The lines leading up to the opening subway doors were neat and orderly and, after all the departing passengers had left, we patiently filed into the car, making our way to one of the many plush red velvet seats available to us. As we nestled ourselves in to the seats, which also happened to be heated, and lazily gazed around the car, it became very clear that we weren’t in China anymore. Sure the faces looked the same and the buzz of a big city was still ringing in our ears, but there were also sounds of birds and wildlife being played over the subway speaker system. This was Kyoto, it was different, and we liked it.
Our home base for the trip was Khaosan Kyoto Guesthouse, which was tucked away in an alley just off of one of the main shopping streets in the city. We arrived late in the afternoon so, wanting to make the most of the little time we had in a city of 2,000 temples, we made a brief stop to drop off our bags before heading off to the Arashiyama district in the outskirts of the city.
After arriving in the district, we wondered if we had gone to the right place. Temples, bamboo forests and monkeys were the attraction, but as we exited the subway station, our eyes were met instead with a surrounding of tree-blanketed hills roller-coastering their way around the skyline and a clear, gentle river running in between. Unsure of where to go, we decided to follow the scattered clusters of people meandering towards a bridge that crossed to a small town just over the river. As we crossed the bridge, the tranquil atmosphere that accompanied the walk up to it soon disappeared into a bustling one as we entered the enclave of one and two story buildings. The streets buzzed with tourists scrambling to try the wide array of new things awaiting them (which were many) ranging from fried seafood on a stick to rickshaw rides.
We decided to save the commotion for later and settled on a buffet which was a unique experience unto itself. The buffet featured an assortment of bite-size dishes that included everything from steamed pumpkin to fried potatoes to pieces of colorful tofu molded into little flowers, with all of it being served up in small baskets placed around the room. Our plates, large and square with nine separate sections indented into them, were ingeniously designed to accommodate the bountiful selection before us. We were allotted 60 minutes for the buffet but, despite our valiant efforts to fill each of the minutes as fully as we had each of the sections of our plate, our stomachs waved the white flag at just 45 minutes and we decided to leave early. In need of a good walk after this, we headed to Tenryu-ji, one of the main temples in the area.
Before coming to Japan a student had asked Ryan why he was going through all the hassle of going to another country to see temples and mountains when he could see both of those right in China. The answer to that became clear as we entered the temple. It undoubtedly shared many similarities with temples we had seen in China, but there were just enough differences to make it feel like we were touring a temple for the first time. Many of the buildings’ roofs were not tiled, as they are in China, but thatched, the walls were paper, and the gardens designed to an aesthetic uniformity. So much so in fact that as we walked through them we felt as if we were walking through a miniature set where each tree and bush had been placed exactly where they were meant to be by giant hands from above.
The grounds of this temple were small however and we soon found ourselves at the exit, which conveniently sat at the entrance of the sight that we had traveled to the area to see: the bamboo forest. In the pictures we had seen of it before the trip, each one appeared to be dipped in green with the only deterrence from the different shades of the hue being the brown dirt path running down the middle. But, as we walked up to the forest, the dim light of the late afternoon gave it a more ominous feel than the bright colors we had seen in the pictures. The only sunlight that made it into the forest shined down in slivers that had managed to slip through the thick canopy of leaves sitting on top of the stalks. This, and the cool air we felt as we entered the forest, gave it an eerie feeling. As we walked down the dirt path further into the endless stretch of bamboo stalks, the strange feeling that accompanied our entrance quickly became one of fascination as we took in row after row of thick bamboo trunks shooting up into the sky. To take everything in, we walked back and forth through the forest several times before leaving for good and crossing the river again to head back to our hostel.
Our second day started early as we wanted to beat the crowds to our first destination: Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, one of the most visited sights in the city. As we entered the grounds though, we were disappointed to find hordes of tour groups wandering about, rendering our efforts of early arrival moot. Eager for a view of picturesque gardens rather than a sea of like-colored hats, we maneuvered our way through the crowd, finally coming to a stop at the edge of a small pond where we had a beautiful sweeping view of the temple’s scenery. Dominating the view was the appropriately named Golden Pavilion, which warranted the crowds moving around it with its completely gold exterior which was duplicated almost perfectly in the mirror-like reflection in the pond below.
As our trip to Japan was in early February, the landscapes we saw were not filled with cherry blossom trees or the rich foliage of autumn, but rather the bareness of winter. Though this couldn’t compare with what we imagined the other scenes to be, it still had its own beauty and the colors that did exist were more striking amidst the dull browns and whites of the trees. Of these colors, that of the moss blanketing the surrounding hillsides stuck out the most, taking on an almost lime green shade as the sunlight reflected off of it.
As we made our way around the grounds we noticed a group of students eyeing us intently and soon after their professor approached us wanting to know if we’d be willing to answer a few of their questions for a school project. This would be the first of many encounters with students looking to complete their school work, with most of them being scripted and very few of them being based in any sort of interest in what we had to say. Regardless, they were sweet and we had fun talking with them.
After Kinkaku-ji, we grabbed a bite to eat around our next stop, Nijo Castle. The food at the restaurant wasn’t anything special, but the experience we had there was. Upon entering, instead of a waitress taking orders, we went to a vending machine, chose a picture of what meal we wanted, slipped a bill into the machine, and took the two tickets that popped out. Tickets in hand, we sat down and gave them to the waitress who brought our food out shortly after. It’s funny how what’s the most mundane of tasks for some people can be so exotic for others.
With full stomachs, we headed to the castle, which was different from any concept of a castle we had ever known apart from the moat that surrounded it. Rather than tall spires reaching into the sky, the structure stretched outward with curve-tipped eaves. Inside the walls, the many rooms contained minimal furniture or decorations, making it difficult to imagine a luxurious royal lifestyle ever taking place there. The one exception to the humble interior design was the beautiful murals adorning the walls of the different rooms, with each scene being different from the next. Of all those that we saw, the one that stuck out to us the most was of tigers lounging under a shade tree. What made them unique was that the paintings weren’t based on any first-hand knowledge of tigers by the artists, but rather of descriptions they had heard through stories. Because of this, the tigers took on a stocky, muscular look, slightly different from the sleek versions that we are familiar with.
The aesthetics of simplicity didn’t just stop with the visuals though, the air in the castle halls was still and cool, the smell clean, and the sound, aside from the soft murmurs of visitors in the distance, consisted of only the creaking of the wooden floors. This, as we found out, was no accident as the creaking was designed to make sure that any intruder looking to off an imperial would not be able to do so quietly. Because of the bird-like sound of the creaking that accompanied each step, the floorboards were dubbed “nightingale floors.”
After the castle, we made our way to Kiyomizu-dera, a temple whose crowded, bustling atmosphere was a world apart from the peaceful one we had just visited. The temple was perched atop a hill and to get to it we had to walk up a crowded street full of vendors. The atmosphere, which would have triggered a fit of hair pulling in Shanghai, was comparatively charming being on vacation and we strolled up the hill to reach the temple’s main pagoda. The first thing that caught our eye as we approached it was the white and orange adorning the exterior of the different buildings which seemed to glow in the light of the setting sun.
As we explored the different corners of the grounds, we came across what we thought to be one of the more unique parts of the temple: the “Love Walk.” As legend has it, if you can walk from one of the small rocks marking the start of the path to the other at the end with your eyes closed, you have found your true love. The area, naturally, was populated by packs of giddy teens who we pushed through to partake in the testament of love. Ryan, who went first, quickly and confidently made it from one stone to the other. Kate however, veered off course rather quickly and ended far away from either stone.
With our future together now in question, we decided to move on. The rest of our time in the temple was spent wandering around the grounds, taking in views of the city slowly darkening below and the landscape obscured by twilight. As street lamps slowly flickered on around us, we decided to move on and begin our hunt for dinner.
Our search took us to a restaurant where they made a dish called issen-yosyoku, which could best be described as Japanese tacos, and the only dish they served. We took this, along with the fact that the restaurant was packed, to mean that the mad concoction of ingredients we watched the cooks stuff into the tacos was worth trying. After nibbling at first, unsure of the questionable combination of ingredients, we were happy to find that our assumptions of deliciousness were correct and we devoured the tacos.
Our last day in Kyoto started as the previous one had, with some yogurt, muesli and a cup of coffee in our hostel’s common room, though the feeling was much different as we knew that we would soon be leaving one of the most comfortable and beautiful cities we had ever visited. Anxious to make the most of the time left to us before our train left for Tokyo, we headed to the Shinto shrine of Fushimi-Inari, one of the sites we had been looking forward to seeing the most.
After going basically from temple to temple over the course of the past two days, we were worried that the all-too-familiar temple fatigue (the point when the sights and sounds of different temples start to bleed together into one, losing their allure) would set in and diminish our appreciation of the place. This worry was quickly replaced by one of excitement though as we walked up an alleyway to the temple through a haze of odorous smoke emanating from the various fried food vendors lining it. After somehow managing to elude the temptation to try one of the many delicious-looking treats, we emerged from the alley and were met with the first of what would be thousands of orange torii gates, the unignorable symbol of the temple that lined the surrounding hillsides in an endless fashion.
As we began to explore the grounds more it was hard for us to imagine the temple as a place of worship for some as any sign of tranquility was lost amidst the mob of tourists weaving in and out of each other. For us it was exciting but a meditating monk might think otherwise. One thing we noticed in our exploration was the various statues of foxes scattered around the grounds and sitting in front of the different shrines and buildings the way lions do in China. We later learned that the foxes represent messengers to Inari, the god of grain and business. This helped give some context to the torii gates too, as each one was individually donated to the shrine as an offering to Inari for good fortune in their financial endeavors.
Before entering the maze of torii gates that began where the temple grounds transitioned into forest, we stopped off at a mouth-rinsing station where we used a large bamboo ladle to rinse out the inside of our mouths as was custom for visitors to the temple. Because sincerity is a fundamental aspect of Shintoism, the mouth-rinsing represented a purification of the heart.
With clean mouths (and hearts!), we entered the stretch of gates which made for a kind of hallway that would serve as our guide up and eventually back down the hillside. The gates were packed together pretty tightly so as we walked through them, it created an illusion of walking down an orange painted tunnel that extended as far as the curves of the hillside would allow. At some points, where the stretch ahead of us was flat, the gates created a miniature hallway effect, where the people walking by us would gradually shrink as they walked on, eventually disappearing into the tiny square of light waiting at the end.
We walked on and on, waiting for a break in the gates, but it rarely came and when it did, it was brief. Some of the gaps included small shrines with the familiar fox statues adorning them, an area with tiny huts that families could reserve and go to to make offerings, and, of most use to us, large maps that always reminded us that we had not walked nearly as far as we thought we had.
After walking for an hour and a half, we realized that at least another hour of climbing awaited us before reaching the hill’s summit. So, with our departure to Tokyo looming ever closer and one more temple to visit on our list, we reluctantly decided to turn around and begin our descent. After winding back down the mountain and emerging from the gates to the main temple grounds again, we succumbed to the array of fried foods that had tempted us on the way in. As we examined the food more closely, we realized that our choices were basically a variation of either meat on a stick or seafood on a stick. We tried both, which were equally delicious, along with some of the dessert options and then made our way to our last stop in Kyoto: Nanzen-ji.
The temple, quiet and secluded, offered us a nice retreat from the crowds of Fushimi-Inari and a peaceful end to our tour of the city. Walking up to the temple, we were met with a massive 500-year-old gate that was unrestored, a rarity in Asia we’ve found, as most temples we come across are restorations due to their wooden nature. Another feature of the temple that we had been looking forward to seeing was the aqueduct running alongside it, which looked very European and seemed out of place in the Japanese landscape. The temple, nearly void of tourists, was fairly free range and we were able to climb up on top of the aqueduct and walk along it through the forest ahead. Looking to avoid a mad dash to the train station that seems to be a trademark of all of our trips, we didn’t walk too far or for that matter spend too much time at the temple. After leaving, we grabbed our bags from the hostel and boarded our train for the nation’s capital.
Our time in Kyoto was far too short but, despite barely grazing the surface of the abundance of sights and culture packed into the metropolis, undoubtedly one of the more enjoyable experiences we’ve had in our travels.