6-10 Dec 2012 Kyoto

Where do I begin… Kyoto has surpassed our expectations by miles!

I have always wanted to go to Kyoto to experience the old historic Japan, like in the old Ninja and Samurai movies, you know with the narrow winding streets, small wooden front houses with shingled roof tops, sliding doors, bamboo curtains rolled up outside the windows, rice lamps, door ways that lead to secret little zen gardens, Geisha’s and Ninja’s. And it was all of that, mixed with more impressive temples and shrines, although we never saw a Ninja or a Samurai. I did however see a Maiko (a geisha in training)!

We have been clocking up some serious ground by foot these last few days, so our legs and feet are rather achy and we’ve been very tiered , so I’m doing Kyoto in one post, otherwise it would just be me going on and on about all the temples and the shrines and that’s not very interesting when you haven’t seen them in real life. So instead I will mention a few favourite things.

The Gion district, which is also known as the Geisha district, very cosy and a bit mystical to walk around in, especially in the evening when the rice lamps are lit, you can almost feel the history of the area when you walk around there. If you are lucky you might see a Geisha on her way to entertain at a nearby Okiya. There’s also many traditional restaurants and tea houses in the area – but as you can imagine, it ain’t cheap, so we gave that a miss.

Kiyomizudera/Gion Area has enough to keep you entertained for a whole day. There are so many temples and shrines, winding sloping stone paved streets with nice traditional shops, souvenir shops, you can sample local goodies and treats, see a giant concrete Buddha, climb a whole load of old stone steps into a remote old cemetery in the forest with a great view of the city. There is also a beautiful park and zen garden to walk around in. And all of this is for free! Unless you decide you enter any of the temples of course. But I think you can see enough from the outside of the temples anyway.

Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavillion) or its formal name, Rokuon-ji Temple, is a bit of a trip outside of Kyoto – about 40 min by bus, but well worth the time. It is a Zen Buddhist Temple, where only monks are allowed to enter. Mat said it was probably the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. The temple looks as though its floating on water and is surrounded by japanese pine trees. It’s covered in gold foil on lacquer, the latest re-coating had a cost of 7.3 million USD!

The Bamboo forest, Arashiyama Hanatouro, is also quite a trip away from Kyoto – but another one that is worth doing. You can get there with JR train from Kyoto station to Saga Arashiyama station, for free if you have a JR pass. We had read in our guide book that the forest is lit up in the evenings while we were here, so we decided to go as it was highly recommended, it was also highly crowded and we kind of wished we had gone in the day time instead. However it was still very beautiful.

Then there is Fushimi Inari, the orange arches. It’s only about 15 min by the underground and this place really was amazing, but you will need comfortable shoes for it. There were some 595 steps to get to the top, if that was the top, you could go further, but we decided to stop there. Once at the top you will get an impressive view of the city.

The only unfortunate thing is that all of the information signs are only in Japanese, so you don’t really find out much information or history of the places you visit (same with Nikko). But in a way, this is a good thing too as it makes you appreciate things for its true beauty and for what it really is.

There is so much to do and see in Kyoto that we could easily have spent longer time there. There are lots of interesting little shops there too and we both wished that we had a big budget and could buy lots of things, but such is not the case, so we had to satisfy ourselves with just browsing and window shopping. I saw one of the best window displays I’ve ever seen in my life as well – if not THE best ever.

Another thing there is lots of is cafes and some really great ones at that. But beware, some of them are ridiculously expensive! One place that was so cozy inside that we both wanted to live there, or at least want to recreate it as a future home, is called Hello! Cafe Biblioteca. But it was very expensive and not worth the money. The place around the corner however, is a much better contender for your money. This small and cute doughnut bakery, we’re not talking Dunkin Dounuts or Krispy Kreemes here. These is a artisan doughnut bakery, made with different types of dough and dustings. The one I had I think was a poppy seed dough, dusted with nutmeg and cardemon mix – it was amazing!

Last but not least, we found an awesome ramen restaurant too, it was so good that we went there twice. I had the burnt miso ramen and Mat had, of course, the pork ramen. And it was cheap too and you have the option of making your portion smaller if you wished, which is good in my case. So if you find yourself in Kyoto anytime soon go to Gogyo – you will not be disappointed! 

As I’m writing this, we’re on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. It was snowing earlier, quite heavily in fact – but it didn’t stop the Skinkansen – nope it’s still running, on time! 

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