Japan Part Two: Kyoto

Saturday 5 October – Tuesday 8 October 2019

It was a very easy journey from Tokyo to Kyoto on the bullet train. We climbed aboard the train and a couple of hours later we climbed back off again. We’d even caught some views of Mount Fuji from the window as we sailed by. The train station in Kyoto wasn’t as central as the one in Tokyo and we decided to make the 30 minute journey to our hotel on foot. We walked for a while down a pretty narrow road, getting snuck up on by electric cars that we couldn’t hear until they were right behind us.

We arrived at the Hotel MyStays Kyoto Shijo to find a clean, smart and modern hotel – with rooms that weren’t even as small as I was expecting. We didn’t stay long before we hit the streets again. Today was the day of the Rugby World Cup match between England and Argentina and my brothers had googled a pub that would be playing it since, despite Japan really bringing it for the world cup, there was a distinct lack of places showing the game.

Although our hotel was nice, it did turn out to be a bit of a walk away from anywhere we wanted to be. The pub was another 30 minute walk away and we passed the Teramachi Shopping Arcade en route, which we ducked into to take a peek as this looked quite impressive, we even found a shrine in there. We weren’t too far away from our destination pub when we spotted another – a British pub called Hub. We were pretty sure that would be showing the game. It was standing room only but there was plenty of space when we arrived so we decided to stay.

The place started to fill up but getting drinks wasn’t too painful and the atmosphere was great – half the Brits in Kyoto seemed to have ended up in that pub. It helped that we won the game. As the match drew to an end, the TV screen went black. It took a few minutes but the staff managed to get it working again. Only for the screen to go black again. England been far enough ahead when the feed disappeared that we knew we weren’t going to miss anything major so we decided to call it and find someplace for dinner.

A friend had recommended a restaurant called Kyoto Nakanokouan. He told me that Kyoto is famous for its soba noodles and he went to this place multiple times because they make excellent noodles from scratch everyday. The restaurant was plusher than I was expecting and the food was indeed delicious. Usually I’m not much of a noodle soup person (it’s just plain noodles in hot water) but even I loved the noodle soup here. My tofu salad was also tasty (which again is saying something because I am not a tofu person either), as was my tempura vegetables and sliced beef. I could see why my friend recommended the place.

The next morning we planned to be up and out to visit the famous Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine with its tunnel of orange torii gates. I’d been told to get there super early – like 6/7am early – in order to avoid the crowds but there was no way on earth I would get getting out of bed at that time for any non-work, non-flight related reason. We ended up leaving the hotel even later than planned. We found somewhere close for breakfast – Holly’s Cafe – which didn’t look or sound like a particularly cultural option but it was close and we needed to get on our way. I ordered some toast with an egg and received a really thick piece of white toast. It was simple but despite all of the amazing food I had in Japan I actually remember this as being some of my favourite.

It took a couple of trains and some confusion at the station for us to reach Fushimi Inari-taisha. It was already teaming with people by the time we did arrive. We spent a while watching a ceremony that was being held in one of the temple buildings before starting to walk through the rows of orange torii gates.

Now I know how big the site is (although I’ve read varying reports of exactly how many gates there are – it seems no one really knows for sure but it’s around 10,000, each of which has been inscribed with the name of its donor) but at the time I anticipated something much smaller. So while the first tunnel of gates was like trying to push through crowds at a concert, the number of people did thin out as we continued to walk through the gates that wound their way up Mount Inari.

The size of the shrine did mean that we also spent a lot more time at the place than I had anticipated. This wasn’t a problem except for the fact we only had two full days in Kyoto and I had a packed schedule planned. Still, we decided to do it properly and made our way right up to the shrine at the top (stopping only for some ice cream en route). The shrine at the top wasn’t quite as visually impressive as I was expecting (it probably didn’t help that the best viewing spot was several steps further down so the comparison made it more of an anti-climax) but I certainly had more of a sense of achievement for making it all the way up.

Thankfully the walk down didn’t take nearly as much time as the way up. Next up on the list was a famous temple in Kyoto – Kiyomizu-dera – which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’d seen lots of pictures of its main temple framed by cherry blossom in the spring and orange-leafed trees in the autumn and I was looking forward to seeing the site in person. First, however, we needed sustenance. We found a restaurant close to the temple and ordered nikucurry with noodles and wagu beef. I’m sure this wasn’t the best wagu beef you can find in Japan but it was still a really nice meal.

Now we were ready for Kiyomizu-dera itself. We walked up to the site – passed a man pulling a carriage with two women in it uphill – but unfortunately it turned out that Kiyomizu-dera wasn’t quite so ready for us. The main temple was under scaffolding. We could still enjoy the place – the other temple buildings and the inside of the main temple – but my photos just didn’t come out quite like those I’d seen beforehand.

By the time we were done here, there wasn’t time for us to hit another one of the places on my to do list but we weren’t ready for the day to be over yet. I found another temple by a park marked on the map nearby. We picked up a few nibbles from a nearby 7-Eleven and some kind of meaty, cheesy thing on a stick from a street food stand and went for a little wander but ultimately ended up just sitting down, trying to keep ourselves entertained. It had been a lot of walking today.

I was keen to stay in the area as we weren’t far from Kyoto’s geisha district – Gion. Memoirs of a Geisha having been one of my favourite books, I really wanted to see a geisha in real life even though I felt weird about essentially stalking one out. I’d read that early evening/6pm was the best time to spot geisha, as they headed out to their evening appointments but we ended up in Gion’s historical district of Hanamikoji Dori – home to tea houses and the Gion Corner theatre – a while before this.

I half tried explaining the concept of geisha and why I wanted to see one to my family but again I felt weird about it and I knew it wasn’t really something they’d be that fussed about so they went off to get a drink somewhere and I stayed in Hanamikoji Dori to explore. At the end of the day, regardless of whether I saw a geisha, it was a beautiful area, with lots of old buildings, and I wanted to see more.

After a while of wandering around the streets, I saw a taxi pull up in front of a house and I figured they’d be picking up a geisha but hanging around gawking felt wrong. A crowd then started to form – they’d guessed what I’d guessed. I felt like I should just keep walking but then I had come here in the hope of seeing a geisha (although I’d really just hoped I’d walk passed one in the street) and other people were now waiting too. Still, I felt so weird standing there that when someone asked me why there was a crowd I lied and shrugged. I said I wasn’t sure but I’d seen the crowd and I wanted to know what was going on. Although I’m not really sure how they hadn’t figured it out themselves given where we were. Then the door opened and, of course, a geisha walked out. I felt like an awful paparazzi but I did take a photo.

After I’d seen her, I messaged my family to see where they’d ended up. They weren’t sure. But they said they’d come back in my direction when they were done. That meant I had to keep up with my stalker walkings around Hanamikoji Dori. As I kept walking, I spotted another geisha zip passed a tour group and into a teahouse. Eventually, I bumped into my family and a third geisha drove passed us in a taxi. My Dad and brother hadn’t spotted her and so started power walking alongside the car to try and see her without making it look too obvious. I wasn’t the only one who found this whole experience weird though – my Dad (bless him) couldn’t bring himself to actually look into the car. Others on the street realised, however, and started shouting and running down the street after the taxi. At that point, I was very ready to leave.

We walked in the direction of our hotel (which was going to be quite the walk) and passed another girl dressed in her geisha outfit en route. Given that we were now away from the main geisha area I’m not entirely sure this wasn’t just a tourist dressed up. We were also passed by a line of go-karts which were driving by with their occupants dressed up as the Mario Brothers and other characters. I’d heard that this was a thing but that you needed an international driving licence to partake which I hadn’t had a chance to sort before my trip.

As we wandered back, we ducked into a place for dinner. The food was nice but the real entertainment was a guy at another table who had obviously had one, two, three too many and was not only asleep on the bench by his table but he was actually snoring. And not a dainty little snuffle, we’re talking full on snoring, while his dinner companions were just carrying on as though he wasn’t there. I’ll admit the hilarity did wear off after a while. He was very loud.

The plan for the next morning was a visit to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Again I’d been told to get there super early and again I’d ignored this but we did manage to get out a bit earlier than the day before. We stopped for another breakfast at Holly’s Cafe and then got a bus that would take us from our hotel straight to the bamboo forest. This seemed simple but what I hadn’t anticipated was how busy this bus would be and how long the journey actually was. It was a lot of time to be standing in a very confined space. It was like being back on my London commute.

We arrived at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove around 10.30am and there wasn’t as many people walking up to the bamboo forest as I had expected. I was cautiously optimistic but, as we walked along the path towards the forest, we passed the Tenryū-ji temple which my family was keen to look around. I thought we should make the most of the seeming lack of people and maybe check this out later but I wasn’t sure if we’d come back the same way so I went along with this plan and we ducked in.

The temple was set in a beautiful zen garden so was more than worth looking around but by the time we came out again the pathway had become busier. It hadn’t helped that we’d come out of the wrong exit which meant a longer walk back to where we started. It also turned out that the bamboo grove was considerably smaller than I had thought (it is certainly more of a grove than a forest) so there wasn’t much to explore. We made our way along the very busy path and were soon out the other side.

Thankfully, the bamboo grove wasn’t the only place in Arashiyama we wanted to see and we took a walk over to Iwatayama Monkey Park, on the other side of the very blue Katsura River. Once at the park, it was a bit of a walk up Mount Arashiyama to get to the top where we’d see the Japanese macaque monkeys. At the top of the hill visitors can buy bananas, apples and/or nuts to give to the monkeys. The deal here is that you do this from inside a hut with caged windows while the monkeys are the ones that roam freely outside.

Once out of food, we descended the mountain and hopped back on a bus. This time, we were heading towards the golden Kinkaku-ji temple. We stopped off first for a bite at a restaurant called Kinkakuji Itadaki. I was surprised to see some tasty looking vegan dishes here (since I hadn’t seen many of these around so far) but I myself went for a very nice breaded pork cutlet (which of course came with the Japanese standard rice and miso soup).

As nice as the food was, it was the temple itself that stole the Kinkaku-ji show. As we turned the corner into the area of the temple, the first thing I saw was the crowds of people. However, the next thing was the golden temple on the other side of a pond. My Dad cites the moment he saw the temple as his favourite moment from our trip. It was breathtaking.

Once we had once again caught our breath and left the Kinkaku-ji temple, we hopped on another bus – this time over to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. We’d not had much luck seeing the palace in Tokyo so we hoped to see more of this one. Normally, we would have been able to but, of course it was us, so the palace was in fact closed for a couple of days – that day being one of them.

We walked around the wall that ran along the palace hoping we might be able to spot some part of it but it was too high. We managed to see the odd bit of roof around the edges of a closed gate but I couldn’t even tell what building it was attached to.

Instead we ended up getting a bus back into town and over to Teramachi Shopping Arcade. We’d dipped in and out of the arcade several times already but this time we dedicated some actual time to shopping. Once there, we soon spotted a fantastic looking doughnut shop called Koe Donuts and headed in. I think the doughnuts looked slightly better than they tasted but I sure did enjoy the stop off.

Sugared-up, we now hit the shopping street – wandering in and out of vintage shops (of which there were many), kimono shops and pottery shops selling bowls, teapots and sake bottles. I somehow came away with exactly diddly squat. Actually, that’s a lie, I came away with a small print of a geisha to put up in my room when I got home but I always thought I would go shopping crazy in Japan and instead all I could think was that I already have a kimono which I barely wear, I couldn’t be bothered to try on vintage clothes that would inevitably be too small, I have multiple teapots I never use and I never drink sake. I was a Japanese shopping grinch.

After we decided we couldn’t spend any more time in the shopping arcade, we started to wander back towards our hotel. My brothers – which their exceedingly long legs – marched off and soon were way ahead. We were planning on getting food en route so we had to telephone call them back. We dove off the main road to explore side streets. We were in the mood for something different to the miso soup and rice diet we’d been adopting so far and ended up at a Vietnamese place called Com Ngon. I was a little sceptical at first – Vietnamese is not my favourite Asian cuisine and I did think we should be eating some form of Japanese food – but the place was busy and cosy and the food was tasty so all in all it was a successful choice.

When we were finished, we called it a night and headed back to the hotel. The next morning was our last in Kyoto. We walked over to Nishiki Market – a food market in an arcade coming off the Teramachi Shopping Arcade. According to Google, the market opened at 9.30am and, since we had a train to catch, we arrived not long thereafter. The problem was that most places in the market hadn’t opened yet. We walked up and down as a few started to emerge and found an eat-in breakfast place that seemed to be what we were looking for.

There were only two options – one that came with fish, the other chicken. Both came with an array of Japanese tapas-esque bits and pieces and, of course, rice and miso soup. This is where we started to hit a wall with the local food. My chicken was nice and I enjoyed the pieces of Japanese omelette we were given but the soggy doughnut-like thing, cold hard potato-like thing and the little octopus were all a bit much, especially first thing in the morning.

We managed to clear our plates and then headed back to our hotel to grab our bags and head to the train station. We were eager to be on time since we knew Japanese trains were renowned for leaving on the dot. We arrived pretty early so looked to see where our train would be leaving from and then grabbed a coffee from a cafe nearby which had doorbells at the table for us to use to call the staff over (this was not the only place we’d come across this handy feature in Japan).

We left with 5-10 minutes to spare to catch our train but soon realised that the platform we initially spotted was for a different train that would be going to a different station in Osaka. Our Japanese rail passes only worked on certain trains and we also had seat reservations for a particular one. Thankfully there was a station guard to point us in the right direction and we made it to the right platform to find that our train – our train in the land of punctuality – was delayed. It might only have been by four minutes (nothing by England standards) but given where we were it did seem just our luck.

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