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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 16, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 46
Kyoto: A great historical, peaceful destination
Arts & Entertainment
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Kyoto: A great historical, peaceful destination

by Albert Rodriguez - SGN A&E Writer

Arthur Golden's captivating novel Memoirs of a Geisha is almost entirely set in Kyoto, a city with a current population of 1.4 million. This boost of exposure is matched by the attention the city has received from Sofia Coppola's Oscar-winning film Lost in Translation, in which a bored Scarlett Johansson embarks on a day trip from Tokyo to visit Nanzen-ji Temple and Heian Shrine. Cradled between two mountain ranges - Arashiyama and Higashiyama - Kyoto is a beautiful place that was once the Japanese capital, and like many urban areas in this country it's a fascinating mix of old vs. new. In the Gion district, a fresh line of geishas (or 'geiko,' as they're better known to locals) are continuing a tradition that dates back many centuries, while minutes from the main train station you can shop and eat at hundreds of modern Western-style businesses. I found Kyoto to be sweet and charming, a bit antiquated, and a cinch to get around in. This is how I suggest spending a day or two in Kyoto. Visit www.japantravelinfo.com to plan your trip.

GETTING THERE
With no airport of its own, inbound travelers will fly into Osaka-Kansai or Osaka-Itami airport. From either, it's an hour-long ride by shuttle into central Kyoto, or 75 minutes by train. If coming from Tokyo, the Shinkansen (bullet train) can deliver you to Kyoto in roughly two hours (http://english.jr-central.co.jp). If you plan to visit Osaka and then move on to Kyoto, a commuter train will get you there in 30 to 40 minutes.

ACCOMMODATIONS
If traveling by train into Kyoto, you've already arrived at your hotel when you pull into the main station. Hotel Granvia Kyoto (www.granviakyoto.com) is located within the same complex, two escalator rides up from the platform. This expansive property boasts 535 lavishly furnished rooms, 13 restaurants and bars, fitness facilities, retail boutiques, and more than 1,000 works of art. In-room amenities include the common essentials, but I especially loved the navy blue slippers and startling views of Kyoto Tower across the street, not to mention convenient access to the city's central train terminal that was chock full of restaurants of every kind (including Subway and McDonald's), grocery stores, souvenir stalls and coffee/tea shops. The hotel and train station also connect to a multi-level mall with dozens of department stores, more restaurants, and theaters. Hotel Granvia provided great service, very nice rooms, and large buffet breakfasts during my stay, and it was surprisingly quiet, despite the droves of travelers passing through the terminal below.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO
When in Kyoto, the Gion district is a must. Mainly popular for its geisha houses, it's also home to a number of live theater halls, where men assume both masculine and feminine roles - historically, only men were allowed to perform on stage. There is a prominent geisha school tucked away on a side street, and perfect timing could afford you a glimpse of costumed students or instructors making their way to lunch. Speaking of lunch, for an amazing multi-course Kyoto-style tempura meal served in a traditional, sophisticated setting, go to Yasaka Endo (www.gion-endo.com). Afterwards, explore the green tea stores, geisha quarters, and local markets.

A unique experience in Kyoto is to enjoy a meditation session with a genuine Buddhist monk inside an actual temple called Zen Center (http://zencenter.jp). When you arrive at the front gate, you are met by the monk himself and escorted to an area to remove your shoes and unload your belongings - no cameras, coats or backpacks are allowed inside. Our session was made up of two 20-minute uninterrupted meditation periods under strict conditions - in sitting Buddha position, total silence, eyes aimed at a focal point the entire time. If you dare disobey any of these instructions the monk will strike you politely, although harder than I expected, with a long stick (I learned the hard way). It was a wonderful experience that concluded with a personal blessing.

The scene in Lost in Translation where Charlotte (Johansson) travels to Kyoto and witnesses a Japanese wedding while visiting an attractive, landscaped area are revered by many fans as their favorite part of the entire film. This is Nanzen-ji Temple, a lush historical site established in the late 1200s. The Sanmon, a gate built from baked clay tiles with five pillars and three entrances, burned down in a fire and was reconstructed in 1628. In the movie, as 'Alone in Kyoto' by Air plays in the background, Charlotte climbs the steps of the Sanmon, walks through it, and spots a wedding party in progress, then descends the stairs from the other side and observes the occasion peering through trees. She then skips across a pond on circular cement slabs, and this scene is filmed within a short distance at the gardens of Heian Shrine. There's no cost to enter Nanzen-ji Temple, but there is a minimal fee to view Heian Shrine from the interior.

The Rokuon-ji Temple, located in the northwestern hills of Kyoto, was once a private getaway for the Kintsune saionji (shogun) and the primary attraction here is the pristine Golden Pavilion. Formerly called Shariden, now Kinkaku, this elaborate structure consists of three separate floors designed in the form of a palace, samurai house, and Zen temple. On a clear day, the golden reflection from the Pavilion can be seen in the pond that surrounds it.

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