Arriving in Kyoto was jarring, it was immediately apparent that we were no longer in the small towns and cities we had become accustomed too. Before we had even left the station we spotted more westerners than in our entire trip thus far.
Hearing all the stories about Kyoto it is easy to think of this ancient city as a traditional and perhaps quiet town but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Although Kyoto is teeming with shrines, temples and old cobbled streets the majority of the city is very modern and functional. This is hardly surprising when you remember that this city still acts as the capital of Kyoto prefecture.
A short bus ride from Kyoto station was our hostel, the beautiful ‘Len’. Situated on the main road through the city with a large bar and restaurant downstairs this place was a refreshing change from the many small hostels we had been staying in since we left Tokyo. We quickly dropped off our bags and headed out into the city.
Our first stop was Yasaka Shrine, situated on the West Bank of the river this shrine is surrounded by acres of beautifully manicured gardens and waterways. As we walked through the shrine we passed countless people all speaking different languages and yet each person had the same tone of awe and wonder in their voice.
It was at Yasaka Shrine that we had our first experience of Shrine Cats (we have no idea what their actual name is). As we stumbled upon a beautiful glade with a perfect view of the sunset we suddenly realised we were completely surrounded by cats, and every single one was staring at us from the shadows. Safe to say we were more than a little creeped out. This feeling was only made worse when we realised every single tree around the glade was full of crows…all of which were also staring at us. The whole place had the air of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, and so being the rash and composed people that we are, ran away in terror.
After we made a hasty (but very dignified) retreat from Yasaka Shrine we wandered unknowingly into Gion. This area of Kyoto has been made famous the world over as the home of the Geisha, one of Japan’s oldest and most proud traditions on a par with the Samurai. While The west have Knights to compare with the legendary Samurai the Geisha are unique to Japan. The common misconception is that these women are some sort of high class prostitute, this is untrue.
Geisha are the guardians of Japanese tradition, beginning at the age of 15 as Meiko (trainee Geisha) they dedicate their lives to mastering all forms of Japanese tradition, from the many musical instruments of ancient Japan to the beautiful and bizarre Tea Ceremony and many more. These women must give up their families as well as all aspects of modern life, instead they become Geisha and spend their days mastering their craft and entertaining the wealthy. There are less than 500 Geisha left and almost all of them reside in the Gion district of Kyoto.
These relics of Japan’s past are elusive and sadly we didn’t manage to see any on our first night in Kyoto. Instead we wandered through the dark streets catching only glimpses of the ornate tea houses and the occasional sound of beautiful music. It was on one of these streets that we found Shushu, a strange little bar and restaurant offering local Kyoto delicacies. Once in the little restaurant we were astounded to find it decorated to within an inch of its life in baseball memorabilia. However this was no ordinary sports bar, the entire place was dedicated to the Kyoto women’s baseball team, another reminder that despite stereotypes of strict gender roles in Japan, times are changing.
It was in this wonderful little bar that we tried Motsunabe…
I don’t even know where to start with this dish, the taste was fine and surprisingly so was the smell. It was the texture…and the ingredients. The base of the dish was a vegetable and tofu broth flavoured with lots of salt and garlic but the real focus of the dish was awful…I mean offal. We had been adventurous with food so far and so we weren’t going to flinch now, but it was something else. Yianna, the machine that she is, managed to stomach two full pieces of the pork guts before focussing purely on the broth. I barely managed a bite of the stuff. As I said the taste was fine, but the texture was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The only way I can describe it would be akin to one of those B-class zombie movies, there is always that shot of a zombie lifting its head from its last victim with an exceptionally stringy bit of person stuck in its teeth…we were the zombies.
Despite how bad I may have made the experience at Shushu sound it was brilliant, and yet another memory that I will never forget. Our next stop was ‘Hello Dolly’ a whimsical little jazz bar in the centre of Kyoto. We found this bar on one of our many trips down the narrow side streets of the city, from the outside it doesn’t look like much but once through the door you are confronted with a gorgeous, dimly light smoky room that takes you back to the 1930s. At the far end of the bar is a huge window that looks out over the river, giving you a spectacular view of the mountains.
Sat in this bar, drinking away the memory of pork guts we found ourselves lost in conversation over this incredible city. Before arriving in Kyoto everything we had heard had focussed on the temples and scenery, with more than a few people telling us that the people of Kyoto are standoffish and reserved and yet so far we had found the opposite to be true.
Everywhere you look in the centre of this city there are young people expressing themselves through innovative fashion, crazy hairstyles and anime inspired makeup. It is true that Kyoto will forever be the cradle of Japanese civilisation and culture, but that culture is not always of the past. We headed back to the hostel, merry as ever and with a greater respect for Kyoto than we had anticipated.
The next day we were up bright and early to see one of the most famous sights in Japan, Fushimi Inari Shrine. The thing that nobody prepares you for with this Shrine is its sheer size, the vermillion gates wind their way right to the top of the mountain with panoramic views of Kyoto itself. The entrance of Fushimi Inari is dominated by a huge red building that honours the zodiacs. The walls of the shrine are covered in lanterns dedicated to each of the twelve zodiacs, it was here that we made an offering and asked for good luck.
Less than a hundred metres from the zodiac shrine we found ourselves deep in the forested slopes of the mountain, climbing staircase after staircase surrounded by the vermillion gates that have made this shrine so famous. It was at this point that Yianna and I made our usual mistake of taking the path less traveled by.
While the main groups of tourists follow the main paths up the mountain, with frequent vending machines and rest points, we decided to follow the route through the ancient bamboo forest and within minutes we were completely alone.
An hour and a half later, covered in sweat and regretting every decision we had ever made we reached the summit. Upon seeing the summit shrine and taking in the view of Kyoto we forgot about how hot we were. Few tourists make it up to the top and and so we were finally given the opportunity to enjoy the shrine as it was intended, in peace.
The climb down the mountain was a lot more fun and we took the time to enjoy the shrine itself despite the presence of yet more shrine cats. At the foot of the mountain we were surprised to find a food market had appeared all along the road to the station. Like the other markets we had experienced the main difficulty is simply deciding what you want to try. They had everything from flavoured ice and coke floats to fried octopus and tofu balls, we opted for whole grain rice wrapped in teriyaki bacon…it was out of this world.
From Fushimi Inari we made the short trip back into central Kyoto and onto our next temple. The next stop was Kiyomizudera, a collection of red shrines and temples which are crammed into the peak of one of the many hills surrounding the city.
On the way up to Kiyomizudera we came across a beautiful kimono shop that specialised in recycling, re-dying and repurposing damaged kimonos. Up until this point my penchant for unnecessary purchases and love of shopping had remained under control…not any more. I bought a beautiful recycled kimono for less than £40 and I can’t wait to rock it when I get home.
Anyway! Back to the trip…
The climb up to Kiyomizudera was steep, painfully so, and it didn’t take long for our choice of outfits to come into question again. Yianna and I are very much in the camp of fashion over comfort…hence why we are uncomfortable, hot and a little sweaty most of the time. During our Everest-esque climb we passed the beautiful Nishiotani Mausoleum, still in use to this day.
When we eventually reached the top of Kiyomizudera we were once again confronted with an incredible view of the city as well as a series of incredible vermillion painted temples and shrines. Despite the thousands of school children, loud tourists and screaming shop vendors there was still the sense of tranquility inside the shrines.
The journey back down to the city was spent running from shady spot to shady spot as the sun began to take its toll on us. The days of travelling and late nights meant we were hardly looking our best and so after an early dinner in the hostel we headed to bed, knowing we still had so much more to see.
See you soon,