Kyoto: A Step Back in Time

Kyoto – The cultural capital of Japan. Spared by the Americans during the bombing of Japan, today it is a throwback to traditional Japan and home to thousands of shrines and temples.

From Mie to Oita, Oita to Osaka, Osaka to Kyoto took nearly the whole day! It was funny running into the other Oita Jets heading off on holiday for ‘Silver Week” – a 5 day holiday caused by 3 consecutive National Holidays.

Our hotel was a little house down some back streets in Western Kyoto, but well connected by buses, trams and trains!

Walking around, what struck me most was the low-ness of everything. There was not a skyscraper, or massive apartment blocks or hotels. Nearly everything around the hotel was no more than 2-3 floors, and even in central Kyoto, buildings were still nowhere near as tall as Tokyo or even Oita.

Around the hotel most houses were kind of old looking. Thinly constructed, looking as if from the 80s/90s, much like the buildings in Mie, only much dense. In fact, dense is a great way to describe Kyoto; low-rise, but dense.

As we walked Eastwards into Kyoto, thoughts turned towards drinks and dinner, which obviously gave rise to the thought of finding an Irish bar! And boy! There were about 6 to choose from.

After a few pre dinner drinks, we made it to the bar, ordered fish and chips, and as always, as the drinks flowed, so did my French with Solene!

Thankfully, a well connected hotel, combined with 4G mobile internet meant we had no problems getting away back to the hotel via the tram!

Tourist Trap: Sunday

Our first day’s plan was to hit the big tourist spots and to ‘get them out of the way” before going AWOL off the beaten track for the following 2 days.

We journeyed a little further west to check out the Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama, and to head into the Tenryu-ji Temple. You’ll have seen the bamboo forest on the front cover of Lonely Planet Japan (2013). It was super cool beneath the bamboos, and pretty despite the flocks of tourists.

The temple offered a beautiful lake and landscaped garden, and made great use of the unimpeded views of the mountains behind – aka ‘borrowed scenery’ as it was translated frequently in every temple! I think Japan invented ‘landscaping’ in the ‘Groundforce’ kind of way.

The lake at Tenryu-ji Temple was stunning

Next up was Gio-ji Temple. Not one of the main sites, but a delightful little temple 20 minutes walk away! En route were number of golden rice fields, people in two wheel carriages being pulled by men and more delightful 2 storey houses, around in complex and dense layout, right up against the sides of the roads – personal gardens clearly not a big thing in Kyoto/Japan.The temple was so cool, and damp, and the floor was just covered with moss, it looked and felt like fur!

Gio-ji was a super mellow place to visit
Gio-ji was a super mellow place to visit

Kinkaku-ji – The Golden Pavilion

Despite how the photo looks, this place was SUPER busy

Ah, the Golden Pavilion, one of the most iconic spots in Japan and used in so much media that you probably know it without realising! Originally a garden or something, it was then given to monks which made it much more important. Then something like after it accidentally built down, they rebuilt it, and gold-leafed the 2nd and 3rd floors – or at least the outside of those floors – but you don’t care – here are the pics!

Cheeky backside

Ginkaku-ji Temple – The almost as popular, Silver Pavilion

The Silver Pavilion is unfortunately not covered in silver-leaf, so the name I don’t understand. It does have a massive stone-raked garden, and a carefully shaped gravel mound that represents Mt. Fuji? I don’t get it either. Here are the pics;

Ginkaku-ji has some beautify grounds to it
More trees

The Path of Philosophy – Or is that Philosophers?

Well, maybe it doesn’t matter since we missed about half of it – lol! Damn google maps and its efficiency!

Eventually our back lane lead onto the path, and we walked along the stream in the glowing light of the lowering sun, to Nanzen-ji Temple.

Nanzen-ji Temple
Looking North-West over Kyoto

Nanzen-ji Temple: What a massive san-mon! You could even climb to the top of it! (For a small fee) It was delightful having the setting sun warm us up and the evening was starting to cool, and you could see out over Kyoto.Next was to the cafe inside the temple that offered a beautifully meditative view of a waterfall – oh wait, it was shut – noooo!

The temple had a small, walled, stone garden, behind which the mountains grew steeply upwards.

Outside of the temple stood an impressive aqueduct, which only now do I know hides an awesome, hidden waterfall view – thanks Frenchie for saying there was nothing there!

We began walking back into more central Kyoto, keeping an eye out for interesting things. One such thing was a 7-eleven with setting outside of it! I even got id’d as we bought beverages – nothing like showing off your Japanese driver’s licence!

Kyoto 7-eleven
Why was the car park shut? Why were they tables and chairs? We may never know

We found a delightful stream, into which a number of enterprising individuals had built small platforms out to, and were offering various tea and drinking parties for small groups, and in one part, crafts fold appeared to be cleaning out long, linen banners in the flow of the stream.

Kyoto Gion stream
Such enterprising individuals!

More wandering, and as we approached Gion, we were met with charmingly rustic, low level buildings, with swooping willows, and filled with people in traditional clothes. As the sun was setting, everything was lit with a golden seam, and it was magnificent!

Gion Kyoto
More traditional Kyoto

Beer Garden

Now the hunger was setting, so Frenchie decided to check out the Beer Garden we had spotted the previous night by the river.The view was incredibly! Kyoto looks truly European, with its lack of high-rise skyline, and set along the banks of the river.

Beer garden Gion
Rooftop beer garden in central Gion
Beergarden Gion Kyoto
Looks so European with its lake of skyscrapers

Naturally the beer garden offered nomihoudai (all you can drink) and a set menu, for 2 hours – we took it! Too little food, and lots of booze meant the French and Japanese babbled from my mouth once again, and after some interesting chat, we found ourselves heading towards the Irish bar again.

Brit and Frenchie in a Beer garden
Thankfully they remove the empty glasses!

But wait? What’s this place? The thought took us into a small, empty snack bar a few floors below the Irish pub – be rude not to. So we serenaded the poor bar girls with bad English and Japanese songs, and some even worse French songs.

Naturally it was time for a nightcap in the Irish bar. Coming back from the toilet, Frenchie had made friends with 2 Japanese girls! The evening was spent conversing in Japanese, French, (and a little) English, whilst the night cap turned into burger and fries alongside the Guinness.

Off the beaten-track: Monday

Day 3 saw us go a lil more off the beaten track, picking out some of the less touristy temples, for a more, spiritual experience.

Kyoto Kitsune
Spot the fox! Or kitsune, the messengers of the gods

Shoren-in Temple was stop one, out on the east side Kyoto, it used to be a residence, so has more of a villa feel – it was pretty cool! Nice to just enjoy the pond for a bit, even if I got told off for lying down!

The Entoku-in Temple I was super tricky to spot, but as we back tracked, it turned out to be having a special event day – meaning it was packed with tourists, but had free entry! There was a small market inside the building, promoting local goods and food, which we skipped past, and began what would turn out to be a warren of small, traditional corridors.

They turned and spun every which way, giving views of other gardens, the backs of kitchens, and eventually led to a gravel garden, and room in which a dozen people were taking tea. When we left we had ended up a considerable distance from where we’d gone in! Walking down the lanes of Ishibei-koji, we spotted a small market up a few more steps, and once we reached there, we realised there was a whole plethora of tents and marquees higher up the hill! We’d found a festival full of delicious foods and booze and a little live music – it made from a great lunch time stop!

Somehow the day was starting to get away from us – off to Yasui-kompira-gu Shrine then!

On the outskirts of Gion, I felt the guide lied to us by describing this place as ‘off the beaten track’. The small shrine feels more like the intersection of two small streets, in the middle of which sits a shaggy looking, white, 90’s cartoon character.

As it turns out, it’s a relationship rock, with a hole through middle. Crawl through one way to end a bad relationship, the opposite way to tighten the bonds of a relationship – don’t get the directions mixed up! Then you glue a piece of paper with your name to the rock! The massive queue seemed to suggest there’s something to this!

Blue mountain screen at Kennin-ji
As lovely as this is, turns out it’s not the special centre piece of the Kennin-ji temple

Final stop on today’s itinerary was Kennin-ji Temple. It had bit of a lacklustre free garden, but on the other wise was a lovely complex of buildings and gardens, which contained oddly cool, painted screens.The highlight was the painted ceiling piece, the Twin Dragons. A comparatively new piece (2002) to mark… some kind of anniversary (800th anniversary of the temple). This was the final stop on the itinerary, but we still had one more place to see this day!

Black screen mountains
And neither is this one special – but I like it, so, whatever
Kennin-ji Temple garden
Garden on the inside of Kennin-ji Temple
two dragons by Koizumi Junsaku
Painting of two dragons by Koizumi Junsaku, marking the 800th anniversary of the temple

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha streets
Making our way to Fushimi Inari Taisha

The shrine of 10,000 torii gates, famous thanks to its appearances in movies, it had to be done! But before we even got to the shrine, how could we say no to a cat cafe? Way better than the one in Oita since we could actually touch the cats without them all running away from you!

Sunset at Fushimi Inari Taisha
Sunset at Fushimi Inari Taisha

The shrine was tiring, and sweaty, as we raced up to watch sunset (stupid cat cafe). We stopped part way up for a bit of a look – from here Kyoto didn’t look to be the prettiest city!

Side shrines at Fushimi Inari Taisha
The creepy off shoots of the main path

With heavy hearts we continued up to the top, and without realising it passed the summit! We’ll never know exactly where the top was… But climbing down in the dark was cool, if not a little creepy, with lights strung between every few torii gates, and shadowy shrine graveyards leading off to the left and right.The other thing left for the day was to have a traditional Indian curry! Which after a walk along the river, we eventually located – it had nothing on Mie’s curry house Yumeya!

Manga Madness: Tuesday

Our final full day on holiday! We checked out and headed into Kyoto station to dump Frenchie’s suitcase and spend some time in the down town area. Well after a disasterous 45 minutes trying to find an empty locker, we changed tack, headed out to a smaller station and managed to find a locker. To Nishika Market!

A ‘traditional’ market, I can’t help but feel a large part of it caters to a tourism market. I find places like this become a lil jaded to the live-in-Japan gaijin, with the shock value lessened by the weird things I’ve eaten since arriving here, but we did find sangria and somewhere to write postcards!

Manga selfies
Manga selfies – Manga artists can turn you into a cartoon!

Next stop was the International Manga Museum. Situated in an old elementary school, it is home to thousands of Manga, with a small number of displays, and one large exhibition that provides an overview of manga – its history, origins, relation to anime and its relation to the whole brand of a series – it was really interesting! However, this is much more of a  library than a museum. Awesomely, there were manga artists who would draw you in a manga style – an excellent likeness I think!We settled on a plan to head into Osaka for the evening so as to be closer to the airport in the morning – so adult was this plan that it even meant not going out with our fellow JETs in Kyoto!

Of course before we could do any of this we nipped into an Irish pub for a quick Guinness and fish and chips!

It took a wee while to get into Osaka, and it was dark when we arrived. We stuck our shit into yet another locker, and ventured forth into the night.

Christmas love hotel in Kyoto
Did somebody mention Christmas?
Christmas love hotel in Kyoto
In this little corner of Japan…

Osaka is a world away from Kyoto, with its high skyline, and cacophony of bright, in your face alleys of shops vying for your attention! We wondered for a bit to embrace the sights, came across the legendary Christmas themed love hotel, and settle don finding a pub to while away the ours. Around 10 o’clock it was time to find a bed for the night. We must have spent an hour wondering around the streets of Osaka looking for a hotel. Too crappy looking, too tacky looking, too expensive each place was.

We checked out a hotel called Buckingham Palace, ran out when their was a person on the reception, only to walk back in via another entrance, with a one way door and had to timidly was past the lady we had just seen in reception!

Eventually we settled on the early mentioned Christmas-themed hotel, and began a session of karaoke in the room.

Christmas love hotel in Kyoto
… everyday is Christmas!

Final Farewells: Wednesday

Awoken in the dark by the alarm, we set out early to catch a train to the airport for Frenchie’s flight at 10. It was weird how’d we both be setting off to different places, one to France, the other to Oita, perhaps even a touch sad.

Kyoto shrine
One of thousands of small shrines in Kyoto

But having said our goodbyes, I went to the bookshop to buy Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人) and Assassination Classroom (暗殺教室) in manga form – next level Japanese study, here I come!


By J.Molkenthin

James Molkenthin is an enthusiastic and energetic British Designer, with a background in Graphics, Website and Product Design.