Kyoto, Japan

by - February 27, 2014

Day One: Downtown and Arashiyama

The trip started with a 1.15am flight from Hong Kong to Kansai Airporrt with the slightly dubiously named “Peach Aviation”.  Just about the most inconvenient time that I have ever flown, I landed at about 6am and made my way from Kansai to Kyoto.  As we (I was set to meet others on the way) were planning to use trains a lot, we opted to get a “Japan Rail Pass” which essentially gave unlimited access to the vast majority of the rail network during a one week period.  The pass, available only to foreigners, had to be ordered beforehand and activated upon arrival.  The journey to Kyoto took about 50 minutes and was totally painless, so I checked in at the Piece Hostel where I would be staying and began sightseeing.

Nishi Hongan-ji Temple
My hostel was located near to the station and from here I made my way north, passing and entering two key temples on the way – the Nishi Hongan-ji and Higashi Hongan-ji.  The latter of these was apparently the largest wooden building in the world but was covered in a ridiculously comprehensive scaffolding unit for repair works – creating a cladding that was so total that I actually thought the building was a factory.  As it stands it looks like the monks are batching cement on the side.  The weather wasn’t tremendous at this stage, but I decided to persevere and carried on north, towards the Imperial Palace Park.  Kyoto was the capital of Japan for a long period of time and the palace is still the location of coronations for new Emperors (the Emperor of Japan is now a ceremonial post, but it is the longest continuous royal line in the world).  Entry to the palace requires special permits, which I did not have the time to pursue, but the grounds of the park are open to the public and were a great place to sit and eat supermarket-bought sushi amongst the trees that remarkably were still bearing coloured leaves from across the autumnal spectrum – despite it being mid-December here.

Nijo-jo, Kyoto
The major sites in Kyoto are actually not in the city centre and are in the hills that overlook the city on the outskirts and as a result I was keen to get an overview of the centre without spending too much time there.  I had one last place that I wished to visit however – the Nijo-jo castle which was home to a Tokugawa shogun and is a network of fortifications, palaces and temples that are preserved as a museum.  One of the most interesting things in the museum was the flooring, which whistled as you walked shoeless on the floorboards.  The whistling is actually designed by squeezing floodboards closely enough together that the air whistles out through the small crack when they are stepped on – a feature that the Japanese call a “Nightingale floor” and was used as a security measure. 

the Bamboo Grove
Having seen a lot of the inner city sites, I made my way to a suburban rail station and travelled west to the Arashiyama district.  The brief journey was free with my rail pass.  The Arashiyama district is one of the key historical areas of the city and is home to UNESCO World Heritage Site (of which Kyoto has a massive 17) temples spaced amongst a bamboo grove, one of the surrealist places I had ever visited.  Somehow the dead straight lines of the bamboo, as well as the hollow “knocking” sound that they make as they bump into each other in the wind (like a wind-chime), give the area a slightly spooky feel.  The temples themselves were well worth visiting too and, situated amongst autumnal trees, I almost felt that I was back in the Lake District or Scottish Highlands.  This in itself is a weird experience as up until this point I had only visited Buddhist temples in the hot and muggy regions of Hong Kong and South East Asia – so walking around in a winter coat and scarf was different in itself.  I spent a few hours in the bamboo grove, moving from temple to temple, until finding one which was situated on a hill from which I watched the sun set over Kyoto.  The Arashiyama district was pleasant in itself and on my way back to the station I stopped for a coffee in a boutique shopping area.  The train took me right back to Kyoto main station and I went back to the hostel to meet Eric and Sam, an American and British UST friend respectively, who had arrived that day from Tokyo.  As it was our only evening in the city we decided to head for the centre for dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant. The food was excellent and is so different to any of the cuisines that I am used to regularly eating in Europe – a mix of grilled meat and fish with interesting vegetables and sushi.

Tenryu-ji Temple

Day Two: Fushimi Inari-taisha and Higashiyama

Fushimi Inari-taisha
Having realised yesterday that two days in Kyoto was far, far too little time, I got up early and set about trying to see as much as possible still.  Walking south east from the hostel for an hour or so along the river, I made it to Fushimi Inari-taisha, a large shrine that is one of the iconic images of Kyoto.  The shrine consists of several kilometres of paths covered by bright orange wooden gates called torii, which symbolise the transition from the ‘profane to the sacred’.  The religion of the shrine is the 'Inari Okami’ branch of Shintoism.  It is pretty difficult to describe the beliefs of Japan as they don’t fall within the same easily divisible sections as western religion.  Shinto is the spiritual religion of Japan and is more a way of life that connects the country with its past - it has only traditions and rituals and is not a way of explaining the universe.  As a result, it is able to happily coexist with Buddhism (which itself is tolerant of other beliefs) and means that Japanese people would happily say that they have many beliefs.  It is difficult to explain really and also reasonably difficult to comprehend for a westerner who is used to the dogmatic tribalism of our own religions.  The shrine itself was beautiful and while the head of the trails were full of people, it was quite easy to walk off along one of the many paths and find a quiet empty section.  I spent a few hours wandering around the trails before heading north along the east bank of the river towards the the main temple quarter of the city.

The Higashiyama district is home to many of the major sites in Kyoto - though with so many world heritage sites, there are frankly things to do wherever you go.  My first stop was the Kiyomizu-dera temple, which was about a 30 minute walk from Fushimi Inari-taisha.  This temple is named after the Japanese word for pure water (Kiyomizu) as it is founded upon a waterfall.  The building itself was built without any nails and is in a dramatic location, perched on stilts above a small valley containing the waterfall - but, in true Alex Coles travelling tradition, there was unfortunately a lot of scaffolding around.  One of the major plus points of the temple was the fact that it is located in the hills surrounding the city and therefore gave excellent views back towards the centre of Kyoto and the mountains beyond.  The whole district was full of shrines and temples and on my way back towards the centre I was able to pop my head inside a few.

View from Kiyomizu-dera towards Kyoto
Kyoto Station
By now it was lunchtime and I had arranged to return to Kyoto station to meet up with Sam and Eric who had spent the morning at the bamboo shrine.  We said that we would meet at the bullet train ticket office, but it turned out that there were in fact three such offices and with none of our phones working in Japan, we ended up spending an hour wandering around the station trying to bump into each other - eventually succeeding when we both managed to log onto free WiFi.  Having spent the morning in the hills at the old wooden temples and shrines, Kyoto station couldn’t have been any more of a contrast.  Set around a vast glass and steel atrium with escalators and walkways with restaurants and shops, it was of little surprise in hindsight that the three of us struggled to meet up.  Having spent so long to find each other we decided to cut our losses and split up again to carry on seeing the parts of the city we wanted to see separately before meeting up in the evening to head over to Osaka by train.

Maruyama Park
This gave me the rest of the afternoon to see as much of the rest of Kyoto as possible and I decided to head back to Higashiyama on the other side of the river.  My aim was to get as far as the Shoren-in temple, which is only about halfway through the district - leaving the other half totally undiscovered (a future trip back to Kyoto is a must).  I made my way through the Gion part of town, which is well known as the entertainment district and home of the famous geishas of Kyoto - another reason to come back.  Within Gion was the Yasaka Shrine, another beautiful temple with a large wooded area behind called Maruyama Park.  My last stop of the day was Shoren-in, a temple that came well recommended in Lonely Planet but which didn’t seem to jump out of the tourist map.  When I arrived it didn’t seem much to look at, but as it was getting close to closing time I was the last person inside and had it to myself - allowing a really pleasant thirty minutes walking bare foot through the temple and its gardens.  Having done the best I could with two days in Kyoto, I headed back to the hostel to pick up my bag and then met Sam and Eric for our trip to Osaka - a journey of only thirty minutes.  Once there, we met up with Sergei and Heloise who would be travelling with me for the rest of the trip and we all went to dinner with two American guys that we had met at the hostel.

Shoren-in Temple

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