Okay, taking a 44-hour side trip to Kyoto during our two-week visit to Tokyo was a silly idea. After deducting the hours we spent at the Hiiragiya ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with cypress-wood bathtubs and tranquil views, my wife and I really had only one solid day to see a week’s worth of sights. When wiser people than I heard that we were determined to do this, they strongly recommended that we hire a guide for our full day of tourism.
I’ve always been leery of guides: I can never quite shake the cinematic stereotype of the sleazy blowhard steering his clients to trinket merchants from whom he gets a hefty kickback. But we heard about an agency run by a guidebook writer who lives in Kyoto, so we signed up.
We were assigned a charming, energetic woman, nicknamed Maya, originally from Hokkaido but a Kyoto resident for decades. The fee (we were three, including a garden-fancying friend) was about $350 for a full day, plus incidental expenses such as snacks, lunch and transport.
We arrived in Kyoto in the early afternoon, and the contrast between our first half-day on our own and our subsequent full day with Maya illustrates the value of having a guide. Our room was not ready, so we headed right out into the busy central city, where we spent an hour or so wandering fairly aimlessly, seeing little of note (apart from the amazing knife shop Aritsugu in the mostly uninteresting Nishiki Market) and tiring ourselves out.
After we installed ourselves in our room, got the hang of wearing our yukatas (casual kimonos), figured out the spray-and-dry toilet seat and had a relaxing cup of tea, we took the subway a couple of stops east of the Kamo River and found ourselves in the Kyoto of our imagination: a charming neighborhood of tree-lined streets, pleasant houses and the most wonderful, imposing temple, with a lovely garden.
The thing is that, to this day, we are not entirely sure what we were looking at: There are so many worthy sights right in that area that we simply couldn’t pinpoint our precise location on a street map — and, let’s face it, to the uninitiated there is a certain architectural similarity among all these Zen temples and Shinto shrines. Still, we enjoyed it enormously, in our bumbling way. The bumbling continued: In walking back to the subway station we found ourselves not walking back to the subway station at all and, as the dinner hour approached, we finally hailed a taxi for the short ride back to our hotel. Two hours, one temple.
The next day was a very different story. Maya met us at 9 a.m., bundled us into a taxi and took us to where she usually starts her tours, a mausoleum and cemetery, the purpose being to demonstrate how Japan’s limited space means that even the dead must be housed in cramped quarters. (Indeed, the mausoleum looked more like a locker room than anything else.)
During this initial 20 minutes, there was a sense that we were feeling each other out: What were we (the clients) really interested in seeing? What does she (the guide) have in mind for us? For this trip, we didn’t care about seeing artisans’ workshops, something Maya normally includes on her tours; we were more interested in gardens. We didn’t mind spending a few dollars on taxis if something a car ride away was worth seeing, as taxis are not terribly expensive in Kyoto. (The meter starts at under $6 and stays there for a good long time, and, as in the rest of Japan, there’s no tipping.)
Once this introductory dance had been performed, we proceeded to crisscross the city on foot and by taxi, visiting “sitting” gardens (designed to be viewed from an adjacent building), “walking” gardens, rock gardens, moss gardens, pond gardens and others. All were associated with Shinto shrines or Zen temples/monasteries, and their beautiful buildings were part of the experience.
One visit might spur another: If a particular feature of a temple piqued our interest, Maya might think of another example of it, and off we’d go. In the course of the day, we visited 10 or 11 sites, few of them crawling with other tourists. (We didn’t realize how good Maya’s choices were in that regard until we came to the very well-known Ryoanji temple complex, where we found ourselves elbow-to-elbow with busloads of visitors from all over the world. We escaped in short order.)
Maya was not exactly a certified expert in history, architecture or Buddhist theology, but in addition to her familiarity with Kyoto, she had a solid and wide-ranging cultural background, excellent English and a curiosity that served us well. When we raised a question she couldn’t answer, she would do something that we could never have done: She’d ask someone, both for our edification and for her own future reference. In fact, the day was full of things that couldn’t have happened if we’d been on our own. Here are two examples.
First, our friend casually mentioned that before returning to Tokyo, he planned to spend a day in Nara. He also hoped to visit Katsura Imperial Villa, an architectural and horticultural treasure a short distance outside Kyoto, but didn’t quite understand how to get an admission ticket. This normally involves going to the Kyoto office of the Imperial Household Agency a day in advance and signing up for one of the limited spots on the daily tour, but he didn’t see how he could fit this into an already tight schedule.
Maya flipped open her cellphone and called an old friend with the right connections, who rang back a while later with the news that the document would be ready for pickup that afternoon. Plus, at breakfast the next morning, a fax from Maya arrived at our inn containing helpful hints for our friend’s visit to Nara.
Second, we were gazing at a pagoda and got to wondering how these buildings were constructed. The best way to find out would be to clamber up inside, but this was not possible. “Aha,” recalled Maya. “Ten minutes away there’s a wooden pagoda that’s climbable — I think from the 17th century. Would you like to stroll over there?”
You bet. Our walk led us through back streets and past young women wearing traditional costumes and makeup. Without Maya we wouldn’t have known that they had rented their get-ups for the purpose of being photographed, and that the photos would be given to their prospective in-laws to show what nice old-fashioned girls they were.
We arrived at the pagoda, paid the small admission charge and gingerly crept up the steep, almost ladderlike, staircase to find that the whole building is constructed around a central pillar (absent in Chinese versions, evidently), like a massive tree trunk or ship’s mast. We’d seen no guidebook references to this pagoda and wouldn’t have been able to find it if we had.
Three people dividing a $350 guide’s fee; admission charges; taxis; good coffee and cake: I’d say our full day cost us about $175 apiece. A day ticket to Disneyland costs $66, not including food. I feel we got a bargain.
Chris Rowthorn, a 12-year resident of Kyoto, leads private half-day tours of the city (about $200) and offers custom-designed tours led by longtime residents (about $200 half-day, $400 full-day). Details: Walks and Tours of Kyoto & Japan, https://www.chrisrowthorn.com.
Edward Schneider last wrote for Travel about touring Tuscany.
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