Adventures in Asia: Kyoto, Japan

We took the train to Kyoto on the morning of February 24th. The trip, departing from Osaka, would only take 1 hour and cost us 440 yen (we had gotten a metro card for our week in Japan upon arriving in Osaka and so, each time, we just had to top it up). After we got there, we decided that we were going to see the sights in Kyoto that were a bit further away from the main downtown core; we wanted to get them all out of the way so we could stay closer to the city the following day.

We checked into our Airbnb (the cutest place ever that even had beds and a tea set on a traditional tatami mat), dropped off our luggage, and then took the bus to our first, much-anticipated stop of the day: the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.

This place felt magical. It felt like a little slice of heaven in Kyoto; it was truly like being in another world. You can see as many pictures as you want of the towering stalks of bamboo along the path in the bamboo grove but no pictures (or words) can sum up the feeling of being there, walking among the bamboo.

We took our time walking on the main path, looking up more than we were looking in front of us. I loved seeing the bamboo soar up into the sky, not really being able to see where the shoots and stalks ended. It gave me the feeling of being limitless. I’m not sure how long the path is but it didn’t take us too long to walk it. We reached the end of it at one point and then just turned to walk back through again, to get back to the entrance.

Close to the Arashiyama forest is the Tenryuji Temple so we decided to do this next (we had to pay the entrance fee). It’s actually the most important temple in the Arashiyama district and was ranked first among the city’s five great Zen temples. It was built in 1338 and was dedicated to the Emperor Go-Daigo. Fun fact: Tenryuji’s buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries. Most of the current halls actually date from the Meiji Period (1868 to 1912). However, what has survived all those centuries in its original form is the garden. In the middle of it all, there’s a central pond that is surrounded by rocks, pine trees, and the forested Arashiyama mountains.

We loved the lake. We had arrived on such a sunny day and everything sparkled. There was a perfect reflection on the lake of the opposing bank and given how nice the weather was, we just took our time to walk around the garden for a while, bathing in the afternoon sunlight. Even though it was still in the middle of winter and the trees still hadn’t yet blossomed yet, the landscape was picturesque. I kept imagining how much more beautiful this place would have looked if we had come during prime cherry blossom season. We did, however, get lucky enough to see some cherry blossom trees in bloom.

There was even a nice ravine/dam close by, a little outside the temple area and bamboo forest.

After our time in the Arashiyama district, we wanted to go to the Golden Pavilion but we realized that again, it’d be closing soon and we wouldn’t have enough time to bus there AND get a full tour of the place. Instead, we chose to visit the Nishiki Market, and even there, we only got to walk around for 15 to 20 minutes before it closed at 5:30 pm.

Nishiki Market is a narrow, five-block long shopping street that is lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. It’s actually known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, as it specializes in all things food-related and is a great place if you want to find seasonal foods and Kyoto delicacies. Despite the fact that we weren’t there for long, it felt a bit overwhelming because of how busy it was. You pass by so many stalls, each with salesmen beckoning you to come in or try some samples. You see seafood at one stall and then sweet desserts at the adjacent stall. It was a medley of everything and felt like a heavy assault on our senses.

We left after a while and decided to have ramen for dinner. At night, we decided to just walk around the Gion district (empty given that closing hours had passed) – specifically the Hanamikoji street – and the Yasaka Shrine. On the way there, we had some music to accompany us.

Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. It’s filled with shops, restaurants and teahouses (ochaya) were geishas entertain and make their appearances. Right now, I’m reading the fiction novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, and most of it takes place in the Gion district. In the book, I’m learning about the traditions for geisha, the schooling and training they go through, and how they learn to please men and the guests they entertain. It’s interesting to read now after having visited the actual Gion district, although it was completely empty at the time we were there.

The Yasaka Shrine, all lit up at night, was a sight to remember. It’s one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto and was founded over 1350 years ago. There’s a main hall and a dance stage. In my mind, I only remember the dance stage because of the dozens and dozens of white lanterns it had hanging from the top. There’s something so charming and so captivating about seeing a white Japanese lantern lit up at night against the black night sky. It was a good sight to end the day off.

Day 2

Day 2 in Kyoto (our last day) was a busy day for us. We decided to get an all-inclusive bus pass for the day, which was worth it considering we’d be taking more than 3 to 4 trips on the bus. It ended up being very helpful because we weren’t stressing about the money with each bus ride. The Kyoto bus system charges per ride and the fare doesn’t vary based on distance so if you were to ride it just one or two stops, it’d be the same price as riding it for 10 or 20 stops.

We left our Airbnb before 7 am that day (crazy, I know). But we had good reason to do: we were going to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. You’ve probably seen photos of this place if you’ve ever seen photos of tourist hot spots in Japan. This shrine – a very important Shinto shrine –is famous for its thousands of red gates that make up a network of trails. These trails lead into the forest of Mount Inari, which is 233 meters high. In total, there are 32,000 gates and sub-gates; people have called it a gateway to more gates. You walk through one and there’s another. Just when you think you’ve reached the end, you can look left or right and there might be another trail of them.

We decided to go incredibly early because we heard that a lot of the tourists tend to show up at around 8:30 or 9 am. We wanted to get there before the rush started so that the trails didn’t become crowded and so that we could take great pictures. I don’t regret having to wake up extremely early that day at all; the pictures we got and the emptiness that we enjoyed on our hike was the best. It was so empty that we often had to wait a few minutes to ask somebody to take a group photo with all 6 of us, just because there was nobody on the trails.

As I mentioned before, the gates lead up and up the sacred Mount Inari. The hike to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours. For us, it took us around 2 hours from what I can remember. It was actually a pretty strenuous hike, for how early it was in the morning. I think by the time we were done, it was barely 9 am and we already had logged 10,000 steps. At some places, it can get pretty steep and I felt winded but it was all so worth it. I loved the silence of the early morning. I loved seeing nobody else on the trail, other than my other 5 friends. I loved passing through gate after gate, enjoying the fact that they never seemed to end. There was a feeling of peace in all that.

After about 30 to 45 minutes of walking up the mountain, you’ll eventually reach the Yotsutsuji Intersection, which is roughly halfway up the mountain. Here, you get some nice views of Kyoto and a chance to catch your breath. It made for a great photo op. A lot of people choose to stop here and turn back but of course, we wanted to hike the whole thing and so, we kept going. It did get steeper and more strenuous the further on we pushed, but it wasn’t impossible to climb. We definitely got in all our steps for the day, and the day had barely started.

As we were coming back down the mountain, it was close to 9 AM and already, there were significantly more people than when we saw it at 7:30 AM. So, if you choose to visit in the future, I’d definitely recommend going before 8 am so you have time to enjoy everything without all the tourists.

That whole morning – the early morning wake up, the red gates, the hike and the trails, the mountain – stands out so much in my mind. Just like our time at Nara, it was one of my favourite moments during that whole week in Japan.

We had some breakfast near Fushimi-Inari and then took a bus to Kiyomizu-Dera (Pure Water Temple). It was founded in 790 and today, it’s one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites (We kept making a joke during that whole trip that everything seemed to be a UNESCO world heritage site).

This temple is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall, 13 meters above the hillside below. The main hall, with the stage, was actually built without the use of a single nail. I found that to be astounding. You had to pay to access this main area and we decided we just wanted to see it from afar. What actually stands out the most in my memory is a three-storied pagoda, which you can see outside the paid area. Its vermilion colour was so bright against the sky and made it stand out against the landscape.

During our time in Kyoto, we saw a lot of Japanese ladies dressed up in kimonos. They had their hair done and were wearing traditional wooden shoes. Their kimonos were beautiful and each had different patterns, designs, and colours. You can actually choose to pay to rent one for the day (I remember seeing a sign that said the rentals were 3000 yen) and dress up for pictures. A lot of women in groups would do this and we also saw a lot of couples do this, with the male in the men’s traditional wear. I was obsessed with all the outfits and was trying to sneak photos every chance I got.

Next on our itinerary was the Imperial Palace and the Nijo Castle. Unfortunately, it was the Emperor’s Birthday that day we were in Kyoto and so, the Imperial palace was closed. Nijo Castle also had a very pricey admission fee and so, we chose to not go in.

Instead, we decided to head to the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji). This is a Zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It sits on a very calm pond and so, the reflection of it in the water is beautiful. It was cloudy that day so the gold leaf only stood out even more against the gloomy sky. This golden pavilion has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War and once more again recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a monk. The structure that stands there today was rebuilt in 1955. That whole setting was so serene. We fell in love with ponds on that trip – they just somehow made every landscape better.

We visited 2 other shrines before heading back to Airbnb before dinner: Hirano Jinja Shrine and Kitano Tenmangu Shrine (which is commonly visited for its vendors and snacks). At the latter, we just walked around and I got to observe a lot of people performing the common Japanese prayer ritual. I saw people clap, throw in money to a donation box, bow a certain number of times, and then ring the bell.

On the way home, we walked along the riverbank.

For our final dinner in Kyoto, we opted for sushi (of course). We chose the most tucked-away place on a street that was close to our Airbnb (I still have the business card but don’t know how to type the actual address or translate the name of the place). It ended up being a fantastic dining experience and again, had such a home-kitchen feel. We were seated at this cool bar-like area, which was right in front of where the chef did his cooking. We each ordered the same set of sushi; it came with some sashimi and various types of sushi, ranging from salmon to tuna, etc. We were all given a huge slab of ginger to start (as an appetizer?). The chef – a friendly elderly man – made all our sushi “behind the bar” and when he was done each piece, he’d put it on the bar in front of us. We ate them right off the bar. Everything tasted amazing, and I loved seeing the chef make it in front of us.

That wraps up our Kyoto trip. The next morning, we’d be taking the famous Japanese bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo. We only had a little more than 3 days left in Japan; it was all flying by so quickly. But there was still so much good to come.

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