Kyoto. A week too late for the cherry blossoms, a week too early for the azaleas. It didn’t matter. Kyoto was magical even without the blooms. From the mystical geishas tiptoeing off to entertain the evening’s guests, to magnificent temples, shrines and palaces – and magical alleyways filled with hidden restaurants waiting to be discovered – Kyoto is a truly special place.
We weren’t meant to go to Kyoto. Japan wasn’t part of our itinerary. But between Hanoi and Honolulu lies Japan, and no flight would get us from one to the other without a stop in Osaka. Rather than skip through the airport, we planned a five day stopover, and never regretted it for a moment.
Our flight landed at 2 am, and at that hour, both hotel rooms and transportation were set at exorbitant prices no matter what we tried. So we tried something new…sleeping in the airport. Mark spent the first hours of his birthday on a surprisingly comfortable airport bench in the company of two dozen other travellers who appeared to be in the same predicament.
It was freezing in Osaka, and the airport wasn’t much warmer. We somewhat hesitantly pulled out our sleeping bags, and bundled up in our winter clothing for the night. With our luggage trolley beside me, and cuddling our valuables, we slept like the homeless – cold, not exactly comfortable, semi self-conscious and dressed in everything we owned.
We woke around 7 and freshened up in the bathroom before sitting down for a warm Japanese breakfast of noodle soup and toast. It was the first of many utterly delicious meals we’d have in Japan – and sadly none of them were sushi.
Everyone knows about Japan’s bullet trains. They’re modern, sleek, and most of all…fast. We were spending the five days in Kyoto, and expected to board one of these super cool trains to travel the 75km to get there from the airport in Osaka. We didn’t. There wasn’t one. We travelled for 2.5 hours on four different local trains until we finally arrived exhausted and cold in overcast Kyoto, only to find that our hotel was farther away from the station than we expected, and walked another half hour with our packs. Not the best start.
It was past lunchtime by the time we had gotten ourselves settled, clothes changed, and sufficiently cleaned up to face the city. It was 10 hours and counting since we had landed in Japan, and we were all hungry, bordering on properly hangry. We walked – and walked and walked – past dozens of little restaurants. Some we couldn’t tell if they were open or not. Others were clearly not. There was nothing open. Nothing. It was like walking around in a post apocalyptic tourist zone.
We finally found a Japanese gastro pub, and tucked in to panko fried pork cutlets over udon noodle soup. It hit the spot so perfectly, that we began to forget about how hard it was to get to just this place.
Refuelled, we were ready for some hard core sightseeing, even if it was cold and dark outside. We went off in search of Kyoto’s Nishiki market, and somehow found a high street shopping mall instead. We were beginning to get a little frustrated, and wondered whether all the hype about Kyoto was just hype. That’s when we found a tiny little temple tucked away in the middle of the shopping mall. We shrugged our shoulders and went in for a look.
We found a quiet peacefulness in that little enclave among the loud (for Japan at least) modern shops that we’d come to recognise during our time in Kyoto. It’s a city that blends the old and the new so seamlessly that it’s hard to notice sometimes where one stops and the other ends.
There were several of these little temples tucked away in the shopping street, and after peeking in at a few, we finally found the market we were looking for. Our first stop was an open sake bar, no bigger than a shipping container, packed with foreigners (mostly Americans), downing sake from square wooden “cups”. It was well Mark’s birthday and he wanted sake – so he got sake. On your birthday, you get to make all of the choices. It’s a family rule.
We had sake, and beer, and toasted to Mark and the three other people celebrating birthdays that week. Austin charmed the socks off a couple from Hawaii, showing them the “eye-rite” (pyrite) he had bought at a nearby shop. They made fast friends, and soon he had swindled (I mean charmed) them out of a 500 yen coin, with which he promptly went out and bought an enormous chunk of quartz.
While Mark celebrated with more sake, Austin and I went further into the market to try to find some sort of birthday cake. Japan is obsessed with pretty little tiny morsels of food, dressed up to look adorable, and not to look like what they really are. We had no problem finding dozens of odd looking little sweets, but no cake.
As we plunged further into the market, it became more and more crowded, with people almost elbowing one another out of the way to buy rancid smelling pickled vegetables, tiny just-hatched baby mackerel, krill and other minuscule fish. There were bags of tiny dried crabs, and even more completely unidentifiable fish products.
We selected some sweets, some little buns, and some savoury rice crackers in the shape of a geisha. It was all super cute, and we were certain it would be delicious. It wasn’t. The little buns with the pretty little flower on top were, in fact, fish balls with fish filling. Not a flavour you’re expecting when looking at them, which made the pungent fishy quality absolutely revolting. The hard candies were okay, and the jelly beans delivered what they promised!
We then stumbled upon an Asahi brewery, and went in for a tast of Japanese beer fresh from the source. Only when we got in, we found that it wasn’t actually a brewery – they just had huge vats of Asahi beer out front. It was, in fact, a German restaurant, selling Japanese beer out of enormous beer steins, with murals of Oktoberfest pasted to the walls.
It is here that we got our first of many tellings off in restaurants in Japan. We were told off for putting our bags on the floor instead of the hook. We were told off for getting up from the table with our beers to take a photo, and we were told off for Austin just, well, being Austin. There are a lot of unspoken behavioural rules in Japan, and that can be hard for a kid – or his tipsy parents.
After our birthday “cake”, sake and Hofbrau House experience, I “fell asleep” in our hotel room – completely unwakeable (reportedly) – so Mark and Austin left me behind, and went out for a final birthday beer and dinner at the local Irish Pub. Happy Birthday Mark!
Figuring it out
We had only booked our hotel for one night, and were told that it was full when we asked if we could stay a second night. (This would happen to us again a few days later.). So we booked into another hotel, closer to the city centre, packed up our stuff, and traipsed 20 minutes across town to our next location.
Check in time wasn’t until 4 pm, but check out time at our first place was noon. We thought we’d try to see if we could deposit our luggage early, but when we got there nobody was around to ask. We ended up stashing it in the vestibule of the hotel, and set off to find some lunch.
We had better luck on our second day, and found a little noodle house with a long counter, and three little tables, tucked away on a side street overlooking the shady canal. The broth was sublime, and Austin was told off for playing with the chopsticks. Par for the course.
That afternoon, we finally found something to look at. Kyoto is deceptively enormous, and while it punches above its weight in terms of per capita historic, religious, architectural and interesting sights, it is really spread out. They are clustered in different parts of the city, and the “good parts” aren’t walkable, unless you like a 90 minute walk between sights.
It’s further complicated by a good, but disjointed transport system. There are three railways operating on different tracks, travelling to different places, and calling at different stations. There are two bus lines operating different routes, but all routing through Kyoto station, which is unfortunately not central. There are half a dozen taxi companies, including the super luxe MK taxis (Michael Kors), complete with their liveried drivers in white gloves, ready to shuttle businessmen, but not likely tourists, across the city. Even with careful planning, we travelled on average 45 minutes between places we wanted to visit, and often it required at least one bus change. We eventually figured it it out, but Kyoto isn’t easy or quick to get around.
We had at this point, been in Kyoto for more than 30 hours, and hadn’t made it to a single sight we had circled on our map. As we wandered up a covered street lined with shops selling all sorts of sweets, textiles and stationery to tourists, we knew we must be getting close to something.
That something turned out to be Gion, one of the famous Geisha districts that have shaped Kyoto’s history and are uniquely Japanese. If you’ve read Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ll have an idea of what it might look like. The rows of little wooden houses with sliding doors and paper lanterns are exactly as described in the book. The scores of tourists wandering down the wide avenue, desperate to get a peek inside just one of these houses takes away from the romantic lost-in-time image that the book might evoke.
It’s little wonder then that the Okiya (the houses) are shut tight, many with stern looking kimono clad men guarding the front gates. Tourists can be shameless, and one unbelieveable (western) woman actually chased a Geisha down the street trying to snap a photo as she rushed off to wherever she had to be. It must be such an intrusion on their lifestyle, that I wonder how much the tourism boom of the cheap Yen era will change their traditions.
It was easy to pick out the real Geisha from the hundreds of Japanese girls dressed up for the day. Their garments were of finer fabrics, with more layers, and larger, more intracite hairstyles. But it wasn’t only that…it was the way they carried themselves that gave them away as “real” geisha, trained in the art of grace, entertainment, and feminism. They carried a confidence that couldn’t be matched by a 22 year old university student in a rented robe – no matter how pretty.
Real or just dressed for the day, Austin didn’t mind. He was mesmerised by the brightly coloured fabrics and the pretty girls, and he shyly asked a few if he could take a photo with them before turning around to flash a sly grin for the camera.
Over the next three days, we got better at finding our way to the places we wanted to see, and were blown away by just how beautiful Kyoto really is. The cherry blossoms were all but finished, and azaleas were in full bud – just starting to bloom. Apparently the autumn leaves are fantastic in the hills that surround the city too. Kyoto doesn’t need spectacular blooms covering its thousands of trees, though. The temples and other sites really are worth the trouble it takes to get around.
The big temple
Higashi Honganji Temple is quite possibly the most magnificent building I will ever visit on this planet. Thought to be the largest wooden structure in the world, it has burned down and been rebuilt four times in the last 400 years. The main temple, the “Founders Hall” rises over 38 metres high, and stretches out to 58 metres wide. It’s sloping curved roof lines are layered: the upper roof stretching high into the air, and the lower roof reaching outward to cover the wide wooden veranda that circles the building.
Inside is quiet, peaceful, and cool. You take your shoes off before ascending the wooden steps to the front porch, and your first step on to the cool, woven tatami mats transport you to a tranquil, introspective place. The central Buddha is small and unassuming. Unlike the shiny gaudy fat buddhas of Thailand, this one is older, smaller, more lifelike, and refreshingly dull.
It’s beautifully carved dark woodwork, soaring ceilings and enormous beams draw your eyes upward, and create a quiet place for reflection
The main hall is connected to a smaller hall via the covered wooden porch, and the opposite side houses a modern gallery with rotating installations that link Japan’s past and present. There is also a nice theatre with a movie on repeat, showing how the temple was rebuilt, and the improvements that have been made to the structure to keep it standing through fire or earthquake. There are now sprinkler systems hidden in the eaves, and huge water canon raise out of the ground and shoot water onto the structure in the event of fire. Equalising mechanisms have been installed under the enormous pillars holding up the structure to keep it standing in an earthquake.
Words or photos really can’t do justice to the wonder that is the Higashi Honganji Temple. It is simply magnificent, and was the highlight of Kyoto for all of us.
A close second were the unique Torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Stacked close together, they snake their way up a mountain, forming an orange tunnel that is just out of this world. They are purchased and installed by loved ones in honour of their dead family members. First built in 711, the shrine was relocated in 816, and the main structure was built in 1499. Some of the tori are huge, some are smaller, and seeing them in isolation isn’t so very special. It’s the tens of thousands of them that snake their 4km way up to a temple at the peak, and then back down again that really is special.
On good advice, we got there in the early morning after an hour long bus journey, and had only a few hundred other tourists to contend with. By the time we made our way back down to the main temple at the bottom two hours later, the wide open spaces of the temple grounds were now wall to wall people — at 10 am! We were glad we went early so that we could truly enjoy the uniqueness of the place.
The Kyoto railway museum was Austin’s very favourite place to visit in Kyoto, and I’m fairly certain it was Mark’s too. It contained real life examples of Japan’s trains, from steam engines, diesel boxes through to the most modern of its bullet trains. There were hands on exhibits galore, and those two emerged an hour and a half later than planned, wishing they had more time. I was at most 30% interested in seeing the railway museum, so I opted to visit the Japanese gardens next door, and then wait an hour and a half past the agreed time for the boys to come out. I think those two got the better end of the deal!
The Ninja palace was an interesting place to visit, given it’s place in Japan’s history. In the 17th century, it was the Kyoto home of the shogun feudal lords and their samauri. Power struggles ensued for the next 200 years or so, until 1867 when something like a shogun coup returned power to the Imperial court. And it was here that Austin was inspired to force his latest wobbly tooth to come out, thus making it number three in a successsion of teeth that come out in beautiful places.
Number one was at Angkor Thom in Cambodia. Number two was at the Imperial Palace in Hue, Vietnam. And number three was at Ninjo-ja palace in Kyoto. God help this kid if he ever loses a tooth in a normal place like London.
Kyoto in a nutshell
There were other sites, temples and activities that we loved in Kyoto. Like wandering down the tiny ancient lanes of wooden houses in Pontocho that are home to a wide variety of restaurants, where we discovered some amazing Japanese dishes we never knew existed like Shabu Shabu. Wandering through picturesque gardens, over lovely bridges, discovering hidden temples, or looking up in awe at the bamboo forest that rose hundreds of feet straight up in the air.
Kyoto had a quiet peacefulness that was immediately noticeable. Maybe we had spent too much time in chaotic cities like Kathmandu, Hanoi and Phnom Penh in the last several months that any city where you can walk down the sidewalk without fearing for your life or without horns blasting in your ears, sounds like heaven.
Kyoto was pleasant, and for its size, that is saying something. After our first day, the weather was beautiful, the scenery was lovely, people were kind, and the sites were worth the work it took to get here.
The streets of Kyoto were exceptionally clean. There was no garbage anywhere. Zero. Not even even cigarette butts. There were designated smoking areas outside – little bus stop type structures where you’d find a dozen people crammed in huffing away, but they wouldn’t dare smoke just outside of those glass partitions. That would be breaking the rules. Japan is an honorific society, and it showed, even in how they respected the city enough not to litter.
Japanese society has a lot of rules, and I’m sure we broke most of them. They talk quietly, move about peacefully, and generally don’t do things to inconvenience other people. For example, nobody would dare jaywalk in Japan. They wait patiently at an intersection for the light to change, and cross only in the crosswalk. We watched as people stood at the curb waiting to cross a six foot wide lane, refusing to budge because the light was red. Order and tidiness are the rule of the day.
Kids in Kyoto
That can be hard for exuberant kids. Children are expected to stay quiet and respectful, which is what we all hope our kids will be, but we can’t depend on it. Austin is a highly spirited child, and his energy, together with Mark’s hearing loss means that his inside voice is still several dB higher than many people’s outside voices. Walls are paper thin (literally) so he couldn’t even cut loose in our hotel rooms, couldn’t throw rocks in the river, couldn’t break out into a run, was scolded for touching the chains, ropes and cords that kept the tourists away from the attractions – five days of being a little adult really wore him out.
We stayed in two traditional Japanese inns in Kyoto. Situated on tiny little streets, the narrow wooden buildings were sometimes hard to find. One was only marked with a lantern that had Japanese writing and the word, “Inn”. We walked past that one several times before someone pointed it out to us!
Shoes are removed immediately upon entering, and you’re given a pair of slippers to wear in the house. Our rooms were an open space with a low table with three cushions to sit on. The floors were covered in tatami mats, a tightly woven smooth straw that was really pleasant to walk on.
Futon mattresses were neatly folded on one end of the room, ready to fold out at bedtime. I thought that sleeping on the floor would be uncomfortable, but I had some of the best nights sleep on those mattresses. They were soft enough to feel comfortable and cosy, but firm enough that you didn’t feel the floor through them. The rooms were so spare that I hated to fill the space with our big, bright, smelly backpacks.
I think the thing that mesmerised us the most though were the toilets. These futuristic toilet machines have heated seats, play water sounds to mask the water sounds that you’re making, and give you a lovely little spray in the underside — whose temperature, direction and intensity you can control — to clean things up at the end. Not only that, but the top of the cistern holds a little sink. When you flush, clean water comes out of the spout for you to wash your hands. That water then flows into the tank, ready for your next flush. We have come a very long way from the rustic squats in a metal hut of Nepal!
For a stopover trip that wasn’t planned, Kyoto was a fantastically pleasant surprise. It was full of discovery, beauty, wonder, and a perfect blend of old world meets new. It could be a very romantic city, carrying you away in its winding lanes, hidden treasures and colourful blossoms. We used our winter clothes for the first time in six months, making the act of having dragged them across Asia seem less pointless.
Kyoto marked the end of the Asian part of our trip. We then spent 10 days in Hawaii before heading to South America to uncover a new continent in a new part of the world.