After learning about Japan’s fairly recent history in Hiroshima, as well as getting a quick introduction to the Japanese way of life, we caught a 6am train from Hiroshima, to venture into Japan’s past, and to the ‘City of Ten Thousand Shrines’.
Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital for more than a thousand years, until Tokyo was named capital in 1868. As such, Kyoto has such a rich history, with many temples and shrines located in and around the city, hence the nickname ‘City of Ten Thousand Shrines’. Even during WWII, the enemies spared Kyoto from air raids and removed it from the list of potential cities for the Atomic Bomb due to it’s cultural and historical value. So we knew we were in for a historical lesson in the next few days.
Most of the famous shrines and temples (many of which are now UNESCO World Heritage protected) lie outside the centre of the city. With transport via subway and bus so easy in Kyoto (as it was in the rest of Japan), getting to the sights was dead easy.
As soon as we stepped into the grounds of our first temple, Ginkaku-ji, we immediately felt the welcoming silence. It felt so strange, as previously on our trip, we had learnt to get accustomed to the huge amounts of noise that would accompany large tourist spots. Macchu Picchu, Christ the Redeemer, The Forbidden City. Yes, these were highly visited attractions, but so were these temples and shrines that we were encountering in Kyoto. Crowds arrived in their hundreds and the temples and shrines seemed packed to the rafters in some, but you would barely hear a noise at times, and you therefore got to experience these places in the Zen-like atmosphere they had when in use, making it wonderfully peaceful. We definitely felt a sense of spirituality; it was calming, relaxing, and took you back to basics. And the Japanese sure know how to keep a garden! It certainly felt like you were going back a thousand years, with nothing but the stunning old buildings and it’s surrounding natural beauty, all enjoyed in relative silence.
Now you’d think three days of temple hopping in silence would eventually leave you a bit mind-numb, but having seen just a glimpse Kyoto’s historical monuments, it’s actually made us want to see more. The origins of these shrines and temples date back to as far as 6th century AD. We got to see some amazing places in our three days there:
Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavillion)
On the way to Shimogamo Shrine, we crossed a river across stone tortoises, before arriving at an amazing broad tree-lined approach to the temple, through a towering forest called Tadasu-no-mori. The approach itself is worth a visit to Shimogamo-jinja, as it’s one of those scenes that you don’t come across often.
Tenryu-ji Temple, in the west of Kyoto, is not only a very famous temple in Kyoto, but it is also situated next to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, a hugely famous and enchanting bamboo forest (anyone who’s a fan of kung-fu films, a major fight scene in ‘House of Flying Daggers’ takes place in this forest).
Ryoan-ji, a famous Zen temple, features a famous Zen rock-garden. It was one of the most peaceful places we came across.
Probably the most famous temple in all of Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion. This temple was amazing to see in person.
The quietest and least populate temple we visited, the Shoren-in Buddhist temple. We almost had the whole place to ourself. It was a nice place to relax and take in the surroundings.
The Chion-In Temple, had the most dramatic entrance into it’s complex. An enormous two-story San-mon gate towered over everything, after which there were a dominating set of steep steps leading to the main temple (anyone that’s into their films might notice that these were the steps used in the film ‘The Last Samurai’). The main temple is undergoing restoration so we couldn’t see much of it, but never-the-less the whole complex is impressive, especially the Chion-In Temple Bell, the largest bell in Japan!
Whilst walking to our next temple, we came across an unexpected sight that we hadn’t read or been told about. After curiously climbing up a set of steps, before which we couldn’t see anything but sky, we came across an incredible sight of a huge female Buddha statue. This happened to be Ryozen Kannon, a World War II memorial, and so we went into the complex to have a look and pay our respects.
To get to our next destination, we had to walk through two amazing neighbourhoods, both single-laned, and which are said to capture and soak up Kyoto’s atmosphere better than anywhere else. Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka were two great shopping streets which were lined up with wooden houses, cafes, restaurants and shops. It was definitely a nice stroll through here, although it was a bit busy!
Once through these neighbourhoods, we arrived at another one of Kyoto’s main temples, the Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple. What made this temple so good was it’s place high up in the hills, and so the view once you got to the top was pretty special.
The best of Kyoto’s shrines (in our opinion of course!) was probably left til last. Fushimi Inari-taisha, a shinto shrine located in the south of central Kyoto, is at the base of the Mountain Inari. It’s most famous for it’s 10,000 or so orange coloured torii (gates), creating a pathway leading up the mountain. (Movie buff alert! You see the gates in a scene in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’)
Although we didn’t hike up the whole way, we walked up quite a way, and seeing and walking through all the torii was definitely pretty cool.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Torii walk-through:
These temples and shrines are some of the most, if not the most, peaceful and relaxed places we’ve ever been to. I’d definitely recommend coming here for even longer than two or three days because there’s so much to see.
In between our temple hopping and during the evenings, we got to see the other sides to Kyoto, and if all those temples and shrines weren’t enough, there was actually so much else to experience.
We stopped by for lunch on one of the days at Nishiki Food Market, a narrow five-block long indoor street market, selling Kyoto’s most traditional food ingredients, such as pickles, tofu, fresh fish, and tea. Although we didn’t see any, this was the place where one matsutake mushroom can fetch up to $100! We found some cool stuff though, like green tea ice cream!
We found a stall serving up some interesting looking street food, and I thought it looked inviting enough to try (I’m pretty hesitant when it comes to eating new stuff). After eating it and still not knowing what it was, we had a look online later to look up what ‘Takoyaki’ was, and found out I’d just tasted octopus for the first time!
We visited the International Manga Museum, a huge building dedicated to the Japanese comic/art form. We weren’t allowed to take many pictures in here, but it was a cool and informative place to check out even though we hadn’t had much experience with manga to date.
We came across Pachinko arcades everywhere we went in Japan, and because the interior was blocked from view from the outside, we weren’t too sure what they exactly were. We eventually managed to go into one in Kyoto, and we all of a sudden bombard with neon lights and the loudest video game sounds you can imagine! The arcades were basically rows and rows of pinball-like game arcades. It was a crazy place to be in, and we attempted to play on one machine, but to this day I still have no idea what was going on!
We strolled around the famous Gion district, which is Japan’s most famous and exclusive Geisha district. Although not so big (it’s a few square blocks or so), it’s been around for a very long time, and is home to Japan’s most exclusive traditional wooden tea houses and restaurants, where the Geisha’s are the hosts. We managed to see a few Geisha’s as they were leaving their tea houses, and it was quite interesting to see.
So far in our short time in Kyoto, it had given us the amazing temples and all the other small things we discovered along the way. Again, as if this all hadn’t been enough, we experienced some of the most exquisite dining we’ve ever had, in Kyoto. Everything, from the way you’re greeted and welcomed, to the way the food is explained to you, prepared and served, to the way it’s eaten, was such an intricate process, yet so enjoyable. Not to mention we’d started everyday having breakfast at the best cafe we’ve ever come across. Food here in Kyoto was amazing.
We ate at one of Kyoto’s most famous Gyoza (dumpling) restaurants, Anzukko. The restaurant only seated around eight diners along it’s dining bar. The experience here was brilliant. And the dumplings were amazing!
We dined at Yoshikawa Tempura restaurant one of the nights, and again, the intricate process and attention to detail amazed us. It was inside a traditional Japanded wooden house. Each piece of food was dipped in batter and deep-fried, but it wasn’t tempura as we’ve eaten it before. Each time a tempura was served, we were told whether to add lemon, salt, or nothing at all to it. This experienced tempura chef created the most thinnest but crispiest pieces of batter along the side of simple but tasty pieces of vegetables and seafood. Again, the experience of eating around the chef with six or so other diners was what made this place special. The chef actually never spoke a word except when telling us (in one word) what the piece of food which we were about to eat was. Intense concentration!!
One of the evenings, we headed to Ponto-cho Alley, probably the most famous street in all of Kyoto. It’s a street famous for it’s traditional Japanese tea houses, expensive upmarket restaurants, especially those riverside overlooking the Kamogawa River, and it’s many bars.
Since it’s parallel and one block in from the river, it’s a very nice place to walk around and to take in the traditional atmosphere. Especially so at night, when the traditional lanterns are lit up and down the street, and you can spot Geisha’s coming and going from their houses.
It was this evening that we searched around for a restaurant serving traditional Kyoto ‘Kaiseki’, which is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal (ours ended up having 9 courses!), each one that’s prepared and presented so precisely and meticulously. It was something that Kyoto’s famous for, and we wanted to give it a go. We did find one, but it wasn’t the original plan to do so. But had we stuck to the original plan, we never would’ve walked into that Jazz & Whiskey bar. Let me explain…
We originally tried to go to both the Anzukko and Yoshikawa restaurant described above (which were both closed that day, and which we ended up booking for the coming days). It was then we decided to try Kaiseki that night, and therefore headed to Ponto-cho Alley. The Kaiseki restaurant we found didn’t have another seating for another two hours, and so we booked a table for then, and went off looking for things to do for a couple of hours. After walking around Ponto-cho for half an hour or so, we found a nice little Jazz & Whiskey bar tucked in between two restaurants. It didn’t look that inviting from the outside, but man was it a different story inside! Playing old vinyl jazz music, and with it’s low-lit interior and vintage furniture, we felt like we had just gone a hundred years back in time. It had such a cool feel to it.
We sat facing the bar, and spent another good half an hour sipping drinks, listening to the music, and chatting away to the smart bow-tie wearing bartender.
A man walked into the bar (this doesn’t lead to a joke by the way…) behind us, from our left all the way into the small restaurant area behind us to our right. During this time, the bartender had asked the man several times if he needed any assistance, but the man continued looking around without reply. So I naturally turn behind me to see what’s going on, and catch the man glaring back at me whilst he’s headed back for the exit. As he walks past, he says (almost confrontationally!) “Alright??”
I almost don’t hear this because as he walks past, I think to myself that I somehow know this guy. It takes a split second, but as he’s walking out the bar, I shout out “Steve!” and then “Sensei!” He stops, and says “Yeh?” and turns around to come to the bar. I had just bumped into mine and my brothers’ old karate instructor Sensei Steven Moore, who had taught us karate around 15 years ago. It turns out he was in Japan for the Wadokai World Cup, in which his son (whom I remembered but was about five the last time I saw him!) had won a bronze medal, and were now in Kyoto for some sightseeing. His wife and kids were with him and came into the bar too, where we chatted away for a while. It was a complete shock and a very surreal experience. To bump into someone who I’d seen on a weekly basis almost fifteen years ago and then not seen since, even though we probably live within a ten miles radius back in England, felt pretty crazy. And the circumstances that had us sitting in that bar at that exact time were pretty extraordinary. What a small world it really is.
Still not over from the shock of what had just happened, we went to the Kaiseki restaurant, and in what was to set the tone for the rest of the days in Kyoto, dinner was top-notch! Dinner was served in stages, and was almost like a production, with everything looking perfect.
Our time in Kyoto was amazing. We could’ve spent more time discovering more temples, more time discovering more places to eat, or just simply more time to just take in the city. This was possibly my favourite city so far, and so it was hard to move on again. But if there ever was a place to move onto after Kyoto, Mount Fuji and Tokyo weren’t bad options at all!