Kyoto - Countless temples and gardens...

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June 22nd 2006
Published: July 2nd 2006
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Kyoto, Japan's former imperial city and arguably the country's cultural heart, is supposedly home to over 2,000 temples and shrines. I wonder who counted them, and whether anyone has managed to visit them all... We certainly didn't! On our way from Beijing to San Francisco, we spent a couple of days enjoying Kyoto's sights and its laid-back atmosphere. After several weeks in China's big cities, the peacefulness of its temples and gardens provided a very welcome change of pace. Unlike before, I won't talk in detail about every place we visited. Instead I'll just sum up their names, and mention some of the highlights...

We arrived at Kansai-Osaka airport on Friday aboard an All Nippon Airways flight from Beijing, and left on Wednesday on a United Airlines flight to San Francisco. For what it's worth, I visited the following sights:
Saturday - Konchi-in, Tenju-an, Nanzen-in, Nanzen-ji, Heian-jingu, Shoren-in
Sunday - Arashiyama Monkey Park, bamboo forest, Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in
Monday - Nijo Castle, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple), Ryoan-ji, Ninna-ji
Tuesday - Fushimi-Inari Taisha, Nishi Hongan-ji

My personal Kyoto highlights were:

- Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in: This little shrine in the Higashiyama area of eastern Kyoto was pretty hard to find compared to other shrines in the area, but it was definitely worth the effort. The shrine is in a forested area, and includes a waterfall under which pilgrims pray. From the shrine, it's possible to hike several trails on the beautiful hillside.

- Fushimi-Inari Taisha: A shrine complex dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. A path lined by thousands of orange/red torri (gateways or arches) wanders 4km up the mountain through the surrounding forests. Every couple of hundred meters you come across beautiful shrines and cemeteries on the way. Almost every grave or shrine is adorned by miniature torri, as well as statutes of foxes (The fox is considered to be sacred messenger of Inari, the god of cereal grains).

- Arashiyama Monkey Park: In the park you can feed the monkeys which roam outside if you enter a cage. Seeing tourists locked up with monkeys hanging onto the fence outside was rather peculiar... Highlight here was the view of the city from the top of the hill, as well as spotting a couple of deer on the slopes.

- Meeting people in the Tour Club youth hostel: I met some of the friendliest people I've met on the trip at this hostel. Perhaps we were being driven closer together by the strict rules of the hostel, such as that lights had to be switched off at 23.15 and that you had to leave the common areas at 23.00! Of course the rules merely encouraged us to break them all...

- Trying to spot a geisha in Gion: Japan is famous for its traditional female artist-entertainers, geishas. Nowadays the number of geishas in Japan is falling rapidly, with the largest concentration to be found in the Gion district of Kyoto. The area itself looks very nice in the evening, but unfortunately we failed to see any of the famous ladies.

- Visiting a Japanese sento: Traditionally, Japanese people go once a day to a public bath house to get themselves cleaned up and to socialise. After undressing, you first wash yourself using a bucket, before entering one of a series of big bathtubs with varying water temperatures. Some also have saunas. Men and women are kept separate. When I went to the local bath house close to our hostel, I was surprised how people were all chatting away and seemed to be having a really good time. Whereas an English person might meet people in the pub, in Japan you walk into your neighbours while having a bath!

- Japanese food: Enough said... delicious!

Next: Crossing the International Date Line and arriving in San Francisco!

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