According to our hostel’s free guide-book, Kyoto is known as the ‘tea tray’ because it sits in a flat plane bordered on all four sides with ridges of Maple-covered mountains. It’s big, but not a massive sprawling city like Osaka or Tokyo. We arrived, via another dizzyingly fast Shinkansen ride, right into the centre at the 15 floor station building. Our hostel was close by, but as check-in didn’t open for another couple of hours we made use of one of the city’s 1600 shrines. We picked one with no entry cost (some can cost up to 1,000 Yen) which was dedicated to scholarship and took the opportunity to study up on what we wanted to see and do in Kyoto.
Most of the best areas to visit seemed to be around the hills at the eastern and western edges of the tea tray: Arashiyama, in the west, Higashiyama, in the east. We split most of our time between these areas. Higashiyama was walking distance from the city centre. We crossed the canal and made our way up towards the Kiyomizu temple, which, along with a selection of other temples in Kyoto, forms a UNESCO world heritage site. As we approached, the roadsides started to fill with ice cream shops and yakitori vendors, followed by shops selling Japanese souvenirs like fans, kimonos and samurai swords. The small picturesque lane at the final ascent to the temple is called Chawan-zaka, which translates as Teapot Alley. It didn’t feel quite as quaint as it’s name suggested once we hit the hundreds of other people who’d had the same idea for their evening. Once we got there, though, the spectacular Edo-period pagoda temple, and the red sunset over the city did not disappoint.
Whilst Arashiyama also had its share of tourists, it felt more removed from the city centre and had open parks next to a rushing river, separated from a boating lake by long wooden bridges. Getting there meant getting our faithful JR passes out again. To escape the crowds we followed an insider tip from a friend and visited the Jizo-in Temple (the ‘Bamboo Temple’), which was a short walk around to a station on a smaller local line and then a (non-JR) train ride into the foothills. When we got there, we were so grateful for the suggestion and would recommend it to anyone visiting Kyoto; the temple was set in a bamboo forest amongst smaller shrines but the main attraction was the tranquil Zen Buddhist garden designed in the early 14th Century as the garden of the Chief Priest’s quarter. For a while we were the only people there (it’s hard to exaggerate how rare this is for Kyoto temples), and the place was so peaceful that we couldn’t bring ourselves to shatter the silence by ringing the gong to summon the traditional tea ceremony available to all visitors.
The forests around Kyoto are home to macaques, which we saw up-close and personal at the monkey park in Arashyama. After a sweaty 30 minute uphill hike, we encountered some monkeys blocking our path in an ape-to-ape standoff. Letting some Aussies brave it and go first, we carried on until we reached the summit, which aside from having a striking view across the whole city, had a small enclosure. Refreshingly, though, it was the humans who were inside the cage, feeding fruits and nuts to the free-range macaques.
The walk back to the station from the monkey park passes through another bamboo forest, with the option of visiting a house belonging to a local samurai movie star.
We’d read that Kyoto is often seen as an important place for Japanese people to come and learn about Japan’s heritage and history. It was the final few of days of the public holiday Silver Week and, whilst there were several foreign tourists at the main sites, most of the tourists were groups of young Japanese friends wearing beautifully patterned kimonos and armed with the obligatory selfie sticks.
We saw a lot of people in traditional dress, but sadly were not lucky enough to see any Geishas when we explored Gion, which is usually where they are spotted. We arrived just after sunset and there was a very hushed, clandestine atmosphere in the lanes. These lanes house many restaurants and tea houses but there are no signs above the doorways to advertise the name, and no street-facing windows to let you peek inside. Each has a red lantern hanging by the door and either a slatted wooden sliding door or drapes hanging over open doorways to obscure outsiders’ view in. We ventured into a few and sadly, but unsurprisingly, they were fully booked for dinner, though we did get a look at the tranquil setting inside with people sitting cross-legged around low tables being served some delicious looking food.
Our dining and drinking experiences in Kyoto were decidedly less tranquil, but a lot of fun. Crossing the bridge over the canal from Gion back towards the centre, the dotted red lanterns gave way to neon lights and busy shopping streets. Just the other side of the canal we tried, and loved, Okonomiyaki. You’re served a noodle and cabbage pancake onto a hot plate griddle in the centre of your table which you then build up with different toppings before pulling apart your creation to enjoy as elegantly as is possible with unfurling noodles, sizzling meat, and entry-level chopstick skills.
A good way to get your bearings when arriving in Kyoto is to head to the top floor viewing platform of the train station. After taking in the panoramic view, we went down to the floor dedicated to seven ramen restaurants. At these places the ordering is as much a part of the experience as the eating. We queued up outside, chose what we wanted from the big electronic menu machine outside which printed us a little ticket and presumably sent the same to the kitchen as our tasty bowls of ramen noodles appeared not long after we’d been seated. Timian tried to fit in with the locals and practiced his noodle slurping skills. Rebecca resisted the urge to shush people.
In Japan, ramen noodles are a staple post-night out snack (like a kebab back home, and potentially just as messy). For us, it was a pre-drinks snack and after our ramen we went to explore some of the nightlife. We returned to the canal area bordering Gion, where we found a series of successively narrower alleyways with seemingly endless numbers of the tiny (we mean tiny) bars we’ve grown to love in Japan. With little to no signage giving away what kind of bar was inside, we picked at random and ended up in a rock-themed place first. Here, “rock” meant Bon Jovi power ballads and a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Obviously. We followed that with Suntory time in a low-lit cavern bar playing scratchy 30s records with walls covered inch-thick in faded posters and foreign bank notes.
After exploring Japan’s old capital we were back on the Shinkansen headed for the modern day capital; Tokyo.