We left our tiny Airbnb and wandered the alleys, heading generally toward the Imperial Gardens. While waiting for a streetlight, the tantalizing smell of grilled meat filled the air, and we bought kebabs from a cheerful street vendor. Still hungry, we stumbled on a charming cafe featuring baked goods piled high on an oval table. It was all yellow light, perfectly flaky twists on French pastries, and cheerful ceramics full of steaming coffee.
The gardens turned out to be more gravel than plant life, so after peering through the imposing gates, we wandered off into the surrounding neighborhoods. We spent an hour exploring the nearby manga museum, which on this afternoon was full of student artwork. We stopped for a delicious lunch of cheap conveyor belt sushi, pulling dish after delightful dish off the belt, stacking the color-coded plates high, washing it all down with instant green tea on tap.
We took one of Kyoto’s few trains across town to the famous Arashiyama bamboo grove, where we wandered among swaying green poles and Japanese tourists in rented kimonos. The trees were stunning, jewel-like, geometric, impossible to photograph, and strolling through them felt like walking along the ocean floor in the swaying green light of underwater plants. While sitting at some kind of cement tree table a Spanish girl asked us in English where the grove was. We pointed back.
We hopped on a bus uptown, watched it meander through the streets of Kyoto, and jumped off at an unassuming street corner. A few blocks later, the huge trees of the garden came into sight, an overgrowth of green waiting at the end of a street. We wandered in along mossy, deep green paths and bought paper tickets that were small works of art. Across the carefully cultivated pond hovered a huge temple, shining golden even in the damp cloudy light.
Outside, we saw that the ice cream stands had closed, so we found a tiny bakery advertising green tea ice cream and watched a woman pile mounds of velvety sage onto crisp cones. We walked out into the growing darkness and wandered until we found a temple. In Kyoto, this never takes more than thirty seconds. We hopped from temple to rapidly darkening temple, admiring the tight purple buds on plum trees, bright red prayer gates, coin-filled fountains and overwhelmed prayer trees. A monk walked by while we were talking about the new Apple headquarters design and we thought we might get kicked out. We didn't. We walked deep into one garden, admiring its careful lines and gorgeous trees, until we were gently guided out by a series of smiling orange-robed monks.
In the mood for spice, we took a bus downtown and stood in a winding line outside the Spice Chamber. This is nearly always a good sign for Japanese restaurants. When they finally called us in, we took seats at the end of the bar and accepted steaming mugs of tea. The Japanese woman next to us was quietly crying into her curry, overwhelmed by unaccustomed spice. Our curry arrived and we dug in, alternating mouthfuls of spice with cooling pickled vegetables. The owner, delighted to see foreigners, came over to pepper us with questions. Reluctantly, we put on our coats and went out into the world.
We took a train to Fushimi, the famous mountain of gates, where we were herded down a series of increasingly vertical paths dotted with red gates. Everywhere, there were well accessorized fox statues, adorned with scarves, necklaces and hats. As we went up, up, up, the crowds thinned, exhausted by the endless upward drive of the stairs. When we reached a medium high point, say level six or seven, we stopped and ordered cones of soy-vanilla swirl ice cream (nearly indistinguishable flavors, as it turns out). We sat there, high above Kyoto, watching exhausted pilgrims and tourists emerge up the stairs. It's really quite fun to be at the end of a hike with an ice cream cone watching other people struggle up the last few steps once you stop feeling schvitzy.
We talked, every day, about visiting Nijo Castle, a mere few blocks from our apartment. We passed it every day, at least once. But we never went.