Joaquim Rocha
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Two Weeks in Japan, Part 2: Kyoto

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    Joaquim Rocha
  • Principal Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft

_This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 1: The arrival. _

It was the evening of August, 10th. We had just dropped our bags at B&B Juno and the owner, Ian, had given us information about the neighborhood and the main landmarks in Kyoto. Since we were very tired from the trip, we just went out for a stroll and dinner.

We had dinner at Kamon, a funny sushi place that Ian had labeled as inexpensive in the sheet he gave us. When we entered the place, it was empty apart from the employees (all of them older than 50 years) who were clapping their hands while one of them was dancing in the middle of the restaurant to the sound of some music show in the TV — priceless. The sushi was not the best we had tasted, actually the rolls were not the perfect round shapes that are so difficult to get right but anyway, inexpensive, fairly good and friendly staff.

The next morning we woke up early to start what would become a long but pleasureful day. Given the nice location of our B&B, we had a plan: visit a few temples along the Philosophers’ Path while heading to the picturesque district of Gion (known for geisha entertainment).

[Picture of Buddhist sign][3]
Buddhist sign in Honen-in temple
The first temple we visited was Ginkaku-ji — the Silver Pavilion. This temple has a nice Zen garden and a path through the hill nearby which gives us a view of Kyoto’s landscape. Since this was our first time at a Japanese temple, it blew our minds; Japanese temples are very beautiful and do their job well: they transmit peace of mind and simplicity, we always felt relaxed in them. After Ginkaku-ji, we visited a smaller temple called Honen-in which had the cool sign you can see in the picture.

Continuing our path we visited a shrine called Otoyo-jinja (which was dedicated to rats and had many cool statues of these animals) and we passed by Eikan-dō. The Eikan-dō temple had a really nice garden with ponds and koi fish and we could also enter some of its houses.

After such a long walk it was lunch time so we had one of many “supermarket lunches”. In Japan they have very good, ready to eat meals at any supermarket, just choose your favorite sushi box or compose your soup on the spot. Sushi boxes come with chop sticks and, in case your meal should be warmed up, the friendly shop assistants will do it for you as any supermarket has microwaves. Last but not least, many supermarkets also have small tables outside of it for you to seat down and eat your meal peacefully. Summarizing, if you go to Japan, try the supermarket meals, you’ll save money and it is part of the experience.

[Picture of a coffee can][4]
Cold coffee can
Like most Portuguese people, I am very picky with coffee and I love a good coffee after a meal which is not very easily found at a good quality and reasonable price in Japan, hell, it is like that in most places apart from Portugal 🙂 So how did I get my caffeine fix you might ask? By drinking bottled/canned cold coffee.

These cans cost around 100 ¥ (1 €) and, since the weather was really hot, tasted good enough to me.

After lunch, we passed by the huge torii gate nearby and visited the Heian Jingū shrine which had a big open yard and two fountains and, on our way to Gion, passed by the big Sanmon gate (which reminded me of Akira Kurosawa‘s movie Rashōmon) and visited the last temple of this day, Chion-in.

The Chion-in temple was undergoing repairs which is why I suppose we didn’t have to pay. In there we could see the ongoing Buddhist ceremony and walk on the nightingale floor. Nightingale floors were created during feudal Japan and are floors engineered to make the nightingales’ chirping sound which is accomplished by a system of nails scratching against their clamps and triggered by our weight and motion when we walk on them. It was used as an alarm for ninjas and thieves. How cool is that!? Later we heard living nightingales and their chirping was indistinguishable from the floor’s, at least to me.

[Demonstration against nuclear power in Kyoto][5]
Demonstration against nuclear power in Kyoto

Muruyama park was all that was standing between us and Gion so we crossed it and found a small demonstration against the use of nuclear power.

Gion was a busy but nice district. We had a nice stroll along the river side together with many people dressed in traditional costumes. At some point we saw many people lining up to buy something that resembled baked dough on a stick and looked sweet and delicious. We lined up too and bought two of those only to find out it was made of rice and tasted salty; I ended up eating both of them.

[Picture of girls dressed in traditional costumes][6]
Girls dressed in traditional costumes
We visited a bit more of Gion and found a music store at a mall where we listened to some CDs from artists unknown to us. I had about three Japanese bands in my music collection before going to Japan (MUCC, Maximum the Hormone and Mad Capsule Markets) and discovered a new one I liked by going to this store: Nothing’s Carved in Stone.

That night we ate at a nice resting area inside the mall — yes, with tasty food from a gourmet supermarket — and walked back to our B&B for about an hour.

The next day would be our last day and night at Kyoto so we had a tight schedule. We started with a visit to Kinkaku-ji — the Golden Pavilion. This temple is definitely worth a visit. As the name suggests, it is really a golden temple; it is so scenic that it looks like something from a movie, just look at the following picture.

[Kinkaku-ji -- The Golden Pavilion][7]
Kinkaku-ji — The Golden Pavilion

At the Golden Pavilion we also were impressed to see that there was an employee dressed in a guard’s uniform whose job was picking every little piece of paper flying around with the help of wooden tongs.

The next stop from the temple (by train) was the bamboo grove. Everyone who watched any anime show about ninjas or samurais remembers some scene about people fighting in a bamboo grove. This was the kind of scene that came to my mind when visiting Kyoto’s bamboo grove. Despite the awful hot weather, it was a really nice place for a walk, there is a forest and a river nearby with pleasure boats to rent but it was really hot and it was lunch time so we didn’t try them.

[Me with Japanese cosplayers at Kyoto's Manga Museum][8]
Me with Japanese cosplayers at Kyoto’s Manga Museum
Since that day was my birthday, the next “appointment” in our schedule was actually my own birthday gift, a visit to Kyoto’s International International Manga Museum. Ian had warned us that the museum was more like a library but I still wanted to go there. He was right, it had big book shelves everywhere and unsurprisingly most of them were in Japanese but I could still see some Manga techniques and get a good grasp of the evolution of styles in Manga. Part of the museum’s attraction to me was seeing the many cosplays in there and they were more than happy to take a picture with a western so there you go.

The Manga museum was 800 ¥ (8 €) and, although I did like it, it was not that awesome so you should just go if you are really into Manga.

[Helena and I at Fushimi Inari Taisha][9]
Helena and I at Fushimi Inari Taisha
The last attraction of the day (and the last temple we visited in Kyoto) was Fushimi-Inari Taisha and it is impressive! We visited its temple but the really magical part is the path through the countless torii gates across the mountain. The place is easily reached by train and definitely worth a visit. We didn’t stay long though because it was already dark and bugs were eating Helena alive so we had to quickly escape and reestablish our strength with another tasty dinner.

Back to Kyoto by train we hoped off at Kyoto’s Station where I noticed some funny messages in English written in a mall’s entrance sign like “I’m in a good mood full of joy” or “Things I want to have-there are a lot of them here”.

Kyoto was a very nice place with many beautiful things to see and a fairly relaxed pace. Like most Japanese cities we visited, it was extremely clean and safe: bikes parked without a lock, people in the bus leaving their belongings in the seat while they went to the front of the bus to exchange money, etc. Many of the temples have an entrance fee that does not usually go above 500 ¥ (5 €) and the city is also a good base for visiting areas out of the city in day trips. The three nights we spent in there weren’t nearly enough for so many great landmarks so if I ever go back to Japan I will try to stay a few days in Kyoto again.

The next day we were heading to Kinosaki Onsen, a small village known for its many hot springs but I will mention all those funny adventures in the next article. Meanwhile, check out the photos we took in Kyoto:

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”kyoto”]

to be continued…