It’s hard to describe my first impressions of Kyoto as crowd of people swallowed us immediately after we exited train at the Kyoto Station. Our accommodation was not so far away and our host was nice to let us leave luggage there, despite arriving few hours before check-in. Without the extra baggage we set up to explore the city.
Just few minutes by foot was Higashi Hongan-ji (東本願寺, the Eastern Temple of the Original Vow) with its main hall (Goei-do Mon) being the Kyoto’s largest wooden structure. After this quick stop, we continued through the Kyoto Station towards Tō-ji (東寺, East Temple), where we saw the tallest wooden tower in Japan - a Five-story pagoda with height of 54.8 meters. After that, we called it a day as we had three more to explore the city.
Next day we decided to visit the northeast part of the city. We stopped for few bites of locally produced food at Nishiki Market and then continued towards Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺, Silver Pavilion). This temple (previously retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa) was built based on the older Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion) in the northwest part of the city. Despite its name, the Silver Pavilion was never covered in silver. Sadly, this place was not saved from the typhoon few days earlier so part of the garden was closed.
Close to Ginkaku-ji is The Philosopher’s Path (哲学の道, Tetsugaku no michi). It’s pleasant stone path through the northern part of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district and the city’s most popular hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spot. It must be breath-taking scene as the path follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees.
On the other end of The Philosopher’s Path is Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji (永観堂禅林寺), temple famous for its unusual statue of the Amida Buddha. They say that during one ritual the statue came to life and stepped down from its dais. Also, small streams run through the temple grounds and connect to the Hojo Pond, at the centre of which is a small shrine on an island and is surrounded by various trees which makes it lovely spot for autumn foliage viewing.
Nanzen-ji (南禅寺) was another temple on our list with its rock garden which resembles tigers and cubs crossing through water and the large brick aqueduct, a rather odd sight in Japan. We were late and the temple was already closed, but at least the aqueduct passes outside of the temple walls.
As the evening started closing in, we decided to return back to our guesthouse. On our way back, we visited Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. This area full of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses has its own charm during the evening as the lanterns in front of the restaurants lights up. We were also lucky to see maiko quickly switching taxis and geisha in another car.
The following day we woke up to another rainy morning. We still went out as we wanted to see the northwest part of the city. Our first stop was Nijō Castle (二条城, Nijō-jō). Even here were gardens still closed, but at least we visited the Ninomaru Palace. It served as a residence and office of the shogun during his visits to Kyoto. The most interesting part of this palace is its “nightingale floors” in the corridors. It was constructed in a way that the nails squeak like birds when anyone walks on them. Pretty annoying, but I guess it was efficient against sneak attacks and assassins.
Next, we finally went to see one of the most popular buildings in Japan - Kinkaku-ji temple. Architecture wise we knew what to expect, as we saw Ginkaku-ji the day before, but the gold leaf plating still made huge impact as well as the building’s reflection in the pond. It was simply stunning.
The day before we missed our opportunity to see one of the rock gardens, so we decided to visit Ryōan-ji temple (竜安寺, The Temple of the Dragon at Peace), which also has one and is not so far from Kinkaku-ji temple. Fifteen stones of different sizes are carefully composed in five groups within this rectangular garden. They are arranged so when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of them are visible at one time. It is said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder.
After that we returned back to our room and found out that our plan for the next day was cancelled. We booked trip into hidden trails around the Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha) and through the bamboo groves, but the trails were still closed. I was looking forward to visiting this shire, so we decided to go by ourselves and see which tourist trails remained opened. Luckily the very first part of the trail was open and we were able to go through the Senbon Torii (thousands of torii gates), which were donated by individuals or companies to pray for the business success.
To finish our visit in Kyoto we went to see Sanjūsangen-dō (三十三間堂) temple with its main attraction of thousand (and one) statues of Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteśvara (Thousand Armed Kannon), temple’s deity.
We purposely ended our day early and started packing after returning back to our room. Next day we had tickets for the Tōkaidō Shinkansen to Tokyo. I’ve loved trains since I was young and it’d be blasphemy for me to be in Japan and don’t ride their famous bullet train. To fully enjoy the route, we booked the limited-stop services - train Nozomi (のぞみ), which only stops at three stations before arriving to Tokyo. The train itself was N700A series with 16 car sets, with maximum speed of 300 km/h. We needed only 2 hours and 14 minutes to travel approx. 470 km to Tokyo.
Both I and my wife share the dislike for huge cities. From this perspective Tokyo sounded for us like a nightmare with the amount of people living there, although we understood everybody would be asking if we have been there, when we return back home. Also - there were few places we wanted to see, but other than vague idea, we had no clue, what to do there for two and half day, after arriving from Kyoto.
After early dinner we decided to visit evening and night Akihabara, as we were just one or two kilometres away. Before doing one of the biggest mistakes in my life, we stopped in few shops, crane games and gatcha machines. Then we walked down the street and were greeted by two maids inviting us to a maidreamin café. Before we came to Japan, I wanted to visit one - you hear a lot about it in anime, so of course I wanted to try it. I didn’t know what we were venturing into. Lift took us to upper floor, got greeted by another maid and seated to the table. Our waitress magically lit candle, put menu in front of us and told us, whenever we are ready to order to do a cat pawns and “meow” on the service. This was the first signal to take all our stuff and leave, but we stayed and even were able to order ice cream sundae and coffee. So far it was little bit strange, but we managed to pull through.
What followed was an order from another customer, who took some extra menu coming together with performance, so all the lights were turned off and the ones above small stage on. Single maid started singing and dancing which was kind of cute, but in the same time felt totally awkward. After the performance we finally got our order. Happy to receive food, I wanted to start eating it, but was quickly stopped by the maid. We had to perform a magic spell for it to taste good - how silly of me, trying to eat it without it. We had to use both our hands to create heart shape above the food and say the spell formula: “Oishiku nare, moe moe kyun”. We quickly devoured our food, drank our coffee, just to leave as soon as possible. Finally, in the elevator we were able to vent our laughter.
I was surprised not to have nightmares after the experience, but I woke up the next day without - hopefully - any long-lasting effects of the maid café visit. Just to be sure we went to Kōkyo Higashi-gyoen (皇居東御苑, The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace) to reconnect with nature. Yet again the garden was beautiful, but we just were there in the wrong season to watch any flowers bloom, or have the coloured leaves on trees. Still having time before we met up with one of our Japanese friends for lunch, we stopped at The Imperial Shrine of Yasukuni (靖国神社or靖國神社, Yasukuni Shrine) which commemorates those who died in the wars involving Japan spanning from the entire Meiji and Taishō periods, and the lesser part of the Shōwa period.
After the lunch we went to Atago Shrine (愛宕神社 Atago Jinja). The very steep stairs leading to the shrine are famous, as they represent success in life. According to legend, a young samurai dared to ride his horse up the stairs to deliver plum blossoms to the shōgun. It took his horse only one minute to get up, but 45 minutes to get down, and the horse was totally exhausted afterwards.
A hint from one of our guidebooks led us in the evening to Shinjuku (新宿). It was interesting to walk through Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red-light district, with my wife, but I guess somebody single or with bunch of friends might enjoy the area more. It features lots of restaurants, bars, nightclubs or love hotels, so we changed our course to Golden Gai, an area packed full with bars and small eateries. There we found small ramen place, which could hold only few customers at the same time for a late dinner.
Next day (our last in Tokyo) we decided to do a little more sightseeing and some shopping for souvenirs. Our first stop was at Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺), Tokyo’s oldest and most colourful temple. I didn’t expect to find shopping street packed with souvenirs there, but it saved us all the hassle looking for the right presents for friends and family.
Visiting the market street near Ueno Station was now not necessary, but we went anyway. It was disappointment, so after a quick break at Ueno Park we returned back to our hostel to pack our stuff. Early morning, we left Tokyo behind and went to Narita Airport to pick up a car we booked for next week.
This part is longer than I anticipated, but I managed to cover two third of our holidays. For now, you can look forward to the next article which will be about Kamakura and Enoshima – home of multiple anime with some shots you might recognize.