Kyoto, a favourite with both international and local tourists, continues to attract visitors to admire its festivals, gardens and historical homes.
The suburb of Gion draws many, either for a glimpse of geisha, or sample the haute cuisine called kaiseki. Kyoto maintains a priority in most itineraries, as individuals want to enjoy the feeling of being transported to a time and place that has slowed, maintains tradition and exudes grace. It is possible to combine two to three attractions in one day without getting too stressed. And there is always time to take in tea at one of the teahouses or o-chaya along the historic route from Yasaka shrine to World Heritage Kiyomizu dera temple.
For those who want a truly atmospheric experience, a visit to Nijo jo Palace situated on Nijo Avenue, proves to be entertaining, educational and kid friendly. The Palace represents an authentic insight of how the shogun conducted cabinet meetings while attempting to maintain a relaxed living style on trips to the old capital. Bring comfortable, easy to remove shoes, and needless to say matching socks. Nijo palace allows visitors inside and you’ll need to don slippers or go barefoot.
When you make it past the groups of schoolchildren ever ready to practice chirpy hellos, the sound audible will be a squeak everywhere you tread. Developed by the Shogun and his retainers as a device to warn of intruders, the Nightingale floor is a feudal security alarm. With its private chambers housing ever-ready samurai to run through marauders, Nijo jo is a tribute to the Shogunate’s ingenuity in personal security. Art lovers will appreciate the painted screens by the Kano school. A group that had significant influence over art in Kyoto, together with an official Shogunate appointment, Kano school works appear throughout Kyoto. The bold colours and luxurious interiors of the reception rooms of Nijo jo provide a contrast to eerie full size mannequins dressed according to rank and status in the state rooms, as well as the Shoguns private chambers.
An added attraction of Nijo jo is that you are able to go at your own pace. If you wish to visit Gosho, the Imperial Palace, be prepared to take your passport and receive permission form the Imperial Palace agency where you will be assigned a tour time. Visitors are not permitted inside the buildings.
Ideally Nijo jo Palace should be combined with a visit to Nijo Jinya, which according to legend, was visited by Ian Flemming in the early twenties. If you are able to spare the time to make an appointment, are over 16 and are able to take a Japanese speaker with you, do so. For any one seeking hidden Kyoto delights, Ninjo Jinya is a treat. Constructed to accommodate dignitaries who needed to be near the palace to attend the Shogun, the inn is an extraordinary combination of ordinary town house, and well-equipped fortress.
Japanese builders maximized their limitations on space to their full advantage by building kitchens into nooks and staircases that can be pulled down from nowhere. Holes for rocks and other projectiles to be thrown through exist here, a common defense feature noticeable at various fortresses in Japan, including World Heritage Himeji Castle.
The guide will lead you on a tour through each level of the house, culminating at the top with the intriguing boat room. This rooms design is distinctly nautical, and when stepped on, the old tatami mats sound like the creaking of a boat deck. Your guide will demonstrate the intricacies of this phenomenon. A featured highlight is the Noh stage. Built for the lords who were aficionados of this theatre art, it remains in mint condition. Visitors will feel the Kano influence throughout. Most of the interiors are decorated with sadly fading beautiful vistas of the Kyoto mountain ranges, complete with details of all significant Kyoto temples.
For language learners, a curiosity to fuel the imagination is a map on a wall panel labeled in Katakana, the script for all foreign words now borrowed into English. Our guide could not tell us anything about the map or how it got there, but as this script was not introduced until the Meiji period, the mystery remains unexplained in a building of many stories.
Tourists will benefit greatly from the relative ease of travel in Kyoto, especially if Japanese is not your forte. A city designed with the Chinese grid system in mind, it makes for easy walking. If you get lost, enjoy the detours, you’ll invariably find the way again, perhaps wishing you hadn’t so soon. With a little time, effort and research, a trip to Kyoto should bring a rich experience that both intrigues and rewards.