One Trip, Two Cities: Tokyo & Kyoto
The singular joys of each regional capital give the traveler an entrée into two sides of Japan.
If Tokyo represents the bustling, futuristic Japan we associate with tech (Sony!) and kawaii (Hello Kitty!), Kyoto represents a quieter past of temples, gardens and teahouses framed by the most poetic of the nation’s trees. In truth, both cities owe their present to their pasts — Tokyo’s military history lends it its fast pace, and as the former imperial center, Kyoto has an innate grace. Luckily, you needn’t choose between the two even on a relatively short visit; in less than three hours, you can go from Tokyo city lights to the temples of Kyoto. Our guide can help you pick out the gems particular to each city:
Historic District: Asakusa (Tokyo), Gion (Kyoto)
During the Edo period (1603 to 1867), Asakusa thrived as Tokyo’s entertainment center, rife with kabuki theaters and comedy shows. Most of the original neighborhood was destroyed in World War II, but today it maintains its pleasure-oriented reputation. Stroll around taking in the shops and snacks, particularly the ningyo yaki (bean curd cakes) and senbei (rice crackers). Even a stop at the Sensoji temple — Tokyo’s oldest temple — sticks with the theme. At the temple’s entrance, you can buy your fortune for 100 yen; if you don’t care for the fortune you’re given, you can tie it on one of the red racks situated there for precisely that purpose (and hope that your luck is better next time).
Kyoto is known for its beautifully preserved architecture, making the whole city a walkable delight. Gion, a neighborhood on the east side, is no exception, with its wooden merchant houses and willow-lined Shirakawa canal. But it’s the people who make Gion worth a visit — specifically the geishas, who can be seen in traditional dress on their way to entertain clients throughout the neighborhood. Walking the streets in the early evening (around 5:45 p.m.) will give you the best chance of seeing the exquisitely made-up women, who train for years in Japanese arts and ceremonial traditions. It’s OK to discreetly photograph them, but know that a fully outfitted geisha is on her way to work, so respect her time accordingly. Begin or end your tour of Gion at the Shinto temple of Kitano Tenmangū, ringed with a grove of more than 2,000 trees.
Striking Views: Ritz-Carlton and Skytree (Tokyo), Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto)
The Ritz-Carlton, housed in the 53-story Midtown Tower, has spellbinding views of glittery Tokyo; a nightcap in the lobby bar lets you soak it in (try the Purple No. 3 for a Japan-specific cocktail made with purple potato and sesame). But for sheer drama, head to the Skytree, the largest self-supporting tower in the world. Buy tickets on the fourth floor to soar up either 350 meters or 450 meters, depending on the ticket you purchase. On a clear morning, you could even spot snow-capped Mount Fuji.
There are nearly 3,000 shrines in Japan dedicated to the fox god Inari, but none more impressive than Fushimi Inari in the southern part of Kyoto. Thousands of red-orange gates wind through the hills surrounding the shrine, and at the top of the main pathway, a stunning view of the city awaits. It’s an engaging, vigorous walk anytime; at night, with the vermilion gates aglow, it becomes downright magical.
Foods: Kanto-style (Tokyo), Kansai-style (Kyoto)
Dining in Tokyo, as in all great capitals, means the ability to have world-class foods from around the world, not to mention other regions of Japan. But two foods Tokyo itself particularly excels at are the foods most often associated with the country: sushi and ramen. Situated right on the water, Tokyo specializes in sushi that maximizes its proximity to the freshest of fish, served up as nigiri sushi — the Platonic ideal of sushi, a ball of rice with raw fish perched atop. (True fish lovers can’t miss a visit to the Tsukiji fish market, a longtime tourist favorite for good reason.) For a heartier meal, turn to ramen; Tokyo-style ramen is made with pork and chicken broth and has wide noodles, but you can find all styles of ramen in the city.
Foods of the Kansai region, where Kyoto lies, lean toward the lighter, sweeter portion of the flavor wheel (think delicate white miso instead of darker, heavier red miso characteristic of Tokyo’s Kanto region). Kyoto-style sushi may surprise the first-time visitor. Pressed in a mold that gives the finished pieces a particularly uniform appearance, sushi of this region is known as oshizushi. The city is also known for its tofu as well as its vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. But to leave Kyoto without trying kaiseki is to commit a globe-trotter’s sin. Widely considered the finest cuisine Japan has to offer and often compared to haute cuisine in the west, kaiseki makes use of the power of the number five. It covers the five senses, the five dominant colors, the elusive “fifth taste” of umami, and five methods of preparation. Mizuki restaurant tempts with seasonal flavors like monkfish liver with Chinese cabbage, sea urchin with paprika, and blowfish with chrysanthemum and vinegared soy sauce.