Published: April 25th 2012April 19th 2012
Last weekend I took myself off to Kyoto. I'd hoped to catch the sakura season before it ended, although as it transpired I was about a week too late. There was still the odd cherry blossom here and there, but most of the trees had shed their flowers and the famous night lit trees in Kyoto parks and temples had ended the day before I got there. It rained solidly for two of the three days I was there, and I also accidentally timed my trip for the same weekend when all of the schools in the area had a weekend visit to Kyoto (including the third years at my school!). Despite all this, I still really enjoyed my visit and absolutely love Kyoto.
The first morning I strolled along the Philosopher's Walk (Tetsugaku-no-michi), which is path along a pretty cherry-tree-lined canal between two temples. It was here I bumped into two of the teachers from my school, who weren't expecting to see me, and did an amusing double take, gasping "Victoria-sensei?!" and were quite surprised it really was me and not some look-a-like gaijin tourist. I'd wondered if I'd come across any of the school party - and if
they'd think I was stalking them or something!! The walk took about 45 minutes and afterwards I headed to the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) by bus. Kyoto is a vast city and the famous temples are spread out all over the place. It is not as easy to get around as Tokyo or Osaka as the metro is fairly limited. The main mode of transport is city bus, which is very cheap, but frustratingly slow - so you have to allow at least 40 minutes to get anywhere.
Kinkaku-ji was beautiful - the main pavilion is covered with a striking pure gold leaf and set next to a beautiful lake, surrounded by lush gardens. It was however, rammed with tourists and school groups, and raining, so people were jostling each other with umbrellas.....so I only stayed there for about half an hour before I could bear the crowds no longer and headed off to check into my capsule hotel.
My bijou accommodation for two nights, 9 Hours Teramachi
, pitched itself as a "designer" capsule hotel. Most capsule hotels are male only and aimed at drunken businessmen who miss the last train home and need a cheap bed for
the night. This place was spotlessly white and resembled some kind of futuristic spaceship. You deposit your belongings in a locker on one floor (where they have showers and changing facilities), change into the black pyjamas they provide, and then head up two floors to the women only capsule room. My capsule felt pretty roomy all things considered. The only tricky bit was they'd given me one of the upper capsules where you have to negotiate a rather precarious set of steps to climb up. But the capsule bed itself was comfortable - I felt snug as a bug in a space-age capsule cave. You can't use an alarm (as there are sleepers all around you in their little capsules), so the capsule has a special light system. You set the time you want to wake up, press the sleep button and the lights gradually dim and in the morning the capsule simulates day light to wake you up. The only downside with the capsule is you have to vacate it in the morning even if you are staying a few days and you have to re-check in later, which was a bit of a pain, but other than that
I'd give the place a resounding thumbs up.
I caught a wonderful show whilst I was there called the Miyako Odori
(Cherry Blossom Dance). It was performed at the Kaburenjo Theatre in Gion (the Geisha district). Every year the geisha (or Geiko as they like to me known), perform this dance to celebrate spring. People come from all over the world to see it as it is a rare opportunity in the year to see all the geisha. The costumes were amazing and the sets stunningly beautiful. You weren't allowed to take any photos during the performance, but I managed to get a couple of pictures of the geisha at a tea ceremony before the performance started.
On Saturday (the one day, thank God, it didn't rain) I went to Saihoji, also known as Koke Dera (the moss garden), a temple on the north western outskirts of the city. This was a temple I'd read about two years before and was very excited to go to. I had to write to the temple a few weeks before and ask permission to visit. They wrote back with a time for me to show. I wasn't sure how many other
people would be there because of this complicated process. I arrived at the temple gates about an hour early and pretty soon people started to arrive, from all walks of life - wealthy looking Japanese businessmen, a loud American couple, some french students. I was actually surprised at how many people were waiting at the gates by the time the monks came to open them - about 40 in all. The next stage, we were ushered into a large temple room after paying the 3,000 yen admission fee (the most expensive temple in Kyoto), where you sit on a tatami mat in front of a little writing desk. There you have a long Buddhist sutra (all in Japanese Kanji) to trace by hand using a calligraphy brush and ink, whilst the monks begin chanting loudly. It took me about 45 minutes to finish (you don't have to finish the whole sutra if you don't feel up to it, but I was determined to!). You then leave your sutra on an alter and are permitted to leave the temple and wander in the temple's gardens. The whole process is worth it to see the lush moss gardens, verdant banks and shady
willows, surrounding pools dappled with sunlight. With so many less tourists it also feels like a peaceful haven from the other popular temples.
Saturday evening I set out to find an obscure vegetarian restaurant I'd seen get rave reviews. As luck would have it, the place was a stone's throw from my hotel. It was hard to spot, tucked away down a tiny, dimly lit alley. You feel like you are walking into someone's messy living room, the place is so tiny and cluttered. Posters, photos and paraphernalia cover every inch of space. in the middle is a bar with stools, with enough room for about five people. When I entered an Australian couple where just finishing off their meals. The owner, an eccentric, cat loving women, then rustles you up a dinner set on a stove right in front of you, which was the tastiest Japanese food I've eaten so far. My dinner companion was a little cat, asleep on the stool next to me. A truly delicious and delightfully quirky eatery.
The rain returned Sunday, but determined not to let it put me off, I set off early to visit a temple in the south of
Kyoto, called Fushimi Inari. This temple is famous for its thousands of striking red torii, which stretch up a mountain pathway. There are also hundreds of small shrines guarded by stone foxes, sacred messengers of the rice harvest.
Next week is Golden week in Japan. This is a week with three national holidays, so a time when most Japanese people take a break, but sadly for me, makes it a very expensive time to travel. Consequently, I'm heading out of the country and off Beijing for three nights where my money will stretch a bit further. I'm very excited as this will be my first trip to China and I'll get to see the Great Wall at at Mutianyu. Must start practicing my chinese!! So far I only know nǐ hǎo (hello).
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