Since the last snowboarding trip, not much has been happening until this past weekend. Since around Friday the 16th I had been sick with a cold, so for most of the following week I didn’t even go to school. Also Kenji was gone on a business trip in Shiga-ken (very near Kyoto though) for the entire week, so I really didn’t do much besides sleeping.
Thankfully I had the weekend to look forward to! Kenji’s business meeting was held by Lake Biwa at Karasaki,very close to Kyoto city. So we decided it would be fun for me to come down for the weekend and to explore Kyoto a little bit. It actually worked out perfectly. I got tickets for the night bus for Friday that leaves around 11pm from Fujioka, which put me in Kyoto around 7am. I then rode the train about 15 minutes to where Kenji was staying, and we snuck me into his room before anyone was awake. He finished up his business stuff and had the closing ceremony around noon while I caught up on some sleep, and then we both headed out for Kyoto from there.
It was my first time in Kyoto, so I was really exited! It is a city that you definitely hear a lot about, and on first look doesn’t really meet expectations. But the sights were fun and I had a great time!
A first look at Kyoto outside the station, the modern-looking Kyoto Tower contrasted by the ancient temple grounds right in front of it
Most of Kyoto was like that. There are no skyscrapers filling the landscape like in Tokyo, but most of the buildings are modern concrete structures with power lines overhead. Roads are narrow and you can’t walk 10 minutes without hitting another temple or shrine, be it big or small, famous or only local. Kenji couldn’t get over the accents, while I marveled at the amazing bus system!
By the time we into Kyoto city and grabbed a snack, decided on a place to stay, checked in and ate again, it was pretty much a bust for visiting temples that evening, since most close before 5pm. So we checked out Kyoto Tower instead. It would have been good to visit in the daylight as well, since we couldn’t see most of the sites, and there wasn’t much city scape to admire. We did have fun taking goofy pictures on the way down however, most of which are in Kenji’s camera memory!
From there, we walked back to the hotel and relaxed a bit before heading out to check out Kyoto’s nightlife. After a rather disappointing yakitori restaurant, we headed back early, both of us tired. Nor did we get an early start in the morning! We did drag ourselves out, grabbing lunch in the station, and heading out to Gion to start our temple visits with the famous Kiyomizu Dera!
Kiyomizu dera is a really beautiful complex with a lot of different buildings to see. One of the first things we noticed was the difference in the building colors. Some had been restored and repainted, and others had not, so there was a lot of contrast there. Although many would say that repainting destroys a lot of the historical integrity of the buildings, you really couldn’t deny how much more vivid and beautiful the redone buildings were.
Bright colors of the newer buildings
If you notice the clouds in some of those pictures, it was actually supposed to snow a bit in Kyoto while we were there, but remained stubbornly sunny and clear most of the time, except in certain areas. It snowed on the other side of the city from the looks of things!
Kyoto also had a lot more people in traditional kimono than I’d ever seen in one place before. This included the normal dress-up-as-maiko! groups, but also people in more formal kimono and both old and young as well. Most notably, quite a number of men were in kimono, whereas normally I only ever seen women dressed up. So that was interesting in itself.
Moving on, we continued on with the temple and caught side of a traditional story teller, then moved onto the famous balcony of the temple. The drop off is a long fall from this place, and if you “jump off the balcony of Kiyomizu dera” in Japanese, you’re making an important decision you can’t turn back from. Kenji told me people used to jump off to commit suicide, and if they survived it was because the god’s willed it. I have pictures from the actual balcony, but the second balcony got better views!
After visiting the temple and the pure water spring below it from which came the temple’s name, we went back up the steps to a smaller area dedicated to love. There is a legend that if you walk between the two stones with your eyes closed safely, you’ll find love, or strengthen a relationship, or something to that measure. Since there was a lull in the crowd when we were there, I figured, “might as well” and with Kenji’s help (“a little left, no your other left, okay now to the right, okay strait…”) I managed to make it safely. I think.
Stepping up to the plate and the cute shrines around it
From Kiyomizu dera we decided to head for another temple in the area in a roundabout sort of way. We just started walking through Gion, and at one point flakes of snow blew in from across the city, which didn’t make it any more picturesque and in fact just made it colder. We finally sought refuge in a small two-story teahouse for a break, where I had traditional matcha and sweets and fake-maiko watched!
Basically, for a decent price (depending on time and photographs of course), many places in Kyoto will dress you up as maiko (maiko are basically apprentice geisha), complete with white face makeup and elaborate kimono, and either let you loose in the area by yourself, or with a photographer/guide to follow you around and take pictures. I know a few JETs who did it, and think I may one of these days when I have more time, just for the novelty of it. Westerners look really weird in the white makeup so I don’t expect the pictures to actually be any GOOD, but it would still be fun!
Kenji mentioned, and I agree, that soon it will become the Kyoto experience to see more and more of these “maiko” than the real ones. Those are much more rare, and only out in the late afternoon/early evening and later times as they go from appointment to appointment. I didn’t have any expectation of seeing one, and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell a real from a fake in many cases anyway. There were definitely some old ladies dressing up who in no way were the real thing, but take a young Japanese girl doing it for fun or a real maiko and I couldn’t tell you which was which. I’m more interested in the kimono anyway!
Anyway, I still snapped a few pictures when I saw one, just for the pretty pictures they make!
From there, we boarded another bus and headed to Sanjyuusangendo, a famous temple housing 1001 Kannon’s and 27 (I think…) guardian spirits carved by a famous guy out of wood a long time ago (all right, I wasn’t paying a ton of attention to the history, can you tell?) Pictures weren’t allowed to be taken, so I don’t have anything but brochures showing the inside, but we took a few on the outside before going in! I also bought a blank book which the shrines stamp and sign in calligraphy style to document the shrines I went to. I’m disappointed I didn’t know about it at Kiyomizu dera, since I’m missing that seal, but from the second temple I got the calligraphy at every shrine since then. I can always go back and get it as well!
The building housing all the figures
From there we decided Kinkakuji would be our next stop for the day. Kenji was really hoping it would snow for it, but it ended up being clear and cold. However we made it to Kinkakuji right at sunset, right on time for the light to hit the building just-so. I took a TON of pictures of it, most of which are the same thing, so I’m only posting a few:
After that, night came pretty quickly. We went for dinner at a family restaurant mainly because we were tired of walking and super cold and not picky, and then came back to Kyoto station. Some quick pics of outside the station at night:
One really interesting thing we noticed after hearing some guys talking about it on the bus ride home (well, okay, Kenji overheard them and translated for me) is that a lot of the red signs such as McDonalds are in different colors in Kyoto. Apparently Kyoto has laws about gaudy signs, and from what we could tell the color red in a huge sign was a definite “no-no”. So the McD’s and other stores used brown instead, or a less obvious red:
From then, we decided to just stay in and watch TV and talk a bit instead of going back out, so nothing really interesting happened afterward. Despite the late start, Saturday was a lot of walking and we were both tired, so we went to bed pretty early. And again, didn’t wake up super early on Sunday either, though we did wake up earlier than Saturday since we had to check out. They let us leave our bags at the hotel so we didn’t have to lug them everywhere.
I really wanted to hit a few key places Sunday, but with a late start made later by eating at the station, plus a rather longer bus ride than I figured out to Arashiyama, we only hit that area. So I have to come back to visit the other shrines I didn’t get a chance to see!
Arashiyama was said to be ignored in Western guidebooks but popular with the Japanese tourists, and this seemed to be true from what I saw. We visited Tenryuji temple and the famous garden attached to it as the last temple we’d really get a chance to see, and took a number of pictures. If you recall some of the views from Kiyomizu dera above, the area getting snow Saturday was the one we were now in, but again the day was cold but mostly clear.
Tenryuji and Sogenchi gardens
From the temple we walked across a big bridge to the Monkey Park up on the mountain. For a small fee and a rather tiring hike, you can take pictures of and even feed the monkeys in the park, who for the most part tolerated the humans if you didn’t try to touch them or get too close. They were pretty cute!
Across the river
We trekked back down the mountain and found a place to eat. I have to say that overall the food in Kyoto wasn’t very impressive, though it is probably because we weren’t picking the right places. I wish it had been better though…
Anyway, after eating it was nearing time to go back and grab our luggage and get to the station for a little omiyage shopping for people at home before catching the Shinkansen. We didn’t have time for any more temples, but that’s okay. We hit a number of them, took some great pictures, and had a really nice weekend in general. It feels weird to be back at school for the both of us after a week of not being there!
Hopefully this weekend will be another snowboarding trip, this time to a Gunma location.