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Kyoto: The Gion Festival and Other Highlights

Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, Kyoto probably ranks in my top five owing to its oodles of history, culture, cuisine, and its regular juxtapositions of antiquated and modern, formal and familiar. The city somehow feels small and inviting even if it’s quite large. There’s something new to explore around every corner, and a week here would be the bare minimum to get through the major sights.

We stayed near Kyoto Station, a good home base and an ideal place for shopping and restaurants. The station’s food courts are full of displays that are so realistic they border on disconcerting.

For example, can you tell which of these photos shows the real meal, and which one is fake?

Food Display
One of these was delicious...
Food Display
...and one of them was plastic.

Outside the station is Kyoto Tower, the city’s highest building and a modern anomaly among the many ancient temples and shrines of Kyoto.

Kyoto Tower
Kyoto Tower at night

If you watch Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows as much as we do, you may have noticed that he sometimes “happens” to be in town for a major festival or holiday – as though the producers and writers didn’t plan it that way (you aren’t fooling anyone with that, Tony!). But we really did just happen to be in Kyoto for Gion Matsuri, an annual festival that emerged in the ninth century as a purification ritual to appease the gods and persuade them to stop meting out fires, floods and earthquakes.

Crowds at Gion Matsuri

Today celebrations last for the entire month of July and include art performances, the opening of traditional Japanese homes to the public, food, crafts, and parades with huge, elaborate floats.

Geisha performing at the festival

If you get the chance, it’s a great time to experience some of the city’s cultural ambiance – even if being there during that time means that the streets are crowded and prices are somewhat inflated. Everyone dresses up, and the whole city comes alive with celebration.

Dressed up in yukata, summer kimonos

Even arcade-goers dress for the occasion.

Gion Arcade
Don't let the formal dress fool you, they're still packing.

The rest of Kyoto’s sights are so splendid that, well, I’ll just show you photos instead of boring you with too many details.

Bamboo Forest
Strolling through the Bamboo Forest
Bamboo Forest
Did you know that bamboo is the tallest grass in the world?
Bamboo Forest Shrine
Prayers at a nearby shrine
Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine near Kyoto
The first tori gates were built here in the 8th century.
The Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) Zen temple
Plans to cover it in silver foil fell through, but the name stuck.
The Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), also a Zen temple.

Oh, yeah – don’t forget about Nara, Japan’s ancient capital. It’s an easy day trip from Kyoto, but we’d recommend staying for a few days to see everything in this great little town.

Todai-ji Buddhist Temple - the world's largest wooden structure up until 1998.
It's home to Japan's biggest Buddha.
Nara Deer
Nara's wild deer aren't afraid to head-butt you for biscuits.
Nara Lanterns
Lanterns at a Nara shrine.

Thus concludes our visit to Kyoto and Nara. Not to be missed if you visit Japan!

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