A love letter to Kyoto

I know it sounds very cliché but do you think it’s possible to fall in love with a place?

What is love? (Baby, don’t hurt me!)

First off, what does it mean to “fall in love”? According to this article by Psychology Today,  it means to become preoccupied with someone and to desire to be with that person a lot. It’s also described as “a headlong, pleasurable feeling that, everyone seems to agree, colors judgment so that the loved person is not seen clearly.” I think the same applies to how I reacted to Kyoto, Japan’s cultural capital.

Street scene, Kyoto

Not love at first sight

Let me admit. I had mixed feelings about Kyoto when I first visited. It was definitely not love at first sight. First off, I didn’t like the Airbnb Jesse and I rented. It was s***. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise because we hardly spent time in that musty old room.

When we visited the city’s famous temples, gardens, and shrines, I quickly grew tired of being smushed into the narrow pathways and bridges with other visitors. At Kinkakuji, that famous golden temple, I felt like an animal herded along a conveyor belt in one direction only: see the trees, peek into the buildings, then shamble along so someone else could take a selfie. Also, I didn’t like that some of the sacred places were so commercialized, selling sake and kitschy souvenirs.

Koyo at Tofukuji

Tofukuji was the worst. We visited in November and the tourists (Japanese included) went selfie-stick crazy for the koyo or autumn leaves. I guess I wasn’t surprised when in 2016, the temple banned all photography during the peak of the foliage season.

A change of heart

Now, don’t get me wrong. Tofukuji was exquisitely beautiful, with peaks and valleys of mossy green, vermilion, gold, fuchsia, and rust. However, Jesse and I really fell in love with the non-touristy places of the city. In fact, we experienced the best koyo in a little enclave in Umekoji park. There were no crowds, just small families and school girls enjoying the brilliant weather. And best of all, it was free.

Umekoji Park
Oi River, Arashiyama

Arashiyama was also one of the more gorgeous parts of Kyoto. Although the Sagano bamboo grove was crowded and a bit overrated, for me, the best thing about this part of Kyoto was overlooking the green Oi river, where river boats paddled by.

Strangely enough, we had one of our most memorable travel experiences at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto’s number one attraction, because we visited when it was virtually empty. In spite of the heavy showers, we relished walking through miles and miles of dripping, red torii gates that snaked all the way up the Inari mountain.

Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fox-shaped ema or prayer plaques, Fushimi Inari Taisha

We also had one of our best meals in a tiny cafe that doesn’t even feature on TripAdvisor. The walls were covered with sketches of pugs and poodles and stuffed dogs modeling doggie sweaters rested in the cafe’s front window. Eighties’ music poured in, setting us at ease. An old lady with crinkly eyes and wrinkly clothes leaned over and asked where we were from. When we said karibukai (Caribbean), she opened her eyes really wide and said, “Aaaaaaaaaaye! Sugoi! (Amazing!)

Making takoyaki (octopus fritters)
Quiet back streets, Kyoto

Kyoto changed our hearts when we discovered its small spaces. Just walking through its quiet back streets and observing locals making street food, smoking cigarettes in the rain, sweeping, hopping on and off the city buses, walking their dogs, or hanging out their laundry was rewarding. Spotting an orange hibiscus in the concrete jungle also called out to me and reminded us of our Caribbean roots.

Hibiscus, Kyoto

A final word

What’s my final advice? To “fall in love” with a place, you have to travel mindfully. Even if you visit the big tourist attractions, deliberately pay attention to the details, the beautiful and the mundane. Seek out and appreciate the ordinariness. Sometimes, paradise can be found right under your nose.

Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography

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37 thoughts on “A love letter to Kyoto

  1. So true. Kyoto is like Venice you leave the packed streets to find delightful quaint alleys and little shops. I’m in love with Kyoto no matter how many times you come back it can be packed ( didn’t even go to Kiyomizu dera this year because of the crowds) but early in the morning or late it’s still so beautiful 😍

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  2. Kyoto made me fall it love with it too! And it still remains one of my favourite cities in the world, and Japan … my favourite country ever. We visited in spring and the city was covered in cherry blossoms. I see that you were there in autumn (red leaves). Ive never seen a city with so much culture. A question though – how on earth did you get an empty shot at Fushimi Inari? :O

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  3. Oh, Kyoto looks stunning! All your pictures came out fantastic. It’s happened to me before – Not liking the city at first sight is the worst feeling. Like you are going to have the worst time in this trip. :/ It happened to me when I visited Bangkok for the first time. On a positive note, the town or city almost always grows on people. Right? Kyoto looks amazing – I haven’t been yet but hopefully I’ll get myself back to Asia next year 🙂 – Mariella

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  4. I love the post title -A love letter to Kyoto. It happens to me sometimes thay whenever I declare a place boring, ironically, that’s going to be a place I’d spend more days at and I’d love to want to revisit. Overcrowded visiting can piss me off too. I prefer having a place to myself, I talk to nature. I think. Haha

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  5. I don’t think it’s cliche at all to fall in love with a place. I think that’s part of what traveling is all about. I recently came back from my second visit to Paris and I loved it just as much as the first time. It’s wonderful to have a place that speaks to your soul and gives you solace. I’m dreaming of my potential trip to Japan for my 30th birthday so I definitely appreciate your love letter. 🙂

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  6. I’ve always wanted to go to Kyoto if I were to go to Japan. This post only fueled my desire to go there. I have my bucket list items that include the UNESCO sites in Kyoto. You are so lucky you got to go! It’s so beautiful and your photos definitely showcased that pretty well!

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  7. What an amazing place. Its been a while since I was in Kyoto. I love its shrine and temples. Its very beautiful in winter and spring. Beautiful photos.

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      1. I loved Kyo Mizudera when I was living in Japan (based in Osaka). Bear in mind that was a couple of decades ago now so things have obviously changed and become a bit more crowded. It may be time for me to return to have another look.

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  8. I think it is possible to fall in love with a place! I’ve fallen in love with certain places!!! So I can totally relate to your feelings! I still haven’t been to Japan. My friend recently went and looking at his pics, esp the Bamboo forest, its so gorgeous! I hope to visit & fall in love too!!!

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  9. Kyoto has intrigued me for years. No wonder you fell in love with it. I hate visiting places which has selfie sticks flying all around so I understand why you did not like the crowded places. It’s a good thing that photography was banned the next season. If not photography atleast selfie sticks should be banned at some places.

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  10. You have inspired me to visit Kyoto, it sounds so much calmer and peaceful than Tokyo. I would love walking around the city taking so many Instagrammable shots of the peaceful way of life. The time of year you went looks like the best time to visit with the colourful trees.

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  11. I definitely think you can fall in love with a place. And Kyoto is so beautiful it was bound to happen! We had a crappy Airbnb there too, but luckily we just used it for sleeping.

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  12. How sad not to be able to photograph! Even though, I certainly can understand why. SOO many photographers in one spot make it hard to really just enjoy a place. We love getting off the beaten path too, but sometimes it is worth the crowd to experience the amazing!

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  13. I love the whole concept of this post! I fell in love with the most random place ever: the Extraterrestrial Highway in Central Nevada. It was crazy because it wasn’t a typical place that people fall in love with. I’ve also found that it’s when we open our minds up and all we have to find is one little aspect of a journey that can change our mind about a place entirely. And I also agree that some of the best cafes and restaurants are the holes-in-the-wall that we can’t locate on a search!

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  14. I can understand your feeling that sometimes with first glance of city we just don’t like it and suddenly we develop a bond with that city unknowingly. The read and orange leaves in Umekoji Park is stunning and so photogenic. Also boating in traditional boats of Japan at Oi River, Arashiyama is wonderful. Very well said that we miss the beauty just under our nose and look for something big or famous.

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  15. I love this! It’s definitely possible to fall in love with a place! I appreciate that you suggest people travel mindfully. It really is the best way to connect with the people and culture of a city. And your photos are gorgeous!

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  16. I love the idea behind the post. Of course, one can fall in love with a place. This happened to me at Luang Prabang, Laos. It wasn’t love at first sight either, but the city eventually grew on me. 🙂 Cheers!!

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  17. Wonderful post and one I can relate to. I love how honest you are about your first impressions. But isn’t Japan just wonderful once you get to know it. We fell in love at first sight! But not with the main tourist attractions – the hidden gems the secret alleyways and underground eateries eating hot sukiyaki after a day in the cold – that was the best bit. Love your account here. Hope to get to Kyoto on our next visit to Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I’d love to write a letter to Kyoto too…I just need to get there first! I won’t attempt to spell the names, but the bamboo grove and the famous red temple are stunning. There’s something so special about Japan, and Kyoto even more so. I need to book a ticket!

    Liked by 1 person

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