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In Quest Of: Slow travel in Old Kyoto

In Quest Of: Slow travel in Old Kyoto

Published on

05 Aug 2023

Published by

The Straits Times

KYOTO – It is easy to get caught up in romantic notions of a dreamy holiday in Kyoto.


But the reality is that with the post-pandemic revenge travel boom, the ancient Japanese capital’s main attractions, which include the Higashiyama temple district and Gion geisha neighbourhood, are almost always packed with a sea of tourists.


It is more difficult now to get into a Zen mood when people are jostling for that Instagram-perfect shot. 


There is one fairly effective hack for the most determined bucket-list traveller – visit popular places like the Fushimi Inari shrine or Kiyomizu temple at the crack of dawn.


Still, mindful travellers seeking quiet contemplation can find historic sites and attractions away from the madding crowd.


On a recent late spring trip to Japan, for a change of pace, I make it a point to slow down in Kyoto. 


1. Meditate with a Zen priest


Sitting cross-legged in a quiet hall for 45 minutes may not be everybody’s idea of what vacations are made of. But there are few better places to try out zazen, or seated meditation, than in the sprawling Daitoku temple complex, one of Japan’s most important centres of Zen practice.


Upon arrival, one is already put in a calmer mood due to the hushed, respectful atmosphere.


There are various sub-temples – each has its own opening hours – in this serene complex, many of which house immaculate minimalist stone gardens. 


I especially enjoy a 45-minute meditation session at Daisen-in (admission: 1,000 yen or S$9.40, weekends; go to, where I am given careful instructions in English on the appropriate etiquette and sitting posture before I begin.


During the time it takes for a stick of incense to burn out, the small group I am with sits in silence while a priest paces watchfully over us. 


When one begins to get fatigued from staying intentionally still, the priest will use a flat stick to carefully smack either side of the shoulder muscles in a ritualised sequence.


Surprisingly, this is not only painless, but also actually feels more like a massage that does wonders at relaxing stiff muscles.


As a bonus, I quickly realise that the resounding “thwack” is also a hugely effective way to keep the practitioner’s mind from drifting. 


2. Appreciate imperfection at a kintsugi class


The concept of kintsugi, the Japanese craft of repairing broken or chipped ceramics and pottery with lacquer and gold or silver dust, is probably more relevant today, in this age of materialism, than it ever was.


This is why I lug along a beloved but cracked coffee mug to an Urujyu ( kintsugi workshop (from 4,000 yen, excluding the cost of materials), hoping I will be able to extend its lifespan.


The studio, which is owned by a Japanese lacquer artist, is located in the Miyama agricultural region, about an hour’s drive from Kyoto.


The process of filling in small chips and hairline cracks with lacquer requires plenty of patience – and a certain amount of practice to get the hang of the tiny brushstrokes – but the sense of satisfaction at repairing an item of sentimental value is priceless.


Post-class, it is worth taking a detour to stroll through Miyama village, a small picture-perfect hamlet known for its farmhouses with handmade thatched roofs.


The nostalgic rural landscape is ideal for an invigorating meander and, since most of the buildings are still private homes, there is a lived-in vibe to the town that adds to its quaint authenticity.


3. Sleep in peaceful environs


The well-being-oriented Garrya Nijo Castle Kyoto is a good choice for those who wish to enjoy Japanese hospitality blended with contemporary aesthetics.


Designed to encourage contemplation, the 25-key hotel (rates from 91,000 yen), which is part of the Banyan Tree Group, features a carefully curated range of amenities such as yoga mats and singing bowls, available on request.


Its light-filled lobby overlooks a landscaped garden, where I pause each time I pass through to admire the Japanese maple tree that is the centrepiece of the space. 


I especially enjoy the tatami seating area in my room – the ideal spot to enjoy a cup of sencha and wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) during stolen quiet moments.


In lieu of being cooped up in a small in-house gym, guests are encouraged to jog or take a brisk walk around the 2km perimeter of the neighbouring Nijo Castle.


This is also a way to fit in a bout of sightseeing at the same time. 


For a more budget-friendly hotel located in the city centre, check out another Banyan Tree property, Dhawa Yura Kyoto, which is right by the iconic Sanjo bridge and on the edge of Gion district.


This 138-room boutique hotel (rates from 26,000 yen) incorporates pampering comforts like the excellent 8lements Spa, as well as an indoor bamboo courtyard, to bring a bit of Kyoto’s famed natural landscape into the city.


4. Shop for traditional products


Imbue your own home with a touch of Kyoto’s peaceful, measured vibes with some carefully chosen traditional crafts and produce.


The moment I have some free time, I make a beeline for the historic Teramachi Street, which is known for its galleries, antique shops and teahouses.


My first stop is Ippodo Tea’s main store ( with its wide range of matcha, sencha and gyokuro tea. Enjoying a selection of teas in the adjacent tearoom, before deciding which you want as a souvenir, is half the fun.


Budget some time to explore the rest of the street.


Its speciality stores are filled with all sorts of traditional Japanese products, from wagashi sweets and woodblock prints to pewter- and lacquerware. And take along an empty shopping bag – you will need it.


  • A former Straits Times journalist, Karen Tee is now a freelance lifestyle and travel writer who can never resist yet another trip to Japan to uncover a different facet to the land of the rising sun.
  • This trip was hosted by Garrya Nijo Castle Kyoto and Dhawa Yura Kyoto.
  • In Quest Of is a series on the joy of niche exploration.



Source: The Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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