Kyoto is a city of both the old and the new – where cobbled streets and ancient temples meet exclusive dining and high end shopping. It’s quaint and beautiful and hectic and modernised. It’s a small city with a big city feel, and it has something to suit everyone – so it draws the crowds.
Having heard so many good reviews we set aside a whole four days to spend in this popular city.. and for the first time during this trip I can say that we were, perhaps, just a little disappointed. Maybe it was just that we were beginning to tire of temple-hopping or that our expectations were too high on this occasion.. I am not at all trying to say that Kyoto was not worth the stop – because it totally was! But something just seemed to lack here.. and although we definitely enjoyed seeing the gorgeous streets of this old capital, I couldn’t help but feel that we perhaps gave Kyoto too much of our short time in this wonderful country and as a result we spent too many precious hours wandering about aimlessly, not necessarily finding anything new. Which of course can be great if you manage to get off the tourist track and find a sense of home in a foreign part of the world or if you discover something new or meet someone inspirational.. but we didn’t. We just found an emptiness that we didn’t quite know what to do with..
However regardless of what ever it was that we may have thought was lacking (maybe it was too commercial? Maybe it was too common? Maybe there were just too many damned tourists?!) we did see some awesome sights in Kyoto that I’m glad we didn’t miss out on.
We arrived in Kyoto in the middle of a grey, rainy day and hastily made our way to our accommodation (an Airbnb) to dump our gear and dry off. Then, so as not to waste any more time, we promptly headed out to go temple spotting! Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera – a really, truly unique Japanese temple which balances on high, bare wooden beams over a steep and picturesque hillside of bright autumn colours. We lingered here for a few moments, gazing out over rolling hills covered in thick forest and enjoying a scene that felt quiet and calm despite the presence of a reasonable crowd. And then we wandered down into the gardens below.
From the bottom of the hillside the giant wooden supports of Kiyomozu-dera were all the more impressive and their size, integrity and ingeniousness could be better felt. But it wasn’t just the clever structure of the temple that people came to see here – there was also a fountain of fresh mountain water to be drunk from! And this was no ordinary mountain fountain.. This fountain was designed in such a way that you had to reach out with a cup-on-a-stick to catch the falling water, which ran down from above your head in three thin streams and out into a pond before you. And it is believed that, dependant upon which stream you chose to drink from (and you can only choose one), you will be granted a specific fortune: ‘money and love’, ‘longevity’ or ‘good grades in school’. So we happily joined in and quenched our thirst from a randomly selected stream – seeing as it was not explained to us which stream provided which fortune. And the water was fresh and clear and cool from mountain air.
And since, we have of course conducted some basic research (really just a brief Google) that leads us to believe that our randomly selected stream just so happened to be that of ‘money and love’ – which is the stream I would have deliberately chosen given half a chance. So perhaps the temple understood us better than we realised. Perhaps our fortunes were meant to be left to fate?.. At least I sure hope I didn’t waste my good fortune on good grades..
And then it was on to Sanjusangen-do, ‘The Temple of 1001 Buddha’ (which are actually Bodhisattva – beings who stave off reaching full enlightenment – and thus becoming a Buddha – in order to stay and teach humans of the ways of the Buddhism). A temple, unlike most in Japan, that is styled as a simple long hall. But which none the less has earned it’s name – because this hall is not named as a metaphor or exadguration or in reference to a painting or half-arsed depiction. Instead, there are literally 1001 carefully detailed, life-sized, identical golden idols within it’s walls. All of which, despite the fact that they have been carved across generations – and not by a single master of the art – show an eerie similarity to one another and a stunning attention to detail on behalf of their creators. And the only single exception to this theme of repitition is one giant, sitting rendition of the single selected character – named Kannon – who is much bigger than the rest and sits contentedly, cross legged in the middle of the hall, in a giant, open lotus flower.
But in case the sheer number of idols and the skill of their replication is not quite enough. The Bodhisattva that these monuments are modelled after (Kannon) is also the Bodhisattva of 1000 arms.. So each rendition of Kannon that rests in this hall has been granted 42 arms.. A fair representation I think.. And each arm presents to the viewer one of 42 different objects that are thought to bring human health and happiness – A bell, a house, an axe, a charm, a book, a bow.. The details are astonishing. Each individual Kannon is such a carefully carved, shining example of human commitment and attention to detail, while in unity the collection presents a formidable wall of worship and wealth. No matter how you view it, this temple is spectacular.
And outside, as always, there was a beautiful little rock garden to walk around aswell.
And then, all too soon, daylight was lost. So we headed off to find dinner with a light rain continuing to patter overhead. And, in Kyoto, there is one place to go for food that has a reputation far ahead of the rest – Gion. A posh, modern suburb that brags of wealth and exclusivity. So we headed into this area hoping to find some memorable fare. And it’s certainly fair to say that the area immediately impressed upon us an air of sophistication. Here the streets weren’t the busy, raucous, steaming crowds of vendors that one usually finds in Japan. They were instead quiet, dimly lit and empty. The only thing indicating the presence of restaurants at all in fact was the silent menus which marked out empty doorways and no doubt led into quiet, dimly lit inner sanctums of rich business people sipping sake and nibbling at thinly sliced fish.. Although all of this interior detail, of course, I can only assume.. because the high prices on those silent menus were enough to promptly direct us elsewhere.. We selected a much busier, more raucous, more typical street to eat dinner on instead.
On day two we suffered a minor set back in our sight seeing schedule after a bag was left behind at a restaurant following lunch (no one deserves the whole blame here). A fact that we only realised when we were half way to our final destination of the day. Thus we had to forgo our final destination in order to retrieve our personal belongings – among which were two $750.00 Japan Rail passes.. But alas, the property was found safely and we still managed to fit in some really nice sightseeing despite this little hiccup.. Actually, it was a pretty good day!
Our main destination was Gingkaku-ji (Gingkaku temple) or the ‘silver pavilion’, which is a rather simple Japanese temple that isn’t so much named for its actual colour as opposed to it’s colour in comparison to Kyoto’s ‘golden pavilion’ – which is actually covered in gold leaf. But despite the rather unspectacular grey of the building itself, what is really beautiful is the gardens. As always the Japanese landscapers who designed this place have done a stellar job in creating something inconceivably beautiful from simple rocks and moss. So we strolled the gardens for a time and drank in the bright greens of thick moss, the pale greys of exposed rocks and the furious reds of autumn trees. We watched water droplets ripple and disturb clear ponds, we climbed gravel stairways into thick scrub and looked out over the temple’s simple roof. We picked out our favourite autumn colours from the rainbow array presented to us and we even found a small bamboo grove with the thickest stalks of bamboo that I have ever seen.. It was a really beautiful place to linger about.
Of course, we had to leave this small wonderland at some point, but reluctant to cease our meandering ways we next found ourselves walking the nearby ‘Philosophers Path’. This gentle walking track follows a low stream along a small back-road of odd shops and houses, and is lined with leaning trees. On our way we stopped in to browse and buy beautiful, hand crafted chop sticks from a small road-side store and found a wee pottery shed where we sat for a while and crafted simple clay cups. Of which the latter was surprisingly easy, we thought, despite how hard people always try to make pottery out to be.. Although, of course our creations were nothing at all complex, and were probably much thicker than conventional crockery due to our inability to mould the clay into a fine china without having it collapse.. However we don’t yet know the true beauty of our creations and so cannot yet judge them, as they will each take 3 weeks to set. After which time they will be delivered to our home in Melbourne. So before the success of our careers in the pottery field can be determined we must desperately hope that these first attempts will arrive to us well packaged and unbroken within a months time.. I can’t wait to see the end products. My hopes are high.
And then, after spending the first half of our day so slowly we decided it was time for lunch.. and it’s at this point, after having consumed an exceedingly average Indian/Nepalese meal, that we momentarily lost our day bag.. and with it the last of the days light (this was obviously a late lunch).
But we are not the type to dwell on such misfortunate events – and all turned out well in the end with nothing lost or stolen. So with one missed opportunity we took up another. We took advantage of our newly freed night to check out a light show that was on at Kodai-ji (Kodai temple). Which was damn spectacular, and completely unexpectedly so.
This light show projected all sorts of creatures and tippy colours on the temple lawn and surrounding white fences of Kodai-ji – which were brilliantly clear and accompanied by intense gong-like music that could be heard rumbling throughout the temple grounds long before the lights could be seen. But of all the monsters and creatures and colours involved in the projections the best were those that followed the existing lines of the temples gates and simply coloured them in, in an olden style which made the whole surface look wooden and thatched. It was brilliantly done, and wicked to have stumbled into! And it provided such a fantastic modern twist to the typically ancient nature of a temple. In fact it was so good that we made sure to watch it twice (each show lasting about 5 minutes) and even after our second sitting we left impressed and elated.
On day three we prioritised catching up on the site we missed the day before – Kinkaku-ji (Kinkaku temple) or the ‘Golden Pavilion’. A site which is truly worthy of it’s name, because it is almost entirely coated in gold leaf. Although I must say, despite this hefty claim to fame I was rather disappointed by the ‘Golden Pavilion’ – which seemed to lean largely on the fact that it is gold to gain recognition. Because the surrounding gardens were less impressive than many that I have seen in Japan and the temple itself was of quite plain and simple in design.. And besides, the place was overrun with school children and other tourists so that we all had to tussle about to reach prime photo locations, lookouts or just to generally move about.
So without lingering here too long we moved on to our next stop – The Kyoto Botanical Gardens. Where, for a minimal entrance fee, we were allowed to meander throughout a massive garden-scape that was, simply put, absolutely gorgeous. We wandered beneath trees of red, green, purple, orange and yellow, amongst roses and orchids and blossoms, through pathways, over bridges and between bushels, and found our way into the single best tropical conservatory I have ever seen. And in here, throughout 5 separate but interconnected glasshouses we discovered flowers that were thick, heavily scented, carnivorous and cleverly shaped. We saw tall cacti and bulbous fruits and long leaves and crystal ponds. It was wonderful. And the range of species included in these gardens was extremely impressive.
It would have been easy to get lost in this space for hours on end. But we didn’t allow that to happen. Instead we decided to head back to the old streets of Kyoto’s historic district for some last minute shopping before our time in this city ran out.
And it was probably at about this point during our stay in Kyoto that we realised we were running out of things to do here, because we’re really not shopping travellers. And although I did have a couple of purchases that I was dying to make on this one occasion.. We ended up spending the rest of the night trying to find recommendations and suggestions for things to do in Kyoto online. Things to do that is, that weren’t more shrines, shops or eateries.. And as it turns out these things either don’t exist in Kyoto or are too exclusive to find. Which is the reason for my initial opinion that Kyoto might be, just a little, overrated. I mean, almost everything that we saw and did in this city was amazing – the botanical gardens, the silver pavilion, the light show at Kodai-ji, the 1001 golden statues of Kannon, the old streets of Kyoto’s historical district – were all worth it! But it was all expected. It was all forseen. It was all predictable and commercialised and touristic and crowded. We stumbled upon nothing that was as yet undiscovered by the tourist masses and I can’t help but feel that our experience in this city may well have been a cookie-cutter identical of many others. And the weirdest part was, that outside of all of the generic fan fare that told us to come here for the beautiful temples and for the food and shopping.. there was nothing. It’s like a big bubble had grown over this city prohibiting the growth of anything new or different, which come to think of it, was probably a result of the city trying so hard to protect and promote it’s historical content.. I don’t know. It’s hard to put a finger on.. I would definately tell people to go here. But just, maybe, as a stop-over destination instead of as a sole attraction.
But, I digress… we still had one more day to fill.
Day four was to be our final day in the olden city of Kyoto and we had just one more sight to see before we thought we had really seen everything that this city had to offer – the Fushimi Inari Shrine. A shrine that is built to the gods of rice. And it really was well worth the short trip out of the city that it required.
Built on a mountain side, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is based less around the temple buildings at the mountain’s base, and more around the hallway of bright red and orange tori gates that stretch up to the mountains top – with each one donated by various wealthy individuals (there are a few different sizes which can be bought at varying price points). So we climbed the mountain side beneath a spectacular array of brightly painted wooden gates, enjoying the tunnel-like quality they lent to the landscape. And although there was actually no view from the top, due to the large amount of bush up there, it was a lovely walk that we ultimately enjoyed – even if the stairs may have been my mortal enemy for a while there..
And by the time we made it back down we found we still had the large part of a day left, so we popped into the first cafe we could find for a beer and an iced green tea. And we were pleasantly surprised to find that this place had a beautiful outlook and an old wooden rocking chair for Sam to rock in. So we stayed a while here and relaxed.
And then suddenly our desperate online searches for something to do with the rest of our day turned up a result – there was a sake museum near by! So we took a short, self-guided tour through an old sake brewery which had a surprisingly long and interesting history, but that none the less only provided entertainment for about 20 minutes. So we quickly felt we had seen all that the small museum had to offer and made our exit before too long – making sure to sample some sweet and dry sake and plum wine and pick up a couple of bottles to take home on our way out.
And as abruptly as that our time in Kyoto was at an end.
We spent the rest of our night aimlessly – packing our bags, sitting about in the lounge of our accommodation watching Japanese shows we could barely understand and dwelling on the news of America’s recent election results..
We were ready to move on. And our next stop would not let us down – it was onwards to Hiroshima!