Back in September I visited Japan with my husband – a long overdue honeymoon, which coincided with a commission from Pride Life magazine for a travel article and travel photography. (I’ve written here before about my work for Pride Life, covering trips to Rioja and Nepal.) Safe to say, fitting three weeks into 2,000 words is a challenge – but also a great opportunity to reflect on a truly amazing country.
One of my favourite places in Japan was Kyoto, a city whose ancient temples should be on any traveller’s wish list. Not that you’d ever be able to visit all 1,500-odd of them: indeed, you might not wish to, since many of them are regrettably overcrowded. I’m not a fan of selfie sticks at the best of times, but in some places the clamour for tourists to tick off another Facebook selfie checklist really does become too much. My trip to Kyoto had to involve time away from the crowds – to make travel photography uninterrupted by the stick-wielders. (Seriously: they should be sold with a guide to basic manners!)
I decided to visit some of the city’s quieter temples, in Kyoto’s northern area of Arashiyama. There the crowds are so absorbed by the surreal beauty of the district’s famous towering bamboo forest that a short walk away from the station reveals some hidden gems. My first stop was the incredible moss-coated temple Gio-ji. Far from the crowds this ancient, secluded – and tiny – temple has a deep and contemplative silence. Visitors seem hushed by the place’s atmosphere: it feels like a deep green sanctuary, and offers a meditative break from Japan’s bustle.
Gio-ji lies alongside two other temples: Danrin-ji, with its incense-infused pagoda and lush bamboo garden, and the silent woodland Takiguchi-dera. Together they left me feeling totally relaxed, reminding me that even the busiest cities can offer places of sanctuary.
During our visit to Kyoto we also had a great opportunity to sample an entirely different kind of culture at the superb Jam Jar Inn. Owner Danny Matheson and his partner, Kazuo, have lovingly renovated a former weaving house – one of the famous machiya houses which, Danny explained, are gradually being torn down and replaced with new apartment blocks. It is now a beautiful guest house with a café frequented by world-weary travellers from as far afield as my own little corner of Europe.
I asked Danny for his top tips for visitors to Kyoto. “For non-Disneyland places, there are plenty of them but you have to know where,” he said. “In Arashiyama there are some superb little places that no-one visits – there are hundreds of those places. You just need to do your research or find a good guide.”
Look no further: Jam Jar offers guided tours. If I’m lucky enough to make a return visit to Kyoto, I’ll certainly be on one of those tours to again sample some of the city’s alluringly beautiful sights and sounds.