Kyoto is a city of temples, tourists, and universities. Pretty Boy and I bought a Lonely Planet Japan guidebook before leaving to help us plan our trip and activities. Using the guidebook and an old friends advice we came up with the following definitely-to-do list: (1) eat kaiseki or Japanese haute cuisine, (2) see the Arashiyama bamboo grove, and (3) see the lighting of Daimonji Gozan Okuribi or the Daimonji bonfires on Saturday night after my conference finished. Other things that made the hope-to-do list included (4) see a geisha, (5) eat tofu and Japanese sweets (both specialities in Kyoto), and (6) visit some temples and gardens (though I wasn’t too picky about which ones and how many-there are SO many in Kyoto). And we were lucky enough to squeeze all that in.
Working around my conference during the first few days we were in Kyoto, we were able to see downtown, the downtown bank of Kamogawa, which is the river that runs through the middle of Kyoto, and Ponto-cho, a small winding street known for its traditional architecture and restaurants. We noticed pretty quickly that the thing to do when visiting Kyoto is rent a kimono and walk around dressed up. There were so many people in kimonos. Some older, but mostly young. Some male, but mostly female. Always in pairs and just about everywhere we went. We thought pretty hard about doing it too, but ultimately decided to put our money towards other things.
Ponto-cho was really cool. We walked down that street once the first night, again later in the trip during the day, and then went back a third time for our kaiseki dinner. There were so many doorways along Ponto-cho (some marked and some not) and then little alleys shooting off of Ponto-cho, full of hidden and not so hidden restaurants, bars, teahouses, hotels, and private residences. We wanted to explore them all, but walking into unmarked doors that we were never sure were actually establishments we could patronize was pretty intimidating. Having experience with Chinese characters really helped me match names written in Japanese in our guidebook to signs out front of the places, but it was still often a struggle. In most neighborhoods in Kyoto, there would be a few big restaurants with big signs in many different foreign languages, but most places would only be marked in Japanese if they were marked at all. Aside from those places really catering to foreigners, there was surprisingly little English (or even Romanized Japanese) signage. Luckily the people we encountered were all really helpful and accommodating and understanding and patient.
My days at the conference were all pretty full except for Wednesday when I only had a half day in the morning, and we took full advantage. We started with a stroll through the Nishiki Food Market, then walked to the southern Higashiyama neighborhood and up the hill to the Buddhist Kiyomizu-dera temple.
At the Kiyomizu-dera temple, we took the advice of our guidebook and visited the Tainai-meguri. There was no English sign and little description of this side-attraction that is supposed to symbolize entering the womb of a female bodhisattva, so I was completely unprepared for the experience of walking down a flight of stairs into completely darkness and then navigating down a long hallway in completely darkness to arrive at a spinning rock where we each made a single wish. It was crazy and so cool, and I highly recommend the experience if you’re ever there.
The main hall of the temple and veranda were crowded, but the view of Kyoto was great. After visiting the main hall, we walked down to the Otowa-no-taki waterfall. Drinking from the sacred waters is believed to bring health and longevity. While waiting in line for our turn and watching all the different tourists drink from the waterfall, two high school aged, Japanese girls walked past us a ways, turned around, ran back, and asked to take a picture with us. They giggled a lot and asked us some questions about where we were from and what we were doing in Japan and told us we were both really cute. It made waiting in the long line totally worth it!
We continued walking and went down some other small, pedestrian only streets through the Gion neighborhood to Maruyama park. Gion is the most famous Geisha district, and while we were there, we think we spotted two geisha. It was the right time of day and neighborhood for geisha to be on their way to work, but I have read it is hard to tell if geisha are real or just tourists who paid to be dressed up as geisha, even in Gion.
After the conference ended we had big plans for the weekend. The weather had other plans though, and we lost most of Saturday to a monsoon. We stayed sheltered from the rain by exploring Kyoto Station where all the high speed trains stop. The rain let off in the evening and turned to steamy heat for the lighting of the Daimonji fires, which signal the end of O-Bon and summer. We watched from the Funaokayama park, where we were able to see three of the five fires. It was dark and really crowded and so, SO hot, and I was exhausted and terrified of losing Pretty Boy and getting bit by bugs, but I’m still so glad we went to watch. It was quite the experience and sight to see.
Sunday we took a bus out of the city to Arashiyama for the day. I’ll cover our trip to Arashiyama in a separate post, because it was just so beautiful and I have many, many picture I want to share. I was also finally in full tourist mode that day which lent to more picture taking! On Monday we were back in the city for our final day in Kyoto and went to the northern Higashiyama neighborhood to see the Buddhist Nanzen-ji and Honen-in temples and the Path of Philosophy which links the two temples and contains lots of cats. Makes perfect sense to me that cats, walking, and philosophy are inherently linked.
After a long day of walking in some serious heat and sun, we collected our bags from our hotel, cleaned up as best we could in the hotel lobby bathroom, and headed to the train station. That evening we concluded our time in Kyoto and took the evening train to Nara.