Soooo its been a little while since I’ve written anything in here – put it down to being lazy, busy or whatever but either way its been too long! I actually had something half written about Kyoto sitting in a draft but I’ve forgotten all about it.
I’ll do my best to recount my experiences in Kyoto when I was there in May 2015 from what pictures, ticket stubs and brochures I still have with me as my memory going back any more than a few weeks is quite flaky.
I think I’ll start with a short little factoid about Kyoto that you might not otherwise know. The city was nearly destroyed in WWII. In the weeks before the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan there was a list of targets that held both economic and military significance. At the top of this list and under pending threat of the first atomic bomb was Kyoto. The imperial capital which had stood for over a thousand years could have been eviscerated in a matter of seconds.
However it was removed from the list through the intervention of the US Secretary of War who had honeymooned in Kyoto, citing the city’s beauty and enormous cultural history that should not be lost forever. This just speaks volumes about such a special city.
A quick note; Kyoto is fairly flat and so is awesome for riding around by bicycle to see the sights – it’s such a great change from getting around via the subway and metro in Tokyo as you get to enjoy the sun and breeze as you cruise around. With so many other locals riding bikes its pretty easy to get amongst it and there are plenty of places to hire – I got mine for 500 yen (about $5) for a day which is great value.
You can stop at whatever place you like as there are lots of places to ‘park’ your bike. Bring some water in case you get a little bit puffed out from the pedalling, I happened to squeeze out around 20 kms in one day (I was there in Spring and so had top weather to enjoy the ride). There are convenience stores every 100m or so if you want to stop for a moment in the aircon or grab some snacks.
I find its much more convenient to also explore on your own with a bike as you’re not set on any particular itinerary like on a guided tour for example. The streets are laid out in a grid so its pretty damn hard to get lost so you might as well go and have your own adventure!
I was staying at a little hostel in Gion which is the Geisha district where you can see Geishas and Geishas in training walking around the streets, as well as experience a traditional tea ceremony in one of the older style buildings with tatami mats. Sidenote; couldn’t help but be a little annoyed at some rather brash tourists (looking at you big chinese tour buses) snapping photos of geishas without their permission as if they were inaminate objects – not even the decency to say hello or treat them as people too.
Anyway Gion is a nice little area in the east of the city while still fairly close to the rest of the attractions. There is a gentle river with wide banks just down the road where you can laze about on the grass and listen to people play their guitars/fly their kits/practice their breakdancing/etc.
Just on the opposite side of the river is Kiyamachi Street which is pedestrianised at night due to the large numbers of people frequenting a whole bunch of bars and restaurants. A pretty good spot that has everything from karaoke, arcades, sushi bars, izakayas, drinking holes and clubs. Often the best places aren’t always visible at street level and you may have to checkout the vertical signage showing up to 5 tenants in the one building.
Outside of drinking, the first thing I needed to cross of my list was the vermillion torii gates at the Fushima Inarii shrine that everyone knows about! No amount of hype could tarnish my experience as it was pretty magical walking around the forest through all the gates. The gates actually circuit all along the face of the mountain, so once you make it past the selfie brigades at the start of the gates you are pretty much free to wander around without too many other people crowding around.
The gates get bigger towards the top but are more spread out. There are only a handful of people that even walk to the top of the mountain as most people just do a little circuit near the base and then leave. After taking in the view at the top I had some tea in one of the little cabins around the mountain trail – I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the shop at the top who receives hardly any visitors compared to all the stalls at the base selling teriyaki sticks and takoyaki by the truckloads. For good reason though they are delish lol
Anyway as you can see the colours look a little washed out on the gates, that’s not because my pictures are shit but because some of them are much older than other and the paint is starting to wear. I saw one guy repainting these one at a time at a painstakingly slow pace – gotta feel for the dude as well (atleast he has shade in most parts)
After noticing a distinct lack of cafes (apart from starbucks, yuck) around Japan it took me by surprise when I finally saw a proper espresso machine sitting in the window of a cafe near the base of the shrines. I had not had a good coffee for weeeeks so it was heaven getting a nice little afternoon pick-me-up.
I had spent the whole afternoon there so I decide I would continue with the sites the next day. In the morning I got my bike again and headed for Nijojo, the castle home to the imperial palace. It was quite beautiful walking around the palace grounds as we were in the middle of spring and everything was in full bloom so their gardens were bursting with vibrance.
I continued on my bike heading north on towards the Golden Pavilion. Now this place was absolutely crowded with tourists – quite far from the serene gardens you see in the photos. Not long after I took the photo below another 2 or 3 big groups came in and got even more crowded!
The place still looks beautiful but I felt like everyone was moving hurriedly about trying to get as many photos as they could. But hey I can’t complain, it looks pretty cool.
After stopping again for some ice cream we continued on to the Zen rock garden which was also close by at the bottom of the hill. While the gardens were quite nice to walk around the actual rock garden itself left me rather unimpressed tbh, I mean I don’t know what I was expecting they really are just rocks – I don’t see anything ‘zen’ about them but maybe thats just uncultured ol’ me.
By now I was starting to get a little tired and realised that the further I pedalled away meant the further I would have to cycle back *facepalm* So I decided to start heading back before my legs died out on me. That meant skipping the Arashiyama Bamoo forests but I think I was cool with that. Would rather be chowing down on some delish sashimi in a comfy aircon sushi bar.
And so thats what we did, we headed back for showers and then a great meal ordering sushi a la carte by iPad. The novelty factor has worn off for me in fact, and ordering by iPad is actually quiet a practical option. You can see your current total bill so you don’t go crazy ordering everything on the menu!
There are still many things I left unseen in Kyoto and deserver a return trip like the Kiyomizudera temple that looks out over the whole city but honestly by this point I was a little ‘templed-out’ as my friend Sue likes to put it. Until next time Kyoto you beauty