Kyoto as we know it wasn’t supposed to exist.
The city was scheduled to be bombed during WWII. It was spared thanks to U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had fallen in love with the city during his honeymoon and wanted to save its cultural treasures.
And what treasures they are! There are 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto, as well as numerous palaces and gardens that make it one of the best-preserved cities in Japan.
Starting our walking tour of Kyoto on an empty stomach meant there could only be one place to begin: Nishiki Market.
The 400-year-old Nishiki Market offers over 130 vendors selling everything from spices and seafood to cakes and ice cream. You’ll also find specialty stores like Aritsugu, famous for its hand-crafted knives since 1560.
Take a stroll through the market and enjoy a lunch of food on sticks: yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick), kiritanpo (rice on a stick), and even chocolate-covered bananas — on a stick, of course. Finish it off with sake or a perfectly-chilled Kirin beer, both of which can be found in the market.
Japan is not only obsessed with cute and colorful things but also with fake food. Many restaurants throughout Kyoto, particularly in Nishiki Market, have elaborate displays of their dishes so you know what you’re ordering, regardless of the language you speak.
At the end of the market you’ll find the Nishiki-Tenmangu Shrine. This small Shinto shrine is studded with graphic paper lanterns and features a large bronze bull that temple-goers rub for good luck.
One of my favorite things about visiting Kyoto was seeing all the girls dressed as geisha. They aren’t professionals—they’re Japanese women who rent the elaborate outfits to wear as they visit temples, gardens, and other attractions. You’ll see them shopping, eating ice cream and cotton candy, and taking a multitude of selfies as they explore the town with the other tourists.
During our walking tour of Kyoto, we stumbled across Yayoi Kusama’s “Pumpkin Forever” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kyoto.
This incredibly inventive 90-year-old artist is famous worldwide for her sculpture and installation, but she is also active in painting, performance, film, fashion, poetry, fiction, and other arts. Her infinity mirror rooms have been all the rage on their tour of North America over the past two years.
And speaking of pumpkins, let’s talk about Japanese food again, especially the dumplings.
Oh, dumplings! We love Asian dumplings of all kinds, from Chinese xiao long bao soup dumplings and deep-fried Korean mandoo to Turkish manti with yogurt and pan-fried Japanese gyoza. It was a real treat to watch a dumpling master at work while we chowed down at Tiger Gyoza in Kyoto.
We also found an amazing selection of excellent beers at Craft Man, a brew pub in Kyoto. As impressive as the beers themselves was the knowledge of the bartender. See all those taps? You’ll notice they aren’t labeled. He knows every beer on the wall by memory. All 50 of them!
But perhaps the highlight of our time in Kyoto was a postcard painting workshop.
Mike has been sending postcards to his friend Wanda from around the world, and this gave him the opportunity to create something really special for her.
We arrived at Kyo-Ya Kimono Art Workshop only to find that they were closed. But the delightful owners, Kyosuke and Yoko Kojima, run this business from their home, which they graciously opened to us despite it being a holiday.
If you’re fascinated with Japanese culture and want to learn more through an immersive experience, then this is the activity for you. Yoko served us tea and cakes while Kyosuke patiently walked us through each step of the artistic process as we painted traditional kimono designs on our cards.
During our delightful painting session, Kyosuke and Yoko taught us some Japanese words, while we returned the favor by sharing English phrases. The favorite of the day was also the word that perfectly described the experience: stupendous.
Up Next: We continue to eat our way through Asia with a visit to Taipei, Taiwan.