Hello loyal readers!
Our sincere apologies for being so absent recently! In the last month or so Tamago and I have both gotten new jobs so it’s been really busy here in the land of the rising sun.
However, I have finally found a spare afternoon to compose a long overdue blog post on our March trip to Kyoto!
Kyoto is the ‘old capital’ of Japan and is generally acknowledged to still be the cultural capital. Unlike Tokyo, which was bombed to smithereens during the war (which we don’t mention), Kyoto was spared by the allied forces, probably because it is so rich in history. This means that Kyoto is filled with beautiful old buildings and shrines that are hundreds of years old and when you wander the streets there, you get a sense of what old Japan would have been like.
Tamago and I had three and a half days in Kyoto which was enough time to do a whirlwind tour. We hit up all the major tourist spots including the Fushimi Inari Shrine which is famous for these red gates called torii:
Needless to say they make for some pretty special photos. The shrine is located on a small mountain and you can either do a short walk up and back or you can choose to walk around the mountain which takes maybe and hour and a half total if you don’t detour (which Tamago usually insists upon). As you can guess we elected for the scenic route which was well worth the extra time.
Tamago and I stayed two nights in a hotel in the main part of Kyoto which was really conveniently located and had very helpful staff. I would definitely stay there again, however the true highlight of our trip to Kyoto was staying in a Japanese ryokan (guesthouse). We booked our stay at Uronza with a small amount of trepidation, probably because there is a list of rules for guests a mile long. Notably if you are ‘weak to cold’ it is recommended that you don’t stay there as the heater has to be switched off at night, seeing as it’s a wooden house and all. When we got there we had a modest but beautifully kept traditional Japanese room complete with tatami mat floor, surprisingly comfortable futons and funky Japanese windows. The building is over a hundred years old and is looked after by the English speaking proprietor who I really wouldn’t want to cross but who was very helpful and lovely to Tamago and I. It did have shared bathroom facilities but these were really nice and very clean so it wasn’t a problem at all. Especially for under $60 a night!
At the entrance to Kiyomizu Dera.
While in Kyoto we also visited Kiyomizu Dera (or Kiyomizu Shrine), another hugely famous shrine in Kyoto which dates back almost a thousand years. The present structure was built in the 1600s. Here’s the kicker about Kiyomizu – there is not a single nail used in the entire building. And it’s a 13m high wooden structure. Fairly impressive. I recently discovered that there used to be a practice of jumping from the main temple stage and if the jumper survived they would supposedly have their wish granted. Apparently this practice is now banned. Go figure.
Kiyomizu has a natural spring nearby from which it gets it’s name and the streets nearby are bursting with pottery shops (some good and some not so good) selling some exquisite pottery. Tamago and I did some serious shopping here and bought a tea set and a sake set. It’s worth noting that most shops will post your purchases home for you or you can take them to the main post office in Kyoto where they will be wrapped unbelievably carefully and posted home for you.
Girls dressed up as geisha near Kiyomizu. We’re pretty sure they weren’t ‘real’ geisha as it’s incredibly rare to see proper geisha. We did however go to Gion one night, a district in Kyoto famous for geisha spotting and we saw a Maiko, or geisha apprentice, on her way to an appointment!
Unfortunately we were a couple of weeks too early for cherry blossom season in Kyoto however we did catch some plum blossoms which were just beautiful. Blossom viewing is an extremely popular activity in Japan, particularly cherry blossoms which are called sakura. The sakura is the national flower of Japan and for the two weeks when the flowers are in full bloom, hanami or cherry blossom parties rage in parks and shrines around the clock. People get together to have picnics and drink sake under the beautiful flowers. Tamago tells me that the junior employees of companies are often sent out in the mornings to stake out a good spot and they have to sit there all day saving the space for the senior employees. All I can say is that I can think of worse ways to spend a Friday!
Tamago and I also went to the Golden Temple or Kinkakuji and we’re sad to report that we didn’t think it was worth the trip out there. Even though the original temple dates back to the 1300s, it burned down in the 1950s so the current temple isn’t especially old and it seemed pretty gaudy to us. However, it’s still one of the most visited temples in Japan so maybe we’re just Philistines.
We also spent a really nice day visiting some museums in central Kyoto including the International Manga Museum (for the uninitiated, Manga is Japanese comic books) and the Museum of Kyoto which were both excellent. A highlight was seeing an exhibit of works from Manga artists from around the world done in response to the March 3 earthquake and tsunami last year. Some of the pieces were just stunning.
This is a photo of the new Kyoto train station. If you catch the shinkansen from Tokyo (like Tamago and I did) this is where you’ll end up. It’s pretty bloody impressive and HUGE. Tamago was particularly enamored of ‘Ramen Alley’, a collection of about 12 ramen shops selling ramen from all over Japan. Yum!
In terms of logistics, Tamago and I booked our shinkansen through japanican.com, a website specifically for non-Japanese people which often has special deals on accommodation and transport to places all over Japan. Included in our ticket was a ‘one day pass’ which allowed us to take unlimited rides on subways and buses for one day. These can also be purchased from the Tourist Information Centre located near Kyoto Station (see above). We took buses to Kinkakuji and Kiyomizu but to get to Fushimi Inari Shrine you need to take an above ground train. The museums we went to were in central Kyoto so they were either walking distance or subway rides.
Trip to Kyoto: very highly recommended!