When anyone talks about Kyoto one of the first things they mention is always the Golden Temple, Kinkaku-Ji. So for our final day in the city we thought we would go and visit this world heritage sight renowned the world over for its beauty.
The first thing that nobody tells you about Kinkaku-Ji is that it is right on the outskirts of Kyoto and about as far away from a train station as is humanly possible. So after getting on the wrong bus (as per usual) and having to find our way back to the correct route we sat on the bus for about an hour to get us to Kinkaku-Ji. Before we even made it into the temple there were massive crowds gathering, something we took to be a good sign.
The second shock about Kinkaku-Ji is that unlike all of the other temples we had visited, you had to pay to enter. Although annoying this was hardly a major issue, the real issue came once we were inside the temple grounds.
The real beauty of tourism in Japan, especially when it comes to holy sites, is that they remain tranquil and authentic. There are rarely gimmicks or unexpected costs to see different areas, instead all of the temples and shrines we had visited had their focus fixed firmly on enlightening visitors and educating them about Japan’s incredible history.
Kinkaku-Ji itself is magnificent, it sits perfectly in a small lake with its golden walls blazing gloriously in the sunlight. Despite the crowds there is plenty of room to get a great view of the whole area and a walking around the water gives you some spectacular angles of the temple building itself.
It is once you leave the temple itself that things start to go downhill, suddenly you are confronted with replicas of traditional Japanese furniture to pose on and palanquins to sit in. Soon after we found ourselves surrounded by street vendors selling anything they could pass off as gold. From green tea with gold flakes in to gold flaked ice cream. I understand why these things are needed but it really ruined the experience for us, for the first time since the beginning of our trip we felt as though we had been scammed into a tourist trap.
Exiting the temple grounds left a bittersweet taste in our mouths. The temple itself is glorious and unlike anything else we have seen in Japan, but the gimmicks and cheap tricks ruined the experience completely. As far as being the best thing to see in Kyoto I couldn’t disagree more, it is worth seeing but has nothing on the shrines like Fushimi Inari or Kiyomizudera.
We had heard from people around Kyoto that there was going to be a festival at the Imperial Palace that afternoon and so we decided to grab a snack and wander over to the Palace. Upon arrival we were confronted with throngs of excited visitors and crowds of people in traditional dress hurrying to get ready.
Once we found a spot by one of the huge gravel roads we settled in to watch the Jidai Matsuri, the festival of ages, a celebration of Japan’s history from the days of the Heian Emperors right up to the Meiji Restoration. The parade was essentially a walking timeline showing traditional costume, rituals and weaponry from across the ages.
We saw everything from men dressed in authentic Samurai armour astride glorious horses to real life Geisha and Meiko. All of this was breathtaking and each section of the parade was more impressive than the last.
However the parade was also extremely odd, the entire procession was accompanied my rather macabre drum playing and despite how much the crowd were enjoying the show we couldn’t help feel like some upbeat music would have helped. The parade itself was clearly a celebration but the music made it feel almost like a funeral march, like they were mourning the past they had lost rather than celebrating it. This may sound like the parade was therefore unenjoyable, but it was quite the opposite. The reality was that this was yet another enlightening reminder of the difference between Japanese and British culture. Where we would play loud music and revel in our past with battle re-enactments and skits the Japanese allow the costume and character to do all the talking. I think both approaches are equally effective for their respective audiences, however it was difficult to feel uplifted during the solemn procession.
By the time we had finished watching the parade it was mid-afternoon and we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon doing what we love most…shopping. The centre of Kyoto is made up of a series of huge covered arcades (including Nishiki Market) lined with every kind of shop imaginable. As we wandered along the busy streets munching on takoyaki and buying anything that took our fancy we realised that the trip wasn’t even half way done and we had already seen so many things we didn’t think were possible.
The rest of the night was spent eating and frantically packing the multitude of stupid things we had bought into our ever shrinking bags. Our next stop would be the irrepressibly cool Osaka, a city that we had been told repeatedly was the best place in Japan to be young.
See you soon,