are Geishas-in-training.) Then believe it or not, after the show the Maikos invited members of our group on stage to learn Japanese drinking games, of all things!
Sagano Bamboo Forest
5. Inhaling the Fresh Air of the Sagano Bamboo Forest
In addition to the crisp fresh air, learning interesting facts like how bamboo stems can grown up to one meter in one day and how Thomas Edison used Kyoto bamboo in his light bulbs, made our Bamboo Forest tour a truly pleasurable experience (whether the information was true or not).
Hut inside the Retreat
6. Walking John Wayne’s Retreat
After the bamboo forest, we stumbled upon a fabulous nature retreat apparently developed by a famous Samurai movie star known as the “John Wayne of Kyoto”. A few quick phones calls from our Kyoto Tourism Council guides with the ‘right people’ at the retreat, and we had entered and were reveling in the serenity of the retreat’s carefully-crafted gardens.
Sumos & Marian Goldberg
7. Meeting Famous Sumo Wrestlers
One evening on the way home, fate threw us an unexpected pleasant surprise... two famous sumo wrestlers and their entourage walked past our group and agreed to stop for photos. It was our lucky night.
8. Shopping at the Nishiki Market
You can feed me nine course meals and show me heritage-listed sites, but it is not until you drop me at a local shopping haunt like the Nishiki Market to grab some unique Japanese souvenirs, that I feel complete.
Hina Doll & Andrea Martins
9. Learning about the Japanese Hina Doll Tradition
Master Keiho Ando (who was flown to Thailand to give one of his dolls to the King of Thailand) and his wife spoilt us with their time to teach us about the tradition and intricacy of Hina dolls – presented to Japanese girls every March third.
10. Eating Art at Kanga-an Temple
Picture Martin Short’s wedding planner character in the movie Father of the Bride, and that is how I will always remember the monk who ran around serving us our twelve Fucha (vegetarian) courses at the Kanga-an Zen Buddhist temple. This monk took so much pride in the presentation of the food (and rightly so, it looked like pure art), that when combined with the exotic Japanese garden setting and the lively dinner conversations, I could not think of a better way to seal our three day sojourn to Kyoto.
Is Kyoto For You?
If you enjoy fascinating new sights and experiences, you love how the Japanese have mastered the art of meditation and onsens, you enjoy nature and cherry blossoms (due to bloom in March/April this year), you savor fine food, and you love access to seven-level electronics stores, then yes, Kyoto is definitely for you. Do go and enjoy this beautiful city!
Special thank you also to the Hotel Rihga for hosting us after we left the Kyoto Hotel Okura.
Andrea Martins co-founded and ran ExpatWomen.com until 2014. You can now find her at Launched & Noticed (a course to help bring your business idea to life) and Story Resumes (gorgeous visual resumes that help recruiters notice you faster).