Just Me in Japan – Kicking around in Kyoto

Friday 23 November 2012

I don’t know if its the location of the hotel or just my luck, but it seems to have been a really noisy night with sirens and street cleaners (?) all over the place. I awake early – still not out of work mode yet – and take a peek out the window. In the pitch dark I can see it is raining.

That’s not fun – as today I am supposed to be heading off with the Kyoto Cycling Project Tour to visit the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Gardens, Hirosawa Pond and Arashiyama by bike. Well, it’s supposed to be by bike, otherwise I read if it rains, you walk instead – and I don’t want to walk, I want to ride – and lets face it – it’s not like I didn’t do enough walking yesterday!

Anyway, I buy a Kyoto sightseeing pass for the buses and subways from reception and head off to catch the bus from outside Nijo Castle (oh yeah, I have a castle just down the road) to the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion) area to meet the guide and pick up my bike.

It’s cold again outside today, and I’m not sure I’ve dressed approproiately. It’s hard to tell, because you know when you start cycling you’ll warm up pretty quick and won’t want to be lugging a jacket around, but then if the plan changes and we have to walk/catch public transport, then you’re gonna need a jacket.

My trusty steed for the day

I arrive early, so even though I’ve had breakfast, I find a little cafe next door to the KCTP shop and order a coffee and cheese and ham toastie to fill in time. Closer to time, I pop next door and meet my guide Yoko, and she’s kitted up in wet weather gear – yay we’re cycling! The rain has reduced to a light sprinkle in any case and is unlikely to bother us.  Yoko tells me that other people are less in love with the rain than me, and a lot of people have cancelled their tours for today.  My bike is green and has a little basket on it, cute.  It’s very easy to ride and looks well maintained.  And you don’t even have to wear helmets in Japan!

First stop of the day is Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), which is just literally down the road from KCTP, a 30 second ride.   Mum and I visited the Golden Pavillion 2 1/2 years ago when we visited Japan in spring, but it is a stunning building and I’m looking forward to seeing it in the change of seasons.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. The temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion), built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.

Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond, and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.

The Temple is stunning, the autumn colours reflected beautifully in the surrounding pond and it was great to get some background knowledge and be able to ask questions about it from Yoko.

Back on the bikes, we take the back streets of the neighbourhood, including one large massive hill (I made it all the way to the top on my bike, but Yoko had to push hers up the last few metres – Mel would be so proud of me!), we arrive at Ryoanji Garden.

Ryoanji Temple is the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden and attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period, the site was converted into a Zen temple in 1450 and belongs to the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, whose head temple stands just 1km to the south.

As for the history of Ryoanji’s famous rock garden, the facts are less certain. The garden’s date of construction is unknown and there are a number of speculations regarding its designer. The garden consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles surrounded by low earthen walls, with 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss. An interesting feature of the garden’s design is that from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer.

These gardens are also stunning, particularly the pond in the middle of the grounds.

We continue cycling on towards Hirosawa Pond, located in the Sagano area of Kyoto. This pond was constructed in the Heian period, as part of a temple garden built by the grandson of Emperor Uta. The temple was abandoned but the pond survived. This pond has been widely adored, and featured in many Japanese poems. The beautiful pond became the theme of a lot of Japanese poems “Waka” from ancient times. 

It had been well-known since ancient times as a place for enjoying moon viewing. Lying at the foot of a range of gentle hills stretching to the north, the area is surrounded by rice paddies and vegetable crops.  The rice has been harvested for this season.

Hirosawa Pond
Kuan Yin statue
The rice paddies in Sagano
From Sagano, we head to Arashiyama to take in the autumn colours.   Unfortunately today is Japan’s National Thanksgiving day and everyone in Kyoto has the same idea. So we try to avert the crowds and given we’re already ahead of time, we visit some places that weren’t on the guide.
Daikakuji is a large temple originally built in the early 800’s as the detached palace of Emperor Saga, who thoroughly enjoyed spending his time here. Thirty years after the Emperor’s death, the palace was converted into a temple and has since been one of the highest ranked temples of Shingon Buddhism. It has had a role in several significant historical events, including being featured in The Tale of Genji and being often used for filming historical dramas. Today though, it is host to a chrysanthemum display. Something I found interesting about the building was, if you have a look at the covered pathways that lead from building to building, you’ll note how low the rooves are – this is so that the samurai could not raise their swords in old times!
Lastly, and at the top of our last incline for the day, which is a street of preserved buildings, we arrive at the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple.
Street of preserved buildings
Bathed in the glow of a ray of sunshine and set totally in amongst the yellows and oranges of the autumn foliage, this place is stunning.



Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a Buddhist temple founded by Empress Shotoku in the middle of the eighth century. It was destroyed by the flooding of the Kamo River, but was rebuilt as an offshoot of the nearby Enryaku-ji temple. 

In the 13th century, it was again destroyed during a civil war. It was moved to its current location in 1922, and then suffered typhoon damage in 1950.

The temple is known for its more than 1200 rakan – stone statues representing the disciples of Buddha. These statues, in keeping with rakan traditions, are generally humorous and kawaii (cute). The sculptures were donated in 1981 in honor of the refurbishment of the temple and most were carved by amateurs, taught by sculptor Kocho Nishimura.




It’s all downhill from here now, as we head to the Bamboo forest. We stop briefly, but we don’t ride through because the pathway is choked with people and taxis (it’s not even a steep climb to reach this spot but some people are so lazy, they take taxis which can barely squeeze up the path!). Down alongside the river, where the Hozugawa river boats come into dock, we wheel our bikes towards the Tokugetsu Bridge, again crammed with people. There’s no point in even trying to cross it, so we head towards the bike return area and the tour is officially over. Yoko and I stop for an icecream at a little shop that won a 3rd place medal for its pistachio icecream. And I think it should have won first, because it taste divine! I wonder if this is the seasonal icecream for autumn – a lot of the icecreams I’ve seen around have been green in colour, so it’s either that or green tea.

Today’s cycling tour was a brilliant way to get around, curving through all the local backstreets, freezing cold wind in your face. It was a great way to see the sites, and if I ever make it back here, I’m definitely doing another one of these tours, or at least hiring a bike to get around. I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone who is thinking of coming to Kyoto. It was hard work in a few spots, but that was mainly because we changed the itinerary and I was up for it – I’m sure the group behind us (way, way behind us even though they left before us) certainly wasn’t doing the hill climbs! Just don’t go when it’s so busy, cause you may not get the most out of riding.

My original plan was to have some lunch and then fill in a couple of hours browsing the shops, but Arashiyama is so crowded, everything is full of people and its not enjoyable so I head back to Kyoto.

With extra time up my sleeve, I decide to try my luck at finding Grains de Vanille, a delightful French patisserie I’ve been reading about. Located down a backstreet near my hotel, I’m not hopeful, but there it is, a tiny little shop hidden back from the street. I walk in and it’s clear you need to be early to have your pick of the cakes, cause there’s not much left. I go for the Meringue Grosielle and a Tarte Fruits and then stop by the 7-11 for a small bottle of champers to take back to my room for afternoon tea.

Back out on the streets and its time to put my transit day pass to good use so I head out to the Silver Pavillion (Ginkakuji). Unfortunately the remaining people of Kyoto that weren’t in Arashiyama are here. It is so crowded and you can see the hordes shuffling up around the gardens and the side of the mountain, step by step, a million cameras flashing from different directions. It’s madness!

The Silver Pavillion – which is not silver at all!
The silver comes from the sand gardens

I can see why they have come though, there is just something about the riot of colour from the autumn foliage. You just don’t see this in Perth.

Ginkakuji is a Zen temple along Kyoto’s eastern mountains, Higashiyama. In 1482, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa on the grounds of today’s temple, modeling it after Kinkakuji, his grandfather’s retirement villa at the base of Kyoto’s northern mountains (Kitayama). The villa was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490.

As the retirement villa of an art obsessed shogun, Ginkakuji became a center of contemporary culture, known as the Higashiyama Culture in contrast to the Kitayama Culture of his grandfather’s times. Unlike the Kitayama Culture, which remained limited to the aristocratic circles of Kyoto, the Higashiyama Culture had a broad impact on the entire country.

Today, Ginkakuji consists of the Silver Pavilion, half a dozen other temple buildings, a beautiful moss garden and a unique dry sand garden. It is enjoyed by walking along a circular route around its grounds, from which the gardens and buildings can be viewed.

I take the photos I want and quickly head on out to escape the crowds, by wandering into the crowds following the Philosopher’s Path.


10 minutes later and it was dark!

The Philosopher’s Path is a pleasant stone path which follows a canal that’s part of the Lake Biwa Canal. Approximately 2km long, the path begins around Ginkakuji and ends in the neighborhood of Nanzenji. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. 

Restaurants, cafes, and boutiques can be found along the path, as well as a number of smaller temples and shrines which are a short walk from the canal. At twenty to five, the sky started darkening, and the path, which I’m sure is way longer than 2km, seemed never ending. It was at this point, that I was glad for the crowds, cause it meant I was going the right way.

I finally made my way back to the hotel, exhausted from all the riding and walking. I am not walking anywhere tomorrow!

Just Me in Japan – Kyoto and the Gods of Inari

Thursday 22 November 2012

Today I get my first look at Narita in the daylight.  It’s still a bunch of overpasses and flyovers.  But I’ll get another look before I leave next week.

I grab the first shuttle bus back to the Airport to catch the Narita Express to Shinagawa, and then the Shinkansen “Nozomi” onwards to Kyoto. The top speed of these trains is 300km/hr (yet their stopping time is 3 minutes, 45 seconds!). There has never been a major accident in all their years of operation, which commenced in 1964. The average delay for the shinkansen (bullet train) for the entire year of 2007 was 30 seconds.

Waiting for the NEX, I came across this vending machine.  Spying a can of coffee, I press the button, thinking it will be something like a cold choc milk – I’ll be darned if it didn’t come out of the machine hot!

The Nozomi bullet train which I will be travelling on from Shinagawa to Kyoto, is the fastest train service running on the Tokaido/Sanyo line. The word nozomi in Japanese means “hope” or “wish”, and I’m on this train (as opposed to a cheaper one) cause I wish to be in Kyoto ASAP. The trip takes about 2.5 hours and it’s at this point that I wish I’d learnt to say “excuse me, but there’s 3 seats here and only two of us – would you mind moving over the end seat so I can move my suitcase a little and my legs stop going numb?” in Japanese.  But I didn’t, so I have to endure.

Most shinkansen trains in Japan offer seats in two classes, which are typically found in separate cars, these are ordinary or green. Not much difference except maybe more footroom – unless you bring a big suitcase and have a numbskull sitting next to you. 

I arrive in Kyoto around 11.30am and decide to brave the luggage delivery service. For Y750 (~$9) per piece, you can have your luggage delivered direct from Kyoto station to your hotel. I am a little concerned when there are no English speaking staff available, but I think me and the guy who served me had quite a worthwhile conversation (no Japanese from me and no English from him) so I hope my luggage will turn up to the right place.

I grab some sandwiches from the station before boarding another train, this one to Inari, about two stops out of Kyoto.  My plan for today is to climb a mountain – Fushimi Inari – half way if that’s what I can manage, all the way if my hard efforts over the last six months have paid off.

“In any part of Japan, you’re all but certain to come across an Inari Shrine. you’ll recognise it instantly by the pair of stone fox statues that are stood guard either side of the entrance or main torii – the particularly ‘oriental’ – looking couple of pillars (commonly painted red or orange at an Inari shrine) that are joined at the top by two cross pieces. So, what exactly is Inari, and what’s with the stone foxes? The first thing you need to know is that Inari is the kami (or god) or rice. Therefore, keeping Inari happy is pretty darned important to the Japanese, given that rice is an absolute staple of most meals. In times gone by, a successful rice harvest made the difference between survival and starvation. It had the same importance to the Japanese as a good potato crop had to the Irish. But what about Inari him-, her- or (and I mean this with the utmost respect) itself? Can we put a face to the name? Well, in this case it just so happens that we can, although when it comes to many Shinto kami, you won’t always be so fortunate. Inari is commonly depicted in one of two ways: either ‘he’ is an elderly man, usually bearded and carrying a couple of bundles of rice, or else ‘she’ is – and here I quote my Buddhist head-priest brother-in-law – ‘a beautiful fox-faced young woman’. Next question: what’s with the foxes? Well, foxes are good for the rice harvest, y’see – they eat other animals that would otherwise damage it, like field mice and birds. In fact, a long, long time ago, a group of foxes went to see Inari to pledge themselves as his servants. I can only imagine that working for a kami was a hell of a lot more exciting than scratching around in dustbins at one in the morning. ‘Keep an eye on the rice crop,’ Inari told them, so that’s just what they’ve been doing ever since.”
“A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan”, Ben Stevens

See – it is cold!

This is where I manage to hit my first hitch with the trains, ending up on one that may be a direct train insted of the one I wanted, cause it doesn’t stop at Inari. Realising after about 15 minutes that I probably should have arrived 7 minutes ago, I jump off the train and catch one back the other way, this time to the right stop.

As soon as you pass through the station gates, you can tell you have arrived at the shrine, as a striking massive red torii gate greets you. There are all sorts of shops selling offerings and trinkets along the entrance way. 

Fushimi Inari Shrine is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto.  In fact, it is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.  It’s famous for its 4km hike through 1,300 vermillion torii gates, which lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari.  And there are statues of foxes EVERYWHERE!  Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in the many fox statues across the shrine grounds.  It takes about 1 hour to climb to the apex, but the view is spectacular.  And you can stop at any point along the way and turn back.  The halfway point is the Yotsutsuji Intersection, where you can also stop for a rest.


Front entry to Fushimi Inari Taisha
The view from half way at the Yotsutsuji Intersection


The vermillion torii gates that line the way – they have been donated by companies and individuals over time
Beautiful Autumn leaves


I’m glad its really cold here, because it’s hard work climbing the mountain and I’m down to a t-shirt. All the Japanese I see climbing the steps have jackets on and I can’t understand why – it’s hot work!

There are little restaurants along the way so you can stop and take a drink or some food and there’s lots of places to stop and rest also. In fact some of the little restaurants look stunning, they have little rooms with huge windows where you can sit and take tea.

But I don’t have time cause I’ve got a task to complete – I want to get to the top of the mountain. As mentioned, it is hard work and I have to stop to take small breathers (I mean photos!), after a couple of hard sections of stairs, but finally, I see it – a sign indicating the top of the mountain. I’ve made it!


Task complete, I wander down the Omotesando, which is a little street full of souvenir and food shops, browsing before hopping back on the train to Kyoto.

I’ve read several times that first impressions of Kyoto can be something of an anticlimax. With everything you hear, read and see of Kyoto in movies, when you first step out of Kyoto station and into the streets for the first time and gazing around at the concrete around you, you are likely to feel that all you’ve heard and read about Kyoto is just so much tourist-literature hype. Thinking back, this is exactly how I felt the first time I visited Kyoto. Although we found lots of spots that were just beautiful and traditional, I guess I was expecting the whole of Kyoto to feel the way I’d imagined it.  The advice is to be patient, for the beauty of Kyoto is hidden from casual view behind walls, doors, curtains and façades. But if you take a little time to explore, you will discover that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of pockets of incredible beauty scattered across the city.  And, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

So instead of catching the subway, I decide to walk to my hotel. It’s quite a walk after the mountain, but it’s a good way to get my bearings.  Kyoto is actually quite easy to get around as it’s laid out in a grid pattern.

I check into the Hotel Gimmond when I arrive, and I’m glad to find my luggage has preceded me – gotta love Japan! The room is small, but really, what do you need – just a bed at the end of the night.

I quickly change and head out to the streets with enthusiasm. It doesn’t take long before I start to wane, but I hit the Nishiki Markets, which is where I wanted to have a browse to try and stock up on some fruit.


Nishiki Market is a narrow, five block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants.  Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, this lively market specialises in all things food relate – fresh seafood, produce, knives and cookware, and is a great place ot find seasonal foods and Kyoto specialties, such as sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi.

Some of the shops freely give out samples or sell sample dishes and skewers meant to be eaten then and there. There are also a few small restaurants and food stands selling ready-made food. The market has a history of several centuries, and many stores have been operated by the same families for generations.  So I stock up on fruit – lovely looking bananas, an apply and beautiful strawberries – and then decide to head back to the hotel.  Besides, it’s 5pm and rather dark now!

My original plan was to head for the night time illuminations at Kyomizudera Temple, but that will have to wait until another night – I’m just exhausted, I’ve left my glasses back at the hotel and my feet just won’t carry me anymore.
Despite my best intentions to eat only Japanese in Japan, I decide to head to the Italian restaurant, Daniel Bella Rosa’s, in the hotel lobby for dinner and a glass or two of red.  It’s a plan that pays off – I order a prawn and mushroom past with my red and it’s divine.  A perfect serving and it tasted awesome.  A great end to a successful day!

But I’d have to say, the highlight of the day would have to be whilst I’m showering and suddenly notice this sign….welcome to Japan.