Weekend in Kyoto

Here’s the third instalment of our recent adventures in Japan.

May 8-10, 2015: Not long before our trip to Japan, we met a young Philippines Navy officer named E during an outing in Olongapo. (I’m guessing his parents didn’t name him E, but that’s the name he gave us. Very James Bond-esque.)

When E learned we were heading to Japan, he told us we absolutely, positively could not miss out on seeing Kyoto. He was so insistent that we promised him we’d do our utmost to try and get there. Others we talked to, like our Ozzie friends Greg and Janise off the sailboat Windchimes (who were sailing from Japan to Subic just as we were heading the other way), had similar praise for this ancient capital of Japan. We couldn’t very well pass up this opportunity… especially when it meant we’d get to ride on the Shinkansen, otherwise called the bullet train. So on Friday afternoon, we bought our tickets and found our way to the platform at Tokyo Station.

We boarded a Nozomi series fast train bound for Hakata. It can reach speeds up to 300 kilometres per hour, although we were only able to clock it at 279. The trains are clean, quiet, comfortable and spacious. You certainly get a lot more legroom than you would on a plane. But one thing they are not, is cheap. Return tickets to cover the 512 kilometre stretch were almost $300 a piece. Although the countryside zips by outside your window, you don’t really feel like you are travelling so fast until you arrive in Kyoto in just 138 minutes.

From the station in Kyoto, it was a couple of blocks south to our hotel. After checking in and dropping off our bags, we set out to explore the area.

These are the highlights of the places we visited during our weekend in Kyoto. There are so many historic temples and sights of interest here, including 17 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto that have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Far too many to see and appreciate in just two days. So we tried to pick vastly different places that would give us a good sense of the variety.

Gion District & Kamagawa River

The same Suica rail card that we purchased in Tokyo worked on the metros, trains and busses in Kyoto too, making it super easy to get around.

Our first stop was the historic Gion district. Gion is Kyoto’s famous geisha district. We kept our eyes open for geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) as we wandered the streets in the area, at one point spotting several performers as they rushed out of one establishment ahead of us and made their way down the street.

We wandered along Hanami-koji street to Kenninji temple, then up the hill to the Yasaka pagoda, guardian of the town of Gion. We ambled along the willow lined Shirakawa Canal, peeking into tiny restaurants and shops along the way. We crossed the Kamagawa River and wandered along the colourful alleyways along the other side.

When it came time to eat in Kyoto, we were completely overwhelmed. There are literally hundreds of small, medium and large restaurants located down small alleys off either side of the Kamagawa River, some with large decks overlooking the river itself. Did we want Kobe beef? Sushi? Okonomiyaki? Nabe? Some places were decidedly too touristy. Others didn’t have English menus. We finally opted for a small but busy eatery that specialized in assorted meats on sticks along with an array of deep fried dishes, noodles and soups. We ordered by looking at what the people around us had. Luckily for us, one of the staff, a student from China, spoke enough English for us to get by, as our Japanese was in serious short supply.

We returned to this neighbourhood again on Saturday evening. This time we broke up our dinner into separate courses at three different restaurants spread out over several hours. What fun to try so many different tastes. We’ll have to add a separate blog post just about the food in Japan.

We even took a stab at sake tasting at a small hole in the wall along the Kamagawa River. There is a lot of sake made around Kyoto and we had no idea where to begin. Sake is a type of wine that is distilled from rice. It is not something I’ve ever enjoyed sipping, probably because I’ve always thought it tasted more like a spirit than wine. While most red wines have an alcohol content around 12-14 per cent, sake is normally around 17-20 per cent. The knowledgeable servers pointed me in the direction of a lighter sake with 13 per cent alcohol and served it cold. I always thought sake was meant to be served hot, another factor I never liked because it really brings out the alcohol. I found the cold, light Kamokinshu sake from Hiroshima very pleasant to taste. Chris tried a local unfiltered, unpasteurized sake with equally good results.

Nishiki Market & Teramachi

I love food markets and Nishiki Market didn’t disappoint. The long pedestrian only, narrow street stretched for several blocks under the protective cover of colourful arcades in the downtown Kyoto area. Tiny food shops lined either side selling every imaginable Japanese delicacy. It wasn’t much more than an alley really, so at times the crowds stopping to gape at preserved vegetables or fresh fish made for slow going. There were so many unusual offerings that I was in a constant state of wonder. It was particularly pleasing to see the market vendors taking such great pride in displaying their food.

Nishiki runs perpendicular to Teramachi-dori and Shinkyogoku-dori, two more busy arcade covered streets clustered with restaurants and trendy shops selling everything from clothes and games to souvenirs and religious supplies.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha

The sky was overcast and there was a slight drizzle when we reached Fushimi Inari on Saturday morning. This ancient Shinto shrine, which predates the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794, is located at Mount Inari. Inari is the Shinto god of rice. As we wandered the trails behind the shrine, we kept spotting fox statues. Foxes are the messengers of Inari.

Where else can you hike in a forest through thousands of bright orange torii gates? On the back side of each of the gates, the name of the donor and a date are inscribed. It costs between 400,000 and one million yen to commission a gate (about $4,000 to $10,000).

Part way up, we came to the Yotsutsuji intersection with views overlooking Kyoto. Beyond this point, a circular trail heads up the summit and back down the other side. Many visitors only make it this far, but we continued on to the peak. It was much more peaceful on this part of the trail, with fewer gates to interrupt the views of the surrounding forest. We even spotted new areas being readied for further shrine development.

On the way down we passed a search and rescue team at one of the small rest areas along the way. Just afterwards we stopped ourselves for a cold refreshment at a small kiosk and watched the people, young and old alike, making their way up and down the trails. It wasn’t long before the rescue team passed us carrying an elderly gentleman in a stretcher with his worried family trailing behind.

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle is one of the 17 UNESCO sites. It was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns. The site is surrounded by a large moat and a high wall. Inside, another moat and wall encloses the Honmaru Palace (main circle of defense) and its gardens. Between the two walls sits the Ninomaru Palace (secondary circle of defense).

We arrived about one hour before closing on Saturday afternoon. A loudspeaker was encouraging visitors to head directly to Ninomaru Palace, where we had to remove our shoes to wander through the five interconnecting buildings. The so-called “nightingale floors” of the corridors squeaked like birds as the crowds walked over them. This wasn’t merely creaking of old wooden floors. The builders had actually designed them in such a way so they would protect the Shoguns from sneak attacks. Interestingly, the replaced sections of the floors did not squeak.

Kyo-o Gokokuji Temple (Toji Temple)

Toji Temple is another of the UNESCO sites in Kyoto. In 794, when the Japanese capital moved from Nara to Kyoto, two huge guardian temples were built on the east and west sides of the main entrance to the Imperial City. The west temple no longer exists, but Toji (which literally means east temple) has survived.

The site is surrounded by a high wall with several gates on each side. On Sunday morning, we entered through the impressive Nandaimon Gate (south gate) and first came upon the Kondo (main hall), the largest structure. After making our way along another inner wall past the Kondo and the Kodo (lecture hall), we finally found the ticket office.There are several ticket options depending on which parts of the grounds we wanted to see. We opted for the basic ticket, which provided entry to the gardens and pagoda, but not the Kondo and Kodo.

In 823, the Emperor Saga gave the temple to the monk Kukai. He turned it into a Shingon Buddhist seminary. Over the ensuing centuries, the buildings have been damaged by earthquakes, fires and typhoons, but were rebuilt to retain the original layout and architectural styles. It is an active seminary to this day.

We wandered through the beautiful gardens surrounding Hyotan Pond, taking endless photos of the five-storied pagoda, nestled in the corner of the grounds. The pagoda houses relics of the historical Buddha and as luck would have it, it was open on the day of our visit. It is usually closed to the public. Inside we spotted the four Buddhas surrounding the main pillar. This pagoda is the highest in Japan, measuring 55 metres tall. It has burned down four times since it was first built in the 9th Century, sometimes after being struck by lightning. That would explain the red water buckets we spotted near the gate, although how six buckets would protect these wooden structures from fire was beyond my comprehension.

Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)

One tourist brochure called Kinkakuji a “magnificently beautiful golden temple that manifests Gokuraku Jodo, the land of perfect bliss.” Another UNESCO site, Golden Pavilion was originally built as a villa and guest house in the late 1300s by Yoshimitsu, the third Shogun of the Muromachi period. Upon his death, the villa was turned into a temple. The upper two stories of this Zen Buddhist temple are covered in gold foil on lacquer. A shining phoenix stands atop the peak of the roof.

To get to Kinkakuji, we had to take a bus from Kyoto Station as there isn’t a train or subway station nearby. This temple is located quite far out from the centre of the city, nestled in the hills at the northwestern part of town.

Across the Kyokochi pond is the best viewing area of the temple…and the place where all the tourists juggle for position to take their selfies with Golden Pavilion in the background. We followed along with the hordes on the one-way circuit that led from the viewing area, around the pond, past the temple, through the grounds, up the hill, past another pond to the tea house, the shops and the exit. Not to say that it wasn’t worth it. It is a spectacular place, but not quite as relaxed as the official guide pamphlet described it: “A pond garden designed for strolling.”

Ryoanji Temple (Rock Garden)

After walking for about 20 minutes from Golden Pavilion, we arrived at the grounds of the Ryoanji Temple, another UNESCO site that was originally a country home of the Tokudaiji clan before being converted to a Zen training centre.

The highlight of this large complex is the Karasansui dry garden. Measuring just 25 metres from east to west and 10 metres from north to south, the garden contains only 15 rocks surrounded by white gravel. The walls of the garden are made of clay that was boiled in oil. Over the centuries since the garden was built around 1500, the oil has seeped out of the wall, leaving behind the designs seen today. Visitors cannot enter the rock garden, which is meticulously maintained. Instead there are rows of steps along the veranda of the temple and everyone sits there for a spell to contemplate the garden and life.

By now we were running out of time and had no idea how far we were from the bus stop, so we hopped in a taxi for the ride back to our hotel. On a side note, I loved the taxi drivers in Japan. They are often dressed in suits and look quite dapper. We even saw one older gentlemen get out of his car at a red light in Tokyo and pick up trash along the median. What great civic pride! That might help explain why the streets in Japan are so clean. But I digress. At the hotel, we grabbed our bags and walked back to the station to catch our late afternoon Shinkansen back to Tokyo, arriving in time for dinner.

Two days only gave us enough time to hit a very few of the highlights of Kyoto. I guess that just means we’ll have to go back one day to see what else we missed.

Part four of our Japanese adventures is up next. We’ll take you with us to see a very different kind of Japanese culture. Sumo wrestling! Stay tuned.

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