If you’re not in Japan for long and don’t have the means to make it to Kyoto, there are still ways to get that traditional feel in Tokyo.
Kyoto is ancient capital of Japan and the most visited city outside of Tokyo (quel surprise). Those stunning shrines and temple, the twisting streets of Gion, beautiful canal walks and the towering bamboo forests of Arashiyama. It’s famous for a reason, but famous doesn’t necessarily mean feasible. Without the JR Pass or a few weeks to do some real exploring, it can be tough to make it down to Kyoto from the big city, but there are places you can head to for a feel of the old capital. We might not be able to get you a golden pavilion, but we can definitely whisk you away from Tokyo for an afternoon.
For the Bamboo and Buddha: Kamakura
Probably the most obvious option, Kamakura is known as little-Kyoto already, and is under an hour from central Tokyo. Home to some of the most beautiful temples and shrines going, you can hike between them to make an afternoon of it. In particular, Engakuji Temple is nestled in cedar forests and has a tea house serving traditional tea and sweets. At Koto-ku in you can see the giant Buddha, only out-sized by its Nara counterpart and sitting pretty at 13m tall. Head to Hasedera temple for a wooden terrace with amazing views of Kamakura (Kiyomizudera who?) as well as caves filled with dozens of statues. To recreate the peace of the Bamboo forests in Arashiyama, you can hike to Hokokuji Temple to enjoy tea between the swaying branches. Finally, for all your souvenir needs you can enjoy the shops and stalls of Komachi Street!
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For Winding Streets and Sweets: Kawagoe
One of the best parts of Kyoto has to be Gion; the winding streets, glimpses of geisha, hidden shrines and plenty of delicious sweets to try. If you head to Kawagoe in Saitama you can make the most of their Edo-period streets and treats, and only 30 minutes from Ikebukuro. Known as Little Edo, Kawagoe harks back to the final 250 years of Kyoto being Japan’s capital. They have kimono rental shops and on the 18th of every month, anyone wearing a kimono or yukata receives special discounts in certain shops.
While Kyoto is famous for the high dining of Shojin Ryouri, here you can try ryotei, a traditional high-class restaurant, some of which have great lunch deals. Sitting down to a beautifully presented multi-dish meal is a great way to spend an afternoon and try a piece of Japanese culture. You can find a list of the restaurants here, with many featuring the local specialty of eel. For something sweet or your souvenirs, head to Kashiya Yokocho, the sweets alley with old-fashioned candy and artisans practicing specialist techniques to craft stunning miniatures in sugar.
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For Canal-Side Walks: Nakameguro and Takadanobaba
The Philosopher’s Path is a mind-clearing stroll along a small canal, and there are no shortage of those in Tokyo. With two main areas for your thoughtful wanderings: Nakameguro and Takadanobaba, they are as lovely as their names are awkward. Nakameguro is well known for the stunning cherry blossom festival but is far more relaxing without the throngs of thousands, luckily. You can enjoy a walk along the Meguro River with distractions found in the cute little cafes and shops that are dotted along it. Alternatively, the Kanda River offers a slightly less trendy vibe but is similarly beautiful in spring, with the section between Ishikiri Bridge and Ryukei Bridge considered one of the best spots in Tokyo. A great place to start is in Inokashira Park, where the river leaves the well-source and begins its journey through Tokyo.
For the Torii Gates: Nezu Shrine
Also in the first photo of this article, Nezu Shrine is one of the oldest and most beautiful in Tokyo, with gardens and koi ponds all waiting to whisk you away from the metropolitan surroundings. Designed in the Gongen-zukuri style, the shrine is more opulent than most and features intricately detailed designs and bright colors, having survived pretty much intact since 1705. The shrine is close to Ueno Park, at the foot of a hill on the border of the Bunkyo and Taito wards. Probably most famous for its Azalea festival in April, the grounds are lovely throughout the year and well worth a visit.
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For the Tea Ceremonies: Tokyo’s Garden Tea Houses
Green tea and wagashi are the true taste of Kyoto, with tea ceremonies held since the 9th century, it’s as traditional as it gets. Depending on whether you would like to participate in a full ceremony, learning about the traditions and techniques, or if you would just like to to try the tea and sweets, there are plenty of options to choose from. While ceremony classes can be a little pricey (more on that here) it can be really affordable to try out the traditional flavors in beautiful settings. Tea houses are often found in gardens and shrines, with prices around 500-700 yen per person for some real matcha and an accompanying sweet. Some of the nicest in Tokyo include Nakajimo no Ochaya Teahouse in Hamarikyu gardens (pictured above). Alternatively, the Rakuu-tei teahouse in Shinjuku Gyoen is really stunning, perched on the water’s edge and with the tea-set costing 700 yen. Finally, Rikugien Garden has multiple small tearooms which are open to the public, making perfect stop-offs during your stroll around the city’s most picturesque gardens.