Japan Travel: Block party

Renowned for its legendary temples and manicured gardens, Kyoto is one of Japan's top tourist destinations. Simon Rowe steps off the beaten path and delves into the ancient city's more charming corners.

"Autumn gales drive the moon, its reflection falls on the clear river, cold as a great length of glassy silk," wrote Sesson Yubai, the 12th-century Zen master. He might have been perched on the banks of Kyoto's Kamogawa River as he scribbled his ode to Japan's most "desirable" season. Its wide flowing waters cut a swath through the ancient capital, dividing the heat and hustle of its downtown precincts from the cool, lofty ambience of its hillside temple precincts. No one can fully appreciate both without crossing the Kamogawa at least a half-dozen times.

Fried squid at a summer Kyoto festival

Many do, but it's usually within the air-conditioned comfort of a tour bus, which means the sights and smells of the city's serene neighborhoods are sadly missed. A clean and efficient subway system makes the cross-town dash a breeze, city bus services run to a clockwork schedule, yet it's only by putting your soles to the pavement that you can access Kyoto's true back street charm.

Time travel In Shimogyo-ku district, located in the city's southeast and only 15 minutes walk from Kyoto train station, daily life can be experienced intimately and without charge down its alleys and narrow streets. Houses here are warped and withered showpieces of Edo Period (1600-1868) architecture, but they attract few ogling tourists. Just as well, since many of these dangerously leaning old-timers seem to be just a puff of wind away from becoming stove kindling. In Gojo-cho, to the north, some houses are barely able to hold their heavy wooden eaves from drooping into the streets.

Yakitori on offer at a local street stall

Gojo-cho exudes a wonderful calmness during the summer months from May through to September, between the torrential downpours of the rainy season and the wrath of rogue typhoons later on. Doorways are left open on the hot evenings to catch any passing breeze. Noren entrance curtains flutter overhead, and behind them you might glimpse the impossibly cluttered interiors of their owners' living rooms: old men sharing a beer over a TV baseball game, women kneading large tubs of rice dough in preparation for o-mochi (rice cake) season, or a tired-eyed salaryman dozing behind a newspaper after an uneventful day at the office. Through it all, homely smells of senko (incense) waft from family shrines and there is a constant trace of old tatami grass mats, shoyu (soy sauce) and fried fish on the breeze.

Heat of the night

Scattered about the narrow alleys, ryokan (traditional inns) offer meals and lodging to tourists and traveling business folk. During Edo times, Shimogyo-ku's inns were a popular pit-stop for roving samurai, merchants and geisha, and today they continue to offer moderately priced accommodation in cozy Kyoto-style surrounds. Ryokan Hiraiwa, on Kaminokuchi Street, tucked between the Takase and Kamo rivers, receives a steady stream of foreign travelers. Rooms are tiny, the walls paper-thin, and toilets are of the traditional "squat" variety, but the ¥4,500/8,000 per night tariff make it an excellent place to hang your hat. Green tea with a hot water urn, a starched and pressed cotton yukata (robe), and a thick fluffy futon laid out over tatami mats provide all the necessary comforts.

A latter-day geisha in Gojo-cho

Nearby, and recognizable by its fluttering entrance curtain, stands Ume-yu, or "plum bath," a local bathhouse where for ¥300 you can let the aches and pains of your swollen feet slowly dissolve in the hot spring water. First-timers should follow their nose; enter through the curtains, deposit shoes in a locker and proceed through a sliding door. Here an elderly cashier relieves you of your small change and directs you to a single-sex communal bath. Pick up a plastic stool, plonk yourself down at one of the shower heads and with towel and soap, get scrubbing. Once rinsed, you can ponder your tub options: a jet spa, a rocket-jet spa, a scalding hot bath, and an herbal essence bath. Deliverance from any dizziness comes in a deep cold-water pool fed by an icy spout that brings even the most pink-boiled bather slowly back to the land of the living.

A traditional storefront graces Gojo-cho

The Takasegawa River runs parallel to the Kamogawa, but because of its lower water volume and gently snaking course through Shimogyo-ku, it makes for a far more atmospheric neighborhood stroll. Weeping willows dip into the river while ducks and geese putter between small floating houses, purpose-built by the residents to keep the birds local.

"Local" is also how you could describe the atmosphere in a Shimogyo-ku izakaya, or local pub-restaurant. Decor may sometimes be a little greasy or down-at-heel, but these cramped and smoky mainstays of the Kyoto salaryman are a worthy once-off for a glimpse at daily life. Look for the telltale red lanterns hanging outside, take a deep breath and enter.

English-speaking staff might be lacking, but just pointing to dishes displayed will be enough to convey your order. Yakitori, takoyaki (octopus dumplings), cha-han (combination fried rice) and tsubo-yaki (shellfish grilled in its own shell) are popular year-round dishes. Even if you're not dining, Shimogyo-ku makes for a lively evening stroll around 6pm, as weary office workers tackle their first tebasaki (yakitori chicken wings) and icy bottle of Kirin lager in what is sure to be a long night at the local bar.

Getting there
Space for tranquility near Kamogawa River

The JR Tokaido and Sanyo shinkansen travel between Tokyo Station and Kyoto Station and take about two and a half hours. Tickets can be purchased at the station or any JTB travel bureau. The nearest airport to central Kyoto is Osaki's Itami Airport. See Japan Airlines at www.jal.com or All Nippon Airways at www.ana.co.jp for information on flights from Haneda and other cities throughout Japan.

Where to stay The Tourist Information Center (tel: 075-371-5649) opposite Kyoto train station can help with accommodation, maps and sightseeing recommendations. One lodging recommendation is Ryokan Hiraiwa at 314 Hayao-cho, Kaminokuchi-agaru, Ninomiyacho-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto. Tel: 075-351-6748, fax 075-351-6969. Single rate ¥4,000, double rate ¥8,000. English service available.

Information In addition to the Tourist Information Center listed above, Japan Travel-Phone (tel: 075-371-5649, or toll free from outside Kyoto 0088-22-4800) provides advice and travel information in English. General information can also be found online at www.jnto.go.jp


During almost every month of the year, high spirits, raucous behavior—or perhaps solemn self-reflection—prevail as Kyoto folk take part in the hundreds of city, shrine and neighborhood festivals. Summer is perfect festival weather. One of the most vibrant is the Gion Matsuri, July 17, featuring a parade of towering floats pulled through the city streets by men in traditional costume. Food stalls, beer stands and thousands of locals attired in yukata turn Kyoto into a huge street party.

Daimon-ji Yaki, on August 16, is another spectacular event in which the whole city gathers to bid farewell to the souls of their ancestors, sending them off with huge bonfires lit in the shape of the Chinese character "dai," meaning "big." Then, on October 22, the Kurama-no-hi Matsuri (Fire Festival) takes over and dozens of small shrines are whisked through the streets by young men bearing torches. It's a big day on Kyoto's calendar, as the Jidai Matsuri (Parade of the Ages), with more than 4,000 participants dressed in classical costumes, also makes its way past cheering office workers and school kids cramming the city. Starting from the Imperial Palace and ending up at Heian Shrine, the procession lasts four hours.

B u y  i t  o n l i n e !
Hokkaido Highway Blues : Hitchhiking Japan

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HIS Experience Japan is offering tourists and residents of Japan a chance to experience “real Japanese culture,” in addition to the usual tourist spots. The company has nearly a dozen programs that allow participants to learn directly from professionals. Activities include sushi-making, yuzen silk-dying, calligraphy, karate and ninja lessons, taiko drumming and lantern-making, among others. Guides who speak English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish are available, and reservations can be made online at http://hisexperience.jp/. Further info is available in English by calling 03-5322-8988.

From August 26 through September 13 (excluding September 7-9), Tokyo Dome Hotel is offering a late summer accommodation promotion, in which rooms will be discounted by up to 45 percent. During the period, the rate is ¥14,000 for a single room, ¥18,500 for a twin or double and ¥21,000 for a triple. Fifty rooms will be available per day. A variety of events are being held at Tokyo Dome City during this period, including the 78th Intercity Baseball Tournament (August 24-September 4) and the popular children’s program The Jukensentai Geki Ranger Show will be performing on stage at Sky Theater until September 2. For reservations, call 03-5805-2222 or visit www.tokyodome-hotels.co.jp. CB

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775: Setagaya Line
Take a tram through the historic backstreets of Tokyo’s most populous ward
773: Shiretoko
Take a dip in the ice-cold waters of this sleepy Hokkaido town
769: Beihai
The crumbling relics of this seaside resort reveal a secret history
767: Harbin
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765: Ogasawara
Escape the cold with a trip to Tokyo’s southern paradise
763: Amabiki Village
Escape the ordinary at an outdoor sculpture exhibit in Ibaraki
761: Sugamo
The “obachan” version of Takeshita Dori awaits in northern Tokyo
759: Yufuin
Hot springs and mountain climbing await in this slice of Kyushu
757: Okunoshima
From Poison Gas Island to paradise
755: Kyoto’s Hidden Palaces
Escape the tourist mobs at former imperial villas
753: Iriomote Island
Go trekking through forest primeval—without leaving Japan
751: The Old Kiso Road
Tread in the footsteps of Edo-era travelers, and sleep where they slept
749: Welcome To Japitzerland
Europe’s crossroads of cultures makes room for one more
747: Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park
Get your ornithology fix at this Shinagawa sanctuary
745: Amami Oshima
Channel Jurassic Park on this verdant Japanese Island
743: Niseko
Hokkaido’s winter wonderland turns out to be an all-seasons destination
742: Macau
Head to the “Asian Las Vegas” for an easy getaway from Tokyo
741: Qingdao
The seaside Olympic city sees the dawn of a new day in a reflection of its German past
739: Kumano
Lose yourself in the natural splendor of Japan’s spiritual center
737: Mongolia
Gallop through the countryside of Central Asia
735: Tokai
Head west for a dose of old Japan and unforgettable cultural curiosities
733: Faroe Islands
Find a sense of solitude in a dramatic North Atlantic landscape
731: Uchiurayama
The hills of Chiba make getting away from it all easier than expected
729: The Camargue
The beautiful French marshland beckons flamingos, Gypsies—and you
727: Ohara
Sip shiso tea and explore Meiji-era buildings in a valley that time forgot
725: Lake Shirakaba
Enjoy winter sports and cozy hot springs in the highlands of Nagano
723: Zao
Snow monsters (and monster runs) await visitors to Japan’s oldest ski resort
721: Kushiro
Cranes, trains and no automobiles await visitors in Hokkaido
717: Izu Ryokan
A new concierge service helps urbanites escape to luxurious inns of old
715: The Kimberley
The remote region is one of Australia’s—and the world’s—most pristine ecological areas
713: Ishigaki Island
Swim with big fishes in this little corner of paradise
711: Oman
The Sultanate comes of age as a modern gateway to Old Arabia
709: A Steep and Narrow Place
All relaxing and no throngs of tourists make this Central American island far from dull
707: Under the sun in Utila
All relaxing and no throngs of tourists make this Central American island far from dull
705: Kamikochi
Nagano’s Kamikochi region shows why the Japan Alps rival their European namesake
703: Hoofing it in Paris
Enjoy an urban trek around the City of Light
701: Kurama and Kibune
Escape the hustle and flow in the hills around Japan’s ancient capital
699: Majestic Ruins
Follow the colorful Guatemalan rainforest to a pot of Mayan architectural gold
697: Hakone
Find leisure, pirate ships and “romance” just a stone’s throw from Tokyo
695: Vientiane
The remnants of French colonial history linger in Laos’ “City of the Moon”
693: Shonan
With everything from kite surfing to beach parties, the OC of Tokyo beckons
691: Alternative Stays in New York
A new breed of accommodation offers the best of hotels and apartments
689: Little Edo
Ancient Tokyo comes alive in the Chiba village of Sawara
687: Santorini’s Other Side
The volcanic island offers an unexpected glimpse of Greek life
685: Mikurajima
Swim with dolphins in a pristine wilderness
683: Madang’s Magic
Papua New Guinea’s heavenly climate and colorful mix of cultures illuminate the senses
681: Kyoto Nightlife
After a day of temples and gardens, nothing’s better than a cold one
679: Holiday in Iraq
A journey through the Kurdish north is hardly as dangerous as it seems
677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
667: Vinales
Experience the vibrant colors of Cuba at this remote farming hamlet
665: Okayama

A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay

Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
659: Sulawesi

Scenic beauty and explosive rituals go hand in hand in Indonesia
657: The Okami

Twenty-five ryokan welcome international guests to Izu
655: Lijiang to Lhasa—by motorcycle
Sixteen motorcyclists cross the Roof of the World
653: Kaleidoscopic Nikko
The fabled sightseeing destination comes alive in autumn
651: Tiger’s Leap
Sipping Butter Tea with the monks of Zhongdian
649: Kawasaki Daishi
Kanto’s most impressive temple is closer than you think
647: The lawless roads of Samoa
Extreme bus driving as a way of life in the South Pacific
645: Escape to the wilderness
Return to nature on two of Japan’s most remote islands
643: Spanish Sojourn
One train pass is all you need to experience three classic cities
642: New Kyoto
Japan’s proud old capital gets a glimpse of its exciting future
639: The Watered Ruins
Soak up some royal history in Sukhothai, Thailand
637: The Washboard Coast
The faded glories of Miyazaki are ripe for rediscovery
635: Cape Tribulation
Explore Australia’s wild side on the coast north of Cairns
633: Just A Castaway
Hidden messages and burnt-out Tokyoites wash up on Okinawa’s islands
631: Big trouble in middle China
Or, how we almost froze on one of china’s sacred peaks
629: The Scalding Pools
Hell on earth can be found in Beppu, a must-visit for fans of Japanese onsen
627: Night Of The Devil Fish
The Philippine island of Malapascua is home to sand, sun—and one very strange safari
625: Storm Damage
Devastated by a volcanic eruption six years ago, the island of Miyakejima is back in business—sort of
625: Think the Ice Bar is Cool?
Try Spending a Night at the Ice Cold Ice Hotel
623: Beyond the Taj Mahal
Three cities off the beaten path reveal India’s Heart and Soul
620: Snowy Japan
Skiing and snowboarding conditions this year are close to perfection
618: Half a world away
Find out why one local expat traveled from London to Tokyo—by bicycle
617: Spectacle in the Sand
Dubai Defies Physics, Geography and Cost in Pursuit of the Cutting Edge
613: Mob Scene
At Kyoto’s Ume-yu bathhouse, the customers are young, tough... and tattooed
611: City of Sand
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609: On the edge
Hateruma Island offers a primeval slice of sand and surf
607: Land of calm
Get a glimpse of unspoiled Asia in the lush countryside of Laos
605: Just like heaven
Nokogiri-yama in chiba is as appealing as Nikko or Kamakura, and just as accessible
602: Place your Bets
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598: Bring it on
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596: Rhythm City Cuba
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594: City of Peace
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592: Big sky country
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590: Hidden pleasures
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588: Another Country
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586: Stepping into the past
Beaches, museums—and painted ladies—await visitors in Atami and Ito
584: Getting to the Roots of Kuala Lumpur
In quiet parks and bustling markets, Malaysia’s capital reveals its past and future
582: The great outdoors
Shinrin Koen in Saitama offers year-round fun for space-deprived Tokyoites
580: Seoul, revisited
Ancient and modern worlds collide in the Korean capital, a city of futuristic architecture, tranquil palaces and fiery cuisine
576: Ancient treasures
Explore untouched 900-year-old temples in Myanmar’s Bagan region
574: The High Life
Squeeze a last bit of fun out of winter in the mountains of Nagano
572: The Other Side of Cape Town
Township tours offer a vibrant glimpse of daily life in South Africa
570: White day
Yuzawa offers beginners a chance to ski before the snow melts
568: City of spice
Take a gastronomic tour through India’s food capital
566: Life Cyclist
An around-the-world biker makes a pit stop in Tokyo
564: Forest in the Clouds
Rainswept trails and lush beauty await in Costa Rica's Monteverde nature preserve
561-2: Geisha for a day
Kyoto's makeover studios offer visitors a new twist on tradition
559: Southern comfort
Indonesia’s most vibrant village replenishes heart, mind and soul
557: Show time
Nagoya is a city of potential heading into Expo 2005
555: Waterworld
Float across the watery heart of Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan
553: Mountain dew
A retreat restores the senses in the highlands of Fukushima
551: Turquoise baths
Warm, white sand meets an ocean of blues in a remote corner of the South Pacific
549: Sea world
A grueling 25-hour boat ride ends in the idyllic island chain of Ogasawara
547: Train spotting
The Trans-Siberian Railway is an epic journey that begins right at Japan’s doorstep
545: In praise of slowness
Yunishigawa offers a leisurely glimpse into Japan's illustrious past
543: Block party
A guide to fun on the fringe at Hong Kong’s nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong
537: The middle way
Andrew McHugh embarks on a timeless pilgrimage in Tokyo’s tranquil backyard.
533: The simple life
City slicker Matthew Reiss takes a breather along Shikoku’s Shimanto River.
529: The lost world
In search of an ancient civilization swallowed by the sea, Carlo Niederberger plunges into the waters off Yonaguni.
525: Nature trails
Hakkakuso in Tateyama offers a jumping-off point for cycling, swimming, and the well-preserved charm of Japanese fishing villages. Steve Trautlein heads to the coast.
521: High tea
Cha and music have long been Nagasaki's two great passions. Simon Rowe hops on a tram to sample the Kyushu city's delights.
517: The hill is alive
Grab your coats and your wallets for a tour of the best of Osaka with local boy Simon Rowe.
513: A walk in the woods
Matt Button heads to Hokkaido and revels in the serenity of Daisetsuzan National Park.
507: Time and again
The history of Arima runs as deep as its hot springs. Stephen Mansfield soaks up the local ambience.
503: Riverside retreat
The rustic Okayama town of Takahashi offers the casual visitor a release from the world. Stephen Mansfield enjoys the time on his hands.
499: Tropics of interest
Urban escapees in search of a little anonymity are drawn to Ishigaki-jima. Simon Rowe finds out why.
495: City by the sea
Once a pirate haunt, the port town of Onomichi in the Inland Sea still houses an intriguing array of temples, and a surprising number of cats and cat lovers. Stephen Mansfield goes exploring.
491: Easy streets
Ocean breezes, smiling faces, exotic markets, and a laid-back pace. Catherine Pawasarat finds Japanese-style relaxation on the shores of the Noto Peninsula.
487: Into the wild
John McGee plumbs the depths and scales the heights of Tohoku's grandest national park.
483: Green Peace
Home to Kyoto-style gardens and the Peace Museum for kamikaze, Chiran offers a healthy dose of history and culture. Stephen Mansfield takes a walk.
479: Walk in the woods
Take a step back in time with a leisurely stroll through the forests and towns of the Kiso Valley. Mary King sets the pace.
475: Pilgrim’s progress
Simon Rowe braves the storms and heads down to Shikoku’s “Typhoon Ginza,” Cape Ashizuri.
471: Companions of the sea
Life in the Seto Inland Sea town of Tomo-no-Ura revolves around its fishing industry. Stephen Mansfield experiences the salty charm.
467: Monuments to history
Once a refuge from wars, Yamaguchi has survived the blight of modern urban development, Stephen Mansfield observes.
463: Land of the giants
Simon Rowe goes hiking on Yakushima Island, home to tropical beaches, granite hills, and the world's oldest-and largest-cedar trees.
459: Northern exposure
Home to king crabs, towering snow sculptures and one of the country's biggest beer companies, Sapporo is the center of life on Hokkaido. Simon Rowe hits the city streets.
456: In from the cold
Simon Rowe and Masami Hamada fight off the winter chill in the warm waters of Kinosaki
452: Keeping the peace
David Capel visits the quiet hamlet of Matsumoto, home to Japan's oldest existing castle.
448: Past into present
Stephen Mansfield takes the road less traveled and turns up in the historic samurai homestead of Obi
444: Chariots of ire
The annual Nada Fighting Festival
440: Hook, line and sinker
Summertime and the fishin' is easy-in Ichikawa village
436: Peaks and valleys
Stephen Mansfield ventures into the picturesque calderas of Kyushu's Aso-Kuju National Park
432: Water's edge
Seto Inland Sea the place for epicures and adventurers
428: Block party
Renowned for its legendary temples and manicured gardens, Kyoto is one of Japan's top tourist destinations
424: Honshu's holy hotels
Simon Rowe seeks serenity and a satisfying meal alongside the monks of Koya-san
420: High Art
Since its opening five years ago, a reclusive sect's stunning museum has attracted wide international acclaim.
416: Fire and brimstone
Hot water and Japanese hell come together in Oita Prefecture
412: Snowed in
Finding peace and a warm bath in the mountains of Gunma
408: Edo elegance
Old world artisans keep tradition alive in Honshu's Kurashiki
401: Bird's eye view
Mary King mingles with the ghosts of Himeji Castle.
397: It takes a village
Feed your spirits in Honshu's seaside town, Amanohashidate
393: Bathing Apes
For a scenic dip with rare, furry primates and ready to primp for your pictures, head to Jigokudani Onsen. Mary King gets in to hot water.
389: God speed
The mother of all Shinto temples, Ise Grand Shrine
385: Hattoji
Highland hamlet
380: Nagasaki
Remembrance of things past
378: Kawagoe
From modern Tokyo to "Little Edo"
376: Tottori
Tottori's stunning landscapes
375: Kyushu
Bed and bath under the volcano
373: Ryogoku
Land of the giants
372: Osaka
Universal Studios Japan
371: Osaka
Amerika-mura: Osaka's funky town
369: Mie
Mikimoto Pearl Island
368: Takarazuka
Hyogo-ken's all women theater group
365: Kawasaki
Kawasaki's annual fertility festival
364: Aomori
A day on Fear Mountain
362: Nagano
Chill out snowboarding
361: Asuka
One foot in the grave
356: Yamanashi
Hakushu's hidden treasures
355: Waseda Tram Trip
A streetcar named...
352/3: Aomori
Jesus in Japan
351: Kumamoto
Under the volcano in Kyushu
350: Sado Island
Explore the forgotten charms of Shukunegi


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