Kyoto: Overdosing on Temples

My trip so far has been extremely busy and I am now painfully behind on my blogging, so as I write this post I am sat on a bus to visit the Great Wall of china. However, this post is about my wonderful 3 days in Kyoto, and the second half of my Japanese experience.

On my last day in Tokyo I awoke early and packed up my bag (how is it that luggage always seems to expand as you travel?). I had planned to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) down to Kyoto in the afternoon, but before I left I wanted to check out one last shrine – the Sensoji shrine about 30 minutes walk from my hostel. So I stowed my main bag at the hostel and headed out. The walk was fairly straight forward and soon I found myself at the end of a long narrow street lined with stalls, and decorated with the beautiful orange and red Japanese maple leaves that make Tokyo so beautiful at this time of year. The street was absolutely rammed with people, and it took a further 10 minutes to get through the crowds to the shrine. It was Saturday, and it felt as though everyone in Japan had come here. Amongst the ornate buildings were large incense burners which are used as a form of prayer to make wishes for luck and prosperity. Inside the temple itself people followed another Japanese prayer ritual practised at many Buddhist shrines – you first offer a small monetary donation, then bow twice, clap twice, bow and then clap again. This also is thought to be a way to make wishes. Around the temple were many other forms of entertainment, including a group of around 20 girls doing gymnastics.

JPN_069After a pleasant wander around the shrine, and a quick stop to buy some post cards, I started to head back to my hostel. I had had a vague hope of making it down to the Museum of Science and Emerging Technology, where you can see the Asimo robot, amongst other things. But it was way out of the way and time was running short – I wanted to get to Kyoto before dark. So I resigned myself to missing the museum (you simply can’t do everything). I collected my bag, which now seemed far heavier than I remembered, and took the JR train to Tokyo station. Very quickly my bag was becoming unmanageable and my back was killing me, but readjusting the straps helped a lot and I made it to the station in one piece.

Then came the most stressful and confusing (although probably unnecessarily so) hour of my trip so far – buying a ticket. Because I had come from another train, I was initially searching for a ticket office within the station, but I also really needed to find a cash machine, and when I tried the ticket machine they wouldn’t allow me to buy a ticket – only top up a ticket I already had. My confusion and stress in trying to find a ticket office was magnified by the weight of my unwieldy backpack. Eventually I realised that I needed to exit the station to buy a ticket, and things got a little easier from there. I finally found a cash machine and a ticket office, and the sweet, helpful Japanese lady sold me a Shinkansen ticket for the next train, and directed me to the correct platform. Half an hour later I was on a bullet train, settling in for the 2 hour journey, and hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji which I had missed the day before. About 45 minutes in I got my wish – the weather was clear and for about 5 minutes I enjoyed stunning views of the iconic mountain. Then it was gone again, hidden behind more of Japan’s mountainous terrain.

JPN_072To my amazement there was a smoking room on the train, so I took my e-cigarette and checked it out. A little while later we arrived in Kyoto, I got off the train and took a short subway ride to Shijo station near my hostel. Finally I arrived, red faced and exhausted, and got settled into my dorm. I decided to treat myself to a little nap. 11 hours later I awoke . I must have needed the rest, as I felt amazingly refreshed, and had finally recovered from my jet lag.

Over breakfast I set about planning my day. Having spent a great deal of time on trains and the subway the last few days, I decided to explore Kyoto on foot. Walking from the hostel, I headed towards the Imperial Palace first, temporarily getting a little distracted by another temple – Rokkaku Do. This was a fairly small temple, but it was very beautiful, and surrounded by many small smiling jizo statues. Continuing on I suddenly noticed the International Manga museum across the street and although this hadn’t been on my itinerary that morning, it was something I wanted to do, so I decided to check it out. Their collection was absolutely amazing – walls and walls of manga books in every language and style imaginable, covering 100 years of manga history. I must admit I know relatively little about manga, but the museum was fascinating. The highlight was at the end of my visit, when I took the opportunity to have my anime portrait drawn by a professional artist. Apparently anime-me really suits a kimono!

I left the museum and continued on my stroll, reaching the Imperial Palace gardens about 10 minutes later. The gardens and the palace were beautiful amongst the red / orange autumn leaves. You can’t go into the palace, though, so I wandered round the gardens for about half an hour before continuing on. I was now heading east, aiming for the Silver Pavilion. Again, I got a little distracted along the way, stopping at the Budo Centre to watch some locals practising martial arts, and to view the extremely impressive Heian Jing Shrine. Finally, I reached my destination, and queued up to go into the Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion). It was very crowded, but in amongst the autumn leaves and decorative ponds, the temple (which isn’t silver at all, by the way) looked stunning. Following the path through the pavilion I climbed upwards to some rather nice views of Kyoto.

It was starting to get late, and I still had lots I wanted to do. I proceeded south down the Philosophers path, aiming for Eikan-do park, which I’d been told was very pretty at this time of year, and was illuminated during Autumn nights. There were a plethora of temples and shrines to stop at along the path, but I simply didn’t have the energy any longer. I was feeling pretty templed-out. The narrow, tree-lined path was very pretty though, following alongside a small stream. When I eventually got down to Eikan-do park, it was closed. I hadn’t realised, but apparently they close the park from 4 – 5.30 and then let people back in again (for another fee) to see the illuminations. It was 5. I was exhausted, and it was starting to get cold. I concluded that I just couldn’t sit around and wait for it to open again. Instead, I made my way to the nearest subway station and back to the hostel.

The next day I had set myself a rather ambitious task. There were two remaining things in Kyoto I particularly wanted to see – the Fushimi inari shrine, and the Iwatayama Monkey Park. Unfortunately these were on opposite sides of the city. I left the hostel around 10am and caught the train to Arashiyama, and climbed up the steep 20 minute incline to the monkey park. At the top of the hill, not only where there stunning views of the city, but also around 100 Japanese Macaques (also known as snow monkeys), which were relatively tame and would happily wander around the tourists. Inside a small hut you could buy food and feed it to the monkeys through a wire mesh. Outside, you could watch the adults grooming each other and resolving the occasional dispute, while the small babies bounced around excitably playing. It was magical. I must have taken about 300 photos.

JPN_058After about an hour and a half I knew it was time to tear myself away and head off to my second destination for the day. However, I was out of cash and had failed to find an international cash machine in Arashiyama, so I caught the train back to the centre of Kyoto and found a 7-Eleven where I knew I could get some more money out. Except I couldn’t. The cash machine said no – my balance was too low to withdraw the smallest allowable amount (10,000 yen / 70 quid). A little panicked, I rushed back to my hostel to check my online banking. I realised on the short walk that I had forgotten to transfer some money out of my savings, and upon realising this I calmed down a bit. At my hostel I transferred the money across to my current account. I also had a brief chat with a guy at the hostel who I’d noticed had piercings – when I arrived in Kyoto I’d discovered my belly-button bar was missing and I hoped he could recommend somewhere to buy a new one. He couldn’t, but reception did. I decided to make a brief detour to a nearby shopping centre where I hoped to find a replacement belly-bar. I succeeded in doing so, and on the way out inadvertently stumbled across something I had hoped to find in Kyoto but had resigned myself to being far too time limited to be possible; Floresta Nature Donuts. I had seen the company on the internet a few months ago – they make adorable donuts iced to look like animals. I couldn’t believe my luck. I thought the shop was way out on the outskirts, but here in the shopping centre they had a little cart. I bought a cute little kitten donut, and went and sat by the nearby river to eat it. It was delicious!

JPN_061Feeling pretty pleased with how everything had worked out, I jumped on train a few stops south to my final shrine – Fushimi Inari. This is definitely the most impressive and unique shrine I’ve seen so far. It consists of literally hundreds (maybe even thousands?!) of red arches, stretching along several long, winding paths up the hill. The stairs are quite steep, and it took around an hour and a half to walk the to the top. Through the tunnels of red, with the afternoon autumn light streaming in, the shrine was beautiful. It wasn’t too busy either, although I did end up gaining a Japanese companion for a lot of the walk – I’m not sure if he wanted to practise his English, or he was just lonely, but we started chatting and ended up walking most of the way up and all the way back down together. He was planning a trip to England next month, so we exchanged some cultural notes and he provided some interesting background to the shrine. Arriving at a clearing fairly near the top, the sun was beginning to set and the view of Kyoto was gorgeous. On the way back down the same spot provided another impressive view, this time the city lights had begun to shine and the same view was transformed. When we reached the bottom, my Japanese friend offered me a motorbike ride home, but I politely declined and took the train instead (I don’t feel safe on a motorbike in England, let alone abroad!). I arrived back at Gion station, and had a short wander around Gion district, known for being the home of Geishas. JPN_067 I didn’t spot any, but it was very pretty in the early evening light, and I stopped at a few shops to buy a few souvenirs and try a traditional Japanese sweet, which proved far too sickly and I had to dispose of more than half of it in the nearest bin I could find.

As the day drew to a close, I headed back to the hostel for a free origami class they were offering, and enjoyed a relaxing couple of hours folding paper. I managed to make a pretty good crane by the end of the class :) My last evening in Kyoto was extremely (and unexpectedly) pleasant.

I was very sad to leave Kyoto. There was so much I didn’t have time to do, and so many people I would have liked to see more of. But, my flight to Beijing was booked for Tuesday afternoon, so that morning I packed my bag, jumped on a train to Osaka and headed to the airport. Fair well Kyoto, and Japan. I will definitely be back!

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