After our unforgettable hike in Kumano Kodo, (please see earlier blog post: Discovering Stillness in Kumano Kodo) we left the peaceful countryside of Wakayama Prefecture and headed toward Kyoto.
Our drive from Wakayama should have taken 4 hours but roadworks caused a mind-numbing jam that added another hour and half to the journey. The beauty of it was, far from getting irritated by the delay, we were still in zen state after Kumano and enjoyed our conversation as we sat inching our way to Kyoto.
We finally reached our hotel in downtown Kyoto and the city bustle really jarred after the peace and quiet of the country. We got to our room and unlike the arrangements in the country, we had to figure out our meals for ourselves. No elaborate set meals. It was way past our lunch time, we asked the front desk for suggestions and off we went in search of a restaurant. We found a nice enough place and had a quick meal as our guide would be meeting us in less than an hour.
As this was our first time in Kyoto, we were just going to do the regular touristy things around Kyoto. (If I could plan it again though, I would start with the cities and end with the hike in Kumano.)
Crowds, Pure Water and Geikos
Our guide, Ayuko, was waiting for us at the lobby when we got back from lunch. We took a taxi (we took all modes of transport here – taxis, buses, subway, railway…) to our first stop which was the Kiyomizo-dera. There was such a crowd, mainly Japanese and most wore traditional Japanese costumes. So for once, we didn’t mind the crowds as there was so much photo opportunity. There were many schools kids on excursion (this would be a feature at nearly all the historical sites we visited in Kyoto) and while some were in uniforms, interestingly most of them came out in traditional garb, which was nice to see.
Gone was the serenity of quiet prayer that we had become accustomed to in Koyasan and Kumano Kodo. Here the shrines were rather crowded with worshippers, tourists and kids on school excursions.
Kiyomizo-dera is a Unesco world heritage site, and literally means ‘Pure Water’ temple as it is on the site of the Otowa Waterfall. The waters of the waterfall are piped into three separate streams, and visitors use long-ladled scoops to drink from them. Each stream’s water is said to have a different benefit – health, wealth and longevity and you can only choose one stream to drink from. I don’t suppose too many folks, especially the foreigners, knew that they can only choose one because they were happily drinking from all three. I wonder if drinking from all three cancels the effect completely:-)
We then walked around the Higashiyama district, through narrow and crowded alleys and some so-called ‘secret alleys’ leading to many historical sites and interesting nooks and corners. Ayuko led us around this labyrinth and left us in the late evening to explore Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district ourselves.
Geishas in Kyoto are called ‘geiko’ and the apprentices are called ‘maiko’. We sauntered along the Gion district hoping to catch a glimpse of them as they walk to the various ochayas (teahouses) nearby to entertain their customers. We saw a few of them making their quiet and elegant way to work and managed to get a few photos in the fading light.
Geikos are highly skilled entertainers who are engaged for private dinners and parties and special events . They train for years to become the perfect entertainers. An apprentice ‘maiko’, usually aged around 14 or 15, train for about five years to become a ‘geiko’.
We made our way back (getting around Kyoto is really so easy) and found a little hole-in-the-wall ramen place near our hotel for dinner. Meals were getting back to normal size and I was happy about that.
Thousand Torii Gates, Japanese Gardens and A Philsopher’s Walk
After breakfast, we met Ayuko and set off by train to Fushimi-Inari – the place that was top of my list of places to visit in Kyoto. The shrine with thousands of torii gates. How did I even imagine this place peaceful and quiet in my head? All of humanity was there this morning! And so we walked along with thousands of others under the thousands of vermillion torii gates.
Photographers need patience. I found a good spot and bided my time in the hope that there would be a break in the incessant flow of people – I was lucky. There were just the few seconds when there was indeed a break and I called out to my sister who was looking at something else and we both nailed it. I even managed a shot a few minutes later of a girl turning her head as her boyfriend took a ‘glamour shot’ of her. And then the crowds piled on again.
We took a train to visit the Gingkakuji temple. On the way, we stopped for an early lunch at a casual tepanyakki place to have some ‘okinomiyaki’ (a Japanese pancake that is eaten either sweet or savoury) that we had wanted to try. Ayuko said this tiny restaurant and the man running it has been around for years and years and she had frequented this place when she was in university. It was an altogether lovely experience. The old man ran the place by himself and ran it so efficiently and the okinomiyaki was so delicious.
The Gingkakuji, popularly known as the Silver Pavilion, was built by the shogun, Yoshimasa, emulating the other famous building, Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) which was built by his grandfather. These were their retirement homes which were later converted to temples. The great attraction for me were the gardens, which were simply exquisite.
We walked on from there to the famous Philosopher’s Walk. The explosion of colour along the canal happens in spring and autumn – I could just imagine how amazing it would look. Even without the flowers in bloom, it was a lovely stroll along the canal which had many teahouses, cafes, art shops along the path. The name apparently comes from the path’s use by a Japanese philosopher who meditated while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. You could spend quite a leisurely time taking in the place and meandering in and out of various lanes off it.
We continued our walk to the Heian Shrine and once again were bowled over by the beautiful gardens. It is a paid entry to the gardens but well worth it in my view. You could spend hours there just sitting on one of the benches.
Today would be our last day with Ayuko. It was while we were having coffee that evening that we discovered that she is a sake sommelier! I didn’t even know there were sake sommeliers! Had I known that she was one, I’d have definitely changed our itinerary around to include an evening of sake appreciation. What a lost opportunity. Ayuko, is obviously quite accomplished as she was flying in a couple of days to a 3 Star Michelin restaurant in St Sebastian, Spain to meet with the sake expert there!
Bamboo Groves, Boat Rides and Processions
Today we had Chizuko, our guide for the out-of-city trips, take us to Arashimaya. The main attraction here is the beautiful bamboo groves.
We walked through these beautiful shady groves to the old railway station to take the ‘torokku’ train to Kameoka, a town not too far way. The torokku is an old-fashioned train (also called the ‘Romantic Train’) that runs through the mountains and along the river Hozugawa, making it such a scenic route.
The short train ride took us to Kameoka, from where we then took a bus to a landing point at the river and on we got onto a boat. It was quite a boat ride – we had calm waters in some stretches and white water rapids on others. We had three boatmen who took turns and one of them was so entertaining (not that we understood a word) but he drew a great deal of laughter from the Japanese tourists.
We got back to Arashimaya by river and got off near the famous Togetsukyo Bridge (a popular spot for local movies) and walked the short distance into town. We had a ‘obanzai’ lunch – obanzai is traditional Kyoto homestyle style cooking. It was quite delicious.
After a visit to the Unesco heritage Tenryuji temple, as we were walking back to the train station, we came upon a procession – the deities of a temple nearby were being taken out on their annual procession. It was quite an amazing sight. The men carrying the deities would rock the wooden carrier and then lift it and jump and take the impact of it on their shoulders. I cannot imagine the state of their shoulders by the end of it – blue black with awful blisters I’m sure.
A short clip of the procession
Chizoku told us an interesting thing, she said that most Japanese embrace both Shintoism and Buddhism – one for the current life and the other for the afterlife-to cover all bases:-)
Where the Deer Roam Free
There are 17 world heritage sites in Kyoto and 8 of them are in Nara. Before going to Nara, I had read that “The park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered in Shintoism to be messengers of the gods, Nara’s nearly 1200 deer have become a symbol of the city and have even been designated as a natural treasure. Nara’s deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be aggressive if they think you will feed them. Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed.” I thought this was definitely something to see.
The deer did indeed roam freely – they were everywhere in the hundreds! They did bow asking to be fed. There were little kids screaming in fear and wonder in equal measure when the deer came near them and then there were those who took wefies while the hapless deer looked on. Oh yes, by the way, and you won’t be surprised at this – it is forbidden to eat venison in Nara.
Other than the deer, the two other main attractions in Nara were the magnificent Todai-ji temple which is the largest wooden building in the world and with the 50ft tall Daibutsu (Big Buddha) which was quite magnificent.
There is column in the temple with an opening the size of the nostril of the Buddha statue and an opening on the other side the size of its eye. The belief is that if you can go in through the ‘nostril’ and come out through the ‘eye’ you will achieve brilliance. It is popular among school children when exams are around the corner.
The Kasuga Grand Shrine was quite interesting for its thousands of lanterns
Our visit the next day to Nijo Castle and the Golden Pavilion was another round of moving along in orderly queues. The gardens once again were so captivating!
Kyoto was amazing and we loved it. This former capital has retained much of its old world charm and heritage. I now understand why a friend comes here twice a year every year! She is so drawn to the history and culture that she just immerses herself here .
What excitement this morning – we were getting on a Shinkansen! Our first experience on a bullet train. It was such a thrill as the train surged gently as it picked up speed – we sat grinning at each other rather idiotically. It was so much fun. Nothing in Japan had disappointed us so far … that of course was just too good to be true. The train’s lavatory to my utter surprise was not to the standard of cleanliness that we had become accustomed to in Japan.
The Race to Hakone
Hakone is popular for its hot springs and its magnificent views of Mt Fuji. It was for the latter that we decided this detour for a day before heading to Tokyo. We got off at a place called Odawara and were met at the platform by our guide, Kyomi. Mountain trains and buses don’t run as frequently as they do in the cities, but they are certainly just as punctual and reliable. I swear they weren’t kidding when they say you can set your watch to the Japanese train or bus schedules! Incredible!
So in order not to miss the next train to a place called Hakone-Yumoto, we raced through the station to get to the other platform and we made it in the nick of time. A short train ride later, we raced again, this time to catch the bus to Hakone. We made it – only just! The bus was slow and steady as it made its way up the mountain, the driver very impressively negotiating the hairpin bends.
We got off mid-way to experience the famous Amazake Chaya (teahouse) where travellers have stopped for food and refreshments since 1603. The establishment has been in the same family for 13 generations! We met the lovely lady who ran the place. Her brother is the current owner and his son, the first of the 14th generation, will inherit it. (Seems like it passes down the male line). We ordered some amazake, not really knowing what it was. But my oh my was it delicious!! We loved it and wondered why we had never heard of it till now! We had that with some delicious mochi.
I read that the menu, design and atmosphere has been relatively unchanged for 400 years! We could quite easily have missed this gem had it not been for Kyomi. She suggested this stop and we, ever willing to experience something new (or old;-) ) agreed. It had to be a short stop as we had to catch the next bus up the mountain.
On reaching Hakone, the first thing we did was to find a coin locker to leave our luggage in so that we could walk around unhindered. We had time in our hands before our boat ride to Togendai. Our destination today was up another mountain. To get there we had to take a boat to Togendai and from there a ‘ropeway’ to Sounkaku Ryokan, where we will be staying the night.
It had been cloudy all day and it was obvious to us, we weren’t going to see Mt Fuji. We should have had a clear view from Lake Ashi, but it was not meant to be. We enjoyed our walkabout in Hakone, even joined the tourists taking photos at the Torii gate in the lake where the 9-headed dragon resides.
We decided to give the hilltop Hakone shrine a miss and chose instead to sit by the lake, chatting with Kyomi till our pirate boat (because it looks like one) arrived. A short boat ride and then a bus ride before we got onto the ‘ropeway’ (cable car). Today was just our day to try all forms of transportation starting from the fastest – on the Shinkansen and ending with the slowest – the cable car.
Utopia and Hell on Earth
On reaching Togendai (which means ‘Utopia’), it started to come down heavily. We discovered on arrival, that the ropeway service was partially suspended and we had to take a bus to a place that used to be called ‘Great Hell’ but had its name changed because of the Emperor’s visit – you can’t have the Emperor visiting hell, can you? So it came to be known by the more benign name of ‘Great Boiling Valley’.
Kyomi’s description of it had us so keen to see it. What a pity about the rain, not that it stopped us. As soon as we got off the bus, we made a bee-line for this amazing volcanic caldera. Our olfactories were severely assaulted by the strong smell of sulphur spewing out of the volcano. Had it not been raining so hard we might have had a more dramatic view. It last erupted last year and we were so struck by that when Kyomi told us as the ropeway station and some homes were all so near the caldera!
The tradition here is to buy the ‘black eggs’. These are normal chicken eggs which turn black when cooked in the volcanic water (due to the sulphur and iron in it). The local belief is that eating these black eggs will prolong your life by 7 years. I had one because I love eggs and if it adds 7 healthy years – why not?
Next we jumped into the gondola of the ropeway and headed to our ryokan. It was still raining as we walked in and there to greet us at the door were two lovely young ladies who fell to their knees and bowed deeply – this alarmed us somewhat!
We said our goodbyes to the very kind Kyomi, who now had to make her way back the same way and in the heavy downpour.
Once again we had a Japanese-style room and a private outdoor bath, which was reminiscent of our memorable days at Wakayama. Dinner too was an elaborate affair, called ‘kaiseki‘. How do I begin to describe what a kaiseki meal is? Here’s how one travel magazine described it: “To the outsider, kaiseki appears to simply be a multi-course Japanese dinner made up of beautifully plated dishes. But there’s so much more to this meticulously prepared, exquisitely served meal. To practitioners of this haute cuisine, kaiseki is the embodiment of “omotenashi,” which means wholehearted hospitality. Its central tenet is to convey respect, making guests feel special and at ease. This means chefs strive for excellence in every detail.”
I am not much of a food photographer (for which I get a huge number complaints from family and friends) so if you’re interested in seeing what the courses look like and reading more about it, please click on the following link: https://savorjapan.com/contents/more-to-savor/kaiseki-cuisine-japans-artful-culinary-tradition-explained/
All I can say is that the meal was exquisite and the service provide by the lovely Mika, peerless.
Open Air Museum
In the morning, we took the cable car, which was more like a funicular to me, (and the ‘ropeway’ was more like a cable car!) … anyway …we took the cable car to a place called Gora and from there we took another mountain train to see Hakone’s renowned open air museum. Wow. We did not expect to see such a huge area with art and sculpture all about. It was too big area for us to cover but we enjoyed what little we could see. We had to head back to our ryokan, checkout and get to Hakone-Yumoto station for our train to Tokyo.
What an incredible sojourn this was. There was certainly more to explore in the area. There were just so many interesting places in this mountain getaway. Interesting people too. We found a cafe near the ropeway station and we had such a nice chat with the guy running it. We left Hakone that afternoon, wishing we had more time there.
How many times have we transited at Narita Airport on the way to and back from the U.S (and vice versa for my sister)? She lives in the U.S and we’ve made countless trips either way over many years and yet not once did we get out of Narita and visit Tokyo! We took the ‘Limited Express Romance Car’ train from Hakone-Yumoto to Tokyo. The seat configuration in this train was 2 by 2 which I suppose is why it is called ‘Romance Car’?
We got into our hotel and were happy to note that the hotel provided a frequent shuttle service to Shinjukku Station – the largest and busiest station in Tokyo. So after checking in we went exploring around Shinjukku, found a small place for dinner before hopping on the shuttle back and an early night.
Tokyo in a flash
Our guide for the day, Takako, was a very pleasant lady who took us on a whistle-stop tour. Our first stop, the Imperial Palace … well not really…it’s more like Imperial Palace Park. No one is allowed inside the compound of the Imperial Palace, you just stand from afar and don’t really see it. So that was a disappointment. The park around the palace is huge and popular with early morning joggers, the so-called ‘Imperial Runners’. The Palace has more than a thousand security personnel and ten thousand pine trees. The Imperial guards are supposedly chosen for their good looks. Unfortunately, we couldn’t verify this as they were just too far away.
The Edo Tokyo Museum was really worth the visit. It was quite impressive and we spent our morning there and still only scratched the surface.
Lunch was a Sumo wrestler’s ‘healthy meal’ at a restaurant that is owned by a famous Sumo champion, Changko Kirishima. It was a generous -sized hot pot, which we quite relished.
The Akasuka Sensoji temple was our next stop – this time the crowd and the heat were just too much to take. We didn’t linger and took a boat ride on the Sumidagawa to the other side, getting off at the beautiful Hamarikyu Gardens in the heart of the metropolis. Now that’s really worth a visit. We spent a bit of time just strolling through the gardens and stopping by the teahouse by the lake.
In one of our many conversations, Takako explained to us why we didn’t see Mt. Fuji. You see there were two sister deities – The Flower Princess who is beautiful and the Storm Princess, who is not so beautiful but was bestowed eternal life. One day a young Prince asked their father for the hand of Flower Princess but the father insisted that he had to marry both sisters. And so he did. But he loved Flower Princess more and showered her with his affections. Storm got upset and went home to her parents. Storm Princess lives at the 5th station of Mt Fuji and Flower Princess at the peak. When Storm is in a bad mood, Flower is too afraid of her sister to come out … now we know why we didn’t get to see Mt Fuji – Storm was in a bad mood.
We had a great time with Taka and after a rather extended farewell, we got onto a taxi and had the totally immersive experience of a Tokyo rush hour jam.
Our last day
We really wanted to see the tuna auction at the world famous Tsukiji market, but it meant a 3am start. Neither of us were up to that much of an early start, the full-on activity of the past 2 weeks beginning to catch up with us. We did make it to the market but the buzz had already died down.
We walked around Ginza, watched a group of men playing Shogi (Japanese chess) and had lunch at a delightful chicken place.
We had instructions from my nephew to get a special Japanese edition of Warhammer Space Marines Heroes, not found outside Japan. So our mission today was to hunt down this shop and get the special edition – which we did. Pat on backs. I won’t go into an explanation of Warhammer, it’s just too esoteric.
We ended our day at the crazy Shibuya Crossing. The second floor of Starbucks across the road has a good view of the crossing and unlike certain Starbucks in the world, here anyone can go in without fear of being arrested for trespassing and view the crossing. I managed to take a time lapse of the crossing.
Time-lapse of the crossing
What a trip. Japan has touched us like no other country has. It was an eye-opening experience. I will admit that I had great difficulty wrapping my head around my experience here with the beautiful people we met, the culture, the politeness with all that my grandparents and parents’ generations had endured in the hands of the Japanese. Japan herself has struggled to reconcile with her past, experiencing years of deep shame. What has emerged is a culture like none other – the thoughtfulness, their genuine care and consideration for others is unsurpassed. They are such mindful people. ‘Mindfulness’ is a deeply ingrained trait and it manifests in so many ways in their daily lives and everyday actions.
Perhaps it is only befitting that I end with a haiku on mindfulness by one of Japan’s greatest haiku poet, Matsuo Basho:
An old silent pond —
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.
In the twilight rain
these brilliant-hued hibiscus —
A lovely sunset.
If you would like to see more photos of this trip, please go to: https://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/2018-Japan/