Since I did a lot of stuff during the second week of my trip, I’m going to cover it in two parts. The first part will be covering the places I visited in Kyoto, and the next will cover Osaka. So picking up where I left off, after spending an entire day shopping in Akihabara, we got up early the next morning to take our first ride on the Shinkansen (aka bullet train).
Unfortunately, the JR Pass only allows you to go on the Hikari and Kodama trains (the slow ones), and not the faster Nozomi trains. The ride wasn’t too bad, it lasted for a few hours and there was plenty of legroom. The only downside was that I was sitting near the front of a car right next to the washrooms so when someone walked by and the automatic doors opened, I’d get hit with a horrible stench. We arrived at Kyoto station around lunchtime and took a local train to Tanbaguchi station near our hotel. It was too early to check in yet so we just dropped off our bags and went out to do a bit of exploring. Lucky for us, there are maps everywhere in four languages: Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese.
Kyoto is very much a walking city so if you ever go to visit, make sure you bring a good pair of shoes. Our first stop for the day was Nishihonganji Temple. If you take a look at the map above, you’ll see that the entrance is at the bottom, but we entered through the sidesince we wouldn’t have to walk around. Thinking we were at the temple, we started taking pictures, and since this was our first temple, we didn’t think it weird that there was no one else there. Once we were done, we headed east (down on the map) and saw an elaborate gate so we went to take a look and found the actual temple building.
The real Nishihonganji Temple was 3-4 times bigger than whatever building we were just in, however the style and decorations inside were the same. This just goes to show you that you shouldn’t take shortcuts. Inside were a bunch of gold (or gold-painted, I couldn’t tell) decorations that you can see below. The entire floor was also covered with tatami mats which looked really new because the place had just been renovated. There was no flash photography allowed inside so the picture is a bit blurry.
Next, we headed over to Higashihonganji Temple, which is the sister templre to Nishihonganji. This time we made sure to go through the main entrance to see the temple itself and not just a side building. This time though, there weren’t as many people around taking pictures, the main reason being that this temple was still under renovations. There was a lot of scaffolding and a temporary building built around the temple so there wasn’t really much to see. You could get a nice view of Kyoto Tower from here though, so the walk wasn’t completely wasted.
Our next stop was Kyoto Tower. I admit, it doesn’t look very nice and it’s not very tall, but we still had some time to kill before checking in at our hotel and what better way to do that than to visit a tourist trap?
When we got to the tower, we discovered there was an entrance fee to go up to the observation deck. I can’t remember how much it was, but it didn’t seem worth it to go up so we just hung around the stores at the bottom for a while. That character to the left of the Kyoto Tower sign in the picture above for 3F says “books” if anyone’s interested. I was looking for artbooks so whenever I saw that character, I’d go check out the store. Since the Kyoto Tower is right next to Kyoto station, we decided to take the train back to Tanbaguchi station to check in at our hotel.
We stayed at a place called the Kyoto ryokan Shoei. The hotel offers the experience of a traditional Japanese inn (aka ryokan) with all the amenities of a modern day, western hotel. All of the rooms are fitted with tatami mats, designed like a traditional Japanese room, and you sleep on a futon which is laid out and put away for you every day. The washrooms, however, are more modern with a toilet that has more buttons than you know what to do with. There is also a wide-screen HDTV in the wall for those days when you don’t feel like going out. While some of the staff don’t know English, their service is excellent, always going out of their way to help you with your luggage and whatnot. There is also a traditional Japanese garden in the hotel for your viewing pleasure, but what really takes the cake are the large baths that they have for guests.
The way the baths work is you take off your clothes and put them in a basket, clean yourself using the soap and shampoo provided at one of the stalls along the wall, then soak in the bath for however long you want (be careful, it’s hot). It’s an excellent way to spend the evening especially after walking around the city all day. For anyone shy about being seen naked, they give you a little towel that you can find in your room, but you can also go to the bath around 10:30pm (30 min. before it closes) and there normally won’t be anyone there. Of course, baths are separated by gender. The hotel also provides some delicious snacks and tea in your room.
That night we ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant and were pleasantly surprised to find good food with large portions for a very affordable price. The only thing that would have made the Shoei absolutely perfect would’ve been a ping pong table. I highly recommend this place to anyone staying in Kyoto. Rates are based on how many people are staying per room, so having more people in a room will save you on a bit of cash. We fit 3 people into an 8-tatami room confortably, but I think 4 might be a bit crampled. The Shoei might not be the cheapest place in the city, but I guarantee that you’ll get more than your money’s worth here.
The next day was dedicated to exploring the temples/shrines/castles of Kyoto. We stopped at Kyoto station to get some brochures and stuff to see what was most interesting. Although this was my 4th time at the station, I never realized how big it was until then.
Our first stop of the day was Fushimi Inari Shrine, home to thousands of torii gates and one of the locations where they filmed Memoirs of a Geisha (the scene with the girl running under the orange gates). We took the JR to Inari station, which is right next to the shrine. You can tell you’re at the right place because all of the pillars are painted orange like the torii gates.
The shrine is on the side of a mountain and at the base are the larger gates, which are spread apart, but as you go up the mountain, the gates get smaller and closer together.
I didn’t think that the climb to the top of the mountain would take so long, and I definitely underestimated how many gates there were. Our group lost track of how many we passed after about 400. We reached the top of the mountain after about an hour and were drenched in sweat from the heat and humidity. We passed a lot of schoolgirls and seniors climbing up too, but we rested at the top for about 30 minutes and never saw them so I assume they all turned back. Some advice for anyone wanting to go up to the top: buy your drinks beforehand. The higher you get, the more expensive the drinks get (yes, there are still vending machines everywhere).
The visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine took far longer than anyone had anticipated, so by the time we got back down to the base, it was already lunchtime. We grabbed some snacks from a convenience store and headed back to Kyoto station where we bought a 1-day bus pass for 500 yen. A very good price in my opinion, and it can be used on the “Raku buses” which are geared towards tourists and make stops at all the touristy spots in the city.
The next stop was Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which I’m sure many of you have heard of or seen in anime. Once again, this place was on the side of a mountain, and as luck would have it, buses only drop you off on the main street several blocks away from the base. From the bus stop, you have to go east and climb a hill before you reach the first steps leading up to the temple.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple isn’t as high as the top of Fushimi Inari Shrine, so it didn’t take us too long to get there. There was an entrance fee which I wasn’t expecting, but after coming all this way, that wasn’t going to stop me from seeing it. At first nothing looked like any of the pictures I’d seen, then when I walked to the other side of the temple and looked back, I saw the shot that almost everyone takes of the temple.
Also at the temple were some “love stones” where if two lovers can walk around them blindfolded, they’ll be together forever or something. I can’t remember what the sign said exactly. Anyways, one of the love stones is shown below, the other one is quite a distance away.
When we were done looking at Kiyomizu-dera Temple, we went back down to the main street and this restaurant caught my eye. I thought Hello Kitty dressed up in a kimono was cute so I just had to take a picture.
We wandered around for a bit and made our way to Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto. This place is supposed to look like what ancient Kyoto looked like, but surprisingly it was cleaner than any other part of the city. There were also power lines everywhere which kinda ruined the “ancient” feel to it. I’m pretty sure that this area was where they filmed some of Memoirs of a Geisha too. I didn’t see any geisha walking around though.
It was pretty late in the afternoon by this time so we headed back to the bus stop to try to get to some more places before they all closed. While waiting for the bus, we took a brief look at Yasaka Shrine, which was literally right next to the stop. There weren’t as many people there as the other places we visited, but that was probably because there wasn’t anything interesting to see.
Our next stop was the Nijo Castle, but we had to head back to Kyoto station to take a different bus there. At Kyoto station I remembered to take a picture of one of the Raku buses.
We got to Nijo Castle at 3:57pm and after we bought our tickets, the staff there were motioning for us to get through the gates quickly. In case you didn’t know, Nijo Castle closes it’s gates at 4pm, so we were the very last people to get in that day. They literally shut the entrance gates behind us. The castle itself doesn’t close until 5pm though, so we had some time to take a look around. Nijo Castle is a world heritage site and as such, they don’t allow any photography inside to preserve the art displayed, so the only shots I got of it were from outside.
I was more impressed with the gardens outside the castle rather than the interior. While everything inside was faded and looked like it was falling apart, the gardens outside were beautiful and very well-kept.
We were forced out of the castle at 5pm in order for them to close up. By this time all of the Raku buses had stopped running and most of the tourist sites were probably closed as well, so we took a regular bus back to Gion to see a performance at the Gion Corner. I printed off a free coupon from their website and got a bunch of postcards when I bought my tickets. It doesn’t look like they have that anymore, but there is a winter special on the tea ceremony: 500 yen and a photo shoot with the maiko (geisha). I think the tea ceremony cost 1500 yen when I went and I didn’t get a photo shoot :(
The performance includes shortened versions of the Japanese tea ceremony, flower arrangement, gagaku (court music), koto harp music, kyogen (a type of play), kyomai (a geisha dance), and bunraku (a puppet show). It was very entertaining and they have explanations in English so you don’t have to worry about not understanding anything. Afterwards, we went to the tea ceremony class and learned how the Japanese make green tea and serve it to their guests (and how guests should behave when being served). Below is a pic of all the materials needed for the tea ceremony.
After the ceremony, my friends and I went out for a late dinner and headed back to the hotel for some much-needed rest.
The next morning got off to a late start, but we still got to our destination for the day well before lunch: Sagano and Arashiyama.
This place is supposed to be famous for its bamboo forest so that was the first stop for the day. I have to say though, that the “forest” wasn’t much of a forest and I wasn’t very impressed. I’ve stayed in Borneo for a month before and the number of bamboo in Saga Arashiyama just doesn’t compare to the real forests there.
While walking around the area, I came across a tanuki statue, a raccoon-dog with big balls (literally). Japan comes up with some of the weirdest things.
Since it was nearby, we paid a visit to Tenryuji Temple.
Apparently the gardens of this place are more important than the temple itself since they were declared a heritage site. Unfortunately, due to its status, that means you have to pay a fee to get in (drat). It was worth it though, the gardens were beautiful. In the gardens a group of highschoolers came up to me and one of them asked (in English) to interview me. This was the first time anyone has ever asked to interview me so I was happy to oblige. As part of their English class, they had to interview a foreigner in English and write down their answers and take a photo (for proof). Back when I was in high school, French was a mandatory class and if I had to interview a foreigner in French, I’d probably be scared sh*tless, so kudos to those kids.
A short walk away from Tenryuji Temple is the Togetsukyo (Moon Crossing) bridge, which from what I read was supposed to be very romantic. When I saw it though, I just didn’t see how it was supposed to be romantic. There isn’t anything particularly special about the bridge’s design and the view isn’t anything spectacular. Below is the view of the river from the bridge.
Anyways, we crossed the bridge in order to get to the Iwatayama Monkey Park that was on the other side. I had only seen monkeys twice in my life before (both times in Borneo) so I was looking forward to the park. Little did I know that we had to climb yet ANOTHER mountain. I was still tired from all exploring done in Kyoto so having to go up another mountain was a real pain. I guess I should have predicted there’d be climbing based on the park’s name: Iwata”yama” (the word “yama” means mountain in Japanese).
When I finally made it to the top and saw my first monkey in Japan, I just kinda looked at it and forgot that one of the “guidelines” posted at the entrance was not to stare at any monkeys in the eyes. Well, I stared at this one in the eyes and it started snarling at me and just as it was about to jump on my face (it was on a ledge above me), I ran away. When I came back, I found this cute little baby monkey playing around.
The area had a ton of monkeys sitting around and chasing after each other, but it also smelled like crap (probably because there was monkey crap everywhere). There was also a large group of students listening to a guide talk about the monkeys and a few other tourists.
What I was not expecting at the Monkey Park was an extraordinary view of all of Kyoto. I don’t know how good the city looks from Kyoto Tower, but I doubt that it can beat the view from the park.
Back down in Arashiyama, we visited some dessert shops just as they were closing and managed to get a few treats for later. As I was walking out of one store, I saw some kompeito on the counter. I really wanted to try some since I’ve seen it in a few anime but the store was closing up, so I only managed to take a pic.
By 6pm nearly every store in Arashiyama was closed. It reminded me of my time in Germany’s countryside where everything closes at 6pm and it looks like a ghost town outside. With nothing left to do in Arashiyama, we took the train back into Kyoto. I found one more tanuki with even bigger balls than the first one before we left.
Back in Kyoto, I wanted to go check out the noryoyuka restaurants that I had heard about. They’re supposed to be these fancy restaurants with decks along the river in Kyoto. Walking along the streets by the river, we soon realized that we couldn’t eat at one of these restaurants. When I heard that these were fancy restaurants, it didn’t occur to me that they were also highly expensive restaurants. These places all charged anywhere from $100 to $500 per person. It was obvious that these restaurants and the people eating there easily outclassed us.
We didn’t eat by the river that night, but I got a shot of what the decks of those restaurants look like from a nearby bridge.
After dinner, we headed back to our hotel for our last night in Kyoto before heading off to Osaka.
Kyoto was by far the most tiring part of my trip, but that was because there were so many things to see (and mountains to climb). One thing I noticed was that everywhere we went, there were schoolkids on a fieldtrip. I swear that every school in Japan must send their students to Kyoto, it’s like the field trip capital. I enjoyed most of my time in Kyoto, but there are a couple things I would’ve changed. If I had the ability to see into the future, I would’ve decided not to have spent so much time climbing to the top of Fushimi Inari. Doing that would’ve given enough time to see Kinkakuji, which I really wanted to visit. In case you couldn’t tell, the picture of kinkakuji I have in my highlights post is a fake. It’s a picture I took of a poster advertising the place to tourists. I also didn’t see a single anime store in Kyoto, so if that’s what you’re in Japan for, you might want to skip this place. That’s it for my advice for anyone planning a trip in the future.