The ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto nestles in a valley in the South west of the country. Japan’s cultural centre, it was saved from total destruction during WWII and with 2000 temples and shrines, together with imperial palaces and other old buildings, it is one of the best preserved major cities in Japan.
The Bamboo Forest is initially a bit of a shock to our system. After the rejuvenating time on the Nakasendo Way we arrived at the Forest at midday with its harsh light together with thousands of tourists (one of the top three tourist sights in Kyoto) – no chance of any classic pictures or experiencing the tranquility for which it is famed. It is still an amazing experience, though. The forest towers over us as we thread our way through the crowds, who as all crowds in Japan are relatively quiet, the tall stalks creaking and rustling as they sway around us.
Exiting the forest, we walk through the beautifully laid out Kameyama-koen Park still festooned with cherry blossoms down to the Katsura River. We stroll along the waters edge, admiring the boatmen skilfully piloting the traditional, flat bottomed boats with oars and bamboo poles through the current down to the Togetsu-kyo Bridge.
Sagano Bamboo Forest
The name Togetsu, (moon crossing), is attributed Emperor Kameyama who witnessed a rising moon appearing as if it was crossing the bridge. The first bridge here was built in 836, while the current one was finished in 1934.
The Sagano Bamboo Forest is a large natural grove of bamboo in the foothills of Arashiyama. It is on the Ministry of Environment’s list of “100 Soundscapes of Japan” – a selection of everyday noises intended to combat noise pollution and encourage locals to stop and enjoy nature’s music.
On 13 April jūsan-mairi, boys and girls (many in kimono) aged13, after paying respects at the Hōrin-ji temple and receiving a blessing for wisdom, cross the bridge and may not look back towards the temple until they’ve reached the northern side of the bridge. Ignoring this instruction is believed to bring bad luck for life!
After lunch, on our way back to the station, we stumbled upon the Kimono Forest – a collection of pillars framing the lane to the tram station. The Kimono Forest consists of a collection of cylinders covered with textile dyed in the traditional Kyo-yuzen style. There are about 600 of them installed all over the station grounds.
After a short rest in our hotel, we planned to walk through Maruyama Park, famed for its cherry blossoms. I got the timing wrong as the entrance on the West side appeared closed and we missed the golden hour. We cut our losses and wandered down towards Gion, walking along the Shirakawa River. It was a quiet suburban area with little bridges crossing the canal into peoples houses interspersed with willow and cherry trees.
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, located around Shijo Avenue and right on the doorstep of our hotel. It is filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) entertain.
As we neared Hanami-koji Street and the wooden Tatsumi Bridge the streets became busy again, but still attractive. We walked down Shimbashi street, which follows the course of the canal, with its traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Property taxes were formerly based upon street frontage, so houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extending up to twenty meters in from the street.
We didn’t see any geishas, which is probably just as well. Apparently it becomes a paparazzi feeding frenzy as tourists jostle to catch a glimpse of one and take a happy snappy.
We selected a restaurant based on the chef, skilfully flipping his Okonomoyakis and the invite to be entertained by 5 famous beauties.
Another delicious meal with obligatory beers. This is Sappora draught – Geoff’s all-time favourite.
The closest we’ll come to eating with a geisha!
The Philosopher's Path
The Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku no michi) is a stone path that follows a canal which is lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Approximately two kilometers long, the path begins around Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and gets its name from the philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who walked this route to clear his mind.
We arrived early way before the hordes of tourists descended and taking a leaf out of Nishida Kitaro’s book, slowed down and just enjoyed being. We had the company of a few fellow photographers and locals enjoying the beauty and stillness of the Path. The cherry blossoms had started to fall but still provided an attractive show.
A poem by Nishida, is etched (in Japanese) on a stone along the Path:
Let others do as they will,
I am who I am.
At any rate I will walk the way
That I make my own.
There is another poem by Nashida which captures my feelings when sailing:
“I love the ocean. I can watch the waves all day long. Waves are the movements of infinity itself… There is nothing more pleasant than to be embraced in the bosom of great nature. There is no talk of scholarship or moral discourse there.”
Ginkaku-ji - The Silver Pavilion
The Path ends at Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), a Zen temple built as a villa by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436 –1490) and modelled after his grandfather’s famous Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). There is a exquisite zen garden with a route that winds up and down leading through hidden areas eventually to the top with a view over Kyoto. A perfect punctuation to a regenerative morning. Topped off with a cream bun – Sakura flavour of course.
After Tsukiji Market in Tokyo and Karumon Market in Osaka, we thought that we could not do another market. Luckily we were looking for a place to eat and as we were in the area we thought we would have a quick look. What a fortunate decision. Nishiki is Nikki’s favourite market:
Firstly, it is not a fish market, but has a wide range of all things culinary.
Secondly, it just isn’t as frenetic as the other two.
Thirdly, a new experience for us in Japan, are the delicious samples that many of the shops offer.
We bought all sorts of tasty things to make Japanese dishes when we get home and had a chicken roll to go – no words can describe the juiciness and flavour.
Pontocho is a narrow alley running next to the Kamogawa River. It is packed with restaurants offering all sorts of delectable Japanese delights catering to varying wallet sizes. We eventually chose one selling Ramen. Exquisite depth of flavour.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari is the most important of the thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, and there are hundreds of statues in the the shrine grounds.
At the shrine’s entrance stands the Romon Gate, which was donated and erected in 1589. Behind is the shrine’s main hall (honden).
This shrine is where people come to pray for academic success. Students hoping to pass an entrance exam sometimes fold 1,000 origami cranes. There is a belief in Japan that if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, your wish will be granted.
A torii is a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred. (Wikipedia)
The trails with their famous vermilion torii gates, start behind the main buildings. The torii gates are donations by individuals and companies – their name and the date of the donation inscribed on each gate – the cost ranging between 400,000 yen to over one million yen. Along the way, there are smaller shrines with stacks of miniature torii gates that were donated by those with smaller budgets. It is truly spectacular and no googling can prepare you for the sheer number of the Senbon Torii (“thousands of torii gates”). Although slightly overcast, the photography is amazing. You can walk as long as short as you wish and we turned back at the Yotsutsuji intersection roughly half way up the mountain as it does become repetitive.
Nikki lighting a candle in memory of those no longer with us.
Fushimi Inari is a marvel. It is beautiful, serene, thought provoking, awe-inspiring, zen. It is one of the most wonderful experiences we have had and we came away rested and inspired. A fitting end to our time in Kyoto and our time in Japan.