13 Jul 2015

Back to Japan - Day 4: Kyoto - Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, Arashiyama & Gion

After our quiet first night in Kyoto we got up early, heading down to eat breakfast in our hotel at 8.30am (early for us, that is - this wasn't a holiday of early photography outings at dawn at 4.30am). Given that we only had two further days in Kyoto and had a lot to fit in, we headed out straight after breakfast to start our day of cultural visits. We took a bus from opposite the hotel to the Kinkaku-ji temple in the north-west of the city. We listened to a sweet, earnest young English girl talking with her guide about her experience working as a volunteer on a farm in the mountains. The bus we took went a bit of a long way round, so it took ages to get to the temple.

The skies were cloudy, with a little contrast, but the rain was holding off for the moment as we entered the complex (unlike on my previous visit when it pissed down constantly while I was there). As with the experience at Ginkaku-ji the previous day, the complex visit was arranged as a one-way trail, with the hoards of visitors herded through quickly. Not far from the entrance was a wider area with a view of the exquisite golden temple reflected in the small lake in front of it, surrounded by the sumptuous gardens. People took it in turns to take photos at the edge of the fence, with lots of selfie sticks protruding into the air, people facing away from the temple to ensure that they were in the shot, while barely actually looking at the thing they'd come to see. No tripods were allowed, so I took a few hand-held shots with the ISO cranked up a little. I would have stayed longer, but hubby was getting bored, and we had other places to visit.

We continued around the lake, past the temple and through the gardens to the exit, past a few more temple buildings, and of course some vending machines. I stopped to photograph people who'd stopped to take photographs of photographs of the complex in winter! People threw money at a shrine, presumably for good luck, although it looked more like target practice.

From there we walked down to the nearby Ryoan-ji temple, which houses a large and famous zen garden. We took a slightly longer-than-needed route, having headed back down to the main road by mistake, but got to see a bit more of the area.

The zen garden temple complex wasn't as busy as Kinkaku-ji had been; being lunchtime probably helped clear away some of the crowds. We walked up to the main zen garden, past a lily-filled lake and a pretty buddha statue.

Once we reached the zen garden we wandered around the outside of the temple building alongside it, and then back to admire the zen garden. Of course there were lots of schoolchildren, so it wasn't the most peaceful, zen, place. The stones are arranged in a strange way, with large areas of gravel and small islands of grass containing a rock or two. It's not an easy place to photograph, with strange angles and no access to the best aspects.

We didn't stay long, and instead headed towards Arashiyama to see the bamboo path, a short train ride away. The road to the station was lined with bunting; perhaps there had been a recent festival. The streets were almost deserted, so it seemed a bit out of place, fluttering in the wind. The station reminded me of stations in the highlands of Sri Lanka - basic, unmanned, with the ability to walk across the tracks. The train itself was almost like a toy train, with only a couple of carriages.

Once the train pulled in at Arashiyama, the calmness from the zen garden and surrounding area dissipated and we were back to tourist central. We walked up to the bamboo path, together with dozens of others. The path is reasonably long, but not quite as remote, or densely packed with bamboos, as I'd expected it to be. The further you went in, the denser it became, but I still found it a little disappointing. I set up my tripod a few times to try to capture the people movement, but didn't quite get what I was looking for. It was definitely somewhere that might feel a bit more peaceful at sunrise, but given that this was at 4.30am (no daylight saving in Japan) that just wasn't going to happen - it wasn't that kind of holiday. So instead I had to be content with more hoards shuffling along. There was a large cemetery there, but it was out of bounds for visitors (in spite of a bad bit of Jinglish I got the message), as well as a small shrine.

We decided that we'd try to fit in a bit more sightseeing, as it was still only 2pm, so we headed to another station to take a train back to Kyoto central station. On the way we passed a strange sign suggesting "no cats" - not sure how enforceable that one is. At the main station I noticed a sign saying that dogs were only allowed on the trains if they were in carriable cages; also no leaves or wheely luggage were allowed (snakes and poison I understand)...

In the food court in the basement of the station we found a brightly-lit, friendly, and tasty tonkatsu restaurant - serving mainly pork fillets covered in batter and deep-fried.

Feeling rejuvenated after our meal and some water we headed up to the Nishiki market, a couple of kms north of the station, to have a little look at the delights on offer. The journey wasn't particularly interesting, apart from a bit of people-watching, so we cut down some back streets, where there's always a hidden temple or shrine.

It started to rain on our way, so we were glad to reach the covered market, that stretches for a few blocks in an east-west direction. There was so much to see - amazing stalls piled high with pickled vegetables, enormous oysters, mouth-watering squid, tea, rice, the usual array of brightly-coloured trinkets, and more (I have a different blog on the market itself!).

Nishiki market is not far from the ancient district of Gion, so we headed down a cute little alley way and across the bridge to get there, in the rain, in search of some genuine geisha. As we crossed the bridge the crowds grew - there are a lot of tourists in Kyoto, even in the rainy season.

I'd looked at the map, so knew where the old streets of Gion were located, which was where we were most likely to see genuine geisha. It was a fruitless exercise; we saw many people in traditional dress, but none of them looked all that real. They could have been, but I think they were just Japanese tourists dressed up for the day.

It was strange walking through the paved streets of this area of Kyoto, with its streets of old wooden buildings. The weirdest thing was that I thought I'd been there before on my 2004 trip, but the streets weren't familiar; that area that I'd thought was the geisha area on that trip obviously wasn't this one.

We both needed to go to the loo, so stopped for a drink in a posh bar/Italian restaurant. After one drink we headed out towards home, hoping to find a craft beer bar on the way. As we walked north towards Sanjo I began to feel really dehydrated, so we decided to pop back to the hotel for a while to rehydrate and for me to dump my heavy camera gear. Once that was done we headed back across the bridge and found the wonderful little bar Beer Komachi. It was a tiny place, down another covered alleyway (there's a lot of these in Japan, and when it rains you realise why!).

We had a couple of drinks there, before heading back across the river to get some dinner. We'd passed a popular place just behind our hotel, Isoya, and decided to give that a go. The waiter warned us that it had no English menu, but he understood enough English for us to be able to ask him to get us a selection of what was on offer! We sat at the bar, with a huge hotplate in front of us and baskets of raw vegetables, which the chef cooked on there. The restaurant was predominantly a grilled vegetables place, but they also served chicken and beef, as well as rice and noodles. We were brought a number of different grilled veg dishes, each with a little seasoning or sauce added at the end, including peppers, okra, cheesy lotus root and delicious butter oyster mushrooms. We also ordered some chicken, that turned out to be from the neck; a little stringy but very tasty. We washed our meal down with some yuzushu, a variant of the plum wine but made with the yuzu,  a local citrus fruit. I learnt my first new Japanese word - rokku - which means on the rocks (funnily enough, the first thing I learnt in Spanish was con hielo!).

After a delicious meal we headed south-west to visit a couple more craft beer bars that Murray had found online, including Beer House Craft Man and Bungalow, before walking back towards Pontocho. I was keen to stop in a little bar I'd visited in 2004 with friends - Blue Note - the matches from which I still had back home. We found it and went in and were the only customers. We drank a whisky each which was 200 Yen more because we had ice in it, which seemed a little strange. The owner played records, and as we arrived Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones was on, which was a nice trip down memory lane for me. After one drink we headed out and found the Bunkyu Bar, a tiny whisky bar on one of the streets parallel to the hotel. There was only room for about 6 customers, and there were already 3 men at the bar, so when we arrived it was practically full! We tried one whisky - the Kamazaki 17 year, and there was no ridiculous cover charge for ice, and it was served in lovely glasses with mineral water on the side. The owner spoke a little English. Before going back to the hotel we stopped for one last drink at a pub opposite the hotel - the Tavern Simpson. It was completely different from all of the other places we'd been, fairly brightly-lit, and with older barmen dressed in black tie; a little formal. There were still a few customers, though, with some pleasant jazz playing in the background. We headed home after that, having had quite enough for the night, hoping to get up at a reasonable hour the following day to visit Nara and Fushimi-Inari.

Click here for blog on Day 3 - Kyoto & The Philosopher's Path
Click here for blog on Day 5 - The Wonderful Fushimi-Inari