On a month long trip to Japan, busy with training in Tokyo at the world famous Paraestra Academy with Yuki Nakai and AACC Academy with Hiroyuki Abe, my friends and I decided to take a short jaunt over to the historical city of Kyoto. As we were pressed for time, we had to pack in as much as we could, and so sleep was not on the itinerary. During this painfully short visit to one of the most interesting places I’ve been to, we were able to experience the phenomenon of a city in which the ancient and the modern somehow coexist seamlessly and effortlessly.
Kyoto, the former imperial city of Japan, and capital of Kyoto-prefecture, is widely accepted as one of the most livable cities in the world, with its very palatable population of 1.5 million people and daily life moving at a much more human-friendly speed than in Tokyo. The city is encircled by three mountains (Higashiyama, Kitayama and Nishiyama), each rising to about 1,000 meters in altitude, providing for fantastic, picturesque landscape views from just about anywhere you’re standing in Kyoto.
It was finally time for our much-anticipated trip-within-a-trip, and so the four of us packed our bags and headed out on the Japan Rail Yamanote line to Tokyo’s Shinagawa station, to catch the bullet train out to Kyoto.
The bullet train was super smooth, and as you might expect, super fast. Like good tourists, we took photos from the window of the landscapes blurring by, in order to seal the experience into history. Some of those photos may have included us posing with the classic peace-sign hand signals, which was probably under-appreciated by our fellow train passengers, all of whom were Japanese. When we arrived in Kyoto, we took the organized and efficient public bus over to our new digs, the Gojo guest house. We had a satisfyingly traditional room; straw tatami mats for beds, sliding paper doors, and a great view of the city and the mountains. We had heard about how much fun Kyoto nightlife is, but we were determined to find out for ourselves. That night, armed with as many Japanese phrases as you can count on one hand, we went out on the town in search of some good clean fun. We had been training pretty hard in Tokyo after all.
Kyoto has some of the coolest, most amazing little bars and pubs I’ve been to. After hopping from the log-cabin-style A-bar to Rub-a-Dub Reggae House to Pig ‘n Whistle Pub and on to ING Rock Bar, we stopped at the Lawson (upscale general store) for tallboys of various Japanese beers and headed down to the riverbank to hang out with the hordes of young Kyoto-ites topping off their night out. I have a blurry recollection of a very friendly local friend we made, who at all hours of the morning, went twenty minutes out of his way to help guide us home to Gojo Guest House, only to get us more lost than we were in the first place, then apologizing embarrassingly and leaving. One thing is for sure, the Japanese aim to please. Apparently we got home alright because the trip continued the next day.
Feeling a little bit weak, we decided to head out to the main downtown strip of Kyoto. We shopped, ate, and walked until we reached the ancient Imperial Palace for a tour before zipping across town to my favourite part of Kyoto, the Kiyomizu Temple. This was probably the best temple or shrine we saw in Japan (and we had made a point of visiting every single one we could find). The walk up to Kiyomizu was on a steep, narrow street full of interesting little traditional shops. When we arrived at the temple itself, it was so quiet and serene, almost as if we were totally removed from the city. It rained through our entire visit to Kyoto, which was generally a drag, but somehow while we were at Kiyomizu, it actually seemed to add to the experience. In fact, Kiyomizu means ‘clear water’, and so walking the grounds of the temple in the fresh rain seemed fitting and almost therapeutic. Instead of trying to stay dry, we submitted to the rain and just embraced the wetness. Once back at the Gojo Guest House, and after drying off a bit, we went out to Gyu-Zen for traditional Shabu-Shabu (translating to “swish-swish”). We engaged in the very interactive activity of swishing the thinly sliced and perfectly marbled rib-eye steak around the boiling hot-pot in the middle of our sunken traditional-style table. With countless other types of meats, vegetables and other fixins’, it was an unforgettable meal and a perfect Kyoto experience.
Waking up early, we went out to see more of the sights and prepared to end our short, but busy, visit to Kyoto in the afternoon. Off to the Ninomaru Gardens at Nijo Castle, an essential part of any Kyoto visit, and possibly the best place in the city for a good photo-op. Then on to a couple more shrines, including the famous bright orange-colored Heian Jingu shrine. Soon enough it was time for us to bid Kyoto farewell and jump on the bullet train to continue our adventure in Nagoya (another story for another time).
Our three days in Kyoto proved to be unforgettable, although much too short. We were all amazed by Kyoto’s dichotomy of ancient serenity and modern fun, and how it’s people balance and appreciate both. I feel like it is a requirement for any BJJ-lover to go and discover the birthplace and roots of jiu-jitsu in Japan. Aside from the great jiu-jitsu community there, the experience of simply being in Japan and feeling its history first-hand is enough to inspire your training. So start planning, choose a date, either near or far, and mark it off for your long overdue Japanese adventure.
Words by Naoyuki Da Silva
Photos by Matthew Soroka