Our second morning in Kyoto was the hottest yet and for once both Yianna and I opted for summer clothing, there wasn’t a cape or bomber jacket in sight! Our first stop was the Imperial Palace, home to the Japanese Emperors and royal court for more than a thousand years.
Walking into the vast complex where both the Imperial Palace and Imperial Gardens are situated was similar to our experience of the Palace in Tokyo; wide gravel tracks wound their way through manicured lawns and forested groves as they approached the walled palace complex itself.
Our plan had been to tour the palace first thing in the morning before it got too hot…however in our attempt to plan our day we failed to check when the Palace opened, so we arrived 2 hours early. After a short period of panic and regret we decided to walk the short distance to Nijo Castle and prayed that it would be open.
It was barely 9am when we reached Nijo Castle but the temperature had already risen above 30’C and the sun was merciless. The keep of Nijo Castle sadly burned down many years ago, in its place the Shogun built a summer villa for himself and his court. Where once there were barracks, stables and military encampments there now stands beautiful gardens and secluded pavilions of all shapes and sizes.
Nijo Castle offers the rare opportunity of seeing the beautifully preserved interior of one of Japan’s many noble residences. It was everything we could hope for and more. Intricate murals depicting cranes, tigers and the odd duck adorned corridor after corridor of delicate wooden panels. One corridor in particular stood out, each room was assigned a different animal depending on the seniority of the guests who would stay there. At the end of the corridor were the crane and tiger rooms, adorned with gold filigree and countless access hatches for servants.
Around each level of Nijo Castle the moats remain intact, each one full of the beautiful Koi Carp that Japan is so famous for. In the case of Nijo you can actually buy carp food and feed the enormous fish from one of the many bridges. Obviously we decided to do this, firstly carp food smells like death and secondly carp are not attractive eaters. Before throwing the food in we could see perhaps 10 carp swimming around beneath us. As soon as the first bit of food hit the water the sound was deafening, the carp seemed to multiply as they jumped over each other grabbing for the food with their giant mouths. I think I prefer the carp when they are gracefully swimming beneath the surface.
By the time we left Nijo Castle it felt like we were walking on the surface of the sun…and I could feel myself beginning to turn a lovely shade of lobster red. The only positive was that the Imperial Palace was finally open, and boy was it worth the wait.
Upon entering the Palace you are given a little lanyard and guest number, it all feels very official. Around the edge of the Palace are a near endless series of carriage stops, each one for a different group of guests including everything from the royal family and nobility to courtesans and military guests. The sheer scale of the Palace complex is breathtaking, no two buildings look the same. There were temples and shrines, guest houses and parade grounds and everything in between.
The best part of the Palace however comes after all the show and pomp of the main buildings, nestled on one corner of the complex is the ancient residence of the royal family and their private gardens. The buildings are unassuming, almost simple in their decoration. Surrounding these humble residences are countless gardens, each more impressive than the last.
Streams and waterfalls form the focal point of many of these gardens, while ornate vermillion bridges lead to hidden shrines within the undergrowth. The care that the Japanese take with their gardens really is second to none, everything is thought out and has a purpose.
Leaving the Imperial Palace we felt rejuvenated…until Yianna pointed out that the entirety of the back of my neck was bright pink. This was enough of a sign that we should probably head inside and take a break from the sun.
Our next stop was Nishiki Market, a beautiful covered arcade dedicated entirely to scrumptious food and drink of every variety. Everyone one of your senses is overloaded by this place, the colours of the food were unlike anything I’ve seen before or since, and don’t even get me started on the smells! Shops dedicated entirely to mushrooms or soy sauce, street vendors selling raw ginger snacks and eel alongside chocolate bugs and cheese tart. You could easily spend hours looking through all the shops in this market trying all the free tasters and stopping to sample the many tea houses that line the arcade.
When we eventually finished in Nishiki market it was past time for us to find some dinner (prices in Nishiki mean it’s not the best option for a full meal). We headed back to the tiny Edo-era street where we had found ‘Hello Dolly’ the night before. Here we found a wonderful Kyoto style bar that specialised in small plates of seafood. With a bottle of sake between us we tucked into plate after plate of wasabi octopus, raw squid and curry and by the time we finished eating we were both about 2 stone heavier.
It was then as we made our way back to the hostel that it happened. Shuffling gracefully between the tea houses in the lantern light were three Geisha. They appeared and vanished in less than a second but that was enough. Each of them was stunning, their distinctive white makeup and heavily ordained kimonos catching the light of the paper lanterns that hung above them. However it was the hair that really stood out, their long black hair was pinned into a delicate bun and woven into the hair were all manner of precious stones and decorations.
We had only caught a glimpse of the elusive Geisha, but it is a memory that will stay with us forever.
The peace and beauty conveyed by the Geisha was very quickly replaced by a side of Japan that we had not witnessed up until this point, politics. As we walked back to the hostel we found ourselves in the middle of a protest, hundreds of people carrying signs crying out ‘Peace’ were all around us in the street. Some carried rainbow flags while others held nuclear disarmament symbols and megaphones. It took a couple of minutes but it soon became clear that this was a protest against the continued presence of US military bases in Japan, mainly in Okinawa.
This was a harsh reminder of the issues that still face Japan, a country that has refused to take part in military action since the end of the Pacific War. Whether it is the simple presence of active military personal or the risk of becoming a target for America’s enemies that drives these protestors I do not know. However one thing is clear, Japan has benefited massively from its pacifistic approach to politics and international relations and the Japanese people don’t want this to change.
It was a solemn way to end our night and we spent the rest of the walk back in silent thought.
See you soon,