The Kyoto National Museum 

The movie is Lost in Translation. Scarlett Johansson stands beneath a dark umbrella; the sound of rain is another percussion track in AIR's instrumental piece; a bride takes a careful step, smiling at her new husband.

This is, unfortunately, a rather unrealistic picture of Kyoto (at least during the holidays). A quiet moment in any of the city's many Buddhist temples is a rarity. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take the time to see them. Come during the less crowded months, so you feel like you're in actual place of worship instead of a tourist attraction. There's the Fushimi Inari-taisha: red gates (torii) in the thousands, snaking upwards in wayward streams like a forest of worship. Kiyomizu-dera overlooks a hill and a smattering of trees that powder the landscape with flowers in the spring. A still, shining circle of water holds the image of Byōdō-in's Phoenix Hall. One towering statue of the Amida Buddha resides in the Hall, surrounded by Boddhisatvas, floating on clouds stuck to the walls just below the ceiling. There is a museum that even shows you what the Hall must have looked like in the past, when it held all its original color. You're not in Kyoto for the temples alone, though, and you shouldn't be; there's a lot you'll want to take in.

Some parts of Gion (most famous for being a geisha district) look like they were lifted straight from the Edo days. A warning: this is an area frequented by tourists, so the shops lining the main streets are pretty pricey. Duck into a tiny alley and enter Gion NITI, a small restaurant-slash-bar that is both full of contemporary elegance and Japanese to the bone. Trust the menu, because the food is kind of insanely good. Everything is written in kanji and kana but the staff will explain everything you need to know if you ask. Not far from there, you can find the Leica Store, almost invisible except for the tiny red circle on the blue cloth hanging just in front of the door. Leica is a German company that manufactures cameras, but the store looks and feels like it was never meant to be anywhere but in Gion. The second floor is dedicated to a photography exhibition that explores the theme of traditional craftsmanship in modern times. 

For an exhibition with a touch of history, head to Yoshio Taniguchi's new Heisei Chishinkan Wing at the Kyoto National Museum. The items on display range from statues depicting religious figures, to swords forged by masters, to sprawling scrolls with stories told in vivid brushstrokes.

If you're looking for a gallery experience that transcends the definition of a regular museum, Kyoto holds a real gem: the Garden of Fine Art, which has reproductions of paintings that are probably familiar to you already--da Vinci's Last Supper is placed just before a wide waterfall--but what really makes the experience is the Tadao Ando's masterful manipulation of geometry and space. You follow the ramps spiraling downwards in a maze of concrete and falling water, past Monet's Water Lillies submerged in a shallow pool, and finally arrive at a reproduction of The Last Judgment that stretches from the floor to the sky, framed by shadows. Breathtaking stuff.

The Sfera Shop

Practical matters:
  • It's always nice to end the day in a comfy room with a large, fluffy bed, but if you want to go for a wholly Japanese experience, try 9hours, a futuristic-looking capsule hotel which somehow manages to be a lot more convenient and comfortable than some four-star hotels elsewhere.
  • Kyoto has a nice subway system. Grab a Suica or Pasmo card that you can top-up as you go along, so you can avoid the hassle of using the tiny one-ride tickets. This might cause you to lose track of how much you spend on transport, though, so if you're on a budget and you're forgetful, it might be better to stick to buying tickets whenever you need them.

Meal at Efish Cafe

After that, you can head to Teramachi Street for some shopping. There's even a record store on the second floor of some novelty shop. Grab a bite at Churrostar (self-explanatory) or Breizh Café (crêpes and galettes). A few blocks away there's a Dean and Deluca that serves a nice seven-course lunch. Just west of Teramachi you'll find Nishiki Market. It's a clean, lively marketplace that boasts a fair variety of temptations: fish, octopus and eels are laid out on ice; sashimi sticks stand up on a styrofoam stage; fruits seem to glow with color; pickled vegetables swim in translucent liquid. Finally, sit down for a quiet cup of tea at Café Independants, which looks like a meeting spot for revolution-starting nineteenth-century youths (except for the pop art posters that adorn the walls framing the staircase that leads down to the basement where the café is located); if you don't mind walking a bit, head to efish café or the Sfera Building on opposite sides of the Kamo River. The quiche at Sfera is great, while efish's teas and curry rice are perfect during cold nights. Both places sell curated wares for the home; and if you manage to find it, Whole Food Café Apprivoiser in Shimogyo-ku serves healthy, delicious egg-free, flour-free and milk-free dishes.

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