The Traditional Wonder of Kyoto

Number 6 – Live in Tokyo (the 6 of Clubs) – Part 5

Kyoto

Aside from Tokyo, I think Kyoto is probably the next most popular destination in Japan for tourists, especially around this time of year. I actually juggled my trip around in order to maximise my chances of seeing the cherry blossoms in full bloom, but unfortunately you cannot predict nature and they are blooming late this year. Nevertheless, I had a great few days here and Kyoto definitely shows off a different side of Japan. Read on to find out more.

Day 1

Having arrived late the previous night, I had got food and an early night. Also, because of the time of year I was visiting, Kyoto was completely full and even though I had booked my accommodation a few weeks in advance, I was still staying around 6km outside the centre. A few friends I had met hadn’t been so lucky and were having to commute on day trips from Osaka, so be warned; if you are wanting to visit Kyoto during the cherry blossom season, book in advance, and be prepared to pay highly inflated prices. Anyway, I split my days into different districts, and my first day was spent exploring the Gion district and Sannenzaka – the geisha district. I was expecting it to be different from the cities I had explored so far, but I was absolutely blown away by what I found. It was like stepping back in time, with cobbled streets, old style buildings, winding roads, and no vehicles around the main district. Add to that the amount of people, locals and tourists, wandering around in full kimono’s and you truly got the feeling you were walking through history. There are a slew of tourist and souvenir shops that might interest you and you can even rent a kimono yourself for the day to really step into the role play.  Or, if you have people at home that want a kimono (not naming anybody…) then you can even buy an authentic Kimono from one of the many shops!

I began at Kawaramachi station and walked along the main street towards Maruyama park. If at this point it doesn’t feel traditional enough, just bear with me, it’s coming. My first stop was Maruyama park. A popular spot with locals around late spring and summer for Sakura parties, Maruyama park is a great place to picnic and lose a few hours. There are a lot of reasonably priced food stalls so bring a little extra money for that! After wandering around I headed down to Sannenzaka, which is where things truly began to change. It’s just beautiful wandering the streets here, it doesn’t really matter where you go because there is something to offer around every corner and I even saw one actual Geisha. It is quite rare to see Geisha walking the streets during the day, but Cerca Trova! From here I made my way to Kiyomizu-dera, a temple on the east of Sannenzaka. This place provides some pretty great views of Kyoto as it is at the top of a gentle slope leading up from the green tea alley. This street, as the name suggests, used to be full of Japanese Tea houses, and although there are less now, you can still see the remnants of its past as you wander through it.

In the evening, I used the Couch surfing app in order to meet a few new people. There is a great feature on the app called hangout, where you can find other travellers in your area, and I highly recommend the app in general; it’s a great way to travel and support other travellers. Anyway, I met Jasmine, Duc and Marvin at a local bar and after a few beers convinced them to go Sake tasting. Best, idea, ever! If you decide to try Sake in Kyoto, then please head to Sake bar Asakura in the Sanjo district. The owner is incredible and will point you in the right direction depending on your taste. He speaks great English and is very knowledgeable about the different types of sake. His bar houses more than 100 types of sake and honestly I didn’t realise how different they could taste. We each ordered a tasting board which included 3 different types of sake, and we each tried to get something different and share. What followed was some of the most eclectic variety of drinks I have had. There was full bodied, fruity, rice tasting, sour, creamy and many more; and what was incredible is just how different they all tasted. When you drink wine, there is obviously a different taste but you can always recognise that it is wine. With sake there are such profound differences that at times you struggled to believe that they could be the same drink. But it was incredible; make sure you try a variety called Nigori-shu, it’s a creamy looking, smooth sake and tastes awesome!

Day 2

On my 2nd day I headed toward Fushimi-inari, the Shinto temple which climbs Mt Inari. This is where I’m going to be a little negative. In order to get around Kyoto, most people recommend buses, as the metro system is a little undeveloped in that it doesn’t serve the whole of Kyoto efficiently. Buses are the lesser evil, but believe me they are still evil! The absence of a dedicated bus lane, combined with the relentless Japanese traffic leads to journeys that are long, slow and severely overcrowded. If a bus reaches more than 20mph, you should count yourself lucky. As I said, my hostel was around 6km out of the centre and the journey into the city took an average of 50 minutes. It’s hard not to become frustrated as you sit for 5-10 minutes at a time at each traffic light, knowing you could probably walk faster! However it only costs 500 yen for a day ticket, and to be honest, you are going to need to use them to navigate the city. Just be aware of how slow they are, and factor in extra time for every journey. Back to Fushimi…

You will have probably seen the pictures of thousands of torii (the orange Shinto gates) lining the path to the summit and it was another place a tourist ‘just has to visit’. That brings with it its own problems, as at the bottom of the mountain you will struggle to move in the sea of cameras and ignorant tourists. Just remember you are one of those as well, apparently. As you climb the path however, the number of tourists begin to dwindle, and you can really find a little peace amongst the gates. The views from halfway up are pretty great, and to be honest they don’t get a whole lot better at the summit, but it is worth getting to the top to see the temple and to say you’ve done it! The shrine at Fushimi-Inari is dedicated to the Shinto God of rice, and the fox is seen to be the messenger of the God, resulting in a lot of Fox statues round the shrines.

From here I got back on the bus (remember to breathe) and set my sights on Philosophers walk. As I said in my introduction, I was a little early for the cherry blossoms, but if you can visit this walk when they are in bloom I think it would absolutely divine. Even without the blossom it was a beautiful walk; it is aptly named! After here I took the advice of a traveller I met in Osaka and headed towards the somewhat hidden Honen-in. Set in the wooded hills to the east of Philosophers walk this was another great place to relax, eat my lunch and just stop thinking for a while. The grounds are beautiful and again you could lose yourself here for a while. A walk up to Ginkaku-ji temple (the silver temple) followed, before heading back to the guesthouse to collapse! Busy day!

Day 3

After buying my onward ticket for Kanazawa, I headed to Nijo-Ji castle. For 600yen, this is a great walk through history, and the information is all available in English allowing you to fully understand what you are looking at. This castle was the home of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th-19th century until power returned to the imperial court in the 1800s. The tour takes you through the original buildings, where you can see first-hand the living and business quarters of an extremely important and significant family, and also through the ornate gardens and plum groves that surround the castle. It’s well worth a visit.

After here I wandered to the International Manga museum, and although I didn’t go in (I don’t really know enough about Manga to appreciate it) it did get some great reviews from other travellers I met. There are thousands of manga comics in all languages and you could spend days here just perusing the shelves. If Anime and manga are your thing (and I know that for a lot of visitors to Japan, they are) then this place is a must see destination!

In the evening I met up with another traveller, Yvie, for a few drinks at the ever faithful Hub. For those unaware, Hub is the quintessential British pub in Japan; there are branches in every major city and although it lacks in any sort of culture, it does great happy hour deals, and shows the baseball games! That’s enough for me. From here we ate at Donguri Okonomiyaki restaurant and oh my god! You know I love Okonomiyaki, and this was perhaps the best I have had so far. It was actually strictly called Negi-yaki, a thinner variation of Okonomiyaki made with green leeks instead of cabbage, but it was still great!  Then back to the Hub to watch the end of the baseball; overall a great night!

Kyoto is done and I am finally heading away from the busy Japanese cities for a few days! The next few days will be spent in Kanazawa and Toyama as I try to cross off the 4 of hearts, and just spend a few days relaxing. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Kyoto; it is a great city and after spending time in Tokyo and Osaka, you will really appreciate the different vibe that you get from this more traditional take on Japan. Be sure to focus your attention around the Gion district, and definitely visit Sake Bar Asakura!

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