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Great Escapes Kyoto
(Entered Jun. 14, 2009)
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For the true Japanophile, Kyoto represents the ultimate city and place to be. Every year millions of people, both Japanese and foreigners, flock there in the hopes of finding the exotic dream of 'ancient' Japan. And while this magical place may still exist, you won't find it simply by stepping out of Kyoto station. These days you're going to have to work a bit harder to see it.
Kyoto is a study in contrasts. On one hand you've got the traditions of old Japan, the temples, the geisha and maiko, the zen gardens, the love of nature/tranquility, etc, but from another perspective Kyoto sometimes looks like just another big, dirty, grey, modern day Japanese city.
In his book 'Dogs and Demons', Alex Kerr bemoaned the loss of 'old Kyoto', called Kyoto station a monstrosity and described the cityscape as 'one of the drearier sights of the modern world'.
Opinion, speculation or fact?

kyoto kinkakuji

Actually I've been to Kyoto before, about 7 years ago, so I knew pretty much what was in store for me. So why go again? Two reasons. My brother (Steve) was here visiting me and expressed an interest in seeing it, providing me with a good excuse to go again and take some good pics with the D80.
We arrived in Kyoto around noon, had lunch, took a quick look around the station then headed off to the hotel to drop off our bags.
I'd forgotten that temples in Kyoto close at 5pm, so after taking our time with lunch, walking to our hotel, and trying to figure out Kyoto's transportation system, we found ourselves with only enough time left in the day to see one temple, which ended up being Kyomizu.

kyoto kyomizu

I remembered Kyomizu temple from last time, and what stood out for me was that the water flowing from it (see below) supposedly cures all your sicknesses and ailments, etc. You line up, take a ladel from the pile, fill it up with magic water and drink. Actually the water didn't taste too bad, but probably because I was thirsty. Dunno about its curative powers though, it didn't do anything for the stiff shoulders I had from carrying my backpack around all day. That's Steve on the left drinking water from his hand (he's not throwing up). Everyone was pouring the contents of the cups into their hands instead of drinking from the cups directly, when in Rome....

kyoto kyomizu steve drinking

And how do you prevent the spread of germs? After you're done drinking, stick your ladel in the 'ultra violet sterilizer' to clean it. Very traditional I'm sure.

kyoto ultraviolet sterilizer

There wasn't really time to hit another temple today, but Maruyama park was nearby, so we made our way over. On the way there ran across these two lovely ladies, who were kind enough to pose for a picture.

kyoto maiko

After that we walked around Gion for a while, an area of Kyoto famous for traditional shops and sights, but we didn't see much as it was strangely empty. Needing a rest, we popped into a riverside restaurant for a few beers.

kyoto steve mike drinking beer

Once 5 o'clock passes, Kyoto's traditional options pretty much disappear, so our evenings were spent mainly finding a good place to eat, then finding a decent bar.

The next morning it was pouring rain, which put a bit of a damper on our plans for walking around and seeing some of the more interesting temples. What else is there to do in Kyoto though? Without any other options we gritted our teeth and headed out into the downpour.
First on the list was Kinkakuji, the 'Golden Pavilion' which is a World Heritage Site and probably my favourite of all the temples in Kyoto. No telephone wires, no signs, no plastic, no ugly buildings in the background.... Unfortunately however, even on a rainy Friday morning the crowds were in force. Obviously I did my best to keep them out of the picture.

kyoto kinkakuji

A short distance up the hill was Ryoanji, a temple with a famous rock garden. We sludged through the rain and made it there on foot in about 20 minutes only to find a large sign at the entrance apologizing for the construction and loud noises going on inside. The entrance fee was still 500 yen though, and when you're going from temple to temple you start to realize something, temples aren't cheap. We decided to give Ryoanji a miss. Anyway I'd been there the first time I came to Kyoto.
Continuing up the hill we eventually got to Ninnaji, a large complex with various temples inside. We paid the 500 yen fee and hoped there would be no construction or noise.
Temples are hit and miss affairs. Without doing extensive research you're not sure what you're going to get before you pay to pass through the gates. Ninnaji was one of the good ones though. The grounds were large, and the architecture was picturesque. Another bonus was that it was relatively deserted, giving it almost a haikyo-like feel at times.

kyoto ninnaji

Taking pictures with one hand while holding an umbrella in the other was a chore, but I managed.

kyoto ninnaji water

After Ninnaji, we headed to the city of Nara (which I will post about separately) for the rest of the day.

Fast forward to the next day. The weather had cleared up somewhat for our last day in Kyoto, and I wanted to head up to the North of Kyoto away from the crowds and fuss, in the hopes of finding some gems off the beaten path. A small brochure I received from the Kyoto tourism office on the first day had pictures and descriptions of a number of temples, and I liked the looks of one called Shinsendo. I planned for us to check that one out first, then head into the mountains up North to a temple called Jakkoin.
By now I'd kind of figured out the bus system here, and after a ride of about 40 minutes, we finally arrived at the stop near Shinsendo. Once again the entry fee was 500 yen, but this time the temple turned out to be a disappointment. It was small, crowded with nothing much to see except a small garden which while nice, wasn't really worth the money we paid.

kyoto shinsendo

Given that we had to be back at Kyoto station at 4pm to catch the train to Tokyo, and the fact that we were a bit tired of paying 5 bucks for every temple, we decided to forgo heading into the mountains and instead went back into the city to see some of the larger attractions, parts of which you can see for free.
We headed to Heian shrine first which turned out to be a nice distraction. Large, picturesque, free (the outer part) and sparsely populated.

kyoto heian jingu

From there we continued on foot and made our way to the Imperial Palace. The palace itself is rather small, but surrounding it is a truly massive park that is free to enter, and strangely enough for a Saturday, almost completely empty. Everywhere there were these huge, flat swaths of gravel, which seemed purposeless to me, but there were large sections of grass and trees as well, most of it blissfully empty and quiet. We spent the last few hours of our trip just sitting here, relaxing and talking.

kyoto imperial palace

Steve contemplates returning to Vancouver and the real world.

kyoto steve contemplating

Ok so Kyoto may not be the enchanting city it used to be, it may be large, dreary, and grey, but how much does that bother me? I have to say, after living for years in Tokyo, the king of large, dreary and grey cities, Kyoto is a definite step up. The streets may me modernized, there may be plastic and concrete everywhere, but Kyoto has a cultural atmosphere that you can still feel just by walking around. In Tokyo people are from all over Japan, but at the same time it has no distinctness about it, no real cultural identity.
I enjoyed Kyoto both times I went. Maybe the secret to enjoying it is to go there without any expectations?



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