The new year has just begun and many people are looking forward to discovering a new corned of the world. Japan continues to amaze with its unique culture and attractive natural scenery, without mentioning the wide range of UNESCO World Heritage sites available, which makes it an attractive destination every year. Inside the “land of the rising sun”, both cultural and historical aspects of this country are still strongly enclosed in the city of Kyoto, old capital and residential area for the Emperor back from 794 to 1868, when the city was known as “Heian-kyo” (peace capital).
One of the most outstanding images of January in this city is certainly the beauty of its many temples and shrines covered in snow. Even though it does not snow nor rain much during this month, when the scenery gets its yearly white blanket, it certainly brings people outdoors whatever the temperature may be.
Temperatures usually range from 1°C (38.88°F) to 9°C (48.2°F) throughout the day, and one of the best ways to enjoy this time of year is certainly indulging in the typical food of the season.
There are a large range of dishes to enjoy during winter to warm up the body while visiting the hundreds of temples and shrines. Kyoto’s specialty is its tofu, particularly during this time of year, “yudofu” or boiled tofu. One of the key factors to the flavor of tofu is the water used while making it. Most of the water supply for Kyoto comes from the freshness of its surrounding mountains and the great Biwa Lake in the neighboring prefecture of Shiga. Such direct access to these natural sources of water make the tofu of Kyoto a particularly desired food item for those traveling in the city.
A great number of other dishes are typical of this season, and therefore are easily available throughout shops and food stalls all around the city. Some of these include “yakiimo” (baked sweet potatoe), any type of “nabe” hot pot, “oden” (various vegetables, fish and other ingredients stewed in a soy flavored “dashi” soup stock), “osechi” (traditional food served during the New Year’s Holidays), “ramen” and many more.
The area of Fushimi, in southern Kyoto, is well known for its shrine with a thousand “tori” gates, but one attractive aspect during the winter days are its many sake breweries. With direct access through the Keihan Main Line, a short bus ride away from Sakura House Kyoto Imadegawa, the sake brewery district of Fushimi is the perfect place to warm up the body and develop a palate to the delicacies sold by the many centennial breweries. The entire area has a retro aspect that shall certainly make one feel as if time has stopped here.
In addition to the shops and breweries, there is also a museum to allow visitors to dig into the historical weight and cultural importance of “sake”, how it is made and the difference between the many types of brewing styles and ingredients used.
Soaking in the culture
Just a walk distance away from Sakura House Kyoto Imadegawa is a place commonly visited by both locals and foreign travelers, that is Funaoka Onsen. Despite its name it is not an actual “onsen” (natural hot spring bath) but a “sento” (public bath). The particularity of this “sento” is its interior and all its classical components which makes many of its visitors to ensure it to be a trip to the past.
For those looking to warm up while continuously experiencing all aspects of this culturally rich city, this is certainly a destination that can not be overlooked.
As if this wasn’t enough, just about 100m away is Sarasa Nishijin (an old public bath turned into a stylish café) and Teuchi Soba Kanei (a hand made “soba” noodles specialized restaurant receiving visitors from all around the country).
If in search of an actual “onsen”, then Kurama Onsen shall be the best choice. Located in the northern mountains of Kyoto, this hot spring offers both indoors and outdoors baths surrounded by the natural beauty of its area. Access is fairly easy by both bus and train.
Alternatively, on the western side of Kyoto city, Arashiyama also offers some attractive alternatives, especially for those looking to warm up while sightseeing or before calling it a day.
The great variety of warm dishes isn’t the only thing that may keep you warm during the first month of the year. You may find that some places have a portable stove prepared, either outside the store for customers waiting in line, or at some tourist areas so that visitors can sit and relax for a while without getting cold. This is part of what in Japan is called “omotenashi” or hospitality, a sense of not only serving the guest but also giving them what they need before they ask for it.
An interesting aspect of this is seen on the trains. Some of them may have the heating right under the passenger seats, allowing to not only heat the interior of the entire train, but also the seat and the feet and legs of the passengers at rest. The “oshibori” (warm towel served to guests before they have a meal) is another well known aspect of this hospitality.
Kyoto in white
It doesn’t snow heavily in Kyoto, and even if it does the snow is usually gone within a week, but when it does, the entire scenery changes to a poetic image as those usually depicted on the “ukiyoe” (woodblock prints from the Edo Era). The quickness with which this few day period encompasses, brings photographers and travelers from all over the country and the world just to get a glimpse at first sight of this winter aspect of Kyoto.
Recommended areas to visit from our private “machiya” house when snowing are:
・Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple), just about a 15 minute bus ride away.
・The mountains, parks and temples in Arashiyama, a scenic train ride about 15 minutes away.
・Ginkaku-ji Temple (The Silver Temple) & Tetugaku no michi (Philosophers Path), a 20 minute bus ride away.
・Ninenzaka & Sanenzaka traditional kept streets, about 40 minutes away bus.
Blessings from the Gods
An event usually overlooked by some travelers during this month is the Toka Ebisu. This festival’s main character is Ebisu, one of the “Shichifukujin” (Seven Lucky Gods of Japanese folklore) and is associated with good fortune. During the 8th to the 12th, many people travel to Ebisu Shrine to pray and get their “fuku-zasa” (branches of bamboo grass blessed by a Shinto maiden). During the 5 days that cover this festival, various activities are displayed, including “Yudate Kagura” ritual, “mochi” rice punding, “maguro” (tuna) dedication, “kagura” dance by the shitno maidens and the well awaited “Hoekago” parade where a number of male and female participants dress and parade through the streets of Gion in their Edo period apparel.
New year, new life
During the beginning of this month, it may be well noticed the amount of people present at each shrine. This is because of “hatsumode” (first shrine visit of the year), where people go to their local shrine to pray and ask for health and a good year. Some people may also travel to their shrine of preference or visit the most important shrines to do so. A popular choice in Kyoto is Kitanotenmangu Shrine, a few meters away from Sakura House Kyoto Imadegawa.
Kitanotenmangu Shrine gets ready to receive its first visitors of the year with many food stalls, shop and game stands for everyone, big to small, to enjoy the experience and begin the year in high spirits.
Aiming to the future
One of the highlights of the month receiving curious tourists, worldwide photographers and local common goers is the Omato Taikai archery competition held at Sanjusangen-do Temple.
This event, held in the middle of January, is related to the “coming of age” ceremonies covered all over the country, when the Japanese youth turns 20 years of age. During this archery competition, around 2.000 participants get finely dressed and shoot their arrows as per the common practice of “kyu-do” (Japanese archery) to a target at a distance of 33 “ken” (120 meters). Starting in the morning and continuing shortly after the afternoon, this event offers a nice ambiance both in beauty and cultural richness.
Visiting the inside of the temple is also a highly recommended experience, as it contains the famous 1.001 statues of the Kannon Goddess of Compassion with her thousand arms and 28 guardian deities.
Similarly, on the northern area of Kyoto, at Shimogamo-jinja Shrine is the Musha Jinji. During this event, men and women dressed in “kariginu” (traditional clothes used by members of the court) shoot arrows to a target with “oni” (demon or bad spirit) written on them. This event is also held in the late morning and is part of the many events carried out during the beginning of the year to purify the energies from bad spirits.
A shower of wellbeing
During the last weeks of the month an important purifying ritual takes place in the southern shrine of Jonangu, the Yudate Kagura. During this event, sacred spring water is boiled, then a senior Shinto priestess adds sake, rice and salt as an offering to the deities. After this, two large bamboo branches, previously purified by the traditional kagura dance, are soaked in the boiling water and splashed all over the shrine grounds. The steam and quick movement of the priestess make it a wonderful thing to see. Due to the cold temperature, the boiling water quickly cools down when being splashed in the air, so visitors don’t need to be scared of being splashed a little bit. It is actually considered a good thing to receive some of the water used during this ritual. It is recommended though to have ones camera water proof just in case.
At the end of the event one may receive the purified bamboo to decorate ones home, as it is said to bring good fortune.
All in all, January has a great number of things to enjoy and experience in terms of culture, history and entertainment. There are also other attractions and events that may suit certain travelers in particular, that is why at Sakura House Kyoto Imadegawa, on top of being a traditional “machiya” house located in the traditionally kept neighborhood of Nishijin, we have a concierge service to provide guests with the guidance and assistance needed to not miss any particular aspect of the richness that Kyoto has to offer.