Takayama + Kyoto, Japan
We reached Kyoto via a night's stop in Takayama, a mountain town where we (finally) biked through rice fields, hiked the surrounding hills and found a surprising nod to Americana. Takayama's old town is lined with wooden buildings from the Edo Period which look as if carved from one continuos piece of cypress. Some of these places have operated in the same way for centuries, while others hide "modern" surprises. At the back of one unassuming nicknack shop we discovered a tiny burger joint (with a garden) that quietly spun Johnny Cash and was covered with American relics
Also recommended: Breakfast at Cafe Don, a sweet spot for morning grub with a locals-only vibe; Sakura Guesthouse, a simple lodge where we spent the night, a short walk away from the historic Hida Village.
Kyoto, our next major destination was a sight to behold, meeting all of our inflated expectations. In many ways Kyoto felt more busy and bustling than Tokyo, and visitors to the city were especially apparent. So much so, that we spotted friends from Toronto on the street (we had no idea they were in Japan) and got over our shock with copious Asahis at Cafe Gaea (aka Rei's bar). And while we preferred wandering through the stone-paved lanes of the eastern Gion, out of the way shops and tea houses, and smaller shaded temples (partly as a plot of stay out of the scorching sun), the big tourist destinations certainly had their charms. Infamous Pontocho Street sparkled at night, drawing visitors into its pricey establishments with red lanterns and promising smells; busy Kawaramachi, the main shopping drag, awed with stylish crowds and stores that shone like mirror-balls; The Heian Shrine was glorious at sunset; Nijo Castlestood firm with quiet splendour.
But at the Ryōan-ji rock garden and Kinkaku-ji golden temple the crowds were suffocating, overwhelming both the scenery and us. Far from zen, let's just say that. On those days, the Kyoto Imperial Palace gardens offered a much-needed solace, so vast and lush that they were never too crowded or hot.