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April 29th 2013
Published: April 29th 2013
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Kyoto – City of Kimonos and Geishas

The trip to Kyoto was one hell of a challenge from Hiroshima. Not because it’s a difficult place to get to – in fact it’s a breeze on 2 Shikansens. However, this is how the day unravelled. Up well in time to go from our Hiroshima Hostel to the station by tram – an easy 20 mins? No way!! The driver seems to think that as it’s a Saturday why rush. He takes about 45 mins for the journey and we get pretty stressed as we might miss our train. We get to the platform with 5 mins to spare.

Then OMG – the train is late for the first time ever. They say 5 mins but it rolls in 10 mins late. Phew – we are on it anyway. We have a million things to do when we get to Shin-Osaka (before going onto Kyoto for our stay) so we have left a 2 hour window between the train journeys. We get to Osaka, then rush to Namba station by the Metro to buy our train tickets on a private line Nankai – Dentetsu (no JR pass here) to Koya San our next port of call after Kyoto. They have a Heritage pass ticket which includes Train, bus and cable car all for Y3310 each return. What they don’t tell you is that this is Express one way only and the unhelpful ticket sales guys says we can only book the return journey at Koya San. Thankfully we meet a really helpful woman working for the train line who tells us we can book the return here and takes us to the reservation desk & gets it sorted. It is here that we learn that we have to pay Y1550 more to get an Express (much quicker) on the journey back too.

Next task is money! We go back to Shin-Osaka station hoping to get to a Citibank ATM only to be told that the ATM in question is at another Osaka station which we have just passed. Boy the day is not going well. We give up as we have used up most of the 2 hours we have before we catch the Shinkansen to Kyoto. This trip only takes 14 mins and as we need some money we head straight to the Metro to get to a Citibank ATM in Kyoto. Then we go to the JR office to change a few reservations and book some others followed by the Tourist information office – very helpful folks - and only then do we catch the bus to our Hostel 25 mins away. We are so glad to get here (by 5.30pm) and we need a beer or 2!! Wow what a day.

The Hostel, Sakura Peace Hostel, is pretty well located in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto. However, after our experiences elsewhere in Japan we were very surprised at the poor quality of the accommodation given the price (the highest we have paid so far!). The amenities are pretty basic – it’s more like an old, tired Students Halls of residence on a small scale. The staff – Connor from Portsmouth & Jessica his boss from Taiwan – are pretty helpful, however, the place needs renovation and modernising desperately. There are shared facilities with no soap provided as the other hostels do. The kitchen area is crammed for space with dishes, cutlery, crockery (many cracked), and pans that have seen better days and should have been dumped a long while ago. The lights in various places don’t work or the bulbs are shot! The information available on local facilities is also quite basic. And the room looks like it hasn’t been decorated since it opened. Hey ho.

Despite the basic cooking facilities we do eat in a few evenings and enjoy a chat with the other travellers there – an eclectic mix who are quite fun. The local supermarkets do amazing squid and octopus very cheap which goes down a treat with noodles and greens, all washed down with schochu. We also try a place for a ramen dinner one night, Ippudo, which has a good reputation. The ramen soup with pork and egg is excellent. Unfortunately we also order a cold ramen dish by mistake – you dip the noodles in a thick gunky soup. Didn’t work for us!

At lunchtime, Nishiki Market in the heart of Kyoto is a great find. Known as "Kyoto's Kitchen" it’s a narrow, five blocks long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. It’s lively (though surprisingly quiet – the Japanese way!) and specializes in all things food related e.g. fresh seafood, pickled veg, a variety of food stuff, knives and cookware. It’s a great place to find seasonal foods and Kyoto specialities, such as Japanese sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi/shashimi. It’s a bit of a walk on the wild side given some of the food on display.

The main downtown is about 15 mins walk away from the hostel and has shopping malls/department stores & streets full of retail outlets and eateries including our favourite, Mos Burgers! Cutting through the city, the river, which is remarkably shallow and seems to be used as a community facility for locals to enjoy. Folks sit and enjoy the view, have picnics, cycle along it day and night. Also along the river are a multitude of cafes and eateries where folks relax and enjoy the views.

Surprisingly the Japanese tend to play English/US music rather than Japanese a lot – even on the streets where music is silently piped out. They seem to like Jazz a lot and there are a number of advertised live Jazz Bars in Kyoto and elsewhere.

We use Kyoto station quite a lot and discover it has two sides. An old suburban station (that we saw on arrival which looks really tired) and a sparkling new entrance which we think is the best designed Railway station we have come across anywhere in the world. It is modern, stylish, architecturally brilliant and you can go up to 10 floors by escalator with roof gardens at either end of the wide concourse and views across the city through clear glass which makes the night view look like a massive landscape photograph with all the neon lights on display. It accommodates Departmental stores, food halls, restaurants and cafes other than the JR Office and Tourist Information centre. It’s spotlessly clean, easy to navigate and customer friendly in every way.

The City Bus Service is Kyoto’s transportation life blood. It costs Y500 for a day pass which is great value for money if exploring all the sights, compared with Y220 per single trip. The subway system is limited to 2 lines one running North to South and the other East to West. The system is supported by suburban rail lines which ferry folks to many central and suburban locations at affordable cost (sometimes less than the bus fare).

One thing we notice is that the Japanese people seem to forget all their good manners and bowing etc. when getting on and off the bus. They forget to queue and end up pushing and shoving to get on. This is not helped by the way one has to pay for the ride. You have to get on at the back and pay at the front when getting off. So when the bus is packed, as it normally is, folks trying to get off have no choice but to shove their way through. Pretty daft for a nation who seem to us to have thought of most things in life to make it efficient and enjoyable.

Anyhow, the main reason we came here is because it’s supposed to be beautiful and historic. According to LP you could spend a month in Kyoto and not see all the sights. We have 5 days. There is a series of routes that the Tourist office has produced that take you around the main sights. Pretty good though the distances are deceptive! We visit a host of places (largely influenced by the sites that are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites! On reflection we are not sure this is a good criteria based on some of our experiences in India. At the risk of giving it away in advance – we are not sure that this criterion works in Japan either!!). Anyway the places, sites and areas we get to are:-

Kiyomizu Temple: this is an independent Buddhist temple not far from our hostel. The temple is a UNESCO listed site – deservedly so we feel. The temple was founded in 798, and its present buildings were constructed in 1633. There is not a single nail used in the entire structure apparently. It takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills. It’s quite impressive and we are fortunate to visit it on a Sunday when many Japanese families are here. A lot of women and men in traditional (and colourful) Kimonos and Hakama respectively. We also chance upon a small group of Geisha - novices we think, being supervised by a stern looking woman and take some pictures which they don’t seem to mind.

Ryoanji Temple: is the site of Japan's most famous rock garden, which attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally an aristocrat's villa during the Heian period, the site was converted into a Zen temple in 1450. Basically it looks like stepping stones in gravel and we are not sure what the fuss is about and why the UNESCO status?

Ginkakuji: (aka the Silver Pavilion) is another Zen temple along Kyoto's eastern mountains. It was built in 1482, as a retirement villa by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa and was apparently modelled on Kinakuji (Golden Pavilion - see below). It was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa's death in 1490. Today, Ginkakuji consists of the Silver Pavilion, half a dozen other temple buildings, a moss garden and a dry sand garden. We never did find out why it was called Silver!

Kinkakuji: (aka The Golden Pavilion) is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond and whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. The temple was the retirement villa of a shogun, which became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect on his death in 1408. The temple has burned down many times over the years so the present structure was rebuilt in 1955. Despite this, it’s a worthy Unesco site – though the Ikea-like one way route through the grounds is challenging with the hordes of other tourists there – especially when they decide to discuss corporate governance while standing in the prime photo spot!! Dorks or what!

Heian Shrine (aka Heian Jingū) has a relatively short history, built in 1895, on the occasion of the 1100th anniversary of the capitals foundation in Kyoto. Heian is the former name of Kyoto. A giant Torii gate marks the approach to the shrine, around which there are a couple of museums. The actual shrine grounds are spacious. The shrine's main buildings are a partial replica of the original Imperial Palace from the Heian Period.

Chion-in Temple: is the head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism (boy and we thought we had issues within the Christianity?), which has millions of followers and is one the most popular Buddhist sects in Japan. The Sanmon Gate, Chion-in's main entrance gate by Maruyama Park is massive and the main reason why we enter. The temple has spacious grounds and large buildings but unfortunately the main event is currently under renovation so we can’t see it.

As an aside, we have found quite a few sights under renovation and it’s amazing how they do it. The whole structure has a “shed” built around it while all the work is carried out in a protective environment. Also the timescale publicised for renovations seems almost like decades not a year or two?

Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo): was built in 1603 and used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city. Its palace buildings are reportedly the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan's feudal era. It has two moats – one outside and one within. The gardens are Japanese manicured at its best and the rock gardens quite nice. It’s also a UNESCO site but not worth it we feel.

Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji (the latter is currently being renovated so not worth going to see) are two large temples in the centre of Kyoto near the railway station.The worship Halls in Nishi are very impressive, immaculately decorated with lacquered wood and large lights in the prayer halls. The outside however, looks modern and soulless.

Toji Temple: meaning literally "East Temple” is from the Heian period just after the capital was moved to Kyoto in the late 700s. The large complex flanked the south entrance to the city and served as one of the capital's guardian temples. Toji Temple is another one of the UNESCO (this one warrants the status we feel) and has large wooden carved statues of the Buddha which you are not allowed to take pictures of in either hall which is a shame, and a five storey pagoda – the main image for this temple.

Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, was appointed head priest of Toji, and the temple has become one of the most important Shingon temples besides the sect's headquarters on Mount Koya where we also go to from Kyoto.

Yasaka – Jinja: is a large and colourful shrine in Gion, well worth a visit. It’s one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto, founded over 1350 years ago. We stop here purely by chance and it’s so much better than some of the UNESCO sites.

Fushimi Inari Shrine: is the head shrine of Inari (the Lucky Fox), located in Fushimi-ku, a short bus or subway ride from where we stay. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain also named Inari, and has trails of over a 1000 torii gates up the mountain to many smaller shrines. It takes up to 2 hours to explore and we don’t quite allow enough time so do about half the trip. Inari is seen as the patron of business; each of the Torii gates is donated by Japanese businesses who worship Inari for wealth.

Nanzenji Temple: Nanzenji is one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan. But we couldn’t tell you what it’s like as it closed early and we couldn't be arsed to go back!!

There are many other temples and shrines that we don’t get to see, though as we meander we also pass through (very briefly as slightly Templed out by now) Shoren-in Temple and Eikando Temple.

Maruyama Park: is a public park next to Yasaka Shrine by Gion. In the first half of April, when the cherry trees are in full bloom, the park becomes Kyoto's most popular and most crowded spot for cherry blossom viewing parties. We are there on a weekend and it’s packed with families enjoying a rare sunny day and the atmosphere is very carnival like with music and rides for the kids.

Gion: this is Kyoto's famous Geisha district. It is filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where Geiko (Kyoto dialect for Geisha) and Maiko (Geiko apprentices) entertain. Hannami Koji Dori is the main street for watching Geishas in the early evening rushing to work trying to avoid the hordes with cameras trying desperately to get a good shot. At times it all seems a bit paparazzi-ish!

One thing we notice as we wander around all the temples and shrines, is how many school kids there are (some with their teachers and others without). Initially we think some of them must be skiving off even in their uniforms – they all look pretty smartly dressed – till we realise that they have been sent out to learn about their culture, life in the neighbourhood and how much things costs (including catching a bus or train and buying things in local shops etc). Really impressive activity based learning. This we see on most weekdays and they have school on Saturdays as well.

Another facet of Japanese life is their pre-occupation with baseball. It’s on the front and back pages of the local “The Sun” look alike paper in Japan and in nearly every city we see a stadium with high, nets around to deal with all the home runs. The schoolplay grounds have kids practicing all the time. We had thought to try and see a game but don’t get the chance unfortunately. Maybe something to add to the list for the US when we go there.

Now, if you don’t get a hugely enthusiastic sense of Kyoto from this – it’s probably because we found it all a bit of an anti-climax. Yes it has some nice temples etc and Gion is lovely but the bottom line is it’s still a big Japanese city. You have to go there but ….

Takayama – The Spring Festival

We have decided to go to Takayama for the day to witness their Spring Festival aka Sanno Matsuri. It is supposed to be one of the top festivals in Japan and as we couldn’t get booked in here a few months ago we felt it might be worth a day trip from Kyoto on the JR railways given we have the JR Pass! It’s a day trip to the Japanese Alps – 3.5 hours (via Nagoya). The first leg is done on the Shinkansen and the second on a Limited Express train. We get there about 10.30 am however, as the trains are all reserved for the later return journeys on the day we will have to leave by about 3pm.

We arrive just in time to witness the Gojunka Procession which goes back to the 6th Century. It is associated with religious practice and belief in Japan, too complex to explain in a blog. The costumes are smart and unusual. There’s a prayer ritual at the end of the procession in front of the station. All very colourful and interesting – some good pictures in the making..

We then head into the town which is quaint Japanese, a bit touristy in parts but with its own charm. Lovely side streets of local produce - (mainly sake stores) and souvenir shops.

Further down the streets we come across the Yatai, which are elaborately decorated Floats which are taken through the town at the end of the first night lit up – if the weather is fine. If not the show is cancelled. They didn’t fare too well the night before.

It’s picture time and everyone who’s come to visit is here going mad taking photos. Not far away is a square where there are more decorated floats. There are also a number of street stalls selling all sorts of Japanese food – hot off the steamer or BBQ!

There’s a Karakuri Performance twice a day, however, as we have to leave early to catch the train we miss out on the show, however, the Marionettes look pretty good on the floats. While we stroll around enjoying the event and people watch it becomes clear that for some of the folks involved with the festival and floats treat the day as a Sake drinkathon – most are pissed by mid-day.

Of the street food we try Steamed buns filled with Hida beef (the local beef which is supposed to be really good, we weren’t convinced) and pumpkin (which was awesome). We then tried a Burger joint to try their 100% Hida beef burger – it was meaty but nothing out of the ordinary. C decides to try the Green Tea ice cream which we have seen all over. She says the taste grows on you (M says yuck after just one lick of the green stuff!).

We’ll be back here for a few days in a couple of weeks, so we leave the rest of the sightseeing for then.

Nara

We go from Kyoto to Nara which is famous for having 8 Unesco world heritage sites and is a nice town not too far away. Our JR Pass works here so it’s a free ride on the Rapid train which takes 44 mins. The journey to Nara takes us through lovely countryside and towns just outside the Kyoto area and the train looks like it is running literally through neighbourhoods with houses very close on each side.

When we arrive we find that Nara is really quite nice (probably helped by the sunshine as it’s the best day we have had in Japan so far weather-wise). It has some buildings which are different and stand out from any of the other towns we have visited. It’s relaxed and colourful.

After a brief visit to the local Tourist Information Office which they tend to have at every JR station in Japan (really useful as they provide maps and lots of information and have volunteers many of whom speak English – a fabulous free service for visitors) we make for the centre of town for a coffee at Doutors and then to the Kinstetsu Nara station about 10 mins walk from JR Nara Station from where an established walk starts which takes in all the main attractions of Nara.

We soon enter Nara-Koen, also known as the deer park as the town has about 1200 deer that roam free and are fed by tourist on “Deer Biscuits” conveniently sold everywhere by enterprising but camera shy Japanese folk.

The Kofukuji Temple is first on the route. It was established in 669. Unfortunately the main building of the complex is shrouded as they are undergoing renovation & will be till 2018!! There is a 5 storey Pagoda and a Hall with Bhuddha statues which can be seen.

We then chance upon the Yoshikien Gardens. It is named after the Yoshikigawa River, a small river that runs beside the garden. The entry fee to the garden is waived for foreign tourists (a first). There are three unique gardens within Yoshikien: a pond garden, a moss garden and a tea ceremony garden. So, a visit to Yoshikien provides the opportunity to see three different variations of Japanese gardens in one spot.

Just outside the gardens we see a “statue” of a cartoon style raccoon. We’d seen this too in Takayama but didn’t know what it was about. Apparently it’s supposed to be good luck for money. It has a hat which is for protection against trouble and problems, big eyes help to make good decisions, a sake bottle that represents virtue, a big tail is symbol of strength so success is achieved and finally an over-sized penis that symbolize financial luck. Boy only the Japanese can come up with something like this?

Next it’s the big one. The Todaiji Temple (aka "Great Eastern Temple") which is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The entrance to Todaiji is via the Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce looking statues. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world's largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall's size. The massive building houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu) at 15 meters tall, which is flanked by two Bodhisattvas.

We move onto the Niggatsudo and Sangatsudo Halls that are quite nice and places where various ceremonies are performed during the year. There is a “just married” couple in one being photographed – though they could be models given how disinterested she looks!

Next is the Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine which is much like a million other shrines in Japan – this one is Shinto apparently.

Then it’s the Kasuga Taisha Shrine which is Nara's most celebrated shrine. It is famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshippers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns are hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line the approach to it. The lanterns are lit twice a year for the Lantern Festivals which we can only imagine must make for a great sight.

There are many sub shrines in the woods around Kasuga Taisha. This includes Wakamiya Shrine, known for its dance festival, as well as Meoto Daikokusha, which enshrines married deities and is said to be good for matchmaking and marriage.

The rest of the walk is through deer parkland and is a very pleasant way to spend a sunny day.

For lunch we go to a local Bakery which does yummy sandwiches, pear & custard tart and almond and chocolate pastry which we have with coffee. One thing we have not commented on is the fact that at every meal you eat out you are first given wet cloths to clean your hands before you eat together with glasses of ice cold water (or in some places cold Green Tea). You can top up as much as you like. This is really great and can save you a packet in soft drinks.

We also chance upon a Supermarket which we go into for water and find that they have the most amazing looking Tempura for really low prices (Y60 to 80 each) and much better than we can get in Kyoto so we stock up as we had decided to eat in. Fish, squid, aubergine & octopus – yummy.

Koya-San – City of Pilgrims

We leave our hostel in Kyoto at 7.20am to get to Osaka on the Shinkansen as we have to catch the 10 am privately run Nankai Limited Express from Nankai Namba station (a suburban train station of Osaka) to Koya San. The train takes 1 Hr 20, the last 30 minutes through some beautiful scenery to Gokurakubashi station, its then onto a cable car (5mins) for a dramatic climb up the mountain to Koya San, then a bus into the centre of town.

Most folk who come here go to stay at a temple where you can eat and pray with the monks, and experience the monastic life. There are over 100 temples in Koya San. It’s pretty expensive though – around £70 per person though that does include breakfast and dinner. We find a guesthouse for half the price on Hostelworld which gets good reviews.

The Koya San Kokuu Guest House is 3 mins walk away from the Okunoin-mae stop. It’s a new hostel owned by a local guy and his wife. It’s a lovely place beautifully designed (reminded us of places in NZ); minimalist, ultra clean and functional as usual. The rooms are neat but the communal space and the bunk rooms (designed like capsule rooms) are great features. The guy lived in London for 3 years and has travelled India so we have plenty to chat about. He also provides loads of information about what to see and do and where to eat – though they also provide dinner which we decide to go for. Indian style curries - pork and chick pea with rice - cooked by a Japanese guy!

We arrived in glorious sunshine, but by the time we set off to see the highlights of the area it’s gone very grey and dull. Damn! We take the bus (our Heritage Pass ticket covers all bus journeys) into town, explore the supermarket and then go for lunch at a recommended place – Sanbo. It does nice rice and noodles with local mountain vegetables, tofu and tempura prawns. Next it’s off to see the sights.

First stop is Kongobuji Temple which is the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism. It has some attractive painted screens and some peaceful rock gardens. They shouldn’t be peaceful – this is where they normally serve the tea that is included in the ticket price but it’s started raining so the tea is taken indoors. We’re not sure why but somehow we don’t get to pay! Perhaps they think we are part of the big group of Korean tourists/pilgrims that go in ahead of us!

Unfortunately our weather check hadn’t shown rain so we have no umbrellas when it starts to rain, so we shelter a while to see if it will pass, then decide it’s here to stay so we might as well get on with it. We can dry out later.

Next stop is Dai Garan a complex of shrines and temples built by Kobo Daishi Kukai, the founder of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. The two main buildings to see are the Kondo – or great hall - which is a beautiful wooden hall, with a fabulous central altar – lots of lacquer ware, richly coloured banners and delicate paintings of bodhisattvas, and the Konpon Daito – a red pagoda which has an awesome altar with Buddha statues. It’s also very peaceful as the rain has deterred most visitors. We get a few photo’s around the complex and then head off for the bus back only to discover there isn’t another one for an hour!

We decide we might as well walk and take shelter where we can along the way. Good call. At the supermarket (we call in for some Sake to warm us up later!) they offer us umbrellas for free, and we get to see some great temples as we walk along the road. We also walk the final km back through the Okunoin cemetery which is awesome. They should have filmed “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or one of its sequels here! It apparently has over 200,000 graves and monuments, set amongst towering cedar trees along the hillside. It’s very atmospheric – most of the graves are old and moss covered, made of stone or wood and featuring small tori gates or shrines, though some of the graves are a little odd! Some of the big corporations have graves here (Panasonic, Nissan etc) with plaques or symbols to show who they belong to. The oddest is a shiny rocket tombstone. Product placement in a cemetery!!

We get back to the guesthouse just as they are lighting the wood stove, so we put our socks out to dry, warm some cups for sake and have a relaxing evening in.

The intention next morning is to get up at 5-30 and walk through the cemetery to the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi Kukai (Okunoin Gobyo) to hear the prayers and chanting of the monks. We wake at 3-00 to torrential rain so C turns off the alarm. We don’t fancy getting soaked for the experience. M still wakes at 5-30 though so we get up and pootle; it’s still raining. We’re enjoying our breakfast of fruit bread, ham and eggs and coffee as those who did go return bedraggled.

Later the rain stops and we just have time before we leave to go for a quick walk up to the Mausoleum. Mist is swirling around in the woods and there are many pilgrims heading the same way – wearing all white and with sticks with bells on. When we get there a full ceremony is underway in the Torodo (Lantern Temple) – monks chanting, lanterns lit, fires burning and the incense burning. It’s an awesome spectacle. Apparently they have this ceremony every month on the 21st as that is the date Kukai went into eternal meditation (his followers believe he will awaken when the next Buddha comes); great luck for us to be here.

So we dash back to the guesthouse, say our goodbyes and then head off for the cable car and train to Osaka and our onward connection to Kanazawa.


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