Sunday, December 4, 2016

Kyoto Trip Highlights - Amazing Sights

We saw so much in the four days we were in Kyoto.  I wanted to experience the cultural treasures of the old capital of Japan where ancient shrines and temples are both beautiful and active places of worship.  There are millions of tourists passing through Kyoto every year (both Japanese and foreign), so a zen experience it was not due to crowding, but it was great to see so many places I had read about or watched in anime.  Even with all the tourism, one of the things I like the most about Japan is that much of the tourist trade is still geared towards Japanese touring their country rather than foreigners.  Here are some of my highlights from the visit.
Torii Shaped Ema Plaques for wishes at Fushimi Inari
 Shinkansen (The Bullet Train)
The bullet train network of Japan is amazing.  The trains run very much on schedule, depart every ten minutes, and everything is well maintained.  The ride on a bullet train traveling at 250+ kph is really smooth, and is like smooth flying.  The only turbulence you get is when another bullet train flies by in the other direction and the shock wave of the two trains passing at 500+ kph is a slight thump and roar.

We rode on the N700 trains between Tokyo and Kyoto.  These trains look so sleek and you can walk along the inside of the train for 16 cars from the first to the last car.  It was a 2.5 hour ride to Kyoto with plenty of leg room, nice wide seats, and we had a great ekiben (train bento) lunch on the way.  You need to pick up a train bento a Tokyo Station from Ekibeniya.  We even managed to see Mt. Fuji out of the windows for a bit. Anime Note: Train bento scene from Summer Wars. Remember the bullet train fight scene from the Wolverine movie?
Display at Ekibenyia showing all of the bento available.
You can get drinks and your meals here from numerous fridges.
N700 Express
Cabin inside an N700 car.  The pairs of seats can pivot around so if you have a party of 3 or 4 and no one else is sitting in the extra seat, you can pivot it around to talk to each other.
A yummy fish and rice bento with veggies.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
This is the grand shrine for the Inari Shinto shrines in Japan and it is amazing for the thousands of vermilion torii gates that lead you up the mountain to the shrine at the top.  These shrines are dedicated to good rice harvests and are protected by fox guardians, one of which has a key to the granaries, while the other has a sacred jewel.  You don't need to go all the way to the top either as most of the gates are located in the bottom half of the mountain walk and it does take 2 to 3 hours to do a round trip walk.

This is a very busy shrine, and is often packed with tourists for the bottom quarter of the mountain.  There is a very festive atmosphere with many food vendors and souvenir shops on the way to the shrine and the food is tasty.  It is hard to find solitude on the trails here unless you are there early in the morning or later in the evening.  It can be a very magical place to walk through all the mysterious gates that seem to go on endlessly on parts of the trail.  Anime Note: You've seen this place in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, the Inari Kon Kon anime, and read about similar shrines in the Aria manga and seen it in the anime.  I really like this place for its beauty and mystique.
Fox with cylindrical key.
A hallway of gates leading up the mountain.
Each gate is donated by a sponsor who has their name or their company name painted on the back of the gate.
Yasaka Shrine in Gion
A very popular and important Shinto Shrine in the heart of Gion where the Gion Festival is held every year.  It is actually one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto too being founded in 656 AD.  There are smaller shrines for both love and beauty here, making it a very popular location for the local both past and present.  Geisha would apparently come here for the beauty shrine.  We visited this shrine in the day and evening.  It has a steady stream of visitors during the day and is very quiet and atmospheric at night.  There is also a stage that has hundreds of lanterns hanging from it that is illuminated at night, making it quite pretty.  Anime Note: In  the 6 minute short "Shelter" has scenes from this shrine
Front gate for the Yasaka Shrine
Small shrine
Stage with hundreds of lanterns
Kyoto Railway Museum
This rail museum recently went through a major upgrade and is an amazing museum dedicated to the railways which were vital for building modern Japan.  Inside are a variety of engines and cars of all historical periods.  You can enter some, walk under some, and peer inside many others, including some of the luxury trains.  Very cool museum if you like technology and especially trains!
Old rail station, now the main gift shop.
Some of the floor displays, including a bullet train.
Nishiki Market
This lively food market is a covered street that is a that runs for six blocks.  It is chock full of traditional food stores, all with an open frontage onto the street.  You can tell you are there by the distinctive red, yellow, green roof panels and the smell of freshly cooked food, pickling vegetables, and herbs and spices.  It is a very busy street, full of locals, but packed with tourists looking at all the great food both raw or ready to eat.  You can graze your way down this street and have great snacks or even lunch.  This place is amazing and more fun than many food or farmers markets you might have been to before.  However, it may also become a victim of its own success as you can see more touristy shops encroaching on the street itself, probably as business owners retire and sell out.
Nishiki Market Street
Deep fried treats.
Fresh seafood for sale.
Arashimaya Bamboo Groves
These towering groves of bamboo are very beautiful and serene if you are looking up and not looking at the crowds on the pathway.  The pathway winds through several groves as it heads up the mountain.  The breeze whispering through the tall bamboo, with the sunlight washing out the leaves high above you and playing games of dark and light in the grove are captivating.  Again, go early, as in before 8 AM to avoid the crowds or go late.  Pretty at any time of day, and worth braving the crowds if that is the only time you can see it.  You can feel like you could be watching that bamboo grove fight scene in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Bamboo grove.
Walk in the Western Hills to Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple
After passing through the Arashimaya Bamboo Groves you arrive at Okochi Sanso Garden.  From here you can walk north on a road that will jog a little to the east at Arashimaya Station, then north again that will pass by many temples on the left had side.  It follows the hills here and it will take you by a doll museum, eventually to Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple, and finally the more isolated Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple.

This is a very picturesque walk that feels like a small town / semi-rural area with many traditional houses and gardens along Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street.   We only wanted to stop to see two temples, both famous for their little statues of stone.  The first one we stopped at was Adashino Nenbutsuji Buddhist Temple famous for the 8000 statues of here, some of which were found lost in the forest, of people who died without relatives to remember them.

When you reach the big torii gate, in the photos below, pass by it and north up the road to reach Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple. This temple is not really famous, but it is very atmospheric, and many of the statues are quite recent, but it was one of the coolest places we visited this trip.  It was practically deserted on a semi-rainy morning, adding to the charm of the hundreds of moss-covered statues of worshipers of Buddha (all are unique and many are somewhat unorthodoxed).

Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street

Big Torii Gate

Small shrine at Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple

Unique Statues at Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple
Tenryuji Temple Gardens 
Tenryuji is one of the five great zen temples in Kyoto.  The buildings (like many in Kyoto) have burned down to be be rebuilt many times, but the gardens have survived for centuries.  The gardens here surround a pond against a backdrop of trees, stones, and mountains and it is stunningly beautiful.  You could contemplate nature here for a long time.  This is like a generation 1 zen garden.
Main pond at Tenryuji
The Famous Ryoanji Rock Garden
I'm not the first to say this, but I did think this garden would be larger when I actually saw it.  It is an immaculately kept rock garden, perhaps the best of the generation 2 zen gardens, where there is no water, everything is more abstract, with islands of rock and circular ripples in the well groomed white pebble beds.  You can contemplate the universe here, seated at the side with hundreds of other people, as it is quite a popular site.  Outside this garden in the temple building, there is a large garden walk around a picturesque lake - very nice place to visit.
Ryoanji Rock Garden
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion)
This place is definitely worth the price of admission and the landscape is stunning.  As you can see we visited on a cloudy day and it was still amazing, with the Golden Pavillion absolutely glowing and standing out from the duller greens around it.  The beauty of the place and the garden walk left an impression.  We visited relatively late in the afternoon, and it was still quite crowded as it is one of Kyoto's must sees.
Golden Pavillion
Golden Pavillion close up.
Giant Torii Gate at Heian Shrine
We were shocked at the size of this massive torii gate that has to be well over a hundred feet high.  We walked by it on the way to Nanzenji and were most impressed.  It is taller than the giant Gundam at Odaiba who could walk through it.
Giant torii gate
Nanzenji Temple
This is a grand old temple complex with many smaller temples and spacious gardens.  It has a gigantic, and ancient wooden main gate that must be 5 stories high.  The gate was impressive with an entire upper floor with balcony and rooms.  All of this is nestled at the base of the Higashiyama mountains.  Hiking trails lead up into the mountains past the temple (bring bear bells?).  The Hojo (main hall) here has a famous rock garden and there are some famous paintings of tigers in gold leaf here.  We were here early in the morning and it was a nice calm place to walk through without the crowds.
Main Gate Nanzenji
Inside view of the main gate
Rock Garden at the Hojo
Pontocho and Gion 
These are the old entertainment and geisha districts of Kyoto.  They are chock full of picturesque narrow streets with the lanterns of the various businesses hanging out front. In the evening, when everything lights up, it would be even more atmospheric to walk around in.  There are narrow little alleyways, often with a bar or restaurant off of it.  You can even pretend to see geisha everywhere even though it is mostly tourists cosplaying as geisha, something which is amazingly popular to do.
Pontocho
Kenninji Buddhist Temple.
Street in eastern Gion
Kiyomizudera Temple
This is the pure water temple located up in the mountains at the south eastern edge of Gion.  Some of the most picturesque streets and all the tourist shops you want to find are on the way to this temple.  It is a massive complex with the famous wooden stage that looks over downtown Kyoto to the west.  This is one of those places that all Japanese want to visit at least once in their life and it is full of tourists both local and from abroad.  There are many good souvenir shops on the way to this temple catering to locals and foreigners.  Plenty of good food to eat too, something that is common on the way to many temples and shrines. Very crowded place and like many large temple complexes you can even find a Shinto Shrine or two on its grounds (there is a love shrine here too).  Anime Note: I've wanted to visit this place, and Kyoto ever since I saw Love Hina - where Keitaro and Naru both run off to see the place as they both needed a break from studying for entrance exams.
Great Wooden Stage with central Kyoto at the left in the distance.
A Pagoda.
Yasaka Pagoda in Gion near Kiyomizudera
This is a very photogenic five story pagoda in Gion.  We caught it lit up at night and it kind of glows as it stands out from all of the lower buildings around it.  It is just embedded in the middle of a neighbourhood and gives the area a great deal of charm.
Kyoto Station 
Finally, this is where you arrive in Kyoto on the bullet train.  This will be the first wonder you see in Kyoto and it is an amazing building.  You need to explore its vast staircase that also doubles as stadium seating, and walk the skywalk with its views of Kyoto at night.  There is great dining and shopping here too.  This place is a modern marvel and not just a transport hub.
Main hall.  You can explore both ends of the hall that rise above the middle.  The skywalk is to the upper right.
The massive staircase that lights up at night and shows messages and pictures.
That is a quick overview of some of the highlights to see in Kyoto.  There was more we wanted to see, but we were unable to fit more in, so some great sights like northern Gion, the Silver Pavillion, Nijo Castle, etc., were missed.  I would definitely visit the city again to see many of these sights for a second time too, and cover things that we missed.

Tokyo and Kyoto Trip Fall 2016 


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