Trip Start Oct 27, 2007
Trip End Feb 27, 2008

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

We called in at Himeji on our way to Kyoto, as it is home to Japan's most impressive castle. We only just got there in time though as the last admissions were at 4pm - I kept forgetting that we were still in off season. It worked out fine though as we were able to have a steady stroll around the park, and then a steep climb up the five-storey donjon (central tower). This was more than sufficient, and we were soon on our way again...

Once in Kyoto, we walked to K's House and managed to get the two bottom bunks furthest away from the door which was lucky, particularly as we were staying for four nights. We didn't hang around though, as I wanted to take Ali to the geisha districts, beginning with a walk down Pontocho alley. This narrow sidestreet is lined with quaint little restaurants and geisha can often be seen here, scurrying along to meet with their clients...

We crossed the bridge and had a stroll around the quiet backstreets of Gion, which transport you back to ancient times and are straight from Memoirs of a Geisha. I was busy taking photographs of Ali under the lanterns that line the streets, when low and behold a geisha emerged briefly from a restaurant, spoke with a taxi driver, then disappeared again! It all happened very quickly, but I was delighted that Ali had managed to see one, especially as there was noone else around and it was lovely and quiet.

We bought a one-day bus pass the next morning as we wanted to see some of Kyoto's more famous temples. I'd chosen half a dozen or so that I wanted Ali to see as there's no point in overdoing it, and becoming 'templed out.' Ginkakuji, or the Silver Temple, is usually pretty impressive but I was disappointed to find that it was covered in scaffolding after we'd paid our admission fees! I thought that it was very cheeky not to mention this fact at the entrance, but evenso, the surrounding gardens were pleasant so all was not lost. Thankfully Kinkakuji, or the Golden Temple, wasn't under construction and looked stunning as the gold twinkled on what was a beautiful day...

Ali's first onsen experience came that evening when we went to the same plush one that I'd been to on my previous visit. She didn't seem at all perturbed about getting naked in front of a load of Japanese women, so we went our separate ways and met up an hour or so later in the relaxation area, both ready to sleep there and then! We did muster up the energy to eat at a cake shop on the way back to the hostel, but the onsen had worked its magic and I slept like a baby that night...

Friday began in traditional fashion, as we made our way to Higashiyama for a lesson in Tea Ceremony. Even though I'd done it before with Yumi, I still felt a bit nervous in case I made a mistake, but the graceful Japanese lady in charge was very friendly, and demonstrated just how it should be done. Ali and me then took it in turns to make the tea, being careful to do things in the correct order, and to drink it in three sips. It was a fun experience!

We had a walk to Heian Shrine next, an impressive red complex with beautiful gardens. It was much more peaceful than on my previous visit during cherryblossom season, and we went round at a leisurely pace, crossing the lake on the numerous stepping stone trails.

Not too far away from Heian Shrine is the Kyoto Handicraft Centre which is a great place for souvenir shopping, so after Ali had munched on some octopus balls, we went and had an hour or two in there. The souvenir bug had rubbed off on me as well, and I ended up buying various bits and bobs, including a lovely picture for my wall back home. I also managed to find a beautiful Japanese doll for Gracie to denote where I was when she was born, and the owner of that section of the shop kindly let Ali and me try on some yukata for free!

Late in the afternoon, we boarded a train to Fushimi to go and see the thousands of torii gates at the Fushimi-Inari shrine...except the shrine in question was nowhere near Fushimi station! I hadn't even checked in the guidebook, so my nonchalence meant that we were now as good as lost, but two local ladies were incredible and walked with us (in the complete opposite direction to where they were going) for about half a mile to get us back on track. However, as it was getting late, I decided to flag down a taxi, and it eventually got us to our destination before darkness had descended...panic over!

We laughed about our predicament, and I knew that I had given Ali some great ammunition for future baiting! Alas, she loved walking up through all the bright red gates, and it was an eerie time as the crows in the woods were making so much noise. As if to add insult to injury, both of our cameras' batteries ran out at the same time, but not before we'd managed to get some good shots. It had been something of a close shave, but we could now finally tick the Fushimi-Inari Shrine off our list...

It was bloody freezing the next morning, in complete contrast to the previous day where I'd been walking around in a t-shirt. There were also many dark clouds around, but thankfully the weather stayed fine for our trip to Nara, home of many deer and Todai-ji, the world's largest wooden building.

I was happy the moment that I saw a vendor selling shikasembei (deer biscuits), and I subsequently did my best impression of Doctor Doolittle. One deer was getting a bit too aggressive for my liking though, headbutting my leg when I dared to give the others some of the food - completely selfish! I've no time for deer like that...

Ali was impressed when she saw the 16m high bronze Buddha statue in the Daibatsu-den, and it is a magnificent sight. Around the back of the statue is a wooden column with a hole through its base, and it was funny watching people try to squeeze through it. Apparently those who can fit through it are ensured of enlightenment, whereas those who can't, erm, need to go on a diet!

Back in Kyoto, we found a great okonomiyaki restaurant, and then spent our final evening playing pool and singing at the karaoke. It even began snowing outside which was a bonus, and I was able to land a couple of snowball hits on Ali when we eventually walked back to the hostel!
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Where I stayed
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