After experiencing the beauty of Mt Fuji, we headed by bullet train to Kyoto. We had managed to book an air Bnb conveniently located next to Tofukuji station, which is on both the JR line and the metro line. Our accommodation was cosy to say the least, consisting of one small room with traditional Japanese matting and mattresses on the floor, a small kitchenette, tiny balcony with a washing machine and a capsule bathroom. However, with accommodation prices in Japan generally fairly pricey it suited our budget needs and was extremely convenient for exploring the city. Kyoto is by far one of my favourite cites in the world. One moment you are walking in modern Japan and the next you are lost in the winding old streets of Gion. There is so much to do in and around Kyoto and a plethora of fantastic restaurants to suit all budgets, that I am thankful we had a week to spend there. One of the most lovely aspects of Kyoto is that Japanese tourists will come to the city and hire kimonos for the day, so the streets are filled with traditionally dressed people, creating an authentic ambience.
Tip: We found the visitacity app helpful for coming up with rough itineraries for activities and sites, although you often need far longer at some places then they allow.
There are far too many sites, markets and gardens to describe individually, but here are some of the main activities we got up to:
Due to the convenient location of our accommodation, we could hop on the Metro and get off at the next stop to start a lovely riverside walk. The walk took us up to the Gion district and along the way the river was flanked by traditional wooden buildings with street performers playing and people picnicking. Gion is a magical place, known as the entertainment area of Kyoto and the geisha quarter, but is also home to the Chion-in temple and the Silver pavilion. The traditional part has narrow streets, old wooden machiya merchant houses, tea houses (ochaya) and Japanese restaurants. It is beautiful for a stroll and is particularly atmospheric at night when the street lanterns come on and transport you back in time. We went to this area several times and each time would catch glimpses of geiko and maiko (what we know as geisha) in their beautiful kimono and platform zori sandals. We did attend a performance one evening down Pontocho alley, (a must see lively neighbourhood),where maiko and geiko put on a musical and dramatic show, however being in Japanese we did find it a little hard to follow the storyline! Unfortunately, no photograph can quite capture the mystery and charm of Gion but I tried..
Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine is easy to reach by the JR line and is definitely the most impressive site in Kyoto. The shrine was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake and makes for a lovely day excursion. If you have watched the film “Memoirs of a Geisha”, you will recognise these photos. The complex starts at the bottom of a large hill and consists of endless vermilion torii (shrine gates) snaking through the wooded hillside, with small sub shrines along the way and lots of stone foxes (considered the messenger of the god Inari). It really is an incredible place, but it is best to get up early to try to beat the crowds as it is popular.
This UNESCO world heritage site is known as the Pure Water Temple because of the waterfall inside the Buddhist temple grounds. It has a huge wooden stage that projects out from the main hall, supported by numerous wooden pillars and provides a beautiful view over Kyoto. The complex includes lots of other shrines, one of most amusing among them, the Jishu Shrine dedicated to a God of love and good matches. Here, two “love stones” are situated about 18metres apart and the idea is that visitors looking for love must successfully walk between the two stones with their eyes closed. If the other stone is reached, the pilgrim will find love. If the pilgrim had to be assisted this is taken to mean that a go between will be needed in their search for love. On a busy afternoon this provided entertainment in itself with girls shoo-ing other shrine visitors out of the way so that their friend could pass between the stones.
Arashiyama: Bamboo Grove and Monkey Park
One of the most photographed sites in the city, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove situated in the west of Kyoto is beautiful, despite being a lot smaller then I had imagined! The thick bamboo stalks tower high above you, creating a strange light and a tranquil feeling.
Across the landmark Togetsukyo bridge is the Iwatayama Monkey Park. After sweating our way up part of Mt Arashiyama, (it may only take 30 minutes, but it is a steep climb!) we reached the the top where the wild monkeys (Japanese Macaques) roam, seemingly oblivious to the tourists with cameras. There are several benches overlooking beautiful views of the city and for tourists who want to, they can take on the zoo animal role and go inside a wire hut and hold out food for the monkeys on the outside to take.
Tip: There are hardly any bins in Japan, yet it is the cleanest country I have ever been to. Make sure you take a carrier bag to carry your rubbish around as it can be a good twenty minute walk to find somewhere to dispose of it.
Kyoto is a fairly compact flat city, so we spent most of the week walking, which partly explains why we left Japan a lot lighter then we arrived! Using my lonely planet guide, we completed the northern and southern Higashiyama walks which encompass a huge number of temples and shrines along the way, (too many to name individually). It seems that every path leads to an amazing temple complex or hidden shrine, each with something different to offer then the one before. Japanese religion is dominated by a mix of Buddhism and Shinto and generally speaking, shrines are Shinto and temples are Buddhist. Luck, fate and superstition seem to be important to the people, with charms and fortune slips sold at these religious sites. It was on the Higashiyama walks that we were finally “templed” out after having seen about 20 in the space of two days! Check out the beautiful light show at the Kodai-ji zen temple if you are there at the right time of year – it’s worth the night time excursion for the illuminations alone!
N.B never eat potato on a stick. After craving some form of a potato this seemed like a good idea at the time, only to find it was potato stuffed with a block of butter and soaked in fat – yuk! Do eat green tea based dessert items!
Day trip to Nara
Nara is a town close to Kyoto that can be easily reached in under an hour on the JR line. It is definitely a must see attraction and is truly like stepping into another world. Tame deer run freely, happy for a stroke from a tourist and eager for a share of your lunch (they are protected and considered messengers of the gods). Me and Phil did succumb to buying the tourist rice crackers to feed the deer with and spent the day trying to find the scrawniest looking deer to feed up! If you bow at the deer, they will bow back!
The UNESCO site at Nara covers a huge area and includes some lovely gardens and beautiful paths leading through various temple complexes. Armed with our picnic, we were ready for a day of exploring. The main site at Nara is Todaiji Temple – the largest wooden structure in the world and jaw dropping does not even describe the sheer scale of it. Inside, along with a massive Buddha statue is a wooden pillar with a small hole at the base through which small children were climbing. It turns out that if you manage to get through the hole you will be granted enlightenment in your next life – sadly me and Phil were twenty years late to be able to pass through it! A well signposted walk takes you through a lovely forest flanked by stone lanterns and on to various shrines along the way. A beautiful day out and definitely a must see destination if you visit Japan.
Kyoto stole my heart, but after a week of exploring the enchanting town and eating delicious Japanese food, it was time to leave and continue our journey South….