Kyoto: A Fusion of Old and New

Asia, Japan

I took my first steps in the ancient and historic city of Kyoto after taking a 40-minute supersonic trip from Nagoya aboard the Shinkansen bullet train.

Kyoto, which has been the primary battlefield during during the heated battles at the tail end of the Tokugawa era in 1867, saw its streets splattered with blood of samurai and their vassals both from the imperialists camps and their foes.

Kiyomizu arch

During such times, Kyoto was the seat of the Imperial government and bore witness to the massive bloodshed   until the new Meiji era finally put an end to the non-stop fighting. It was also during the Meiji era that the samurai swords were banned, eventually making the Samurai way of life obsolete.

The seat of power was also taken away from this ancient city in favor of Edo (now called Tokyo).

Nearly 150 years later, Kyoto is now a vibrant city, which boasts, among others, a fusion of both the ongoing industrialization and commercialization of Japan, as well as its efforts to preserve and protect what is left of a very important era for this Asian super power.

Our tour guide promised to take us to key shrines and temples in the city, but I was more interested in seeing how this city is trying to adapt to modern times.

At the height of the second world war when Japan was invading nearby countries such as the Philippines, the US forces initially planned to bombard Kyoto with atomic bombs, but the American forces eventually spared it from any damage.

This explains why Kyoto was able to maintain its old district. This city has numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Walking around this city, remnants of the old world are still visible through rows of wooden houses lining little streets surrounding the major temples and shrines. Each house is adorned with paper lanterns and wind chimes, typical of a traditional Japanese home.

During my visit at the end of autumn, I also saw women and children wearing the traditional kimono, as if showing to the flocks of tourists parading in their streets, that Kyoto remains the old charming city it used to be.

a commercial district in Kyoto

Evidences of Kyoto’s increasing favor for commercialization and industrialization, however, are everywhere.

A city known for its ramen and sushi now has several McDonalds and KFC outlets.

The city’s skyline is also now being peppered by towering hotels and other commercial establishments catering to the growing expat community as well as the increasing number of visiting foreigners.

At Heian shrine with friend Elaine

One of these is Kyoto Brighton hotel, where I stayed for two nights. It was a relatively expensive hotel but given the high-cost of living in Japan (Tokyo is the most expensive city), I was thankful that it is somewhat luxurious and gave us a great view of the city. It is located to almost every major temple and shrine and it is less than half a kilometer to the former Imperial palace.

Now, hotels are not the only signs of commercialization in Kyoto. It seems that with the city’s embrace of the new world, its people are also ready to jump in the business bandwagon

Streets leading to the Kiyomizu temple, while still filled with old wooden houses, are now littered with gift and souvenir shops selling a host of mementos ranging from the paper artworks, Japanese dolls and sword replicas.

This is the same for streets and gates leading to the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) temple and Heian shrine.

Food stalls and restaurants are everywhere, always ready to welcome weary travelers and tourists after a long day of visiting the temples.

But even as the city shows signs that its ready for a full economic takeoff, the people of Kyoto, however, remain as humble and low key.

In the souvenir shops, in the food stalls and restaurants, they wear traditional Japanese wardrobe and greet each new visitor with a smile and a bow.

Their gentle demeanor instantly makes you feel at ease. Their polite greeting and treatment of all visitors, both foreign and local, are a throwback to the times of ancient Kyoto when life was life was simple.

Without a doubt, Kyoto’s major attractions are its old temples and structures dating back to the Imperial Japan but I think its equally charming and unassuming people is also a major attraction.

I walked around Kyoto’s streets for a whole day and after seeing its palaces, temples and shrines and eventually meeting its fantastic people, I was sure that this trip is special and that in the near future, I will have to come back.

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