Tag Archive: kyoto


Recently I made my yearly pilgrimage to Kyoto and the Kansai area. From the end of April to the beginning of May is known as “Golden Week” in Japan, because there are 4 national holidays that let people out of work and school. It’s one of the busiest travel times of the year, and if you’re traveling from outside of Japan it’s probably a good idea to avoid this week, unless you love crowds. I used some of my vacation days so I could travel mostly on non-holidays and tried to avoid the worst crowds. I still met with crowded buses, long lines, and expensive trains. I did this trip on my own this time, too. Traveling alone is never as fun as traveling with friends, but on the other hand I did everything at my own pace.

On Saturday I took a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. I arrived around 11 am and quickly stashed my bag in a coin locker before they were all taken. My first stop in Kyoto this time would be Ginkakuji – The Silver Pavilion.

The Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

The Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

While the Silver Pavilion is not a must-see stop in Kyoto, it’s a good visit for anyone interested in Japanese traditional culture. This pavilion influenced later architecture, being the first to have a tokonoma, a small alcove in the wall for hanging scrolls and displaying flower arrangements. The beginnings of the Japanese tea ceremony started here, and the understated beauty of the pavilion and garden became the standard for Japanese aesthetics.

To complement my visit to the Silver Pavilion I intended to visit Ryoanji next, a zen temple with a famous rock garden, but I got on the wrong bus and ended up in completely the wrong direction. Timing is everything in Kyoto because most temples close around 4 or 5, and taking the wrong bus meant losing the chance to see Ryoanji that same day. Instead I got my bags from the coin locker in Kyoto station and checked into my hostel.

Day 2 in Kyoto I headed to Ryoanji first thing in the morning. If you’re already visiting Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion), Ryoanji is a 15 minute walk from there and I highly recommend it. There is a bus service available too, but the walk is pretty as you get closer to Ryoanji.

The highlight of Ryoanji is the zen rock garden. There are 15 stones/boulders expertly placed to help you meditate as you look at the garden. What’s interesting is that no matter where you sit or stand while looking at the garden, you can’t see all 15 stones. At most I counted 14. They say that the only way to see all 15 stones at the same times is to reach enlightenment.

Rock garden in Ryoanji

Rock garden in Ryoanji

How many can you count?

After enjoying the gardens of Ryoanji, I decided to spend the afternoon in Arashiyama, which is in the western part of Kyoto. I think everyone else had the same idea, because it was extremely crowded.

My first stop in Arashiyama was Tenryuji, a temple with a famous dragon painted on the ceiling (the eyes follow you!) and beautiful garden. My main reason for the visit though was for the restaurant in the garden at Tenryuji. The restaurant serves shoujin ryouri, Buddhist cooking. Buddhists are vegetarian, so the entire meal was meat-free. I discovered this place when my vegetarian friend Allison visited last year. I had to go back and have another delicious experience there. I learned too late that the menu was the same as last year though. At least I knew what everything was!

The set meal at Tenryuji

The set meal at Tenryuji

After lunch I explored the Arashiyama area. There’s a bamboo forest, and a picturesque bridge over a river with mountains in the background. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon shopping for souvenirs and grazing at the food stalls.

A lazy afternoon in western Kyoto

A lazy afternoon in western Kyoto

My third day in Kyoto I took a train to the southern outskirts of the city to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha, a temple that is famous for it’s thousands of torii gates.

Thousands of vermillion gates lead visitors on a path up the mountain

Thousands of vermillion gates lead visitors on a path up the mountain

Honestly I went to Fushimi Inari just to see these gates, and they’re as beautiful in real life as in the pictures. I had to wait a while to get a good picture free of other tourists, but the wait was worth it!

At many shrines and temples across Japan you can see the protectors of the shrine sitting on either side of the gates as you enter, and Fushimi Inari is no exception. Fushimi Inari is protected by foxes.

A fox holding a key in its mouth

A fox holding a key in its mouth

Here’s some trivia for you: The fox on the left of the entrance is holding the key to the granary to protect it from the mice!

The foxes are so popular that there are many fox themed souvenirs and fox related dishes that you can eat on the mountain. For example, kitsune udon (fox udon) is a noodle dish made with fried tofu, because foxes (supposedly) love fried tofu!

To finish my stay in Kyoto I went back to one of my favorite temples, Kiyomizudera. I already wrote about this great temple after my first visit, so I’ll end my Kyoto story here.

A final message about traveling in Kyoto (or anywhere in Japan) during Golden Week: It’s possible, but you must be prepared for the crowds and very patient if you want good pictures. I made it to two or three sites a day using the Kyoto bus system, which was cheap but slow.

Happy travels!

Advertisements

Kyoto and Osaka

I’ve been so busy lately that I forgot to make a post about my trip to Kyoto and Osaka over Spring break! I had an amazing time with friends and I am looking forward to going again some day.

Day 1 –

The day started with a bike ride to the train station. From Maebashi my group and I took the train to Tokyo and caught a bullet train to Kyoto there. I’ve heard that you can see Mt. Fuji from the windows of the train on the way to Kyoto, but I fell asleep. When we arrived at the Kyoto train station (which is really cool by the way) we took a bus the area of hostel. The hostel was pretty nice and close to the river and shopping district.

478

Kyoto is an extremely old city filled with lots of historical landmarks, famous temples, and it attracts many tourists year-round. This was only a short trip, so it was impossible to see every thing the area had to offer, but that’s just an excuse to go back over and over and over again.

My first Kyoto temple visit was the well known Kiyomizu Temple. The walk up to the temple was extremely fun. The road is lined with shops, souvenirs, restaurants, even kimono renting places. Many people were dressed in traditional clothes while they were walking around the streets.

482

We found this on the way up:

555

Then we made it to the temple! It was a beautiful Spring day, and lucky for us one of the cherry trees was blooming right out front.

485

I was hoping to hit the beginning of cherry blossom season when I went, but most of the trees bloomed 2 weeks later than usual this year. This was a lucky catch.

491

A beautiful pagoda, view from below:

497

Even though part of Kiyomizu was under renovation, it was still a good experience. I toured the temple and temple grounds, and saw a beautiful view of the building.

524

At the end of the tour, there is a famous waterfall (the temple’s name actually meansclear water) that has wish granting powers. I waited in line to take a drink and make a wish.

This picture can give you an idea of what it looked like:

550

After seeing the temple, we explored the streets of Kyoto and came upon a cherry blossom festival (even though there were no cherry blossoms!). Kyoto really is a beautiful, old city.

A temple gate and a street in Gion:

581

Usually the hostel/hotel on a trip isn’t worth mentioning in a blog post, but when we returned to our room that night we met our roommates. There were two sisters from the U.K that were in Japan for a few weeks, and a Romanian couple on vacation as well. Everyone was so nice that we talked about Kyoto and our lives for a while before bed. We got to talk some more the next night as well, and even ran into the sisters randomly in Gion the next day. It was a good group to be with in the same room.

Day 2 –

Unfortunately the second day was a bit rainy. We made the best of it by having breakfast at an amazing coffee shop, then heading over to Sanjusangendo. There are absolutely no pictures taken in the building, and it was raining, so I can’t offer much except this link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanj%C5%ABsangen-d%C5%8D

I liked visiting this historic site. Places like this in Japan make me realize how little I really know about the history/culture of this country and how much more I need to learn. Where are my old textbooks when I need them?

The rest of the day was spent shopping in a famous food shopping district called Nishiki. It had lots of fresh foods out, including things I had never seen before. I would totally shop there if I lived in Kyoto. Lucky for us most of it was covered so we didn’t get rained on.

After a hard day of shopping, we treated ourselves to the best fried chicken and ramen in the city. Maybe even in Japan. Seriously, it was that good. The place was even featured in a travel book about Japan. I’m lucky the store doesn’t have a branch in Maebashi.

Day 3 –

Day 3 was Osaka day! Osaka is only a 40 minute train ride away from Kyoto. Osaka was such a cool city, with a totally different feel to it from Kyoto or Tokyo. It was younger, hipper, just more urban feeling and fun. Osaka is famous for takoyaki and okonomiyaki, so of course, I ate both while I was there. 🙂 At the end of the day of sightseeing my group went to karaoke and had a ton of fun!

A busy street in Osaka:

598

Day 4 –

Day 4 was the last day of our trip. We took the train back to Kyoto to see the Nijo Castle.

This is my first castle visit in Japan, and I can’t really imagine any other place topping it. It was beautiful inside and out, and full of great information in English. Since this was once the dwelling of an emperor, the floors are rigged with a mechanism that makes it impossible for intruders to enter unnoticed. The floorboards literally sang as you walked on them. I loved it!

The outside wall around the castle:

608

The entrance:

611

A close up:

615

Unfortunately, pictures weren’t allowed indoors. Every room had beautiful woodwork and wall murals painted by famous artists.

After touring the indoors, there was a large garden outside to tour as well. I’m sure it would have been even prettier later in the spring.

Me:

644

To finish up Day 4, we gave Kiyomizu Temple one last hurrah. On Day 1 we had just missed being able to take a walk into a tunnel in complete darkness, and wanted to go back and do it. I had to descend into pitch black darkness with only a hand rail to guide me through tunnel. As you walk through, you are supposed to discover “your own light” inside yourself to guide you. It was a little scary at first because it’s so dark your eyes don’t adjust to anything and you never see where you are walking. The tunnel wasn’t very long though, so not a bad experience.

A great picture of the temple on Day 4, courtesy of Clarissa:

647

That finishes my Kyoto and Osaka trip of 2012. There is still much more that I haven’t seen yet, so I can’t wait to go back!

-Kristen