Tokyo, as most people know, is the capital of Japan. However, Tokyo didn’t always hold this title; it used to rest in a lovely place we know as Kyoto. Kyoto is different from the rest of Japan, its colors are softer, its people are gentler. Even the language is different. In North American terms, Osaka’s rough, business talk can be compared to a New Yorker, while Kyoto’s soft lilt can be compared to that of a Southern belle.
In fact, the geisha and maiko of Kyoto still speak pure Kyoto dialect, their words soothing to the weary businessmen who spend buckets of cash just to hear their voices. It’s no wonder they make such good conversationalists. Some common Kyoto words are "oideyasu," which means welcome, and also "okini," which means thank you.
Kyoto attracts millions of visitors every year and it’s no wonder. With over 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines, palaces and gardens, who wouldn’t want to visit? With the number of historical monuments that staggering, it’s just hard to choose what to see. While Japan can be a rather expensive country to travel around in, fortunately there are still some things in Kyoto that cost nothing. After all, who said there was no such thing as a free lunch?
For example, the first thing you can do if you are arriving at Kyoto Station, is to take the escalators to the top, where you can see a beautiful 360-degree view for free. There’s even a small grassy area with a couple of benches and you can bring a book on a nice, sunny day.
After basking in the sun for awhile, you can head to Nishiki Market, better known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen.” It’s better if you start here in the morning, preferably after arriving at Kyoto Station and seeing the view. This is the time when all the chefs from around Kyoto come to do their grocery shopping. Fresh fish, colorful fruits and vegetables, and vendors selling freshly made street foods fill about 150 shops. Just looking is free, right? And if seeing all that food from Nishiki Market made you hungry, why not pop into one of Kyoto’s many department stores and snag a load of free samples from the food floor? Nishiki Market is near Daimaru department store, so you won’t have to spend any money on transportation fees to get there.
After filling yourself up on free samples from the department store’s food floor, go ahead and take a walk to Kyomizu-dera Temple for something sweet. All around the temple, there are souvenir shops with tons of free samples. Here you can try "yatsuhashi," Kyoto’s specialty sweet, which is a cinnamon-flavored "mochi" flattened into a small, triangle-sized pancake and stuffed with various flavors such as apple, sesame, peach, strawberry, and even chocolate. Just try to limit yourself to one free sample per shop if possible.
After filling up on sweets, walk back down to Kawaramachi street and go to Gion, where you can sit freely and do some maiko-watching. If you are lucky, you can see them scurrying in and out of restaurants or tea houses, on their way to some important appointment. There’s only one rule; never forget to bring your camera!
After (hopefully) getting lucky enough to spot a few geishas in Gion, put your camera away and take a walk to Kamogawa, the main river in Kyoto where you can sit for free along the banks and listen to any of the musicians practicing their skills. Think of it as a free, outdoor concert.
If you are in the mood to see a temple or shrine, head to Heian Shrine, to see the towering, steel torii gate and the beautiful Chinese-inspired buildings. Following a look around Heian-jingu, set off for Nanzen-ji. This temple is off the beaten track and is very serene and peaceful, located in a wooded area and next to a red, brick aqueduct that is still working and flowing with water. It’s a 10-minute walk from Heian-jingu, so you don’t have to spend any money on transportation.
If you are still in the mood for history, it’s worth taking a look at Kyoto Imperial Palace. This palace was first built in 794 and you can tour it for free with an English guided tour. However, you have to apply for the tour in advance and it can either take an hour to set up or a whole day. So hope for an hour and in the meantime, you can stroll around Kyoto Imperial Palace Park without spending a single yen.
If you still have time, see a festival. There are around 40 famous festivals a year in Kyoto so you are bound to have free time for one of them. Some have fireworks, some involve burning mountain sides, and some involve men in loincloths running through the streets. Whatever your fancy is, there is sure to be some festival that you can enjoy.
So whatever you do, don’t miss Kyoto. There are no excuses for it. Not even an “I’m broke right now” one.© Japan Today