Tokyo was a vision of the future. Takayama was a taste of the past. But Kyoto would be both – a thoroughly modern city that blends seamlessly into the ancient landscape around it. For a thousand years, it was the seat of Japanese government. Arts and culture flourished, a plethora of grand religious buildings were erected, and Kyoto’s economy prospered. Today, it’s still regarded as the cultural capital of Japan, which means there’s tons to see.
And 3 nights there is definitely not enough. But 3 nights is all we had, so as soon as we got off the train, we had to hit the ground running. Our hostel was just round the corner from Nishiki Market, so we headed there first to pick up some food.
Nishiki Market, while colourful, isn’t so different from any other market in the world. Sure, there are a lot of Japanese sweets and fishy snacks on offer, but the atmosphere is the same – busy, hot, and a bit smelly. There’s just less crime here than in any other part of the world.
It’s what’s around Nishiki market that’s worth a look – you can find a ton of anime shops, second hand kimono stores, and souvenir shops in the vicinity. Tightening my purse strings at this point in the trip, I thought “I’ll come back later”. For there were more important sights to see, first.
Despite the fact the clouds were homing in and it was approaching late afternoon – not what I’d usually call optimum time to start sightseeing – we trekked to the south of Kyoto to visit Fushimi Inari shrine, an entire mountain dedicated to Shinto worship. I know it sounds like a dish at Yo! Sushi, but that’s because this temple is dedicted to Inari – the spirit of rice and agriculture. More than a thousand bright red torii gates frame the path up the mountain, each one donated by a Japanese business (in the hopes their capitalist wishes will come true, no doubt). There are many sub-shrines on your way to the shrine at the top, almost 250 metres above sea level. There’s also about a billion steps to the top, but I’ve done it in Thailand, so I’ll do it again in Japan.
I was hugely excited to come here, because it was the main image that advertised my tour. The woman taking a selfie in front of the torii gates reflected what I wanted to see – me. In front of the torii gates. Taking a selfie.
Except, added bonus – the tour means you make friends who can take pictures for you.
Ah, look – here they are!
Machi took us as far as the main complex at the foot of the mountain, which was built in 1499. She pointed out the fox statues dotted around the temple, each carrying a different object in its mouth. Foxes were regarded as messengers to the spirits, so they played an important role in relaying human desires to the mystical powers that be.
You can also take a really kawaii picture with them, if you can get them in the frame.
From here, the group splintered off and ascended the mountain at our own pace. We knew it would be a rush to beat the setting sun – not that you could see it, because a thunderstorm was on its way – so it was very much a “go, go, go!” sort of situation. No time for any more selfies or dawdling here.
The rain began to pour as I got to the midway point, and encountered the rest of the group, who were looking out over Kyoto whilst huddling under a hut for shelter. I looked at the path leading up the mountain – “20 minutes to summit”, it said. I turned again and looked at the group. What did I have to lose? I was already quite soggy, and I’d feel stupid if I came all this way and didn’t see what was at the top. I turned away and set off, two others accompanying me. Machi tried to give me her raincoat to ensure I didn’t get wet, but I said it was pointless, and produced my umbrella.
Up the almost-deserted path we went – the torii gates this high up weren’t packed with tourists like they were lower down. The thunder clapped above us, rain dripping onto the leaves, as the three of us raced up the stairs. We had to be at the bottom of the mountain in 40 minutes, and the sign said it would take 20 just to get halfway up. No time to waste.
We reached the top in 15, out of puff and soaking wet, but happy to have achieved such a feat.
There’s a shrine at the top, but no view over the city, like we’d expected. Unless you’re doing it to gain a sense of achievement and a great Insta story, I wouldn’t bother with the entire trek. Just because you’ll also likely be pressed for time – Kyoto demands a lot of attention.
Practically jogging back down the mountain to meet Machi on time, we noticed that the view coming from this side of the torii gates was different. This time, you could see text written on each one – which I’m assuming is a message from its donor/sponsor.
Heading back into the city for some dinner and a well earned rest, we jumped off the train in such a hurry that Machi dropped her phone in the space between the train and the platform. The iPhone, by the side of the tracks, blinked back at us. So that’s what they mean by mind the gap. We called over the guard, and he said we’d have to wait until 2 more trains passed for a suitable gap that would enable him to reach it.
Luckily, the phone wasn’t in a place that trains directly ran over it – I don’t imagine an iPhone, no matter how great Apple says they are, could sustain the weight of a 200-ton metro train. Expecting the guard to halt the trains and jump onto the tracks, he emerged from his office with a litter picker and a fishing net. But actually, it worked – Machi was reunited with her phone in a matter of seconds. Phew. Panic over, we treated her to a couple of beers at an izakaya, and I ate my weight in fried tofu, fried vegetables, and fried potatoes. Oh what a night.
The next day, the clouds had cleared, and the sun was out. We got to the bamboo forest, on the outskirts of the city, at 8:30 in the morning. It’s a pleasant walk from the station across the Katsura River.
The station also had a Hello Kitty photo op, which I could not resist after my Tokyo experience.
If we’d had more time, I think a gentle cruise would have been a good idea.
The bamboo towers above you, and you meander through a narrow corridor deep inside it. At this time in the morning, it’s peaceful and quiet, so it’s the optimum time to visit. There are also monkeys in a different part of the forest, but I’m scared of rabies (and I’ve had a few too-close-for-comfort encounters with monkeys in the past – in Malaysia and in Gibraltar) so I avoided them like the plague. Or some other nasty sickness they might pass on.
Just watch out for the mosquitos. They like dark, moist places – and my arms.
Next up was a visit to the Kinkaku-ji Buddhist Temple; a golden pavilion suspended above a tranquil lily pond.
A picture-postcard image of Japan if ever there was one.
Call it Japan’s version of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. I’d say there were less people around, but it didn’t feel like it. The walkways and zen gardens were, unfortunately, packed with thousands of other tourists keen to experience the majesty of Kinkaku-ji. Lots of local schoolchildren, dressed in naval-inspired uniforms, laughed and chatted excitedly in places that once would have been used for quiet reflection.
Interestingly, the place is a replica. The Golden Temple has stood here since 1397, but in the 1950s, a 22-year-old novice monk burned it down, then tried to kill himself. He survived, was banged up, and found to suffer from a number of mental ailments. The damage he’d done to the temple, though, was devastating – all that remained was a wooden skeleton. So, the temple was reconstructed in 1955, only this time with more gold leaf.
It’s like ‘pimp my temple’, I guess.
I couldn’t stop too long to look at the temple, as me and my vegetarian friend Vithiya had a packed schedule for the day. But first, food. We’d spotted a kawaii-looking cafe across the road, and decided to grab a snack in there. Plus, I’d noticed they sold creme brulee crepes, which sounded just about perfect at this time of day.
I should have known that if a cafe is painted entirely in pink, everything in there is probably going to be quite sugary. Even my matcha smoothie, which I’d thought would be a bitter and healthy counterbalance to the crepe, was smothered in whipped cream. Neither me nor Vithiya could finish our snacks, so we picked up and carried on with our day.
Vithiya has a really good eye for doing things that are off the tourist track, so she was my ideal travel buddy. She’d done some research and found an intriguing place called ‘Monster Street’, otherwise known as Yokai Street, halfway between the Golden Temple and the city centre. It’s basically a nondescript street where the shop fronts have these bizarre plaster monster statues outside, for no apparent reason. Expecting a colourful Japanese version of Camden, we arrived and initially kept on walking, because it was so discreet we thought we hadn’t got there yet. But upon asking some schoolgirls and their English teacher, they informed us that we were, indeed, there. Cue slightly disappointing slideshow.
It’s certainly quirky, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. I’d suggest you don’t either.
Not to worry. We continued onwards to the city centre, and discovered an absolute gem. Walking through a regular neighbourhood, where ordinary folk live and work, we found the best shop I’d seen all trip – the 100 yen store. My mum’s obsessed with foreign equivalents of Poundland, so we had to go in. Turns out, it was a great place to buy souvenirs, at the bargain price of 75p. Just shut up and take my money already.
We finally made it to Nijo Castle, and the sun was beating down harder than ever. The complex is massive, so make sure you know where the main entrance is, to save yourself extra walking!
We didn’t, and had to walk 3/4 of the way around the perimeter. Here’s me pretending my feet aren’t killing me.
Nijo Castle is one of Kyoto’s biggest historical landmarks. It was built during the – you guessed it – Tokugawa Shogunate, as the shogun’s main residence in the city. But it’s a bit of a misnomer, because the castle walls actually guard two palaces – the Ninomaru Palace, and the Honmaru Palace. You’re funnelled through the Ninomaru Palace first.
Notice the gold leaf that adorns the roof. This entire palace was basically designed to intimidate people, and wow them with a spectacular show of the shogun’s wealth.
You take your shoes off at the door, and go inside. The first thing you’ll notice is the creaky sound of the floorboards – only that’s not creaking. That’s a deliberate sound made by a clever device underneath the floor, which squeaks every time a person walks on it. It’s designed to mimic the sound of nightingale song – and depending on who you believe, this was designed to stop any intruder in their tracks, as the shoguns would hear them (then presumably kick their ass).
The beautiful, albeit threatening, tiger paintings that decorate the flimsy-looking (but surprisingly rain resistant) paper walls are of particular interest, because there have never been any wild tigers in Japan. These drawings were based on sketches of Amur tigers from China and Korea, and what travellers said about the magnificent creatures upon their return. So the angry tigers might look a bit comical, but the message is clear – don’t mess with the shogun.
As well as passive-aggressive artwork and anti-stealth-mode floorboards, the palace was designed to enforce the strict social hierarchy that meant Japan was such a strong and stable country for such a ong time. Lower-ranking visitors were received close to the entrance of the Ninomaru, but those of a higher social status were given the privilege of seeing the palace’s inner chambers. Nowadays, any paying visitor can walk around the palace, and admire this incredible example of Tokugawa architecture and power play. You just can’t take photos inside.
You’ll step out of the Ninomaru Palace and pass through a lovely Japanese garden, which for visitors back in the day was probably a relief, as they must have been scared stiff of the shogun.
Ah, phew. What a nice place to relax after a stressful meeting with a terrifying military ruler.
Sadly, Japan takes the ‘don’t walk on the grass’ rule to the extreme, so you can only look at the gardens from afar. Vithiya and I kept on walking until we got to the Honmaru Palace… which was covered entirely in scaffolding. From pictures on the interwebs, I can see that it’s a bit more wooden than the Ninomaru Palace, and my research tells me it’s a lot more residential than Ninomaru – it’s got kitchens, and entertainment rooms, and everything. But I couldn’t see it for myself, so moving swiftly on.
We strolled through more gardens, and clambered up the base of an old tower you could go up to look at the view over Kyoto. Surveying the castle grounds, we decided we’d seen everything there was to see at Nijo Castle, and decided what to do next.
What with being only 15 minutes walk from the hostel, any sensible traveller might have headed home to rest their weary head and feet, before going out again in the evening feeling fully refreshed. But we weren’t sensible, and we were in Kyoto with a long list of things to do and not much time to see them in. We pressed onto our final stop for the day – the world famous Imperial Palace.
Once you get into the park the Imperial Palace is located in, it’s still a fair old walk to the Palace itself, so be prepared. We noted that the massive park was unusually quiet for such a warm day, and even stranger – people were stood at evenly spread intervals, waving Japan flags. We figured some important foreign leader was coming to visit, and guessed it was the Saudi ruler, as Machi told us he was in Japan at the same time we were. Naturally, we weren’t keen to stop and support him, so we continued on.
What’s this all about, then? Are they really all waiting to cheer on Mohammed bin Salman or his dad? Why are they holding Japanese flags, if that’s the case?
Upon finally reaching the Imperial Palace walls, we sat on a bench for a rest. A security guard promptly rushed up to us, brandishing a board with English text that said “this area is temporarily restricted for the visit of Emperor Emeritus Akihito”.
Suddenly it all made sense. These people weren’t Saudi supporters, after all – they were here to cheer on their own monarchy. Akihito was the Emperor of Japan until April this year, where he resigned/retired and handed power over to his son. He’s still much beloved in Japan, though, as his reign of more than 30 years oversaw an incredibly prosperous period in the country’s recent history.
And, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying, looks like a total sweetheart. His wife, Michiko, is just behind him – she’s the hat.
The security guard informed us that we couldn’t sit here, but if we picked up a flag from the flag guy and stood just across the path, we could see the old Emperor himself in about 20 minutes. Obediently, we stood where we were told, and waited.
I might not be a royalist, but I do love a good free souvenir, and a cool story to tell.
Having seen the Queen a couple of times, I was expecting Akihito to rock up 10 minutes late, just to make sure we knew who was the royal and who was the pleb. But a Japanese fellow we got chatting to explained the process. A numbered car drove past, with the digit it displayed counting down the minutes until the Emperor arrived. 3. 2. 1. The Emperor was here, bang on time.
Akihito and Michiko’s car is the second or third one in.
From where Vithiya and I were standing, Michiko was the one waving and smiling at us, but out of the shadows we caught a glimpse of Akihito too. It looked something like this.
But inside a car.
With the Emperor safely tucked away in his Kyoto home, Vithiya and I headed back into town to grab some dinner. We met up with my pal from Tokyo, William, at Engine Ramen. Us veggies had thus far been finding it hard to eat tasty, healthy-ish Japanese food. Engine Ramen not only had two veggie dishes on offer, but the ramen was different to any other ramen we’d eaten in Japan – it was creamy, spicy, and perfect soupy deliciousness.
Washed down with a nice cold pint of Japanese beer, naturally.
Engine Ramen was so good, we actually ended up going twice. I’d really recommend it if you want to sample a different take on the iconic Japanese dish.
The last thing on our list for the day was a night out with our tour group. Machi booked us a room in an all-you-can-drink karaoke parlour – all 16 of us. I’d learned from my slightly awkward Tokyo karaoke sesh, and turned on DJ Alice mode. No Bollywood this time.
Because there were a lot of us and only an hour to get all the songs in, those who fancied a turn on stage passed around the box. When my turn came along, I made sure to put on some real floorfillers. I’m not just talking Despacito, either. I’m talking Macarena. I’m talking YMCA. I’m talking all the cheesy party bops you can think of. It worked – we were all singing and dancing our hearts out, to the endless amusement of Machi, who must think we Brits (and Australians. And Canadians. And Germans. And Bulgarians) are a very strange bunch. She’d be right – we are.
I think the karaoke champions’ cup goes to the two Canadians, though, who not only had the synchronised dance routine to Mr. Roboto down to a tee – they also sang the Japanese verses.
After finally achieving my dream of performing Slim Shady to a captive crowd, we continued the party. Except there weren’t many of us who were feeling particularly flush to pay for a nightclub that night, so we did as the Kyotans do and bought some booze from 7/11, and drank it by the Kamo river. A very chilled out end to a hectic day.
Tomorrow, I’d explore some more spectacular temples, visit Kyoto’s Geisha district, and eat enough ramen to feed a small horse. Join me again soon as I whizz around the last few bits of Kyoto on my ever-growing sightseeing list.