KYOTO, Japan — Walking around Kyoto on a soupy September afternoon, I couldn’t immediately see what Japan’s eighth-largest city had in common with Boston. It’s more populous than Boston (1.4 million versus Boston’s 685,000), filled with more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and the residents of Kyoto seemed decidedly more — let’s see, how to put this delicately — civil and polite than they are in Boston.
But back in 1959, Kyoto Mayor Gizo Takayama saw beyond these surface differences. He visited Boston that year and noticed that both cities were centers of culture, history, and education. He proposed that Boston and Kyoto partner for an official cultural exchange. Then-Mayor John Hynes agreed and Kyoto became Boston’s first sister city.
I suppose that’s how it goes with sisters. One can be gracious, the other can be Boston.
Beyond history and education, one similarity between Kyoto and Boston was clear during my visit, and that’s the energy these cities share. Think of Tokyo as New York, and Kyoto as Boston. If you’ve ever felt swallowed up by the kinetic, 360-volt frenzy of New York, Tokyo will fully electrocute you, then accidentally step on you in a crosswalk. I mean that in a loving way, of course.
Comparatively, Kyoto shares more of Boston’s breezy pace. You can traverse the city by bike in about 30 minutes (depending on your riding skills). There’s a bike and pedestrian path that easily follows the Kamo River, which is Kyoto’s smaller answer to the Charles. If you have time to visit both cities, start in Tokyo, and then take a breather in Kyoto. They’re just over two hours apart by train.
The other thing these two cities have in common is baseball. Kyoto even had a sliver of a dive bar named Fenway Park. Sadly it shuttered a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean the city’s love of the Red Sox has subsided. Kyoto spawned two Red Sox pitchers: Hideki Okajima and Tomo Ohka. Kyoto also is home to 37 universities, paralleling Boston’s position as a college town.
Using the 60th anniversary of the sisterhood between Boston and Kyoto as a rice-paper-thin excuse to travel to Japan, I began with a flight to Seattle, followed by a flight to Osaka, and then a train ride to Kyoto. I was a haggard mess (think Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”) by the end of it. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been awake when I arrived at the Hiiragiya Ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese hotel, and this style of high-service, food-centric accommodation may not have been the wisest choice for my first night.
I simply wanted to collapse in a bed, but the staff at the Hiiragiya wanted to make sure I was well-fed. They presented me with a kaiseki-ryōri menu (think tiny Japanese haute cuisine tapas) in my room, which included about 15 petite dishes, served one at a time. The meal generally takes about two hours. After the tender octopus was served, lusciously fried bits of glistening chicken appeared. Next was albacore, or maybe it was abalone. By this point my eyelids were drooping precariously close to the woven bamboo floor. With all the politeness I could muster (which is a challenge given that I’m a Bostonian), I begged off further tastings and asked for my bed, which was a comfortable cushion on the floor. I was asleep before the last tiny bowl was cleared from the table.
If you were paying attention earlier, and shame on you if you weren’t, you’ll recall that Kyoto has more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Much like Boston, you come here for the history. This may be where the sibling rivalry comes into play, because as the older sister, Kyoto has a bit more history than Boston. It was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, and because it was spared from the destruction of WWII, it’s considered Japan’s cultural capital.
It’s overwhelming, but with enough careful research you can get through nearly 1 percent of those religious sites in a few days. That doesn’t sound so impressive, but it’s more than enough to give you a proper taste. Did I mention there are also castles and palaces? So make that a half of a percent of 2,000 temples and shrines. My recommendations, thank you for asking, include Nijō Castle, the Toji Temple and its beautiful gardens, and the Kenninji Temple.
Give yourself some extra time at the expansive Tōfuku-ji Temple, which is the oldest and largest in Kyoto. It’s known for its autumn foliage, which is spectacular, but it’s also known for elbow-to-elbow leaf-peeping crowds that crave a gander at the flaming red maples. The trees were still green during my visit, so I hadn’t allotted much time here, but a very loud thunderstorm forced me to stay and explore art exhibitions and enjoy the rock gardens in the afternoon petrichor.
I also spent a little extra time at Fushimi Sake Village, where I sampled the wares of 18 sake brewers from the region. It was a tasting, so they were tiny glasses, but there were 18 of them nonetheless. Hello morning headache. But, in the interim I learned that sake isn’t always sweet, and in some cases it can be incredibly dry and sharp.
The problem with my late-night sake bender was that the next day I was scheduled to interview the mayor of Kyoto. I suspect Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa probably looked at the blurry-eyed travel writer before him and wondered why on earth he bothered saying yes to my request, especially when I began by asking if Boston was his favorite sister city. By way of comparison, Kyoto also has sister city relationships with Paris, Cologne, and Prague. He didn’t flinch.
“I’m very proud we are sister cities with Boston,” Kadokawa replied tactfully.
By now you may be wondering what this sister city business is all about. In the case of Kyoto and Boston it’s a cultural exchange. Students from Boston study in Kyoto, and vice versa. This year artists from Kyoto came to Boston to show how they make their pottery (Kyoto is well-known for its crafts). The visits, educational and artistic, expand understanding between two cities. Kyoto donated a 100-year-old traditional Japanese house to the Boston Children’s Museum, which hundreds of thousands of local children explore every year.
Masataka Hata, president of the 300-year-old Shoyeido Incense Company, has been coming to Boston for nearly 40 years. He eloquently explained how both cities enrich the lives of those who live there.
“Boston and Kyoto have deep histories,” he told me in his Kyoto office. “It’s a kind of soil to grow who we are as human beings. If you don’t have that kind of history, or the energy, or the essence, your soil may not be rich enough to help the roots of the people grow and spread. Even if they don’t realize they have the history, they’re growing up in the atmosphere in their daily lives.”
With that in mind, I needed to get back to my history lesson of Kyoto, which included renting a bike from the Kyoto Cycling Tour Project and heading to sites such as the Heian-Jingu shrine, the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and a stop in the Gion district. Gion is known for its geishas, only in Kyoto they’re not called geishas, they’re called geikos. Also, be respectful and don’t take photos or try to take selfies with geikos. Not only is it rude, it’s against the law.
Keep in mind when visiting Kyoto, or really anywhere, not to approach your trip as a constant whoosh of forward energy to the next attraction. Sometimes the best way to get to know a city is to avoid those heavily touristed areas for a while and explore back streets. On the day I rented a bike I pedaled aimlessly through alley-width side streets and walked in tourist-free markets. I rode along the river with no particular destination and stopped and watched the chefs make soba noodles before I then ate them at a restaurant called Yoshimura. I wandered through the massive Bic Camera which sells cameras, and just about everything else.
After the recharge I was ready for what was perhaps the most tourist intensive stop on my trip — the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. It’s a fairly quick train ride from the center of Kyoto to get to the forest. I now laugh when I read descriptions that reference the “rustling of the leaves” or that the grove is “dabbled in mystic, filtered light.” Unfortunately it’s difficult to hear the leaves or focus on the light because the forest is absolutely mobbed. Because it’s become an Instagram sensation (it’s also on the cover of Lonely Planet’s guide to Kyoto), it’s a selfie-snapping haven. I aimed my camera strategically and managed to get a couple of pictures without people, but it’s a difficult feat. I nearly broke a few selfie-sticks over my knee because they almost poked my eye (and other parts) out.
There are, however, paths that wind out of the bamboo and to a lake of lotus flowers, then, finally into a quite shady spot.
This is where I thought about Boston’s sisterhood with Kyoto. Some of my favorite places in Boston are those somber, serene areas of the city where I can catch my breath. It seems Kyoto prompts the same reaction. Thankfully, these peaceful places are another trait that the sisters share.
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther