Just Me in Japan – Kicking around in Kyoto

Friday 23 November 2012

I don’t know if its the location of the hotel or just my luck, but it seems to have been a really noisy night with sirens and street cleaners (?) all over the place. I awake early – still not out of work mode yet – and take a peek out the window. In the pitch dark I can see it is raining.

That’s not fun – as today I am supposed to be heading off with the Kyoto Cycling Project Tour to visit the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Gardens, Hirosawa Pond and Arashiyama by bike. Well, it’s supposed to be by bike, otherwise I read if it rains, you walk instead – and I don’t want to walk, I want to ride – and lets face it – it’s not like I didn’t do enough walking yesterday!

Anyway, I buy a Kyoto sightseeing pass for the buses and subways from reception and head off to catch the bus from outside Nijo Castle (oh yeah, I have a castle just down the road) to the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion) area to meet the guide and pick up my bike.

It’s cold again outside today, and I’m not sure I’ve dressed approproiately. It’s hard to tell, because you know when you start cycling you’ll warm up pretty quick and won’t want to be lugging a jacket around, but then if the plan changes and we have to walk/catch public transport, then you’re gonna need a jacket.

My trusty steed for the day

I arrive early, so even though I’ve had breakfast, I find a little cafe next door to the KCTP shop and order a coffee and cheese and ham toastie to fill in time. Closer to time, I pop next door and meet my guide Yoko, and she’s kitted up in wet weather gear – yay we’re cycling! The rain has reduced to a light sprinkle in any case and is unlikely to bother us.  Yoko tells me that other people are less in love with the rain than me, and a lot of people have cancelled their tours for today.  My bike is green and has a little basket on it, cute.  It’s very easy to ride and looks well maintained.  And you don’t even have to wear helmets in Japan!

First stop of the day is Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), which is just literally down the road from KCTP, a 30 second ride.   Mum and I visited the Golden Pavillion 2 1/2 years ago when we visited Japan in spring, but it is a stunning building and I’m looking forward to seeing it in the change of seasons.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. The temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion), built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.

Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond, and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.

The Temple is stunning, the autumn colours reflected beautifully in the surrounding pond and it was great to get some background knowledge and be able to ask questions about it from Yoko.


Back on the bikes, we take the back streets of the neighbourhood, including one large massive hill (I made it all the way to the top on my bike, but Yoko had to push hers up the last few metres – Mel would be so proud of me!), we arrive at Ryoanji Garden.

Ryoanji Temple is the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden and attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period, the site was converted into a Zen temple in 1450 and belongs to the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, whose head temple stands just 1km to the south.

As for the history of Ryoanji’s famous rock garden, the facts are less certain. The garden’s date of construction is unknown and there are a number of speculations regarding its designer. The garden consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles surrounded by low earthen walls, with 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss. An interesting feature of the garden’s design is that from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer.

These gardens are also stunning, particularly the pond in the middle of the grounds.

We continue cycling on towards Hirosawa Pond, located in the Sagano area of Kyoto. This pond was constructed in the Heian period, as part of a temple garden built by the grandson of Emperor Uta. The temple was abandoned but the pond survived. This pond has been widely adored, and featured in many Japanese poems. The beautiful pond became the theme of a lot of Japanese poems “Waka” from ancient times. 

It had been well-known since ancient times as a place for enjoying moon viewing. Lying at the foot of a range of gentle hills stretching to the north, the area is surrounded by rice paddies and vegetable crops.  The rice has been harvested for this season.

Hirosawa Pond
Kuan Yin statue
The rice paddies in Sagano
From Sagano, we head to Arashiyama to take in the autumn colours.   Unfortunately today is Japan’s National Thanksgiving day and everyone in Kyoto has the same idea. So we try to avert the crowds and given we’re already ahead of time, we visit some places that weren’t on the guide.
Daikakuji is a large temple originally built in the early 800’s as the detached palace of Emperor Saga, who thoroughly enjoyed spending his time here. Thirty years after the Emperor’s death, the palace was converted into a temple and has since been one of the highest ranked temples of Shingon Buddhism. It has had a role in several significant historical events, including being featured in The Tale of Genji and being often used for filming historical dramas. Today though, it is host to a chrysanthemum display. Something I found interesting about the building was, if you have a look at the covered pathways that lead from building to building, you’ll note how low the rooves are – this is so that the samurai could not raise their swords in old times!
Lastly, and at the top of our last incline for the day, which is a street of preserved buildings, we arrive at the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple.
Street of preserved buildings
Bathed in the glow of a ray of sunshine and set totally in amongst the yellows and oranges of the autumn foliage, this place is stunning.


 

 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a Buddhist temple founded by Empress Shotoku in the middle of the eighth century. It was destroyed by the flooding of the Kamo River, but was rebuilt as an offshoot of the nearby Enryaku-ji temple. 

In the 13th century, it was again destroyed during a civil war. It was moved to its current location in 1922, and then suffered typhoon damage in 1950.

The temple is known for its more than 1200 rakan – stone statues representing the disciples of Buddha. These statues, in keeping with rakan traditions, are generally humorous and kawaii (cute). The sculptures were donated in 1981 in honor of the refurbishment of the temple and most were carved by amateurs, taught by sculptor Kocho Nishimura.

 

 

 

It’s all downhill from here now, as we head to the Bamboo forest. We stop briefly, but we don’t ride through because the pathway is choked with people and taxis (it’s not even a steep climb to reach this spot but some people are so lazy, they take taxis which can barely squeeze up the path!). Down alongside the river, where the Hozugawa river boats come into dock, we wheel our bikes towards the Tokugetsu Bridge, again crammed with people. There’s no point in even trying to cross it, so we head towards the bike return area and the tour is officially over. Yoko and I stop for an icecream at a little shop that won a 3rd place medal for its pistachio icecream. And I think it should have won first, because it taste divine! I wonder if this is the seasonal icecream for autumn – a lot of the icecreams I’ve seen around have been green in colour, so it’s either that or green tea.

Today’s cycling tour was a brilliant way to get around, curving through all the local backstreets, freezing cold wind in your face. It was a great way to see the sites, and if I ever make it back here, I’m definitely doing another one of these tours, or at least hiring a bike to get around. I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone who is thinking of coming to Kyoto. It was hard work in a few spots, but that was mainly because we changed the itinerary and I was up for it – I’m sure the group behind us (way, way behind us even though they left before us) certainly wasn’t doing the hill climbs! Just don’t go when it’s so busy, cause you may not get the most out of riding.

My original plan was to have some lunch and then fill in a couple of hours browsing the shops, but Arashiyama is so crowded, everything is full of people and its not enjoyable so I head back to Kyoto.

With extra time up my sleeve, I decide to try my luck at finding Grains de Vanille, a delightful French patisserie I’ve been reading about. Located down a backstreet near my hotel, I’m not hopeful, but there it is, a tiny little shop hidden back from the street. I walk in and it’s clear you need to be early to have your pick of the cakes, cause there’s not much left. I go for the Meringue Grosielle and a Tarte Fruits and then stop by the 7-11 for a small bottle of champers to take back to my room for afternoon tea.

Back out on the streets and its time to put my transit day pass to good use so I head out to the Silver Pavillion (Ginkakuji). Unfortunately the remaining people of Kyoto that weren’t in Arashiyama are here. It is so crowded and you can see the hordes shuffling up around the gardens and the side of the mountain, step by step, a million cameras flashing from different directions. It’s madness!

The Silver Pavillion – which is not silver at all!
The silver comes from the sand gardens

I can see why they have come though, there is just something about the riot of colour from the autumn foliage. You just don’t see this in Perth.

Ginkakuji is a Zen temple along Kyoto’s eastern mountains, Higashiyama. In 1482, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa on the grounds of today’s temple, modeling it after Kinkakuji, his grandfather’s retirement villa at the base of Kyoto’s northern mountains (Kitayama). The villa was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490.

As the retirement villa of an art obsessed shogun, Ginkakuji became a center of contemporary culture, known as the Higashiyama Culture in contrast to the Kitayama Culture of his grandfather’s times. Unlike the Kitayama Culture, which remained limited to the aristocratic circles of Kyoto, the Higashiyama Culture had a broad impact on the entire country.

Today, Ginkakuji consists of the Silver Pavilion, half a dozen other temple buildings, a beautiful moss garden and a unique dry sand garden. It is enjoyed by walking along a circular route around its grounds, from which the gardens and buildings can be viewed.

I take the photos I want and quickly head on out to escape the crowds, by wandering into the crowds following the Philosopher’s Path.

 

10 minutes later and it was dark!

The Philosopher’s Path is a pleasant stone path which follows a canal that’s part of the Lake Biwa Canal. Approximately 2km long, the path begins around Ginkakuji and ends in the neighborhood of Nanzenji. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. 

Restaurants, cafes, and boutiques can be found along the path, as well as a number of smaller temples and shrines which are a short walk from the canal. At twenty to five, the sky started darkening, and the path, which I’m sure is way longer than 2km, seemed never ending. It was at this point, that I was glad for the crowds, cause it meant I was going the right way.

I finally made my way back to the hotel, exhausted from all the riding and walking. I am not walking anywhere tomorrow!

Surrounded by Sakura

I last visited Japan in April 2010 to fulfil my birthday wish of “wanting to be surrounded by cherry blossoms” (oh, dear Aries child!). Thankfully my Mum indulged me and luckily she had always wanted to visit Japan.

All the reports indicated it was going to be an early cherry blossom season that year. Meaning March. Meaning they would be gone when I got there in around the 9th of April. As we flew into Narita, there were a few cherry blossom trees dotting the landscape, and I thought to myself, well at least you’ve seen a few from the plane, but that’s probably all you’ll see. Oh well, you’ll still have a fantastic time.

But as the train rushed toward Tokyo, there were more trees dotting the landscape, and we could even see them outside our hotel window. How lucky!

Our first day there though, we decided to take a train ride to Yanaka for a quick wander around. And I can’t describe what I felt when we got there and the place was just covered with cherry blossom trees. Yanaka cemetary could only be described as exactly the kind of place I would want to be buried -the place was not only covered by cherry blossom trees, with their petals gently wafting down through the breeze, but there flower beds filled with pansies, cats and dogs running around and people picnicking! It was such a happy place!  We ended up spending a lot more time here than we thought we would.

The cherry blossoms were everywhere, but that wasn’t all this trip had in store for us. When we arrived in Takayama, it was cold. No, actually it was freezing. We had on about four or five layers of clothing on! And the next morning, we found out why. I woke up on my birthday to see out my window, not cherry blossoms, but snow! I had never seen snow in my life and certainly wasn’t expecting it in ‘light jacket wearing’ spring!

The trip was awesome. We saw Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama, Nagoya and Osaka. We saw snow, cherry blossoms, the Spring Matsuri and perfectly packaged strawberries and apples. We saw strawberry shortcake in Harajuku and geisha in Gion. But we didn’t see Mt Fuji (we tried, but she was hiding in 10 degree cold, rain and fog). We ate sakura flavoured icecream and octopus balls. We went white water rafting in Arashiyama. The experience was awesome. The people were so friendly and helpful.

And it was this experience that makes me think, yep, I can do this trip. by myself. And if I can’t do it in Japan, then there’s no hope for me!

Shinkansen, Geisha & Me

Flights? Check! Accommodation in Narita for my first night? Check! Accommodation in Kyoto?  Check!  Accommodation in Tokyo? Check (red light district seems suitable for a single female traveller – right???).

It’s all coming together. I know what I want to do and where I want to stay.  But I’ve never travelled by myself and I am freaking out!

I will arrive in Japan on the late afternoon of 21 November, so I’m not even going to chance getting on the trains. Instead I’ve opted to spend the night in Narita near the airport at the Holiday Inn Tobu Narita. Next morning I’ll go back to the airport, sort out my trains and head to Kyoto.

In Kyoto I’ll stay as near to Gion as possible (or rather as I can afford!).  I’ll be there for three nights and was thinking about doing a day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, but there seems to be so much in town I didn’t see on my last trip that I might just hang around Kyoto and explore it properly. I’d like to do an afternoon trip to Nara though, and would love to head back to Arashiyama to see what flavour ice cream is on the menu for Autumn (in Spring it was Sakura which was DIVINE!).

Then I’ll get back on the train and spend three nights in Tokyo. I’m booked in at the Best Western Astina Shinjuku, which is where I stayed with Mum on my last visit in April 2010.  Even though it’s in Kabukicho, it’s not too far from Shinjuku Station, there was lots of shopping and dining, and the hotel itself was wonderful. So it’ll be familiar to say the least…I’ll just have to keep away from the hustlers!

I didn’t get to visit Golden Gai either on my last trip, so I’ve found a tour company that does a night time tour of Tokyo, taking in Shibuya and Shinjuku, and of course Golden Gai.  I also want to do a day trip out to Nikko, which I believe is gorgeous in Autumn.  I’ve also booked a “Dynamic Tokyo Tour” that visits quite a few sights (some which I did see last time, but most that I didn’t get around to) and includes a barbecue lunch and a boat ride along the Sumida River. Apart from that, I want to do more shopping, hopefully pick up some of those divine, individually packaged strawberries from Isetan again and hopefully get to Yoyogi Park to do some people watching.

Then back on the train to stay another night in Narita. I’ll have about half a day to explore Narita, which a lot of people probably bypass.  There’s a lovely temple and park there, which will be interesting to check out.  Then I’ll be hopping on a plane home!  Easy!  Surely!

So 8 months to go, and I am so excited…