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If I Had 1 More Day in Kyoto

Kyoto Insider Guides
by Alex Scola Jul 29, 2014

If I could go back to Kyoto for a day…

I’d fly into Osaka International this time, and cut my transit time to the city center in half.

I’d hop on one of the regular buses headed toward the city and prepare myself for the near-hour of silence, as I don’t speak Japanese and the driver doesn’t speak more than five words of English. He’d turn up his Japanese radio or news station, and I’d sink back into my travel playlist for the six tracks of juice I’ve got left before my iPod dies. I’d wait for the things passing outside the window to look familiar. They never do.

I’d get off the bus at its first main stop, across the street from the Avanti Department store downtown on Higashikujo Nishisannocho. I’d cross the street and head into the department store, not because I want to do any shopping (yet), but because I remember a not-so-secret my grandmother told me on my last trip. I’d head straight for the basement, to find an enormous plaza of stalls serving every kind of food imaginable.

I’d immediately gorge myself on the freshest maguro sashimi I could find, dipped in enough wasabi to make up for the lack of caffeine I’ve had so far. I would marvel at the amount of fish I was getting for the price, and entertain the fleeting notion that perhaps Japan was not that expensive after all. To balance out the healthiness of the tuna, I’d probably supplement with some shrimp and sweet potato tempura, and round it out with a Red Bull. After all, I’ve got a big day ahead of me.

I’d grab a Pocari Sweat for the road and return to Higashikujo Nishisannocho. Midday, I’d begin my incredibly sticky 2.9km trek, knowing full well that I’ll be soaked in sweat by the time I get to my destination, not out of exhaustion but out of humidity to a degree far more unpleasant than I’m used to.

Almost an hour after leaving Avanti, I’d finally have arrived at the very edge of the Shinkyogoku shopping arcade. I’d grab another Sweat — partially for the novelty, and partially because I’ve found the lemony oily drink strangely addictive — and take a moment to search my memory.

I’d recall the hours I spent here with my uncle and younger brother on my last trip, mentally retracing every step and desperately trying to remember where the store I’m looking for is hiding. Though the image is clear (neon lights and brightly colored toys, kitsch of the coolest variety, lots of nerd-paraphernalia, and a life-size foam statue of Giger’s Alien in a batmobile as the centerpiece), I’d be unable to remember its name or which of the zillion identical side streets it’s on.

I’d spend a few hours ducking and weaving through the crowds and the commerce, up streets and down alleys. Struggling and a little anxious, I’d overshoot the shop and find myself at the far end of the Teramachi district, just in time to grab some Shakey’s pizza for lunch, and I’d chuckle to myself about eating lackluster pizza in Japan.

Shortly after lunch, I’d realize that I’m wasting my time searching for a single store halfway around the world, and I’d resolve to spend my time more productively. With two main spots on my agenda, I’d pull out my phone and quickly do a Google Maps search for Nanzen-ji Okunoin. Nope, too cool for Google.

Flagging a cab, I’d ask for Nanzen-ji temple, and catch my breath in the air-conditioning for the 15 minutes it takes to get there. Rejuvenated, I’d get out and sidestep the crowd of tourists visiting the main temple that day. Running parallel to an old red aqueduct, I’d head up into the hills, through Kotoku-an. Further up and away from tourists and people in general, eventually I’d arrive at Nanzen-ji Okunoin, the shrine and waterfall in the woods.

I’d lose myself in my thoughts for a couple hours there, feeling like I’d walked right into a Final Fantasy video game, and marveling at how I managed to miss this on my last trip. I’d muse over what the other 2,000-some Kyoto temples must look like, squirreled away in the furthest reaches of the city.

I’d head back down the hill in the late afternoon, this time on a dinner mission. Passing by Shinjoin and Konchi-in, I’d cross Niomon Dori quickly before picking up the Tozai line at Keage Station. Another 15 minutes, and I’d change trains at Karasuma Oike Station, the halfway point, and take the Karasuma Line north into residential Kyoto. At Kuramaguchi Station, I’d hit the street moments before sunset, stomach growling like a gutted boar.

I’d head just a few blocks northwest, to the temple of Kanga-an. I’d poke about the gardens and candlelit premises casually, hoping to stumble on the secret that in recent years has been made slightly less-than-secret: a fully loaded bar hidden in the back. With luck on my side, I’d start by entertaining a Guinness, to complete the Japanese-Italian-Irish trifecta that represents both my unusual blend of ethnicities, as well as my culinary exploits of the day. After, I’d sip some homemade umeshu while inhaling course after course of house-specialty fucha ryori. I’d try to slow down, to take in the experience, the sights and smells, and the idea of being in a temple-bar-restaurant that was formerly the Emperor’s holiday retreat.

I’d completely lose track of time.

I’d check my phone and realize it’s much later than I thought. Swearing aloud and profusely, I’d realize the only way to make it back to the airport in time to catch my flight is to take a cab, so I hail one and collapse into the backseat while frantically blurting out “Osaka Airport” to the driver. He’d give me a look that I’d misinterpret as an “are you crazy” glance, but start the hour-long journey to the airport.

¥11,974 later, I’d rush into the airport and make it through security in a remarkably timely fashion. Twice I’d head in the wrong direction, misreading signs in my hurry, but I’d make it to my gate just in time to catch my flight home.

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