Transport: Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
Accomodation: Air B’n’B & Temple
Currency: Japanese Yen (¥)
Did you manage to catch my Tokyo post? If not, you can read part one of this Japan series here. About four days into our trip to Japan, we caught the bullet train to Kyoto. As mentioned in my last post, if you are planning on travelling around Japan, a Japan Rail Pass will be indispensable to you.
The Kyoto Itinerary
The journey from Tokyo to Kyoto is about 2.5 hours and upon arrival, we made our way to the Air B’n’B we had booked. If you asked whether I would recommend the accommodation we booked, I would have to say no. I would describe the place as more of a storage locker than a flat.
- Very cheap
- Good location for the Golden Pavilion and bus links
- The host did try to resolve issues when he could
- No real heating
- No proper instructions for hot water which meant we had to go without for a period of time
- Only 1 GB of wifi per day
It’s safe to say that we were in quite a hurry to leave once we saw the place and so we made the short walk over to the nearest tourist spot, Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion). This is a Zen temple which is characterised by the massive amounts of gold leaf covering the second and third floors of the building. Although originally built in the 14th century, the temple pictured below was actually only built in 1955. Since its creation, Kinkaku-ji has been re-built a number of times and most recently, this was because a rogue monk had decided to set it on fire. The Golden Pavilion is undoubtedly one of Kyoto’s most famous icons.
As beautiful as Kinkaku-ji had been, the first evening we spent in Kyoto was a bit despondent as we were tired from our journey and weren’t entirely happy with our apartment. We decided to head into Gion (the famous Geisha district of Kyoto) for the evening and while it was perfectly fine, we felt that area wasn’t quite as we had expected it to be. In hindsight, we hadn’t really gone to a very exciting part of Kyoto because we were still trying to figure out the public transport. Worry not readers, the best was yet to come…
Our second day in Kyoto was something we had really been looking forward to. We made our way on the bus to Enmachi train station, where we caught a JR line train to Saga Arashiyama.
Arashiyama is famous for its serene bamboo forest and as most guide books and blogs will tell you, it’s not really something you can capture in photos. As you pass through the grove, the towering bamboo plants become thicker and thicker, until you almost feel cocooned by them. Depending on your speed, you can easily walk the entire trail in under an hour.
The trail is a tad steep in spots but if you get tired, you could always opt for a ‘tuktuk taxi’ instead, which can whizz you through the groves in a matter of minutes. The bamboo forest is free to enter, is open 24/7 and is something you must see if you are spending time in Kyoto.
The route you take through the bamboo forest will eventually lead you to the stunning Tenyruji Temple and gardens. This temple was built in 1339 and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Entrance to the grounds costs ¥550.
The grounds of this temple are outstanding; whether you’re doing the bamboo trail or not, this is a must visit. There is a lot to explore and see at Tenyruji, for example the lake full of beautiful koi carp, the bridges and walkways, as well as the incense and prayers outside the temple itself.
The next item on our Arashiyama agenda was the Iwatayama Monkey Park, which is located on top of Mount Arashiyama. The entrance fee was ¥550 and it took us about 30-40 minutes to climb this 160m mountain. If you are fairly fit this mountain shouldn’t cause you much of a problem, but it was a very steep ascent and therefore quite a tiring and sweaty climb. Please note that, as far as we were aware, there was no disabled access.
During the climb, there were signs everywhere which explained the do’s and don’ts once you reached the top. This particular area is populated with Japanese Macaques or ‘Snow Monkeys’, as they are also known. Visitors should not stare at the monkeys, kneel down near the monkeys, feed the monkeys or touch the monkeys. This painted a very aggressive image of the macaques which I’m not sure was warranted, but better safe than sorry I guess.
At the summit, you were not only surrounded by the cutest, red-faced, furry Snow Monkeys, but you also got some amazing views of Kyoto and the various mountain ranges. This climb is very much worth doing if you are able to do so.
We were tired and hungry after our climb so we decided to head for lunch in the town centre of Arashiyama, before continuing with our day. There are an abundance of restaurants and cafés to choose from in this area and due to the fact that Arashiyama has a lot of foreign visitors, all of the menus were quite tourist friendly.
After lunch we were still feeling very over-exerted and so we decided to take a trip on a traditional boat down the Hozu River. This covered a 1km area and took around 40 minutes, costing ¥3500 for both Ginny and I. The boat itself was heated and comfortable – it certainly felt like a very luxurious way to be spending the afternoon!
The scenery around the Hozu River was beautiful; our ship’s captain stopped the boat every now and again to show us different birds and wildlife. Much like the rest of Japan, it seems that Arashiyama is somewhere you can visit any time of year. In the spring, the banks are filled with cherry blossoms; in the summer, you can see all of the fresh foliage and flowers in the sunshine; in autumn, the trees on the river banks turn bold shades of red and orange; and in the winter, the banks of the Hozu are covered with snow.
We finished our time in Arashiyama with a little souvenir shopping. In particular, I would recommend a fan shop called Itotsune, where Ginny and I spent lots of time carefully selecting fans to take home for our friends and family.
Luckily for us, the perfect day we had spent in Arashiyama did not have to be spoiled by a return to the Air B’n’B from hell. We had booked a stay at the Shunkoin Temple for the night, in order to experience some time in a traditional Zen Buddhist temple. From Saga Arashiyama, we took the short train journey to Hanazono and made our way to our temple lodgings.
One night’s stay in the temple cost ¥5,500 pp but the lodgings themselves were perfect. The room was in a traditional Japanese style with futon beds and tatami flooring but it also had wifi, an en suite bathroom, a communal kitchen and bikes which you could hire for the day. The staff were really helpful and provided us with useful information on how to get around the area and where to eat.
Unlike most temples, Shunkoin does not have a curfew for its guests so you are free to come and go as you please. At dinner time, we decided to visit one of the nearby restaurants which had come recommended by the concierge. The Wonder Café was a tiny and very quirky restaurant and their menu was comprised of more Western style foods with a Japanese twist.
If you’re wondering why I have included a picture of the toilet above, it’s because a visit to the WC (whether nature calls or not) came recommended from both the temple and various reviews we had seen online. As soon as you open the door, music and lights come on and the decor, well, speaks for itself. This decor is iterated throughout the restaurant and if you couldn’t see clearly, it is comprised of whacky items, vintage toys and books.
Unfortunately, perfect as the day had been, Ginny and I are only ever a couple of steps away from madness. After our meal at the Wonder Café, we made the short walk back towards the temple lodgings. We were all ready for an early night in our lovely, warm room when we realised that we were locked out. The temple had assured us that although the main gates would be locked, the side door would be left open to ensure that we could get back to our rooms. After 15 minutes of banging on random doors, panicking, speaking to strangers on any intercom we could find, screaming for sanctuary and more panicking, we realised that we had been at the wrong gate all along. Whoops! Crisis averted.
The next morning, still slightly embarrassed by the scene we had created the evening before, we made our way down to the morning’s Zen meditation class (¥500). This was led by Reverend Kawakami who had been educated in America and therefore could lead the meditation lesson very easily in English.
During the class, the reverend spoke generally about the benefits that meditation can have in busy lives and how the stereotypes of meditation aren’t necessarily accurate. In fact, stereotypes can create mental road blocks which can close your thought processes. In order to expand the mind, we need to be receptive to influences coming from all over the place. Throughout his talk, he made a conscious effort to ensure that we understood by putting his teachings into terms we could understand. For example, if we are looking at the concentration of the human mind, apparently we only have about 185 GB of concentration to offer. The reverend suggested that we ensure we put this concentration and effort into the right things.
Mindfulness meditation will only be successful if you apply yourself for 45 minutes a day. He accepted that most people would not make time in their lives for this kind of meditation because simply concentrating on your breathing is actually quite boring. However, if we ignore the lack of stimuli in just *breathing* and focus on it, we will gain patience and understanding.
The Buddhist story which really struck a chord with me, however, was one about three blind people trying to describe an elephant. One felt its tail and said “Elephants must be hairy”. The second felt its tusk and said “Elephants must be smooth like marble”. The third felt its ear and said “Elephants are flat”. All three were correct based on their own reality, but this was only proportionate to their experience.
The actual meditation portion of the class lasted for about 30 minutes. I would suggest sitting on a chair when you do this as it will not only be far more comfortable, but you will get to feel extra smug when the Reverend tells everyone who sat on the floor with pins and needles that they had failed to leave their stereotypes about meditation at the door.
After meditation, we checked out of the temple and made our way to Nijo Castle to continue our sightseeing in Kyoto. Nijo Castle was built for the first shogun of the Edo Period in 1603 and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Ginny and I got our tickets (¥800) and audio guides (¥500) and spent a couple of hours looking around the huge castle and grounds. Audio guides were really a must here, as there were a large number of people crowding around the information signs at each stage and the facts provided in the guide were often very interesting.
The tour of the castle took us around the different rooms and explained the meaning behind the decor, as well as casting more light on the uses of the different sections of the castle. The rooms are connected by the ‘nightingale corridors’, named as such due to the pretty squeaking sound they make when walked upon.
The different rooms were decorated with painted murals of tigers and leopards (which were thought to be female tigers during this period), as well as Japanese style trees and spring time foliage. Each room generally had an elevated section where the shogun would have sat – a nod to the power he had over the rest of the people in the room.
After finishing our rounds of Nijo Castle, we took a 15 minute walk to the Kyoto International Manga Museum. The entrance fee was ¥800 and the museum was spread out over a number of floors. The first couple of floors were filled with shelves and shelves of manga comic books, for both adults and children.
If you’re wondering what Manga actually is, this is not something that is easily defined. The quick answer is that it is a style of Japanese comic and graphic novel which is aimed at all ages, however, the Manga Museum does suggest that this is rather an over-simplification. In any case, the museum does focus on manga ‘as defined in modern print matter’.
As we made our way upstairs, there was an exhibition of satirical manga pieces by various artists which was really interesting. What became clear was that manga is more than just an art form in Japan, it’s a lifestyle which transcends age, class or gender. In fact, manga is a trillion yen industry in Japan and it became so popular that it has spread across the globe in various forms.
“Manga has always circulated throughout modern Japanese society as a mediator between different people and things. Suffice to mention the manga magazines which have shaped the diversity of Japanese comics, and the fact that these comics tell not only stories, but also convey knowledge and make complicated information easily accessible thanks to their expressive devices.”
This museum just grew from strength to strength as it progressed and it gave an interesting insight into Japanese culture from a more grassroots level.
From here we walked another 15 minutes to Nishiki Market. This is a ‘five block long’ shopping market, which sells everything from food to souvenirs to clothing.
If you’re interested in taking home a kimono, there are a number of stalls and shops in Nishiki Market selling these. Some shops will sell less expensive kimonos made of a cheaper fabric but if you’re looking for the real deal, I would suggest going to a Japanese ‘thrift store’ where you can buy a beautiful, pure silk kimono for a fraction of the usual price.
As the sun began to set and our time in Kyoto came to a close, we made our way to the famous Ponto-cho Alley in Gion for dinner.
We had experienced a shaky start to our time in Kyoto but by the end, we had experienced some of the best moments from our entire trip to Japan. When researching where to go in Japan, you may be blinded by the metropolitan glamour of Tokyo, however, Kyoto is just as much of a draw and I guarantee that you will walk away with some amazing memories.
Tips for Kyoto
- Make sure that you carry cash (preferably coins) on the bus. There is no real metro system in Kyoto and you will be quite reliant on this mode of transport unless you plan on taking taxis everywhere. Notes can be changed for cash on the bus but this does cause delays and sometimes buses don’t carry change.
- As mentioned in my Tokyo post, make sure you use the times when you have wifi to look up your routes. Kyoto was a lot more difficult to navigate than Tokyo and Arashiyama in particular was quite confusing.
- Taxis which say ‘MK’ on the top inside a heart will be the cheapest taxis you can get.
- Kyoto was generally a lot colder than Tokyo had been, so you may need to bring warmer clothes for this leg of the trip.
- Shoes are not to be worn at any time inside the temple lodgings or inside Nijo Castle.
The final instalment of the Japan series will be about our 2 days in Hakone. Tune in for that next time!
Thanks for reading,
~ Plane Emoji