Discovering Traditional Japan in the City of Kyoto

I’m sitting beside the gentle stream that runs along the centuries-old Philosopher’s Path at the base of three mountain ranges that surround Kyoto. That’s when I notice a white crane standing silently still amidst the fast-flowing water. The crane, or tsuru, is the most sacred bird of Japan. And Kyoto, the ancient capital, is the country’s most sacred city. It feels like a perfect Japanese vignette.

I say that because there is a way of being that begins to take hold of you in Kyoto. It is reserved. It is mindful…deep and deliberate, like the peaceful flowing water of the Kamo River, which runs through the center of the city.

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My morning began with a warm croissant followed by a moderately paced bike ride up to that peaceful spot. But it’s not only in its natural surrounds that Kyoto’s calm envelopes you.

This 1,200-year-old city is filled with artisan shops and cafés that exude more quiet than bustle. Kyoto is a city that seems to remain constant and serene—never mind the increasingly fast-paced current that has caught up in much of the rest of the world.

I came here to the seek out the old, traditional Japan. Coming to Kyoto was a mindful decision to step away from the fast-paced American culture I was born into so that I could experience a more reserved and deeply cultivated way of life.

In my time there, I experienced living as the Japanese, I studied their arts and immersed myself in their ways and culture. Over the course of a year, I lived simply and quietly, studied the Japanese arts of tea ceremony, calligraphy, Sumi-e painting, martial arts, and Zen meditation. And I discovered a city that is full to the brim with tradition, culture, art…and calm.

Kyoto: A Walkable City

Any city is best discovered by walking. But Kyoto especially so. It is precisely designed, with impeccable Japanese detail, to be a walkable city. Over the course of the year I spent living there, I explored over 500 miles on foot. I learned the intricate, narrow streets of my neighborhood in the Kamigyo district near Doshisha University. I discovered temples and gardens around every corner and tucked into every side street, as well as the best hidden and secret ramen shops off the beaten tourist path.

Kyoto is home to over 1,600 temples and gardens. Though not exactly “off the beaten path,” one of the most breathtaking places to walk around is the Imperial Gardens, located within the Imperial Palace complex. This was the residence of the Japanese Imperial Family until 1868 when the capital moved to Tokyo. Children can be heard singing songs in their matching yellow school caps. Painters with easels sit beneath the red maples and yellow ginkgos, working on their craft. The same trees, which once guarded the Emperor in the Imperial Palace, still provide thousands of visitors each year with photo ops during the busy cherry blossom season (late March to mid-April). See: discoverkyoto.com/placesgo

The Philosopher’s Path

Another of my favorite places in Kyoto is the Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku-nomichi) in the city’s Higashiyama district. This cherry-blossom-lined path runs adjacent to a pleasant canal where you’ll find temple after temple along the route. It’s named after 20th-century Japanese philosopher and Kyoto University professor, Nishida Kitaro, who took his daily meditation walks here. The Philosopher’s Path begins at Gingaku-ji Temple and continues along past Honen-in, Otoyo Shrine, and Eikan-do Zenren-ji for about 2.5 miles, ending at Nanzen-ji Temple. See: kyotojournal. org/kyoto-notebook/the-philosophers-walk.

This is where I would come to write, while sitting on a simple, centuries-old bench, listening to running water, surrounded by trees taller than my eye could see, listening to the songs of the Japanese Wagtail, birds I’d never heard before. Decades ago, from that same bench, Nishida Kitaro wrote: “If my heart can become pure and simple, like that of a child, I think there can probably be no greater happiness than this.”

Bakeries Better Than in France

Making your way through the maze of cobblestone streets and alleys of the city, you will find old wooden houses and storefronts, boulangeries, ramen shops, and many world-class cafés. You can explore Europe and France, but I think you won’t find a better bakery or boulangerie than the ones you’ll encounter in the narrow streets of Kyoto. My favorite bakery in the city is Marie France on Imadegawa. Located just around the corner from my house, there were mornings the scent of warm baking bread would wake me. Their croissants are the best I have had anywhere in the world. If you are coming to the Kyoto Imperial Gardens, it’s located just two blocks west of Imadegawa Station. Just before dawn, the scent of baked pastries fills the street, and the line begins to form around the corner.

The Japanese Art of Coffee

In Japan, there are people who, with single-minded attention, study for decades with masters of the cultural arts—bonsai, woodworking, lacquer, pottery. Others, with Zen-like precision, study the way of coffee. Kyoto coffee shops are unmatched. You could spend months visiting one after another to discover your personal favorite. I did.

And after an entire year of diligent exploration, my recommendations for Kyoto’s best coffee spots are: 1) Cafe de Corazon (see: cafe-de-corazon.com) in the Nishijin district, where the humble owner became my weekly Master Teacher in the Japanese art of coffee and the mindful pour over. Each day, he’d offer me a master class in detail from his simple shop beneath his home. 2) Equally satisfying is Jazz Spot Yamatoya (see: jazz-yamatoya.com), located in the Sakyo ward. It offers a completely different experience, combining coffee, whiskey, while American jazz standards plays softly in the background on vinyl. Here, you can enjoy coffee and cigarettes while listening to classics by Bill Evans, Django Reinhardt, and Thelonious Monk.

The Way of Tea

One of the cultural aspects of Japan that I was most eager to explore during my time in Kyoto was “Chado” or the Japanese tea ceremony, also called the Way of Tea. I became interested in tea after my travels to China, where I took a workshop in the way of Chinese tea pouring. I had been exposed to Chinese loose-leaf tea and green loose-leaf tea from Japan, but had never truly experienced macha tea until living in Kyoto. I sought out Master Teacher Randy Channell, a Canadian born Master of Tea living in Kyoto (see: japan. go.jp.)

It’s a city full to the brim with culture, art…and calm.

As I learned, you can find many similarities between the “Way of Tea” and the Way of the Japanese Martial Arts: the same efficiency of movement, the mindfulness of focus, the attention to detail. Kyoto is where the art of tea ceremony began and is home to three main tea schools: Ura senke, Omoto senke and Mushanoji senke. You can visit each school to learn more about the study of the tea ceremony. Master Channell offers introductory tea lessons and ceremonies at ran Hotei in Kyoto (see: ranhotei.com/tealesson).

Search for Kyoto’s Best Ramen

Any time spent in Kyoto would not be complete without discovering Kyoto’s best ramen. Although a completely unattainable goal, this became my weekly personal quest, and I diligently savored many soothing bowls of hot savory broth over thick noodles, each one competing to win my heart. Perhaps the best was from Akutagawa, located just around the corner from Doshisha University. On most days, a line of hungry diners curves around the corner, patrons eagerly waiting for one of the shop’s eight seats to open. To discover your own favorite, I recommend a visit to Kyoto’s Ramen Street, which is hidden on the 10th floor above Kyoto Train Station and is home to dozens of ramen shops.

Experience the Japanese Arts

I stayed in Kyoto to immerse myself in as many cultural arts as I could explore. During my year, as well as studying tea ceremonies, I also studied Sumi-e painting with a master teacher. “Sumi” is a Japanese term meaning “black ink” and “e” means “painting.” Sumi-e painting consists simply of a brush, a sheet of white paper, and black ink. Zen monks first introduced it to Japan, and it was further cultivated as a Zen or meditative practice.

I also studied traditional Japanese calligraphy shodo, sitting in formal seiza position (sitting on the floor on your knees) for three hours each week, and I also practiced tai-chi. I discovered most of these classes through online research or recommendations from other people. But the Tourist Information Center on the 2nd floor of the JR Kyoto Station in the heart of Kyoto will be able to help you get started.

Zen Meditation at Seikenji Temple

Long before I ever set foot in Japan for the very first time, I was mesmerized by Japanese Zen gardens and old monks. When I came to Kyoto, one of my bucket list items was to simply rake the gravel and leaves alongside Buddhist monks in a Japanese Zen garden. I fulfilled that wish when I found my way to the small, peaceful temple of Seikenji, a tranquil place where I spent days raking leaves and meditating in this beautiful space in nature. When the woodblock sounded and work chores were complete, I enjoyed a warm cup of hojicha tea and dango (Japanese dumplings) by the fire outside with the head monk, Sokan.

Seikenji is a quiet temple, off the tourist path. The temple warmly welcomes visitors who are interested in an introduction to Zen practices such as meditation and working in the garden. See: seikenji.org.

From the breathtaking colors of the maples in the fall to the blossoming cherry trees in the spring, Kyoto is a city worth visiting at any time of the year. And once you discover the charms and Zen of Kyoto, your heart may never fully leave…mine certainly hasn’t.

THE JAPANESE PRINCIPLE OF “MA”

There is a philosophical principle in Japanese culture known as “Ma.” It can be translated as “the pause or emptiness in between.” It can be sensed throughout Kyoto in its many arts and practices and in the people’s daily way of life.

Ma permeates much of Japanese aesthetics, art and culture. Ma is why the Japanese are not uncomfortable with long silences in conversations. It can be thought of as the space between the notes which make beautiful music. It is in the stepping away from the outside world into a tiny tea house in the middle of the day for the mindful practice of tea. It is completely contrary to our Western way of filling every moment of space in our schedules and our living spaces and filling every moment of silence in a conversation.

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