The Bullet Trains (Shinkansen) run around Japan better than buses run around a major city – the Shinkansen from Osaka to Kyoto takes about 13 minutes to cover the 40 odd kilometre trip and costs about 1400 Yen or AUD$18 (we had JR Pass though) – talk about efficiency. They also do not rattle and roll and are a smooth delight to travel on.
The train stations are ultra-modern and normally very large. You have to learn to follow the signs, which are usually also in English, or it will be like Alice falling down the rabbit hole and it will become an higgledy-piggledy, rabbit warren, mess. You will notice that train stations are a place the Japanese hurry about in, that is, of course, until they reach an escalator and they immediately form the longest most patient queue since the M25 became a ring road; and once at the top of the escalator they hurry again.
In Kyoto, Di and stayed at a lovely guesthouse called Kotoha Unamachi and we paid AUD$80 per night. The guesthouse, like all of Japan, was equipped with a computerised toilet, that you need to complete a three year degree to work out how to use it; or you can do what we did, and use the old trial and error button pushing method. The trial and error button pushing method does have its flaws though, as you may experience an unwanted medical enema or if you are lucky you may get your private parts titillated! One thing is certain though when you place your derriere on the toilet seat it will always be warm, as the toilet seats are heated.
There are just so many things, like temples and shrines, to see in Kyoto, I get exhausted just thinking about it. We had two full, very full, days there and we walked our hiking boots into submission. We did, though, use some of the subway and a few buses; but the walking allows you to see so much. I also want to give thanks to a fellow traveller we met on our Cambodian Mekong River cruise, the lovely Pam. Pam gave us a wealth of information about navigating the streets of Kyoto and provided many recommendations for places to see, not only in Kyoto but throughout Japan.
Starting from Kyoto Train Station, we joined the bus stop line for bus 100 (there are others, bus 5 and 101) to Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) the fare was 230 Yen (AUD2.60) one way. We were again going to the point that was the longest and highest distance away, and then walking back to our guesthouse. The bus to Ginkakuji takes about 30 minutes. A lot of westerners were on the bus and most got off at various tourist sites along the route. We did see these same people trudging up the hill whilst we walked down the hill from Ginkakuji – so choose wisely my friends!
I felt Ginkakuji was a pretty Japanese garden setting but was not a memorable building in itself. In fact I thought it rather boring and could not see the silver of it all. Added to this it cost a 1000 yen each to enter (AUD$12ish) and I question the value of paying the entrance fee. The Ginkakuji Pavilion is a Zen temple built in the late 1400’s. The silver pavilion is NOT made of silver or even painted with silver paint, in fact it is mostly black in colour – it is just its nickname is the silver pavilion.
Ginkakuji, to me, was a little underwhelming, but the ancient Japanese must have been Harry Potter fans because Ginkakuji is the start, or end, depending on your direction, of the Philosopher’s Path. The Path begins with a lazy, old walk along a tree-lined stream. The photos you see of the Path are all beautifully brimming with colourful blooming cherry blossom – the reality though is that this picture-perfect scene only occurs for a few weeks each year – so timing is everything.
The Path though is still picturesque without the cherry blossom and is a peaceful wander downhill.
If you choose to disregard the Meandering Wanderers wisdom and walk up hill, your mantra should be ‘I should have listened to the Meandering Wanderers, I should have listened to ….’, because it was stinking hot the day we did it and those coming up hill were struggling!!!
The Path is just over two kilometres long and is a path that is not to be rushed, as there are lots of little shrines to stop at and photograph – depending on your photography and coffee addiction, it may take you an hour or two to walk it. The Path follows a stream running in a canal and passes many shrines, cafes, temples and shops. The Path ends or begins at Nanzenji Temple.
Nanzenji Temple is free to enter and wander around in and is far more impressive than Ginkakuji Temple was – but, the Japanese gardens of Ginkakuji are pretty special, so it all evens out in the wash!!
Now this grand old temple was built in the late 1200’s. There is a large gate building leading to the temple, called Sanmon Gate.
We then followed the street signs for about a kilometre, the path took us past another canal with a fountain, and past a large tori gate I forgot the name of, past a Family Mart where we bought a much needed ice cream and we arrived at Shorenin Temple.
We continued following the street signs to Chion-in Temple where we were confronted with a wall of tour buses lined up – I hate tourists!!!!!
Fortunately the gardens around Chion-in are rather large and the flag following, tourist mass, was easily avoided. The Chion-in Temple was built in 1633.
We pressed on. The people of Kyoto dress in traditional Japanese clothing a lot of the time. It is a wonderful site seeing these, mainly ladies, dressed in a colourful Kimono shuffling along the street. What also happens is that many of the Japanese visitors to Kyoto will hire Kimonos to wear for the duration of their stay at Kyoto. There are many shops hiring out Kimonos for between 3000 and 4000 Yen for the day (AUD$40 – $50). You will also see the occasional Westerner, normally female, also walking the streets wearing a Kimono – try as I may, Di was not tempted to indulge in a bit of Japanese traditional kimono wearing. Drat!!!!!
As I said, it was stinking hot and, like a St Bernard coming to the rescue, the sacred alcohol vending machine came to mine!!!
In many of these tourist areas you will see Japanese men pulling a carriage with a couple of tourists sitting comfortably inside the carriage. These men are normally dressed in traditional clothing used by men of this ancient profession. Di would get a little wobbly at the knees each time these men walked past as their hairless thighs and calves are bulging larger than Arnie Schwarzenegger’s biceps and bank account!!!
We then followed the street signs to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Kiyomizu-dera Temple is located in a maze of narrow streets with many vendors selling all things Japanese and all things touristy.
It can be a bit of a hike up the steep hill to Kiyomizu-dera – but we came to it by parallel streets and then walked down from it. This place was very busy but it is all worthwhile with atmospheric streets, kimono clad ladies, and large gates surrounding the main temple. Sadly, Kiyomizu-dera is under renovation and parts are hidden behind black screens. The renovations apparently will continue for three years.
We then had a fifteen minute walk DOWNHILL to our guesthouse, the Kotoha Unamachi – the feet by the end of this day were aching let me tell you, but what a glorious day and we had hardly seen any of Kyoto.
That evening we met up with our friend from Australia, Steff, at the guesthouse and she travelled with us for a few days. Steff had one full day in Kyoto so the next day would test the muscles and mental strength to continue as we tried to see a lot!!
We were up early to beat some of the crowds and caught the subway to Fushimi-Inari station. The Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine complex is straight in front of you as you exit the station. The shrine complex is free.
Behind the main shrine is a hiking trail up Mount Inari, the amazing aspect of the trail is that it is covered by thousands of red tori gates. If you can get to this shrine before 8.30am you have a chance of taking photos on this covered hiking trail without other tourists spoiling the photograph – after 9am forget it!!!!
The shrine complex is impressive but the covered hiking trail is a surreal spectacle simply not to be missed. It is breathtaking.
We didn’t walk the entire walking trail as we had a lot to see – time was ticking!!
We caught the subway a couple of stops to Kyoto station and then JR Sagano/San-in Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. If you are ever confused as to which way to go, then follow the tourists and that is basically what we did on arrival at Arashiyama to find the Bamboo Grove, we followed the tourists.
The brochures for Bamboo Grove are simply beautiful – the reality was again somewhat underwhelming as a plague of tourists, yes I know that includes me, had descended on the Bamboo Grove and the photos were, shall we say ordinary.
The girls did get to perve on more thighs and calves of the men pulling traditional carriages around. It was amusing to see the strain on the faces of these carriage pullers, who had drawn the short straw, and was lugging a large oversized westerner around – the Japanese are all so petite.
We didn’t stay long at the Bamboo Grove and wandered away around some of the surrounding temples that had fewer tourists.
Eventually we entered the Tenryu-ji Zen Temple which had some lovely Japanese gardens and was very pleasant to wander around –the cost was 500 Yen each.
We then hailed a taxi and set off for the Golden Pavilion. The taxi was a little expensive, 2400 Yen (AUD$30), but the air conditioning and the quickness it provided was worth it. The taxi driver was actually pretty good and, as we had settled on a price before starting off, he took us on a bit of a sightseeing trip.
By the time we arrived at Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) the midday sun was in its full glory and the humidity was soaring. Unlike the silver temple, the Golden Temple is actually covered by gold leaf. It costs a 1000 Yen to see the pavilion and no, you cannot take souvenirs of gold leaf – my dad joke!!
The Golden Pavilion is situated among beautiful Japanese gardens, with a large pond in front of the pavilion. All the wannabe professional photographers with their iPhone cameras, yours truly included here, try to get that money shot of the Golden Pavilion shimmering in the reflection of the pond – bunch of amateurs!!
It takes another fifteen minutes to wander through the gardens and then right on cue the ice cream vendor provided the relief from the heat and the energy for us to continue.
We now caught bus number 205 from across the road from the Golden Pavilion. We were going to get off the bus at a few other temples and a castle but the air conditioning seduced us and we were unable to get off the bus. Sadly the bus terminated it’s journey and we had to say farewell to the air conditioning and actually get off the bus. Luckily the bus terminated at Kyoto Train Station.
It was here that Di’s blisters on her feet rose their ugly heads again and after stopping for some running band-aid repairs, Steff and I thought it would be a good idea to walk 40 minutes to the Gion area – which funnily enough was about 15 minutes walk down hill from where we were the previous day.
When Steff and I told Di of the 40 minute walk ahead of her, Di was so overcome with joy she screamed and pounded her head against the pavement – I knew she would love walking to our next location!!!
The walk of course, took us past temples, but also past canals and rivers.
Di went to a loo in a public lavatory where the male urinal was directly outside the toilet door. Steff and I stood guard and, of course, a Japanese male snuck in past us and was doing a wee in the urinal when Di walked out nearly straight into him – the Japanese man held his willy and bowed politely – Di resumed her screaming and head pounding – she is just so understanding!!!!
Before we entered the Gion area we crossed a bridge over the river to Pontocho and Kiyamachi. Pontocho is a very narrow street that is designed in the traditional Japanese architecture. It has many small restaurants, tea houses and bars. This is also the area you may see genuine Geishas going to their evening appointments – we were there at 2.30pm and it was a bit quiet. I would imagine though the place would be very lively in the evening.
The next street along is called Kiyamachi. Kiyamachi is a wider street than Pontocho and has a lovely canal running through it. There are many cherry blossom trees along it and when they are blooming it would be a lovely sight. This street also has many bars and restaurants – though the bars have a seedier feel to those in Pontocho. This area is well worth the visit and if you are game come at night.
We then crossed the bridge to the Gion area. The Gion area is the most famous Geisha district in Kyoto. The Giesha and their apprentice, the Maiko, can be found in some of the tea houses here, but this is considered a Japanese thing and I am not sure how welcome the Westerners are.
The Gion area has many traditional wooden houses with facades only a few metres wide but which extend many metres high.
Gion is situated downhill from the Kiyomizu-dera Temple where we were the day before. There are many restaurants here, though they are more expensive than other areas. We went into a traditional Japanese restaurant and had an early dinner. We tried to get traditional meals but were disappointed the meals came with fries – the French have cornered the world cuisine market with their fried potato!!!
The girls lashed out and bought some fruit flavoured Sake (fermented rice). The Sake was surprisingly good and the fruit flavoured peach Sake very smooth to drink.
The girls then went into a lolly shop where they make the lollies in front of you.
However, whilst they were procrastinating about which of the many lollies to over indulge in, a street procession came down the street outside the lolly shop – good tourists can never miss a photo shot!!!
The procession was marvellous. We were not sure what it was for, but the procession was of traditionally dressed men, women and the scene stealing children, which was a delight to see. The mini samurai and the mini face painted Geisha were just so cute. The click button on the camera got an extreme workout and I think Di had blisters on her right hand finger to match those on her toes!!
We walked up the hill past many shops and the local traditionally attired ladies were very obliging to have their photo taken.
We still had energy for one last temple and Pagoda and went to Hokanji Temple and the Yasaka-no-to Pagoda – these were only a few hundred metres from Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
The truth is that Hokanji Temple and the Yasaka-no-to Pagoda are basically the same place, the Japanese seem to want to confuse us weary travellers more than we already are. Hokanji Temple is a Pagoda and the colloquial name is Yasaka Pagoda, so it gets called both names and confuses the hell out of us tourists!! The Pagoda is one of the older shrines being built in 589. This was a good way to end our exhausting two days in Kyoto – to this day I wonder why on earth we only stayed two days in Kyoto – give yourself at least four days in Kyoto but seven would be ideal.
Di’s blisters and sore feet decided to have a stop work meeting and she could walk no more. Fortunately, our guest house was only an excruciating 15 minutes walk away – she soldiered on and made it – we slept well that night.
We loved Kyoto. It was bloody hot whilst we were there but there are just so many interesting places to visit and things to see. I would recommend the Kotoha Unamachi as a place to stay and it is just on the edge of the Gion area. Do I recommend Kyoto, absolutely, but do yourself a favour and stay more than two days!!!
The three of us were up early the next morning and on our way to Kyoto Train Station.
The adventure is hobbling along ………………………