12 Jul 2015

Back to Japan - Day 3: Kyoto & the Philosopher's Path

After a much-needed lie-in after our beer crawl we headed up to the Osaka Shin station on the metro to get our quick shinkansen ride to Kyoto. It was the second visit to the city for both my husband and me, although our first visit together.

(iPhone photo)
For our time in Kyoto I'd spent hours trying to decide which area and hotel to stay in, but had plumped for the area a couple of miles north-east of the central station near the Pontocho area. We took the metro from the main station and found the hotel. Again I was disappointed by the "superior" room in our hotel, the Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa. Being on the top floor I hoped for a good view but was surprised to get to our room (after walking round three sides of the building as the spa blocked the way between the lift and our room) to find that the window was made of glass bricks. We didn't even have a view into the courtyard and had no idea even what the weather was. I should've complained and asked for a different room, but didn't initially as we were so hot and sweaty by the time we finally reached the room. After that I decided I wouldn't kick up a fuss as we wouldn't be spending much time there, as there's so much to do and see in Kyoto. It still didn't stop me from feeling a little annoyed every time we got back to the room (although we soon figured out a solution to the long corridor problem - going down the stairs to the 9th and then the lift was just round the corner).

We headed out straight away to get some lunch, having read about a recommended ramen noodle place nearby. We were trying to eat something different for each meal, and were doing pretty well so far. The restaurant (Ramen Kairikiya Kawaharamachi Sanjo) was brightly lit but extremely welcoming (the Japanese sure do screech at you when you arrive or leave a restaurant!). We both ordered the same - ramen noodles with egg and pork, which arrived swiftly. Our run of delicious food was continuing; it was very tasty, particularly the marinated soft-boiled egg.

After lunch we took the Tozai Line out to the bottom of the Philosopher's Path at Keage; we took the opportunity to do the walk as the weather was pretty good and it was forecast to rain on-and-off for the following few days. Umbrellas were packed just in case. We started off by walking down to Nanzen-ji, a large complex with various different temples and shrines.

We meandered through the site before heading north towards the beginning of the Philosopher's Path, which I vaguely remembered from my first visit 11 years earlier. We walked along a road for a while, past old houses and endless vending machines, before taking a right turn up to the Path. We hadn't been very good at following the map, as we'd missed out a huge section of the walk and had been walking parallel to it.

The Path is fairly straight and lies along a narrow canal, dotted with bridges across to small dwellings. A few tourists walked along the path, as well as some locals on bikes. We passed a big film crew who were filming a sequence of someone walking along the path; I imagine it's quite popular in Japanese movies.

We passed a strange little shrine at the side of the Path, comprised of ten large stones, adorned with little aprons, with a small ramekin dish at their feet, presumably to collect offerings.
At the far end of the path we took another right turn up a hill, leading to the Ginkaku-ji temple (not to be confused with the Kinkaku-ji one!). It was teeming with schoolchildren, tourists (both foreign and Japanese), some dressed in traditional Japanese clothing (ie. looking like geishas). The street was lined with shops and caf├ęs, selling fans, pretty knick-knacks and lots of green tea ice-cream, as well as some weird-looking pies filled with green tea goo.

We paid the small entrance fee to go into the temple and were herded along with dozens of chattering schoolkids. Just near the entrance is a massive zen garden, with neatly lined rocky sand arranged in pleasing ways, surrounded by various temple buildings and exquisite real gardens. During our walk the cloud had thickened and now the sky was overcast and the light dreadful for photography. The place was also far too busy, but it was still a very lovely place.

We wandered through the site to a viewpoint over the city and then back down through forests and gardens until we reached the shop, toilets and exit. As we left a whole group of women dressed in traditional outfits were going in. It seemed the thing to do here for the Japanese tourists - to dress up and walk around the temples. There was even one red-haired gaijin dressed as a geisha.

As we left we encountered our first group of schoolchildren who stopped to ask us questions. They were probably around 14 or 15, mixed genders, and took it in turns to ask us questions (like "where are you from?", "what is your favourite place in Japan", etc). They all giggled as we answered enthusiastically, not sure if they could even understand anything other than the questions on their papers. At the end they took a photo of us, so I took one of them too; obviously they all did the peace sign with their fingers.

We headed back down the hill, past more women in geisha outfits (some of them could have been genuine, I suppose), and back down the Philosopher's Path towards Nanzen-ji. We passed a couple of temples, and an area full of cats.

We continued along the canal-side, stopping to look at the enormous koi (carp) that swam against the current, sometimes hiding under plants. I stopped from time to time to take some photos too! The odd shower hit us, but we were mainly sheltered by the dense trees that line the canal (cherry trees - making it an extremely popular walk during blossom season, I hear).

In spite of the intermittent light showers it was very hot and muggy, so we were grateful for regular vending machines, giving us the chance to try out a few of the offerings to quench our thirst. At the end of the path we wandered back through the Nanzen-ji temple area, hoping to go up one storey to get a view, but we were too late; it was closed. The trees in the complex were beautiful.

We took the train back to the hotel, where we rested for a bit and dug through TripAdvisor for a good local place to eat. The one that stood out was a sushi restaurant called Sushi Tetsu Pontocho, which was only a few streets away, tucked away down one of the alleyways that make up the area. We arrived at around 7.30pm and there was already a queue outside, but given that it was highly recommended we decided to wait. We didn't get in for about 45 minutes, but it was worth the wait. It was our first sushi in Japan on this trip, and it was very good quality, and cheap too (although the place had a small cover charge).  We sat at the bar and watched our personal chef prepare our sushi, sashimi and California rolls, then devoured it all very quickly, washed down with a small carafe of sake (it was a quiet one after a little too much beer the previous night).

After we left we explored the little alleys and canals that make up the Pontocho area. It wasn't quite as sleazy as I'd remembered, although there were still pimp-looking men standing outside sketchy-looking bars along the canal-side. I couldn't quite work out what some of the bars were offering...

After wandering around for about an hour, feeling as if we were prying into a rather different world, we headed home, both feeling a little exhausted.

Click here for blog on Day 2 - Osaka
Click here for blog on Day 4 - Kyoto - Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, Arashiyama & Gion

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