27th September 2019
After Nara, I headed for Kyoto, arguably the most popular tourist destination in Japan. Two trains and a sweltering walk later I arrived at my hostel. I asked the receptionist for a lunch recommendation and headed off into downtown Kyoto.
After eating a steaming bowl of miso ramen, I wandered around town for the afternoon, marvelling at the number of temples nestled between shops.
After such a successful walking tour of Nara, I decided to see if I could take a walking tour in Kyoto and, as luck would have it, there was a walking tour that night through the Gion Geisha District.
On the tour we learnt that there are still 5 geisha districts in Kyoto and that young ladies from all over Japan move to Kyoto to train as geishas. The training to become a geisha is usually around 5 years and during the training the young ladies are referred to as ‘maiko’ (my-ko). During their training, maiko-san live in a boarding house where all expenses are covered. This was not always the case however, as becoming a maiko-san used to cost families money. Despite many movie and book depictions of geisha, modern geisha are ladies who are trained in the Japanese arts to be the ultimate host. Geisha and maiko will host dinner parties and provide entertainment for the members of their tea house. To become a member, you must first be invited by an existing member of the tea house. It is not cheap to be a member however, with a dinner costing over $900. In addition to the cost, you have to show your loyalty to the tea house and you cannot be a member of more than one tea house.
On our tour we saw 4 different maiko-san walking to work and they were truly beautiful in their kimono with their hair in elaborate styles.
The following morning I headed for one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto, the Fushimi-inari shrine. The Fushimi-inari shrine is a collection of shrines across Mount Inari. It is rather special because the trail up the mountain is lined with tori gates (red arches). Inari is the Shinto god of rice who is said to have foxes as his messengers. As such, visitors are treated to many a fox statue throughout the mountain.
I arrived at 8:30am hoping to beat the crowds, but it seemed that other people had the same idea. Luckily though, many people come to take photos at the first tori they can find and then leave. The more hardcore tourists hike the mountain, with crowds thinning rapidly as you ascend. The hike is not for the faint of heart, as most of the ascent is stairs and on a lovely humid day in Kyoto it’s not very pleasant. Thankfully I had invested in an electric hand-held fan (incredibly popular in Japan) and revelled in my decision to bring it to the mountain. You are treated to glimpses of Kyoto through the trees on your way up and get to witness the prayer rituals at each shrine.
After Fushimi-inari, I jumped on a bus to head out to Kinkakuji 金閣寺 (the golden pavilion). What a truly spectacular sight awaited me. Kinkakuji is the former retirement residence of shogun Yoshimitsu. It is very unique as each of the 3 levels are built in a different architectural style with the upper two levels being clad in actual gold leaf. The temple itself is surrounded by stunning Japanese gardens, making for a very serene visit, despite the hoards of tourists.
For dinner that evening I went to a woodfired pizza place where I was the only guest. The chef/owner had studied in Italy and the pizza was delicious. We had a great chat about Kyoto and even saw a shrine-carrying group pass by the window.
On day 2 I jumped on a bus again out to Arashiyama where the famous ‘bamboo forest’ resides. It is quite an experience to walk amongst the tall bamboo trees.
On a whim I kept walking out into the park past the bamboo forest, while most people turn around and go back to the main street. Boy was I glad I kept walking. I came across a beautiful river where people were taking boat tours in traditional Japanese boats (wasen) and the sun was glittering off the surface of the water. I wandered along the bank of the river for a while before returning to town and catching the bus to Nijo Castle.
Nijo Castle is the restored castle of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo period. You can’t take photos inside and have to take your shoes off to walk around. Every room has beautiful artworks on the walls that each represent the purpose of the room. For example, tigers were painted in the reception room to display the power of the shogun.
Nijo Castle is the real deal, with a moat and everything! The floorboards inside the castle even squeak like birds as you walk, allegedly as a security measure, however, it has also been said that it’s merely the floor construction that caused the squeaks.
After a fun-filled 2 days in Kyoto, it was time to head back to my hostel ready for my return to Tokyo the next morning.