I’m bored. A particularly nasty chest infection has seen me bedridden for over a week; the cabin fever sending me delirious. But I’ve finally started to turn a corner, and can now go a whole three minutes before my body attempts – once again – to expel my guts by way of a hacking cough the sound of a dying baby seal. To celebrate, I decided to create a new blog post. Remembering I’d not yet done justice to last year’s trip to Japan.
Japan had been top of my holiday wish-list for as long as I could remember; and whenever I thought of the far-off island it was the ancient capital of Kyoto I was imagining. Its very names evokes images of wooden temples, geisha, cobbled streets, ritualistic tea ceremonies, shrines, rickshaws, pristine gardens, onsen baths, vibrant markets… This is what I’d longed to see. And so when Paul suggested it would be the perfect place to celebrate our 10-year anniversary, I was ecstatic.
In May 2018, at the tail-end of the cherry-blossom season, we boarded a sleek, Concord-esque bullet train from Tokyo to ‘The Eternal City’. I’m not usually a big fan of train travel, but the Shinkansen is a whole different ball game. Ridiculously efficient, über-clean and, of course, super-fast, the bullet train is a pleasure to ride. With hardly enough time to get through a chapter of my book, we were disembarking and making our way to Kinse Inn, our homestay in Shimogyoku ward.
I fell in love with the traditional ryokan upon first sight. An ex-brothel, the beautiful wooden building has been in owner Kojiro’s family for close to 300 years. The squeaky ‘nightingale’ floors, shoji screen doors, tatami mats and calligraphy art were just perfect. You get the entire top floor of the building to yourself, with the ground floor boasting a charming cafe, whisky bar and lounge area. As I say: perfect. That is, if you can get used to sleeping on the hard wooden floor. Authenticity can give you back-ache!
After a quick cup of their freshly-roasted coffee, we headed to Arashiyama – a quiet neighbourhood at the base of the city’s western mountains – for our first afternoon of sight-seeing. First up, the bamboo grove and Nonomiya shrine. It’s not a large area (it certainly doesn’t warrant a rickshaw ride, although many – mainly Japanese – tourists seemed to think this necessary), but the densely-packed grove is at once peaceful and eerie.
After a quick katsu pastry and some steamed gyoza, Tenryu-ji (the “Temple of the Heavenly Dragon”) was our next stop. Head temple, no less, of a particular branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Legend has that it was built to appease the emperor’s spirit, after a priest dreamt of a dragon rising from the nearby river. The creature is depicted in gorgeous screen work throughout, and its Hōjō (main hall) is one of the oldest in Japan; probably my favourite of all those we saw on the trip. The complex also boasts one of the most renowned landscaped gardens in the country, now one of the city’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Close by – and it seems somewhat overlooked – is Ōkōchi Sansō Villa, the former home and garden of famous samurai film actor Denjirō Ōkōchi. The views from up amongst the garden trails and out across the Arashiyama mountains are stunning, and the entrance price gets you a matcha tea and sesame sweet in the traditional wooden teahouse to boot. I’d definitely recommend seeking it out.
A stroll around the pond, taking in tiny Mikami-Jinja shrine, and then we were ready to head back for some dinner. See my dedicated food blog (29 Seasons of Tofu) for an account of that evening’s foray into the weird and wonderful world of conveyor-belt sushi. An aged Nikka whisky (for him) and a not-so-local rum (for me) back at our ryokan rounded out a great first day in the city.
Another packed day of sights followed. Some (i.e. Paul) might argue too packed. There was a point on day 2 when I was told in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t permit a beer stop then our relationship might well be over. It’s hardly my fault, I remember countering: the Emperors of Japan ruled from Kyoto for eleven hundred years and decided in their wisdom to build over 1000 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines in one bloomin’ city. Paul stared at me. Beer was duly tracked down.
But I get ahead of myself. We started by catching the underground to Keage, at the northern end of the Higashiyama Mountains. Stealthily tagging on to the end of an English-speaking guided tour at petite Konchi-in, we learned of the importance of the crane and turtle motifs within Buddhism. The crane representing the soaring heights of life’s good things; the turtle the depths of the bad. It is important, we were told, to keep them in balance. Built in the early 15th century by a shōgun, the pretty temple is actually “just” a sub-temple of the sprawling Nanzen-ji complex next door.
You need to allow a couple of hours, at least, to do this complex justice. The giant Sanmon gate (one of the three biggest in Japan) is a sight to behold. The 22 metre high Zen gate has a gabled clay-tile roof, five giant pillars and three entrances. At its centre, a statue of Buddha with a jewelled crown is accompanied by 16 Arhat statues. Arhat are those who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and have achieved nirvana. Mortuary tablets of high-ranked courtiers are also enshrined within, covered by paintings of phoenixes and heavenly maidens.
Try not to ape our faux pas by walking into a wedding at the Rinzai School of Buddhism on your way up to the main hall. Oops. Still, the guests were very polite. Once in the correct location, the temple’s Hōjō has a wonderful ceiling painting of a dragon, and the Leaping Tiger Garden behind is classically Zen and flawless, with gardeners literally extracting tiny errant weeds with tweezers. Dating from the 13th century, the temple was originally a villa for Emperor Kameyama and is considered one of the most important in the world.
However, if you walk uphill past the cemetery, under the red-brick aqueduct and through a woodland trail, you’ll find the much more charming Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in shrine. Nestled in a forested glen by a beautiful waterfall and bridge, you are likely to get the shrine all to yourself, as it seems tourists tend not to bother making the trip. Though you may see a pilgrim or two praying.
By the time we got to Eikan-do, Paul was flagging and starting to complain about the aforementioned lack of pit-stops. I was determined to fit this one in before lunch though. Bedecked in colourful streamers and spread over a large area in a series of covered walkways (garyurō) and halls, this was one of my favourite temples. The pièce de résistance is the two storey Tahō-tō pagoda, to which you climb via steep steps in specially-provided slippers. You can see over most of Kyoto from the top.
Paul finally got a (late) soba noodle lunch and beer. And then – lest anyone consider me a slave driver – a rather nice ice-cream to boot, as we ambled down the Path of Philosophy. The canalside walk is apparently gorgeous in peak blossom season, but given most of the flowers had past their best it didn’t wow as I’d expected. It does, though, take you straight to one of the city’s most popular and arresting sights: Ginkaku-ji (the “Silver Pavilion”). The pavilion, a national treasure though its shōgun never completed its intended silver facade, looks out across a tranquil carp pond, alongside an old Shoin hall filled with Nanga style paintings.
Enough, you say? Yes. For one day at least. Our evening was spent enjoying a long kaiseki meal in central Nakagyo ward. And after dinner, we had cocktails in the decadent but staid Bar K-ya, before happening upon the wonderful, fun L’Esca Moteur Bar on Saitocho (again, you can read about our Japanese food and drink odyssey in my parallel food blog).
Having learned my lesson from the day before (I do sometimes learn), I made sure we started day 3 with a hearty breakfast at Vermillion Cafe, close to our first destination: Fushimi Inari Tashi. This amazing shrine deserved a post of its own, so click on the link to be re-directed there.
After a quick lunch of takoyaki (octopus balls) from a street vendor, we next headed to Sanjūsangen-dō temple (otherwise known as Rengeō-in, “the hall of the Lotus King”) back in the Higashiyama district. At almost 400 feet long, this holy building – founded in the 12th century by a samurai for the Emperor Goshirakawa – is one of the longest halls in the world. It houses 1001 human-sized wooden images of Kannon – the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – painted in gold leaf with crystal eyes. Each Bodhisattva has eleven faces and hundreds of arms.
Along the main corridor there are stone statues of 28 Spirits, flanked by the Wind-God (Fūjin) and Thunder God (Raijin). The whole effect is truly awe-inspiring, having taken over a hundred years to create.
With some time to spare before our tofu dinner extravaganza, we had a (longer-than-it-looked-on-the-map) stroll to Tōfukuji temple. I feel this could have easily been a favourite, if it wasn’t facing such stiff competition by this point in the trip. The moss garden is particularly lovely, and there is an impressively large garyurō overlooking the valley around back.
On our fourth day in the city we moved out of our ryokan and into the Granbell Hotel in Gion. As sad as we were to leave the brothel, it felt positively luxurious to have a ‘proper’ bed with soft mattress. And the boutique hotel was in a fantastic location, with a cute bar and its own communal onsen (hot spring baths). Paul chickened out of getting naked with strangers, but I loved the spa-like ritual. And to be honest, I had the women’s bath to myself most of the time anyway.
Most of day 4 was spent in Himeji (covered in a separate post) and day 5 in nearby Nara (ditto). But the evenings were spent exploring Gion and its surrounds. Wandering cautiously around Hanamikoji Dori, the main Geisha district; drinking copious amounts of sake in the likes of Jam and Bar Ichi; and sampling izakaya (Japanese pub grub) on Kiyamachi-Dori, one of the main nightlife strips running alongside the Takase canal. Illuminated by lanterns at night, this road is a great place to linger over shochu high-balls. I’d recommend casual Torikizoku, where you can also try the chicken liver yakitori, cod innards and pickled cucumber. Other notable drinking establishments include Out Loop-Way Blues Bar for rum, Finlandia for whisky, and hard-to-find Jeff Bar in a stilted shack on the edge of the Kamogawa river.
I said that we moved cautiously around the geisha quarters. This in an effort to be respectful. Though it didn’t prevent me absentmindedly bumping into a young maiko on Pontochō, the narrow alley running between Shijo-dori and Sanjo-dori. She literally growled at me in disgust: you are not meant to touch. My bad.
Maiko are apprentice geisha, “Women of Dance” who are educated in arts and music, but who – it seems – spend the vast majority of their time simply pouring drinks and giggling at their older male companions. I admit to finding geisha culture both utterly fascinating and appalling at the same time. Their elegant white make-up, elaborate silk kimono, and shimada hairstyles adorned with expensive pins, combs and ornaments are truly beautiful. But, despite assurances to the contrary, the difference between geisha and prostitutes can feel ambiguous. Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya in areas called hanamachi (“flower streets”), particularly during their apprenticeships. It’s a strangely self-sacrificial existence, anachronistic in vibrant, contemporary Japan. But, again, therein lies its allure. You can’t help but be excited to catch a rare glimpse of a fully-trained and attired geisha hurrying into a teahouse.
Our final day was spent eating and souvenir shopping in Nishiki market and walking the quiet residential streets of Gion. Including pedestrianised Ishibei-koji lane, considered to be one of the most beautiful streets in the city, with its traditional wooden houses and seeming complete lack of modern technology. Nearby Ninen-zaka is lined with expensive sweet shops – where delicate black sesame buns are treated with the reverence of jewellery – as well as kitsch ‘Hello Kitty’ boutiques. And Sannen-zaka is a lovely preserved street with craft stalls, rickshaws and little cafes.
In the afternoon, we were lucky enough to visit Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Pumpkin Forever’ exhibition at the wonderful Kuryu-Sanko Do Art Gallery. She’s one of my favourite artists, and being able to walk straight into an extensive retrospective of her work without queuing or needing to buy a ticket three months in advance was a revelation. The flyer from the exhibition has since been framed and hung in our hallway. Love it!
And there endeth our time in The Eternal City. It was onward to Mount Kōya after that. I will continue the story of our trip once I’m fully recovered from the evil germs. In the meantime, you can find more of my photos from Japan at: