With Singapore at a standstill due to lockdown restrictions and other pandemic precautions, those of us who enjoy traveling have been left wanting, yearning for the days when we will be able to walk through a crowded airport with a spring in our step once more. But thanks to the many fantastic virtual tours now available online, a new era of armchair travelling has begun. Cultural institutions all around the world have opened their doors to curious digital visitors, but there is so much to choose from that it can be difficult to know where to start.
This is my experience on what armchair travelling via Zoom feels like, as I “travelled” to Gion district of Kyoto, Japan.
Booking an online tour amid the pandemic is incredibly easy. I picked one of the numerous trips available at Sistic and had a wide array of days and timings to choose from. On the day of my “visit”, I was asked to start the tour slightly later to time it perfectly with the setting sun in one of Kyoto’s iconic landmarks. As a weekday traveller, I had the unique opportunity of being the only one on the journey. I was thus able to enjoy a solo tour with my Japanese tour guide, who showed me around with her phone stand. The tour guide spoke excellent English and carried flashcards to provide greater detail into each of the landmarks I visited.
I visited Gion’s historic geisha district, which had more than 130 teahouses, and the tour guide explained the rustic lifestyles and arduous training geishas had to go through to become profitable. Did you know that Kyoto’s traditional teahouses only accept regular customers? There were famous spots such as Yasaka Shrine, Kenjin Temple and more, and I enjoyed the zen style gardens while the tour guide taught the history of Shinto-Buddhism in Japan. Most interestingly, the tour guide even helped me write a good luck charm at Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine. It was an amazing experience where she helped me write it in Japanese, allowing even foreigners to have their prayers placed in such a historic monument in Japan.
The tour then ended at the famous Yasaka street, which leads to the Five Storey Pagoda that ancient monks from all across Japan visited during their pilgrimage. With many Japanese wandering around in kimonos, it truly felt as if I had journeyed back in time. Gion district still retains much of 7th century Japanese culture and architecture, albeit the teahouses now housing modern shops such as Starbucks (which I saw thrice during my one-hour visit). It was a beautiful and mystic experience, and the journey soothed my desires of wanderlust to travel overseas. For now.