We knew that traveling to Japan would be an incredible experience, and no matter where we were going to go, it would always be new. But when we planned out our week, we decided to stay an extra day in Kyoto, robbing a day from our Tokyo itinerary. For many reasons, some of which are in future posts, I am so glad we made that decision. Kyoto had so much to see and do, and there is no way we would have gotten our feet wet if it was just three days in the old capital.
Over the years, we have seen many, many castles. We are no stranger to seeing how the royals live, so the Nijo Castle was high on my list of priorities. It was 600 yen to enter, and when we did, the first thing we noticed was the inevitable scaffolding. If you follow along with our travels, you’ll notice that scaffolding and restoration of major sites seem to follow us from the Roman Colosseum to the Somme Memorial in Northern France.
But when we entered the compound, I was instantly blown away. This castle was like nothing I had ever seen. We removed our shoes and were ushered in by the guards to follow the arrows around the interior. The artwork on all of the sliding doors and wooden walls were, unfortunately, reconstructions. All of the originals are housed in a museum for protection, and while the art was astounding, I would have loved to have seen the artwork that surrounded the royals. Sadly, photos were prohibited.
But if anything was more beautiful than the simplicity of the interior, it was the outside gardens with the manicured bonsai trees and zen garden gravel landscapes. Between the stone bridges and bright orange koi fish in the ponds, it was purely peaceful.
The castle is actually two separate palaces on the same compound: the Ninomaru Palace and the Honmaru Palace. The Honmaru Palace, where you can walk through the living quarters, was closed when we went in the summer, so we were unable to enter, but the Ninomaru Palace was still a gorgeous snapshot into history. Completed in 1626, the castle was considered the home of the Imperial Court for the Tokugawa Shoguns. In 1788, the inner compound burned to the ground in a fire that swept the city. It was left untouched until the late 1800s when it turned into the prince’s residence in 1893. In 1939, the castle was donated to the people of Kyoto as a landmark and open museum.
We got on a bus and headed back toward the east part of town to see the Heian Shrine, a massive complex of temples and a fantastic display of orange and teal we had grown accustomed to. By the time we got there, the outdoor gardens were just closing, so unfortunately, we could not see them, but we loved wandering around the massive space of this reconstructed temple that is only 5/8ths the size it was intended to be.
The garden that we missed by minutes is a labor of love for Ogawa Jihei VII who worked on it for twenty years. It takes up about half of the dedicated land to the shrine, and inside many animals are housed that are rare to Japan.
When we first got to Kyoto and we were roaming around the Chion-In Temple, I spotted the massive Heian Shrine Torii Gate in the distance. The striking orange color stood out against the stark blue sky, and when we turned away from the compound, I saw the massive structure in all its glory. It was really breathtaking to see such a big shrine at the foot of both the Heian and Chion-In grounds.
After seeing temples of gold and “silver,” we were told about the temple on the cliff or Kiyomizu-dera. It is a long trek to this temple on the south east side of the city, but it was completely worth it. Not only is the temple astoundingly beautiful with views to die for, but there is a small exhibit deep in the temple called Buddha’s Womb. We paid a nominal fee of 100 yen to go down a narrow staircase and have our sight robbed from us. We held onto a large, beaded rope to guide us through a pitch black maze. If I wasn’t so terrified, I would have enjoyed the experience of being in utter darkness, but I could not help but anticipate terror.
After a few timid steps leading a group of other whisperers behind me, we turned a corner and saw a soft white light hovering over a smooth stone. This is all to symbolize floating in the mother’s womb and the light at the end (or entrance) of the tunnel. For luck, you’re urged to touch the stone and then continue on your way to ascend the staircase to the exit. You can never have your first time back, but I do wish I had let the moment wash over me rather than be frozen in abject fear as I walked through the meditative experience.
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple was founded in 778, but it’s current structure dates to 1633. Not a single nail is used in the entire cliff-side structure. Once you walk through the temple to the open porch-like area, the views are truly astounding. The vast openness of being above the trees gives a magical feel to being suspended. From the temple, we saw a small orange pagoda in the distance that we wanted to walk over to, so we descended the steep mountainside following a narrow path that meandered through a chain link fence. We had the option to go straight or to the right. Taking the road less traveled, we chose straight.
This took us to other trails around the complex and toward a shrine that was completely empty. This was the Seikanji Temple. Founded in 802, this tiny complex was famous for poets to come and work in solitude, but it was also a favorite place of Emperor Takakura in the 1100s.
We turned back to find the orange pagoda and realized if we had taken a right at the chain link fence instead of going straight, we would have run smack into it. Leave it to us to get lost on a trail, but we saw the views from the pagoda of the cliff-side temple, and were still awed in its presence.
The next temple we went to see was Sanjusangen-do or the Hall of the Lotus King. From the outside, this temple looks very plain, especially in comparison to the myriad of other temples we had just seen. It’s a long building that I describe as a Japanese ranch-style home. But when you walk in, you can’t help but be shocked.
Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos of the interior, and there were several guards poised to yell at you. At the exit, the curators even reserve the right to take your phone or camera and scan your photos to see if you have taken any images.
Built in 1164, this temple seemed to house many sporting events like dueling and archery, but the willow outside in the garden was also visited frequently because of its ability to relief headaches. But what makes this temple so special are the 1,000 Kannon statues inside in need rows. These gold leaf sculptures were mostly constructed in the 13th century, but some copies do come from the original temple before it had burned down.
This army of gold statues was incredibly intimidating to see, but they were truly beautiful. Each sculpture had an intricate headdress with dozens of items like skulls to flowers. The price was a bit steep for a single room of the temple at 600 yen, but the space is truly a spectacle to see in Kyoto. However, if you were short on time, out of all of the other temples, I could have let this one go.
The sun was setting, and we had one more shrine to see. Getting to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine was not easy. We first took the number 208 bus and rode it south to the Tofukuji stop. But then, we had to walk a good way and find a staircase to take us underneath the highway to find the number 5 bus that would take us directly to the shrine. The number 5 bus from Tofukuji-michi comes only twice an hour. Despite us stopping for a snack in a corner store, we managed to only wait five minutes before our chariot arrived. We were lucky.
I would highly recommend mapping out your path beforehand. We had thrown together our trajectory last minute because, as I will discuss in the next post, we had spent the entire morning in the Kyoto Hospital, so our day was cut in half and we were racing the sun to see this last spot that was a high priority for me.
A quick note: There is a much easier way to get to the shrine if you hold a JR Line ticket. Take the JR Nara Line Inari Station which is a 5-minute ride from Kyoto Station for a more direct path than the temperamental bus line. However, this is not verified personally, so still map out your path.
We arrived at the shrine around 4pm. Everything we had gone through to get here between the previous weeks of traveling and then the day at the hospital was forgotten as we stood in this space. It was one of the few places on our long list of favorite spots that actually lived up to our expectations. Without a moment to spare, we began our ascent to the top of the mountain.
A quick note: There are vending machines for water dotted along the path and continuing up the mountain, but the prices rise with each half mile or so. Very cheeky. So, bring your own water or pay the cheaper price at the bottom of the mountain. We wound up paying double for a bottle of water out of sheer desperation.
The path through the tens of thousands of shrines is about 4 kilometers, and it took us an hour to get to the top. But once at the top, I didn’t quite realize it was the zenith, so I started the descent without taking any photos. I thought it was just another memorial and cemetery site like the handful of others we had passed, but now knowing it was the top of the mountain, I would have relished it more.
Inari is one of the main Shinto principals that people worship and pray to and has been respected since as early as the 5th century. This shrine on the aptly named Inari Mountain is the head shrine, so each orange arch or torii is donated by a Japanese business to preserve their prosperity and also to respect the Inari.
Originally, this was a place of imperial patronage in the Heian period, and it has only expanded and prospered over the centuries into an extensive hiking path of sorts taking you through a gorgeous forest. With the setting sun, we were alone for most of our hike enjoying the solitude of the darkening woods.
We made it back to the bottom just as the sky went dark, and we were stopped by an older Japanese man. He took us by surprise when he pulled us aside to ask for help. He gave Jeff a piece of paper and asked us to help him translate it. He must have been in his late 70s or early 80s, and he wanted to still learn English. Now, if you asked him, he was not elderly. He jokingly told us that the next day was his 21st birthday. And as he walked with us to the bus stop, he said his 19th birthday was the next day. We laughed and hoped that we would have such a joie de vivre at that age.
We were exhausted from the days in Kyoto, so we combed the streets of the Gion district for our last meal. We stumbled into Meat Kappo Bar Gyugyu because we saw they offered Kobe beef. We both had never had such a thing, so we treated ourselves to a true Japanese indulgence. Their specialty is Kobe beef sushi, and what a concept that was. We had a blast, sitting right at the bar, watching the cooks fire up our tiny slivers of beef with the quickest of flame to then plate before us. We were given Japanese mustard to pair, and I am here to tell you that it melted in our mouths.
We topped it off with a matcha ice cream dessert served with tiny balls of mochi, and we were full, happy, and extremely pleased.
We do not regret spending the extra day in Kyoto. It was a truly astounding city, and we would love to travel back to Japan and spend more time there. There is just so much to see that is overwhelming. I was shocked while writing to see really what all we had done.
In my next blog entry, I will do the ever-practical post about seeking medical attention while traveling, but I promise it won’t be boring. It was an experience I won’t soon forget. But then, I’ll write about our majestic climb up Japan’s tallest mountain: Mt. Fuji. Stay tuned.