Kyoto is a dream of a city. Its now entirely obvious why everyone raves about it. Just walking the little streets provides constant fascination whether you are in the famous Gion district, or a regular residential area. Culture is everywhere in the form of shrines, temples, art galleries, and simply our observations of the people around us. The receptionists in our hotel (rare plug to The Gozan!) were hands down the most proactive thoughtful and friendly staff we could have hoped to come across which made for a lovely warm welcome. And we did some GOOOOOD eating.
We began by pondering the meaning of life on the 2km Philosopher’s Walk which is a pedestrian path that follows a meandering canal lined with cherry trees, maples and camellia from Nanzenji Temple to Ginkakuji. The route is so-named because the influential 20th-century Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro is thought to have used it for daily meditation.
We didn’t reach enlightenment (or even an essential alignment), but we did reach Ginkakuji, or the silver Temple, which gave us our first taste of the spectacular settings surrounding the spiritual treasures of Kyoto. The ornate yet natural gardens successfully evoked the deep tranquility that they were designed for.
In particular the lush moss carpet in the wooded hills behind the temple transported me to the kind of soft mental images conjured up by reading children’s storybooks. I’m sure there is a pixie hiding there somewhere!
Our next wood walk took us through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. It was fairly crowded with tourists, but looking up through the tall stems swishing in the breeze was still a serene experience.
We took the long route home past more bamboos, a friendly heron, a busy bridge and some charming local boats.
A phenomenon which we were starting to observe in all the prime locations of Kyoto is the local women (as well as a few tourists) dressing up in gorgeous kimonos, sporting fab hairdos, and strolling with their partner or groups of girlfriends, taking in the scenery, and posing for photographs by the budding cherry trees.
As for us, we got around the place in our usual travlar garb, and hopped on busses, trams and trains with more ease than the lovely ladies in their tight fitting dresses and unforgiving wooden flip-flops.
Walking around Gion, Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district, at 9pm was a slightly surreal experience as we found it totally deserted other than the occasional ‘heavy’ loitering on street corners. Si went back to wander ‘latenight’ which was apparently a totally different experience, (one for another blog)! No fully authenticated Geisha sightings to report, but some definite Maiko action, and we think we saw a ‘granny Geisha’ (but she looked a bit rough).
Nijo Castle was a must on our list, as one of Kyoto’s most popular and impressive sights. Though its walls witnessed the incredible power that that the Shoguns wielded over the Emperors throughout the Edo period, the audio tour totally failed to bring it to life. It consisted of an entirely bland list of room descriptions, and at best a hint that ‘this is where the Shogun would address his subjects who sat on a lower level floor’. We wanted to know that they talked about? Who else lived in the castle? Where were the women? How did they demonstrate their power to important visitors and defend the castle? What did they do for entertainment? How did they survive the perpetual cold of winter (our shoeless feet were entirely numb after an hour)? We might have to watch The Last Samurai to fill in some gaps!
Midweek munchies brought us skipping to Nishiki food market. We walked in ravenous and staggered out bursting having nibbled our way along 200m of delicious delicacies, terrifying crustaceans, exploding crackers, prodigious pickles, and tasty tempura.
Our only disappointments were the octopus balls which were sadly soggy. We barely missed a sample opportunity, but did manage to walk past the spit-roasted sparrows without tasting them (no regrets) and the whole red octopi stuffed with quails eggs which apparently look better than they taste apparently (some regrets).
And here is the Golden Temple which speaks for itself!
I got lucky landing my coin in the Buddha’s bowl – can’t wait for that wish to come true!
On our way out we stopped in the gorgeous sunshine to enjoy a frothy matcha tea and gold-leaf sweet treat in the temple cafe. Our entry ticket was an art work in itself!
Fushimi Inari, or the ‘Fox Shrine’ is famous for its thousands of vermilion Torii gates which straddle a network of trails behind the its main buildings. These paths lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which stands at 233 meters high and belongs to the shrine grounds. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the site.
We started our 2 hour hike at sunset which resulted in some gorgeous light, and fewer tourists as we climbed higher, which allowed me (finally) to snap my one ‘glory’ shot of the gorgeous gates with no punters piling through them!
We stopped at the highpoint to take in the view and the sunset (and a few Asahis/Appletisers)
Our darkened descent was lit by beautiful golden lanterns, and a full moon:
We nearly didn’t go into the National Museum of Modern art as it was entirely filled an expensive textile exhibition which we presumed was an overpriced bunch of old cloth. How wrong we were…… 3 floors of modern textiles that floored us with their striking beauty! No photos allowed (except of the corner below), but if you are in town or the exhibition goes on tour then go – its a total winner!
Every corner you turn in Kyoto there is a shrine and/or a graveyard. These are all perfectly ordered (as is everything here), and very attractive with their Tohba (long narrow wooden slabs) set standing upright on or next to the graves. The Tohba are usually inscribed with Sanskrit as well as Chinese Characters. Fresh tablets are usually set at least once per year by family members. The Japanese believe that their ancestors return to this world on certain occasions each year, and the Tohba help guide the spirits to the graves.
Talking of Chinese characters we spent a focused but fun afternoon trying out calligraphy. Our wonderful teacher Chifumi explained how the characters are unique, and build from common stems eg the symbol for ‘bird’ combined with the symbol for ‘mouth’ means ‘singing’.
See the looks of abject horror when Chifumi explained that Japanese school children are required to learn 2000 characters (vs our 26).
A basic calligraphy kit contains a solid ink block (you make your own ink by rubbing this in water), a small and a big brush, and a heavy weight to hold your paper still. You have to hold the brush in the air to make the strokes (rather than resting your wrist or elbow) which requires a very steady hand! You also have to make sure to draw on the correct side of the paper.
Specialist brushes can be made of feathers or wolf hair.
Here we are practicing for our final masterpieces. Bella chose the symbol for ‘happiness’, Emily ‘beautiful’, and mine (rather clichedly) was ‘love’.
Some final observations and highlights from our wonderful experience in Kyoto:
Runs by the river afforded wonderful views of the ramshackle yet neat old wooden houses that back onto the banks.
All the wiring in Kyoto is above ground (due to the frequent earthquakes) which results in messy photographs!
Gion has some classy bars with mean whiskey menus. Here is a very sharp barman who chiselled a meteorite of ice by hand before dousing it in the golden nectar.
Cheers! And cant’t wait to come back with the Lewis-Bank’s week after next – bring it on AGAIN!