Kyoto - Castles, Temples, Shrines and Gardens

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Where I stayed
ANA Crowne Plaza Kyoto
Read my review - 4/5 stars

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

9th to 13th April

We arrived in Kyoto at yet another immense railway station, this time the most modern in Japan.  A massive glass and steel building, very high tech and very impressive.  We had booked our hotel, Ana, on a special deal with Expedia prior to leaving the UK, as April is a very busy time because of the may blossom.  Good job we did as the first thing we saw as we popped into the information centre was a sign saying "no rooms in Kyoto".  We jumped on the hotel bus and arrived at the hotel to be greeted, not by the usual hotel doormen and receptionist but by Japanese women dressed in beautiful pink Kimonos.  It was a bit strange seeing a tiny Japanese woman, hoist our backpacks onto the luggage trolley. A few minutes and lots of bowing later we were in our room and looking at the spectacular view of Nijo-Ji castle.We decide to chill out in the room and plan our sight seeing for the next few days.

It is very grey and looks like it will rain so we choose to visit Nijo-Ji castle just accross the street this morning. The castle was built by the first Tokugawa Shogun as his Kyoto pad.  It is massive  and photgraphs simply do not convey its size.  In the ground are are 430 Cherry trees in full blossom, plus many orange, pear blossom, camelias etc..  These are without a doubt the most beautiful gardens we have ever seen (so far!).
The castle itself is a single storey building surrounded by a moat and stone walls which must be at least 10 metres thick.  The wooden floors around the building are designed to squeak when walked upon so as to warn of intruders and assassins. Quite imppressive when being walked on by hundreds of tourists.

Lots to do so we headed off for a quick lunch, stopping on route at the local samurai sword shop where Clive bought a beautiful sword so he can play at samurai when we get back home.

Lunch was very noisy as we visited an Udon noodle shop.  We at our lunch sat at counter between to young guys who seemed to be having a competition to see who could slurp the loudest!  - The guy on the right won by a mile!  Apparently it is quite acceptable, even polite, to slurp loudly when eating noodles and the best way to choose a good noodle restaurant is to stand outside and listen for the loudest slurping.

It was raining by now but undettered by this we headed out by train to the outskirts of Kyoto to a place called Arashiyama on the edge of the mountains. If we could choose a place to live, this would be it. The houses and gardens are not large but incredibly pretty. But we had really come to see the temples shrines and gardens and were following a circular walk of the area (walking is really the way to see the best of this place).  First stop was Tenryu-Ji , a major Zen temple and again the Zen gardens were amazing, complete with the obligatory, gravel raked into very neat lines.

It is now raining quite heavily and we have been out walking all day and so decide to not to try and see everything but go for a walk through the bamboo forest (think "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon"), again incredibly beautiful,   On ward then to Ghi-ohji a very small but very pretty temple used as a nunnery.  It was unused for many years until Chishoni, a Geisha became a nun and began rstoring the place. One of the more impressive things to see, beleive or not, is the moss! (and very proud are the gardeners of their moss cultivation skills).

Now raining very hard so we decide to get the train back to central Kyoto and stop en route for dinner. We take a different route back from the station and stumble accross a small restaurant that looks good.  Unfortunately, no English menus or English spoken, but after a while we determine that they serve curry and order two. Very nice it was too.  The two ladies who owned the place didn't see too many western tourists and, despite the language difficulties, we had a good old chat with them (about what, we have no idea!).  Upon leaving one of the ladies gave Carolyn some candy and, when seeing that it was raining, insisted that we take their umbrella. Despite the langauge diffculties, the Japanese have been the kindest and friendliest people we have encountered so far on our travels.

Up early this morning to visit Higashiyama in north-western Kyoto and attempt to see at least some of the 17 UNESCO world heritage sites in Kyoto (more than anywhere else in the world!). We took a planned walking route recommended by the Tourism Office.  Walking from the subway station it was easy to spot the start of the walking, a gigantic red gateway which is the entrance to Heian Jingu shrine.  The shrine is relatively new, being built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto.  Again, a spectacular shrine complex (apologies for repetition but it is difficult not to run out of superlatives here!). The Higashiyama district is, like much of Kyoto, just like any other Japanese city, except that around every corner there seems to be a shrine, temple or garden each one incredibly beautiful.  Spending about 90 minutes here we realise that we have to get moving if we are to see even a small percentage of the sites.

We walk through the streets which are heaving with mostly Japanese tourist (50 million visit Kyoto each year!) and walk up a steep hill in the foothills of the mountains to Nanzenji Temple which began life as a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama.  Again a very large and beautiful temple and is famous for its Leaping Tiger Zen Garden , very minimalist with small, almost bonsai like trees set against grey gravel, very neatly raked into simple designs.  The position of the temple, being high up provides great views of Kyoto which is set on a plain within a ring of mountains.

We stop for lunch at an Okonomiyaki restaurant.  Okonomiyaki is the nearest Japanese equivalent of pizza.  You sit at a teppanyaki hotplate and pork, fish, shellfish and vegetables are mixed into a batter, put on to the teppan to cook one side and then the other.  In honour of Carolyn's Welsh ancestry, we had our topped with "welsh" onions (leeks).  Absolutely delicious!

Refuelled we set off for Chion -in temple - the biggest so far and again very impressive.  The floors surrounding the main building are "nightingale" floors, designed to squeak to warn of intruders (the architect obviously did not envisage the millions of tourists that were destined to visit!). The temple also contains the largest bell in all Japan (74tons) which takes 17 monks to ring it!!
We move on to Maruyama park, a beautiful park with yet more cherry blossom and, being Friday, was being set up for the weekend picnics. Wandering (lost) through the park we find Yasaka shrine and chance upon a wedding ceremony in the shrine so we hang around for the bride, groom and wedding party to emerge.  The bride was dressed in a very simple white kimono but was upstaged completely by the bridesmaids in the most colourful Kimonos we have seen to date!

Walking through nice quaint lanes we find our way to Kodaji Temple with yet more extraordinary gardens (all Japanese gardens seem to mirror what you see in nature, but are more pristine and neat).

From Kodaji we get totally lost looking for the Gion district (the Geisha area).  We eventually find it and walk along the lanes and streams Geisha spotting and indeed we do spot a few here and there.  We also notice a few mothers and fathers that had paid for their daughters to dress up as Geishas and wander the streets having their photographs taken!  Apparently this is quite a common pastime for Japanese tourists visiting Kyoto. According to the pedometer, we have clocked up 15 miles and our feet tell us it is time to head back to the hotel.

12 April - Today we attempt some shopping (unsuccessfully) for Yakutas (summer dressing gowns) and then head out again to Higashiyama.  This time we walk from our hotel, through the main shopping areas and through Kyoto's  very long food market where it is possible to buy just about every type of food you can eat in Kyoto. 
We stop for lunch along the way at a restaurant which sells nothing but beef.  The restaurant is like something out of a Japanese design book, everything is so well thought out, functional yet very beautiful, with a tiny Japanese garden right in the middle.  We don't speak Japanese and the waiter speaks very little English but thankfully the menu has some pictures so we order japanese-beef-burger and what we think was "beef tendon"  in breadcrumbs.  Whatever it is, it is delicious.  The Japanese certainly have a different take on the good old hamburger.  Beef tendon was delicious, but as one would expect, very chewy.
We head on up a very steep hill, lined with shops and souvenir stalls to Kioymizudera temple another very large temple built on stilts on the mountainside.  This is the busiest site so far, not surprising as this is a Saturday in the height of the cherry blossom season.  We spot more Geishas (or their apprentices) and mostly, they all seem very happy to pose for pictures.  Unfortunately, some people were abusing this and were very rude.  We saw a couple of fat bearded Germans manhandling two Geishas  in their quest for the perfect photo.  Their attention was clearly not welcomed by the women and thankfully they quickly moved on  -  some people really should not be allowed passports!!   On our way back down the hill we pass through the hundreds of shops lining the street.  We stop at a few and one in particular stands out as unusual, a shop that sells nothing but black sweets and ice cream.  We try some of the sweets, but really haven't a clue as to what they are made of.  The ice cream looks especially weird, being a dark grey colour, but very popular nonetheless.
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