Despite some difficulties in getting to Kyoto (due to my own stupidity) I did eventually make it. Two steps out of the train station, laden with bags, downpour commenced. Somewhat demoralised about the prospects of sightseeing in the rain I checked into my capsule for the evening and intended to wait out the rain by reading in my coffin/capsule.
One massive downside to capsule bedding (other than the obvious coffin like feel) is you have absolutely no idea what is going on in the outside world. This only occurred to me when I realised I had been reading for 2 hours and there was a good chance that the rain had subsided. As it was now evening I wandered down the road to the Gion district, this is where all the geishas are. Much to my disappointment I saw only one geisha in full garb and she was practically running through the area – either to escape people like me, or because she was running late. The district used to house geishas, while some buildings continue to do so, most have been converted into restaurants – this really destroys any romance about the area and instead makes it feel like you are in a tourist trap.
From Gion I walked through Yasaka Shrine. The shrine complex was very peaceful at this time as most tourists had departed so I had nearly the whole place to myself.
My second day in Kyoto was far more exciting. I started the day with a run around Kyoto’s Imperial Palace – I have realised not only is running a great way to see a city, it’s also a really good way to work out if something is actually worth visiting. The Palace is only open 2 days a year and the gardens are not particularly exciting so it’s not somewhere I would recommend someone visit unless they are looking for a relatively shady running spot! I then proceeded to dump my belongings at Piece Hostel Sanjo where I would spend the next two nights (I mention the name because it is an awesome hostel – highly recommend) and headed to the aquarium. Now, I am aware the aquarium may seem like a strange choice of tourist attractions in a city steeped with as much history and culture as Kyoto but there was a reason. A friend from NZ, Mikey was in Kyoto and really wanted to go to the aquarium and see the dolphin show. The aquarium was actually a thoroughly good time, despite the fact we were the only adults there without children. There were numerous weird and wonderful sea creatures and the dolphin show was very cool (if you can put concerns about the mammals aside).
Renting bikes from across the road we then headed to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine – a classic tourist spot in Kyoto it was heaving with humans. One good thing about this shrine however is to appreciate all the Torii that lead to the inner shrine you must walk up a hill – this means that as you walk further and further up the crowds tend to dissipate.
Mikey and I walked to the top… Twice, as the first time we didn’t realise we had reached the top, upon realising this we went back to the top to appreciate what everyone was coming for. I have to say, the top is very poorly sign posted and lacks any view of the city (which you get from lower down), so, it is really easy to miss!
After descending the hill we took off on our bikes again down by the river and spent the remainder of the afternoon just biking round Kyoto and stopping for a bite to eat here and there. Mikey and I parted company and I checked into my hostel. To my delight I discovered
- My bunk bed was massive
- There was a takoyaki making party on that night!
Takoyaki is a Japanese dish – also known as octopus balls – a personal favourite of mine. They are made from an egg batter and have octopus, shrimp, spices, and herbs in them. The batter is spooned into a hot plate that looks like a golf ball mould and from there you simply add the other ingredients and gradually turn the balls so the cook right through and form a round shape.
Rising early I headed to Daimonjiyama, a hill that overlooks Kyoto, to do an activity that would not be quite so full of tourists. Walking to the top took all of about 25 minutes and was relatively steep, however, had you only seen the Japanese people walking up you would have thought it was an expedition similar to reaching the summit of Everest, hiking poles, boots and camelbacks appeared to be standard issue. The view from the top was awesome, and really should have given me fair warning about how big Kyoto was (this was not something I realised when I rented a bike and planned the rest of my day’s activities).
After a quick shower I once more rented a bike and headed across town to the Bamboo Forest… What my map told me was an 8km bike ended up being more like 14km due to my inability to read a map/follow instruction and relentless, unfounded, confidence in my own sense of direction. The Bamboo Forest was beautiful but somewhat underwhelming… You are not given free reign to walk through bamboo as you please, rather you are confined to a path that is filled with other tourists.
From the Bamboo Forest I took yet another scenic route through the burbs of Kyoto (eventually) to Kinkau-Ji (or the Golden Shrine). Yet again, hordes of tourists surrounded me (it’s like I’m one of them or something)… Being a solo adventurer is quite useful sometimes as I was able to slip through the crowds and push my way to the front of the viewing area with ease. The Golden Shrine really is pretty spectacular, set atop a lake that is teeming with life it sparkles pretty ferociously in the sunlight!
A group of school kids from Tokyo approached me while I was at the Shrine and with their teacher standing behind them they dutifully asked me questions about where I was from, where I had been in Kyoto and if I liked Japan. All looking terribly embarrassed to ask me questions they were absolutely mortified when their over-excited teacher asked me to walk around the shrine with them so the students could practice their English. While the teacher’s intention was for the students to translate what their guide was saying about the Temple to me it really ended up with the teacher walking around doing 90% of the translation and quizzing me about NZ along the way.
A short ride downhill and I found the Kyoto Museum for World Peace. This was an amazing museum, despite nearly the entire place being in Japanese I was given a very informative audio guide in English.The museum detailed many of Japan’s war crimes from 1931 – 1945 as well as those of America. It then proceeded to examine the Cold War and modern regional conflicts. Finally, it contained a brief exhibition about ways we can act towards world peace in everyday life. I was most impressed by the balanced account given by the museum and the clearly very conscious decision not to shy away from responsibility for some of the atrocities committed in the past. The Museum was also holding a World Press Photo exhibition at the time – which always makes for good viewing.
En route back to returning my bike I stopped in at my old favourite (from Sakata) Kappa Sushi where I rewarded myself for a busy day of sightseeing and biking by stuffing myself full of sushi. I then promptly returned to my hostel where exhausted and fit to burst from so much sushi I went into a very happy food coma for the night.
My final morning in Kyoto was spent running alongside the river and attempting barefoot running – an activity I am certain would be frowned upon by the Japanese given that they have separate indoor, outdoor and bathroom shoes… I just don’t think barefoot running would be their style!