Japan was never high on my priority list of places to visit. However it’s only 1:45 hrs from Incheon, Korea, and since reading Memoirs of a Geisha as a teenager, I wanted to visit Gion, particularly in April during the cherry blossom season. Also, a friend told me that Kyoto was his favourite city in the world. I decided to go, and arranged to meet my Canadian buddy in crime, Beth, there. My mission was to spot a Geiko (Geisha) or Maiko (an apprentice) in the narrow streets of Gion. Thereafter, I dragged Beth to Gion, Geiko spotting almost every evening, so it inevitably became her obsession too.
We flew into Osaka Kansai airport, and from there, we took a limousine shuttle to Kyoto station for around $25 CAN. We stayed at a hostel in Higashiyama, about a 20 minute walk south of Gion. We were next to a temple called Sanjusangendo which had 1001 full sized statues which unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph.
Since Beth and I both have an awful sense of direction, we quickly began to use the Kamo river, as a principal landmark to travel north to the Center and south to our neighbourhood and Kyoto station.
The first thing that we noticed when we arrived is that Kyoto has hundreds of temples and shrines. It escaped US bombing during WWII, with the result that it is reputed as the oldest, best preserved and most beautiful city in all Japan.
Japan is largely Shinto and Buddhist, and for this reason, Kyoto houses many of their significant and lesser known buildings. The temples and shrines are so numerous that, quite frankly, they are intimidating. Beth, fresh from Canada, was eager to see as many as she could take in. I, on the other hand, fresh from many cultural experiences and particularly temple visits in Korea, having lived there for 14 months prior to visiting Japan, had less endurance to visit every temple that we passed. In fact, we visited so many that, as you may have noted on some of the photographs, I cannot always identify temple names with the result that I’ve indicated the vicinity of the temple (which I largely recall).
I have posted a map and circled many of the temples we visited, however I wish to recommend my favourites: Sanjusangen-do: 1001 statues (indoor exhibit), Chishakuin temple: beautiful grounds and active… you can view Buddhist ceremonies around 9am and 5pm approximately, Fushimi Inari shrine: temple grounds, gateways, bell tolls and mountain pilgrimage framed by numerous orange gates, Kiyomizu-dera temple: incredibly picturesque and filled with tourists posing for photos wearing traditional Kimono dress, Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion): interesting history of the use of the pavilion itself.
One major activity to partake in while in Kyoto is to dress in traditional kimono clothing for a day. I purchased a Yakata (somewhat informal and similar to a ‘dressing gown’ to Western observers) and Beth purchased a package at one of the many local shops that offered dress-up services. The package (around $50) included kimono, hair, handbag and footwear. Like other tourists, we went to nearby Kiyomizu-dera temple grounds, especially when we discovered just how restricting it is to wear. We could not take our usual long strides, but had to shuffle along taking small, quick steps, and additionally, our footwear was not too supportive and we had to cling to it for dear life, less we lost it. It was definitely worth it, and I would highly recommend it.
Nijo Castle is located near the Manga Museum and the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Nijo tourists are directed to follow a path set out to observe royal art adorning the walls, and while the entranceway was under construction, Nijo was a nice detour from our usual activities. I visited the Kyoto Imperial Palace twice, and both times, I was unsuccessful at entering the palace itself. I traveled to Kyoto without a Lonely Planet guide, which specified the steps to applying and joining a free tour at the palace. If you wish to visit, look up their online website and fill in their forms before taking your identity documents with you when signing up for a designated tour. The process is a little more complicated than tourists usually expect.
Gion Corner, a plaza in Gion, specializes in putting on productions for tourists. We went to watch an evening performance (two are put on per evening: 5pm and 6pm) which entailed lining up to purchase tickets (around $30 per person) right before the show. The show included several performances with differing actors. We wanted to see the Geisha performance, and luckily, having arrived early and acquired front row seats, we had an excellent view. The Geisha and Maiko (apprentices) performers wore beautiful kimonos and their Kyomai dance seemed subdued and elegant. Surprisingly, the Bunraku (puppet play) was incredibly funny and despite not speaking Japanese, it seemed that the play skillfully overcame any communication blocks with the viewers. I suspect that other productions put on for local Japanese are far superior, however attempting to buy tickets without speaking Japanese is a huge impediment. Beth and I tried to join a different Geisha show, just north of Nishiki market, however the feat was simply too huge.
I loved Nishiki Market and the surrounding area. It has plenty of restaurants, clothing and fabric stores. Beth and I returned numerous times to a busy restaurant which served wonderful udon noodle soups and hot sake. We both purchased lots of fabric items including handkerchiefs, neck scarves, wall hangings and so forth since traditional Japanese prints were incredibly alluring in our case! The tourist area around Kiyomizu-dera has a main strip which caters to many restaurants and cafes with green tea ice-cream, lots of souvenir items including decorative and functional fans (the pricier ones are the Japanese ones…the others are Chinese), kimonos and yakatas, pottery items, printed fabrics, jewelry boxes and so forth, One thing I particularly liked about entering stores and restaurants, was that usually, if you weren’t looking ahead properly, you would walk into a hanging flap of fabric which would hit you in the face. The quirks of a city or foreign country remind you that you are not at home, and occasionally, when you feel comfortable very quickly in a completely new environment, sometimes, there’s nothing like a flap to the face to remind you that you are somewhere new and exciting.
I visited the Kyoto National Museum, however I actually found the basic museum (not including the exhibition) rather boring. The Museum of Kyoto, near the Manga Museum, is probably much more interesting.
I want to point out that the Kamo River is quite a beautiful walk. Beth and I frequently bought Sashimi take-out breakfast and fresh buns stuffed with chocolate chunks at our local pastry shop and enjoyed our breakfast on the banks of the Kamo before walking downtown.
Finally, and possibly most importantly: food. I hear that some visitors travel to Japan just to eat. This does not surprise me in the least. Once there, I developed cravings for sashimi and udon noodle soups. Our local neighbourhood in Higashiyama housed many small pubs and local restaurants that had outstanding food. Beth and I, although somewhat conscious of a spending budget, ate out on every occasion as we simply couldn’t help ourselves! The degree of freshness used in seafood dishes was mouthwatering. Japanese restaurants in Canada, Spain or elsewhere, in my experience, have been unable to reproduce the freshness and taste that I experienced there.
One final thought. Some tourists had trouble finding ATM locations that accepted foreign credit cards to withdraw cash. Make sure that you have enough cash to last your trip. There is an ATM at Kansai airport. You can use foreign cards to pay for goods at stores or hotel fees without any problems.
This city has so much to offer… palaces, castles, temples and shrines, markets, amazing cuisine and fun textiles and souvenirs… and I haven’t even scratched the surface. Go find out for yourself!