Kyoto, Japan… More Temples? Yes, please!

30 years ago, after I ‘blew off’ Osaka, I went straight to Kyoto. I remember it was a rainy April night when I arrived at the youth hostel pulling a suitcase and a carrying a large backpack (I planned to stay for a year). Upon checking in, I realized that I left my camera bag in the taxi– not a great way to end a first day in a new country. Thankfully, a few minutes later the taxi driver came through the door with my Canon AE-1– I look back and can feel the sense of relief– even today. I remember Kyoto, it seems like a really long time ago now, but, I only think I went to see Kinkaku-ji1 and Ginkaku-ji2… Maybe that was all that was listed in the 1988 version of ‘Lonely Planet – Japan’. Had the author even been to Kyoto? I thought I had seen the important places in Kyoto until my daughter Sara backpacked Japan a year and a half ago and told me that I had missed the good stuff…

After sightseeing at the magnificent Osaka Castle, we boarded the subway to the JR station for a train ride to Kyoto– the train was smooth and quiet– it felt like the train never touched the tracks and it wasn’t even a Shinkansen3.

The Kyoto JR station was extremely busy, and holy Batman there were a lot of tourists. I had in my heart of hearts kind of hoped maybe, just a little, the last typhoon would have scared some people off. No such luck, I was going to have to share Kyoto with thousands of my new friends.

Our guest house was walking distance from the JR Station which was very helpful and they let us check in early (thank goodness). There were beds; it was a huge relief to know that we would sleep well tonight.

Did you know Kyoto has over 1600 temples, 400 shrines and 17 UNESCO4 sites?

There is no shortage of things to see.

With only a day and a half in Kyoto we had to get going. We started our tour of Kyoto with a few of the big hitters– Fushimi Inari-jinja5 , Yasaka-jinja6, and Kiyomizu-dera7. The number of tourists, tour buses and school trips were incredible for us Canadians, it was so busy– it was like the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. We then walked back towards the center of Kyoto and found the canal near the Gion District8 and walked among the old buildings and walkways thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere.  The houses and buildings made of wood, were right out of a Samurai movie with Noren9, sliding doors and signs with traditional Kanji10. These attractions were lovely- dodging the tourists and school tours was a challenge, but I’m glad we took the time to see these places, they are terrific.

It seemed everywhere we turned there was a store renting kimonos all around Kyoto, and at the shrines and temples there were all sorts of people dressed up in kimonos and hakamas— it was quite a sight.  Now, these shrines and temples are not particularly Kimono friendly and there are serious hills to walk up to see these places which are often quite a ways apart– I can’t imagine hiking up in a pair of ‘geta‘ let alone ‘rental geta‘. Talk about sore feet (think fabric flip flops with restricted leg movement in the kimonos).

We had dinner at a Yakitori restaurant- no photos- it wasn’t very good- which is surprising for Japan. Sitting in front of the grill probably wasn’t a good idea – my ‘chef to be’ son was about to hop behind the counter and take over the operation.

Our beds at the guest house beckoned…  we went to bed early, knowing that tomorrow was a big day.

 

Today was an epic day– we spent 12 hours away from our guesthouse seeing as much as we could – should I count the hours or the sites? It was a four temple, one museum, one market, and one castle day. To be honest, I started taking photos of the names so I could keep it all straight.

Kyoto is really spread out, I suggest, as much as I don’t like taking taxis, take taxis otherwise you’ll lose a huge amount of time taking public transit. Start at the furthest out location on the day and work back towards your hotel. Divide the city up, East and West– and conquer. The taxi drivers can also be a good source of information, and, while they are pricey, I felt it was worth it since we only had limited time.

We started with breakfast, a really nice Japanese style breakfast with very nicely grilled fish– I had Salmon and Kei had Saba11— rice, pickles and tasty Miso soup– it was excellent.  Now the waitress didn’t speak Japanese, the customers were all foreigners, and half the cook staff were foreigners too- it was kind of like being in Canada. It was a bit of a surprise and maybe a sign of how things have changed since I was in Japan 18 years ago. The waitress didn’t know what to make of me when I started ordering in Japanese. In my defense, I didn’t know she could speak English, we were in Japan after all. That was a unique experience on this trip in Japan, but a surprise nonetheless.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not sure what the first temple was called– I think it was Higashi Hongan-ji, it was right beside our breakfast place–it was huge and probably important. Honestly, it  was tough keeping on top of it. We then hoped in a taxi and went to Kingkaku-ji12(the Golden Pavilion–surprise for the first person who can ID it in the photos below) . It is really pretty – with a very serene setting. We then walked to Ryoan-ji13– – the one with the famous garden (the kare-sensui– dry landscape- zen garden, it was lovely and peaceful. My very favorite temple of the day goes to Ninna-ji14– it was lovely. I enjoyed the walkways, and the gardens. Much of the temple area was under cover looking over the gardens- and it was raining outside– so the rain on the roof and the atmosphere of the temple was really special. I reminded me of some of the scenes from ‘The Last Samurai’. These temples are hundreds and hundreds of years old, truly historical monuments. These three temples are all reasonably close and you can walk from one to the other.  Kinkaku-ji was really crowded (go early), Ryoan-ji was somewhat crowded, and Ninna-ji was not very crowded at all.

On our way to find lunch (we were looking for Omelette-rice) and in usual Dave and Kei fashion we climbed up a small narrow hiking path going nowhere hoping to find something different . Well, we did. A REALLY creepy cemetery… Japanese cemeteries are creepy… Anyone watch ‘The Ring’? Keep a light on. A few blocks further we found lunch– I had a Omelette-rice with a rich curry sauce and Kei had a seafood  sauce on his– it was excellent. 

Hoping into a taxi we went to the Kyoto National History Museum where they had a special exhibit on Katanas15 and the history of the sword-smiths in the Kyoto area- it was really cool for my inner geek- Katanas from all over Japan–many of them national treasures – were on display – some from 1200 AD. The craftmanship was stunning– it was a truly unique opportunity. Unfortunately photos were not allowed, but there were Tantos16, Katanas, Wakazashis17 and Naginata18 blades– many stamped with the sword smith’s name.

We jetted off to Nishiki Market19 next which was a great covered market– Kei was getting more comfortable with his Japanese, I kept losing track of him and had to go back to find him speaking with a shopkeeper about some obscure Japanese cooking ingredient–I’m really proud of him for putting himself out there. The shopkeepers are really happy to speak with him and gracious when he made mistakes. I tried a whole fried baby squid brains and all… It was kinda gross, I’ll take prawn tempura any time over that. 

It was getting late, but I DRAGGED Kei to Nijo-jo 20 (finding A GREAT little coffee shop on the way) which had a special evening opening (the castle, not the coffee shop). It’s very unusual to see these historical sites at night. Nijo Castle was Tokugawa Shogunate’s Kyoto castle – it was really neat, hundreds of years old- right out of the Samurai movies. It was cool to walk on the same planks that the Shoguns of old walked over. The planks in the hallways are called ‘nightingale planks’ because when they squeak underfoot they sound like a bird singing– they really do. Nijo Castle is considered one of the finest examples of feudal period castle construction in Japan– I feel really fortunate to have seen this historic site.

 

The evening ended with us finding a little Izakawa in a back alley near the castle- just what we were hoping to discover – a small hole in the wall, where the patrons are surprised when a two Canadians walk in- these are the best places- authentic atmosphere, smells of fish and chicken on the grill, boisterous customers enjoying time with friends with great food. The grilled mackerel was terrific, as was the ika21, yakitori22, and oden23— the Sapporo beers weren’t too bad either.

 

 

  1. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
  2. The Temple of the Silver Pavilion
  3. Bullet Train
  4. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  5. This is the head shrine of the god Inari, the god of rice and the patron of business; some structures were built as early as 711 AD and the main shrine was built in 1499 AD. The highlight of this shrine are the thousands of red torii gates known as Senbon torii– around 10,000 torii gates are along the main path.
  6. Once called Gion Shrine, this is the Shinto Shrine in the Gion District of Kyoto. Initial construction started in 656 AD and was an object of Imperial patronage during the Heian Period.  Yasaka Shrine is the location for the world famous Gion Matsuri every July and for cherry blossom viewing in the spring.
  7. Founded in 778 AD, with many present buildings built in 1663 AD, this is a very popular temple– it is said that not one nail was used in the construction of this temple. On the grounds you can find the Jishu Shrine,the Otowa Waterfall along with other buildings.  There are many neat shops that you pass on the road up to this temple
  8. Developed during the Sengoku Jidai (1467 – 1600 AD), this area become one of the best known and exclusive Geisha districts in all of Japan and today has many shops and restaurants and occasionaly you will see a Geisha or Maiko (Geisha apprentice)
  9. Fabric signs over doorways into businesses
  10. Japanese Characters
  11. Salted Mackerel
  12. Officially called Rokuon-ji, but widely know as the Temple of the Goldon Pavilion, is a very popular sightseeing destination in Kyoto– rebuilt in 1955 after a fire, this pavilion looks over a lovely pond.  Overlaid in a gold leaf and a with a golden rooster on top, it shimmers in the sunlight and reflects beautifully off the water. There is a teahouse as well that you can enjoy before you leave the grounds
  13. Rebuilt in 1488 after being destroyed during the Onin-War-this temple served as a mausoleum for many emperors. There is some discussion as to the history of the rock garden, it seems like it was built in the mid 15th century with some changes over the years.  Best viewed from a seated position– avoid the crowds and try to go early
  14. Originally built in 886 AD, it was destroyed by fire during the Onin-War and rebuilt in around 1615 AD. Make sure you go to see the Goten (the former residence of the head priest)
  15. Japanese samurai swords
  16. Daggers
  17. Short swords
  18. Japanese halberds
  19. A five block long shopping street with over 100 shops and stores, many selling traditional Kyoto specialties like pickles and sweets, and alcohol, like sake (rice wine), ready to eat food, cooking ingredients, other stores. This market has been in operation for centuries and many of the stores have been handed down from generations
  20. Built in 1626, this castle was the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shogun’s– after the Meiji Restoration, the castle was returned to the Imperial Court
  21. Squid for you squeamish Canadians
  22. Grilled chicken on skewers
  23. Japanese one-pot dish consisting of several ingredients such as boiled eggs, daikon, konjac, and processed fishcakes stewed in a light, soy-flavored dashi broth

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