Kyoto is such a beautiful and historic city that when Clem and I went back in March, we had no idea where to begin. Thankfully our trusty Lonely Planet guide to Japan had a suggested walking tour of Southern Higashiyama, an area thick with things to see, so we chose to follow that on our first full day in the city.
Tainai-meguri and Kiyomizu-dera
The first stop was the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex, perched on top of a hill with a view of the city. We had a quick wander around the entrance area, taking lots of pictures and admiring all the women dressed in kimono for their graduations (the Japanese school year goes from April to February).
Ready to start the actual tour, we eagerly paid our ¥100 for the Tainai-meguri and descended into the darkness that symbolizes the womb of a female bodhisattva. Lonely Planet doesn't tell you what it's like so as not to "ruin the experience," but my anxiety would have appreciated a heads up. It is pitch black down there with a rope attached to the wall to guide you, and even though it turned out to be just a round hallway I thought it might be a room and that there were other people down there, so I kept shushing Clem when he asked if I was okay. I knew it was not going to be a haunted house situation with things jumping at me, but I was so anxious about the unknown that I completely forgot to make a wish on the stone at the end. Emerging back into the sunshine at the other end was a major relief, and if I wouldn't have had to pay again I would have gone back in and actually enjoyed the experience.
Onto the main attraction, we each paid our ¥300 to get into the main temple hall, a reconstruction of the original. It was packed with people, but it was fantastic to see, and the verandah offered a great view across gardens and the sacred Otowa-no-taki waterfall to another pagoda perched on the hillside. The area was surrounded with cherry trees that hadn't started to bloom yet, but I can imagine how gorgeous (and busy!) the temple grounds must be during sakura season.
Following our extensive tour of Kiyomizu-dera and a detour to a few other small temples and shrines, we stopped for tea and sweets at Kasagi-ya. It's very tiny and not very well signed (probably for the better, to be honest), but if you're standing at the top of the the hilly road that is Masuya-cho, it is immediately on your left; don't be shy about asking a local for help to find it. The matcha and mochi are delicious, and the staff are incredibly friendly and welcoming.
We walked several of the small streets in Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, a restored neighbourhood that is perhaps the most beautiful in town. As a heritage nerd I found this area very appealing, especially since there are very few heritage buildings in Tokyo. It was very quiet - no room for cars or rickshaws, and we only passed a few other people walking the narrow lanes. We decided against stopping for another cup of tea, but if we'd had more time in Kyoto we likely would have returned to have a meal or at least a drink in the area.
We only made a quick stop at Kodai-ji. There were an enormous amount of plum blossoms blooming and even some tiny early cherry blossoms which made me very snap happy. Kyoto is not a cheap place to wander since almost all shrines and temples have some kind of entrance fee, so we skipped this one in favour of saving our yen for UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Kyoto is home to a grand total of 17 of them) on other days.
Maruyama-koen and Yasaka-jinja
We wandered around the park for a little bit, stopping now and then to look at the contemporary ikebana flower arrangements set up for the Kyoto Higashiyama Hanatouro that had just begun. There were tons of schoolchildren in the park having their lunch, but the temple area of Yasaka-jinja was more calm, even with the arrangement of snack vendors near the main gate leading into the neighbourhood of Gion.
Unfortunately most of the buildings at Chion-in were under construction and covered with scaffolding and tarps when we were there, which didn't make for good photos. We were able to take a condensed tour of the temple's interior, but weren't able to take photos inside either. It was a really lovely and quiet walkabout, however, and I would love to go back in the future.
This was probably my favourite stop of the day. We mistook it for one of the UNESCO sites we wanted to visit and paid the entrance fee, and boy am I glad we did. We had the place basically to ourselves, and we even saw a geisha having a photoshoot done! Of course, I couldn't help but snap some photos of her for myself. There is a pathway leading through the buildings, as well as a trail up the hillside through bamboo and tiny shrines. If I hadn't been dying for lunch I would have happily kept exploring and taking photos.
We finished the LP tour with lunch at Asuka on Sanjo-dori; we stumbled upon it by accident, and were happy to see it was included in the guidebook. They have an English menu and a few lunch sets on offer, and it wasn't too expensive. It was quiet since we were there closer to the middle of the afternoon, and we enjoyed stretching our legs out on the tatami and sipping a beer while planning the rest of the day. We decided spend the afternoon doing a self-guided walking tour of Northern Higashiyama, and mapped out some locations in - you guessed it - the guidebook.
Once we were fed and watered, we walked a few minutes North though a massive torii and towards Heian-jingu. We did a circuit of the main area before deciding once more to forego the ¥600 fee to enter the garden. The buildings are quite large, so I was surprised to find out they are replicas built to 2/3 the size of the Heian period Imperial Palace. What a sight that must have been!
This temple is set back from main streets, and is fairly quiet. The best part was discovering Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in, a hillside shrine surrounded by trees and a waterfall, behind the red brick aqueduct. The footing is a little uneven, but worth it for the serenity of the shrine.
To get to our last stop on this second walking tour we walked along a gorgeous river-side path known in English as the Path of Philosophy (it can also be translated as Philosopher's Walk, which made me nostalgic for the path of the same name behind Trinity at U of T that I walked a gazillion times). It was quiet, but we saw the occasional artist capturing images of the plum blossoms, and a man feeding a pack of cats with chopsticks. The path had a lot of homes backing onto it (I can only imagine how much they must cost), as well as some lovely looking shops and cafés that had unfortunately closed for the afternoon.
We were lucky to arrive at Ginkaku-ji (literally "Silver Pavilion," but the plan to have it covered in silver was never realized) about half an hour before closing time. Most temples in Kyoto close between 4 and 5pm, so take this into account when you are planning; we missed out on a few spots because we took too long to get there. Ginkaku-ji is apparently one of the more popular temples in town, and it was appropriately busy. There were a few raked gardens, which were the first I'd seen in Japan, as well as a hillside path winding through small terraces that gave a good view down into the temple grounds and out onto northern Kyoto. Well worth a visit, the best times being off-peak hours to avoid crowds as much as possible.
That was the end of our major walking for the day; we took the bus over to some other shrines and temples that closed a little later, but I'll cover those in another post about our trip. I just wanted to highlight the Lonely Planet walking tour, plus the one we tacked on ourselves, since it was a great way to orient ourselves in Kyoto, and to see as much as possible in a short time frame. The Lonely Planet tour took us a little longer than the advised four hours, but that was because I kept wandering off to take photos and see other things along the way, and it caused us to have to hustle after lunch to reach Ginkaku-ji before it closed. If I were to do it again, I'd bite the bullet and get up really early to maximize our time to see things.
More on Kyoto coming soon!