KYOTO! I have been so excited about the stop here and it couldn't have lived up to expectations any better. It was a bullet train to Kobe, then a bullet train to Kyoto where I had to get my bearings as to which station exit to head out of. I walked a few kilometres through the backstreets to the Nine Hours Capsule hotel, had to experience it again for a couple of nights! Walking down these backstreets, was like being in a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha (without the Geisha's), what with the classic and authentic Japanese houses. I already knew that Kyoto was going to be my favourite stop in Japan. And it has so much to offer a tourist that I didn't know how I was going to get round it all!
I checked in and curled up in my capsule while I did a rough plan of what I wanted to see, seriously there's too much, and where I wanted to go. My first stop was to be a walk around Gion, the area famed for Geisha's and a truly authentic and is in fact the setting for Memoirs of a Geisha. Here there are plenty of tourists walking around sporting their hired kimonos but it made for a pretty sight. But they are mostly tourists dressing up, in saying that you can spot the women who genuinely wear the kimono as their normal dress. Within this district is the Kennin-ji Temple, which is accredited to being the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, reportedly being established in 1202. As ever, the grounds of these temples are great for a stroll to admire not only the cherry blossom but also the architecture of these temples. The only problem with Kyoto, that I could find, was it was bloody freezing and I had to rush back to get some more layers but hitting the streets again to, this time, visit the Yasaka Shrine, which sits in Maruyama Park. Unfortunately, a couple of the buildings that made up the shrine were surrounded with scaffolding and tarpaulin so it couldn't be fully appreciated. Nonetheless, the park was full of little food stalls which smelt amazing, I figured if I had time later I would come back to get a snack.
I decided to wear my feet out for the rest of the afternoon, and headed to the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera Temple which is a bit of walk and up a hill. But the streets up to it are very touristy but at least the architecture is traditional, with all the shops selling mass produced or unique fans, Japanese sweets and all other forms of souvenirs. This temple was rammed but is also undergoing a major restoration process, but the views over Kyoto and the surrounding mountains are breathtaking. Especially as spring is on its way so all the colours of spring and autumn are merging. I spent a bit of time exploring the various orange shrines of this site which has UNESCO status, but the number of tour groups makes it a bit overwhelming. I fought the crowds and even succumbed to buying a lovely blue fan, when in Japan right? From here I decided I wanted to go and walk the Philosopher's Walk, a pathway that is lined the whole length with cherry trees all in bloom which runs alongside the canal. As it was an overcast day the photos didn't capture it in all its glory but I guess it's the memories that count. At the end of the walk was the Ginkaku-ji temple, which unfortunately as I had been trying to cram so much into this one afternoon, had just closed. But I did manage to appreciate the lit up lanterns that ran up the length of a random staircase. Absolutely shattered, I walked back to the city centre along a different branch of the canal / stream and was enticed by a restaurant selling Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake. I felt a bit silly being on my own, as you are taken to a private booth with sliding bamboo doors for complete privacy and in the centre of the table is a hot plate for you to cook your own food through. But it was amazing, the guys back in Kitakyushu recommended okonomiyaki and yakisoba (also on the menu, so I knew I would be coming back here the following night). I am totally going to learn how to make this, a perfect end to a brilliant sightseeing day. Needless to say, I slept easy in my coffin that night.
Day two in Kyoto was just as tiring as the first afternoon! First I had to check out of the capsule, even though I was going to be staying there again that night, so I dumped my bags in reception and headed out in to the bitter cold to walk over to the Nijo Castle. Deciding that I had visited a fair few castles, I didn't pay to look around this one and merely walked around the perimeter of the site. Next stop, one of the things I was looking forward to seeing; Arashiyama's Bamboo Grove. The JR rail pass is brilliant as I hoped on a train to take me to Arasiyama, it didn't take long to find the Bamboo Grove from the station. And I like how I seem to be gushing about everything I've seen in Japan so far, it was gorgeous, a dense bamboo forest with the light making it a vibrant green and walkways cutting through it. Only problem is the number of tourists making it difficult to get that perfect picture. But just taking it in and being in awe of the height of these spindly things. Amongst the bamboo groves is the Tenryu Shiseizen-ji Zen temple. I paid an entrance fee to give me something to do before heading back to the city and I am so glad I did. There is a large garden to walk around as well as the temple. Being the 'flowering' spring season, all the trees and bushes were in full bloom of a variety of colour, who knew flowers could come in such a range of pinks and purples!
I spent an easy hour walking Tenryu's garden before realising I still wanted to do so much back in Kyoto. I plodded back to the station and got the train down to Fushimi to visit the Fushimi Irari-Taisha temple. I am going to be so over temples by the time I leave Japan. This temple is famous for its walkway under thousands of orange archways known as vermilion torii gates which lead to the forest of the Irari Mountain and even better, the sun came out! Getting a bit worn out I grabbed a train up to Demachiyanagi station and walked over to the Shimogamo Shrine, another UNESCO site along with its sister shrine; Kamigamo Shrine which is a few kilometres up the Takano river. The walk up to the other shrine is beautiful in the sun; you have cherry blossom trees the whole way up that overhang the walkway and people everywhere enjoying the sun and the beauty of this river walk, myself included. By now I was exhausted so walked the 6.5km back along the river to the centre of Kyoto, knowing that I couldn't take another step or temple. I re-checked in to my capsule, went Geisha spotting in Gion and failed, grabbed some juicy beef from the stall in Maruyama Park, which was totally worth it. As night fell, I dragged myself over to the main station to walk along the sky walk, which actually was a disappointment as it doesn't overlook the city in the way I thought a sky walk would. Ready for a big feed and bed, I headed back to my restaurant for the yakisoba (a noodle dish) and a glass of wine before completely passing out. That was one hell of a day!
I wake up to my final day in Kyoto and already was wishing I was staying longer, this is a city I promise to return to one day. Today I just had the morning to 'kill' as I was booked on to a tea ceremony in the afternoon, so I had a lazy stroll down the Philosopher's Walk again, then a walk around the vast grounds of the Imperial Palace. Then it was time to attend the tea ceremony at The Tea Ceremony House Ju-an set in a lovely little garden with pond and koi carps. I embarrassed myself straight away by walking into a workshop that hadn't yet finished, oops. The tea ceremony workshop was a good little insight in the customs of the tradition as originally adopted by the Zen monks and Samurai's, as well as being a way to respect your host or guests. We were shown and then taught the art of mixing green tea in this ceremonious way and our 'host' had to be the sweetest lady. Who knew there was such an art as to the way a bowl/cup was to be presented to your guest and then returned to the host to avoid offending either party!
From here I went and checked into my new hostel, Gojo Guesthouse with a really friendly host who knew exactly where my village was in the UK, despite never having left Japan as her friend was from there as well!!!! Always amazed by the smallness of this world at times. Then my final evening was spent walking around Gion, where this time I did see Geisha's but it was ridiculous the way people literally ran after them for a photo! But later in the evening I did get a grainy picture just to prove I saw some. I grabbed some food in the Pontocho area, which is a narrow alley full of restaurants with an amazing mix of smells. I even got to try my first glass of Hoppy mixed with Shōchū, an easy drink. Then I went to pass out in my Japanese futon bed, to prepare myself for the final leg of Japan; Osaka.