We woke for our first day in Kyoto refreshed and anxious to see a handful of the city’s many shrines and temples, but were met by a downpour of rain. Unfortunately, all the main attractions in Kyoto are centered on the outdoors, typically connected by walking tours down streets and sidewalks. So after adding another umbrella to our arsenal we bucked up and headed out on our walking tour of the Eastern Higashiyama neighborhood, starting with the Hein Shrine just next to our hotel. One of the largest and brightest shrines in Kyoto, this one features an enormous outdoor plaza and painted steel torii gate.
Walking through the gate we headed south to the Shoren-in and Chion-in temples. While located within close proximity to one another, the first temple is a quiet refuge from the tourist crowd while the other is quite the attraction with its massive, single room temple dwelling. After touring the grounds of the Chion-in temple and aweing over its impressive prayer room and entryway gate, we made our way to Higashioji street and brekfast. After having two mornings of fish and soup for breakfast these sweet and light pastries were absolutely scrumptious and when paired with the sweet and spicy flavor of the chai milk tea was heavenly. But time halts for no man, so with only a few hours before we needed to be back at the hotel and plenty to see we umbrella’ed up and left.
Continuing through the rain and puddles, we came to the Otani Mausoleum, the final resting place of the renowned Buddhist Shinran. The grounds featured a towering stone stairway, as well as a gorgeous prayer hall and tree garden including several ornate fountains. After spending some time admiring the beauty of the Japanese misty hillsides under the information office’s overhang, we proceeded out to the entrance to the Gion district. Amidst the classic geisha homes styled from the Middle Ages, lie some of the Japanese Buddhists community’s major points of interest including the Kodai-ji temple.
The temple grounds included a secluded stone path, complete with a raging river of runoff water flowing alongside, through a mix of old growth tree canopy and bamboo groves. After reaching the summit we got to walk the grounds and came upon the massive Buddha statue. After paying a small entrance fee, Beth and I were given sticks of incense to pray with and granted access to the Buddha, the tomb of the unknown WWII soldier, a large golden wishing ball, and the offering area for the incense. While the famous Kamakura Buddha is older and built from bronze, this Buddha statue is carved from a solid piece of stone and has a sandstone-like coloration versus Kamakura’s dark green shade.
Making our way back into the Gion district we were met by rickshaw drivers, traditional teahouses and ornate fan shops all in small wood framed shops. The smaller streets in the GIon district were a break from the flow of traffic and we were able to stroll right up to the Yasaka Pagoda. While not as towering as Kyoto’s famous Toji Pagoda, Yasaka Pagoda is the main landmark of the Gion district and throws you back in time.
Well, all morning it had been pouring rain so naturally everything below the shin was soaked after several hours of walking, and with our check in time at the B&B Keiko looming we grabbed a bus back to the Three Sisters and gathered up our things. What seemed like an easy half hour walk down a major Kyoto street became a wet and soppy march that washed away our sense of direction. Piled high with all of our clothes, belonging, and gifts we had accumulated thus far we trudged through the rain, all the while making a series of phone calls to the hotel to update our directions. After 40 minutes or so we made it to our rendezvous point and were met by the innkeeper Raphael, an expat from Brazil, who filled us in on the area while guiding us back into the quiet side street that the B&B sat on.
Located in a quiet neighborhood not far from the Imperial Palace, the B&B Keiko features two traditional tatami rooms to stay in, plus a community common room, washroom, and bathroom. The rustic woodwork and straw matted floors created a great reprieve from the rain outside and after getting some tips for places to eat nearby we shed our packs and changed our socks to set out again.
But our bad luck wasn’t quite over yet, after getting turned around twice in the monotonous, but charming lanes of central Kyoto we ended up 30 minutes away from the restaurant we planned on getting to. After back tracking through the rain we made it to what Beth and I claim to be the best udon place on Earth! Freshly made udon noodles are prepared right before your eyes and they offer the tastiest tempura I’ve had all trip with all sorts of different things. Beth got an assorted vegetable mix, I got a thick and juicy squid chunk, and we split a freshly prepared slice of sweet potato, all dipped in the house’s tempura batter. It was delicious! We thanked heaven that we found this place and made sure to tell our innkeeper thanks for sending us here.
After that things started to look up for us. The rain stopped, and we were only a block away from the famous Kyoto shopping streets. These streets used to be the main commercial boulevard for Kyoto since the 19th century, but now serve as the town’s most famous indoor-outdoor mall with an assortment of shops and restaurants for blocks and blocks down Teramachi and Shin-kyogoku Streets. At the end of the shopping arcades the streets makes a right turn into the Nishiki Food Market, and what the shopping arcades was for consumer goods, the Nishiki Food Market is for anything edible. Shop owners pedal a diverse mix of flowers, peanut brittle like crackers, produce, fish, and much much more. After stopping for a coffee pick me up in the foggy late afternoon, we hopped a train to take a glimpse at Kyoto’s very own Imperial Palace Grounds.
Kyoto was the capital city of Japan before the emperor moved his residence to Tokyo. Unfortunately for us, the palace was closed for the night, but we were able to walk through the expansive grounds in the dense fog. Having the park to ourselves was enjoyable after the crowded markets, and between the fog, the vast and empty pathways, and the low burn of the streetlights it made for an eerily beautiful walk.
We headed back in the direction of our B&B, experiencing the charm (and trendy coffee shops) of Teramachi Street. After meandering the streets in our hunt for dinner brought us to a vending machine restaurant, complete with egg and beef bowls with a side of dumplings. Mmmm, mmmm. Beaten down by the day’s rain and long walks (Kyoto’s very spread out with much of their sights on the periphery) we headed in for the day. Setting up on beds and planning for our day in Hiroshima we settled onto what has been the comfiest futon yet and quickly slumbered to bed.
Before we head out on our week-long trip around central Japan, Beth wanted to show me some of the cultural sites around her neighborhood. A short distance north by train took us to Kamakura, a bustling seaside suburb of Yokohoma. It was here that we connected to the historic Endoen electric train. A train from a by-gone era, this electric line services the small communities along the beach as well as connecting tourists to the many cultural sites along the shore. Though it runs more slowly compared to the busy JR lines I’ve grown accustom to, I really appreciated our rides on this classic train. Between the stretches that chase the sand and sea to the ones that barreled past homes and shops, I certainly could recognize the beauty in the mundane in this electric line.
After hopping on we took a short ride to Hase, the part of town that features Japan’s second largest Daibutsu, or big Buddha. Cast in 1215 this bronze Buddha towers close to 14 meters tall and weighs more than 120 tons. It has seen some rough times over the years, surviving earthquakes, floods, monsoons, and nearly constant exposure to the elements, and has undergone several restorations over the years, the most significant in 1712 and 1923. This figure draws crowds from all over and it truly a sight to behold, in and out. From the exterior it looks like a solid piece of bronze, but from inside you can see the seams that show, with artful detail, the assembly of this great giant.
After visiting the Daibutsu in the Kotokuin Temple, we made our way through the streets of Hase, which offer many shops and eateries. I got to see beautiful calligraphy and craftsmanship in a card store, as well as sampling the local treat of green tea ice cream. The bright green color may cause some alarm at first, but after one taste I was hooked, it was absolutely delicious! Walking along we paused at several art and pottery stalls, featuring beautiful works. Eventually we came to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, easily Kamakura’s most important. As it turns out the weekend we visited coincided with a festival for young children in Japan, Shichi-go-san, where the children are taken to shrines to pray for good luck, happiness and to marry young. Consequently we also witnessed several traditional Meiji weddings taking place. The shrine grounds are stunning, blending the land and waterscapes with the main pathway that lead to a set of towering steps to the shrine. Once we reached the summit you could look straight down the main street of town and beyond to the sunset, truly a gorgeous sight to behold.
All that walking around worked up an appetite and luckily we had made plans to meet up with a crewman of Beth’s and his wife and their Japanese neighbor for dinner at a “sumo” restaurant. This restaurant prides itself on having a sumo clientele, complete with posters, massive handprints, and score cards from some of the local sumo patrons. The restaurant is quite traditional, serving the meal on a table top on the floor complete with padded pillows to sit on. We also had to remove our shoes and store them at the entryway before settling in for dinner. And while a four course meal sitting cross-legged the entire time did strain the muscles, the stomach was to reap the benefits. Each course was extremely good, each served in a unique, signature broth. The first two course were more or less soups, complete with various mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, and tofu. The second course was a little more spicy, featuring local mussels and imitation crab meat. Oh did I mention, these course were served in a giant cauldron placed in an intricate heating rack in the center of the table? Well they were, and thank goodness we had 5 people there because with any less there is no way we could have finished. Moving on we were served a tasty dish of saucy rice which bursted with flavor despite the mundane appearance. This was about the time we received a complimentary order of terriyaki chicken meatballs, my personal favorite of the evening. Finally we made our way to the final course, already feeling full and satisfied, but were happy to take in a spicy broth with udon noodles. After all that I can understand why its a “sumo” restaurant, and would certainly recommend searching one out if you ever visit Japan!
Sunday rolled around and we decided to go back to Kamakura and visit Enoshima Island, a tourist attractions we missed the day before. While on the Endoen line in Kamakura we decided to ride it all the way out to Fujisawa, just to see what was there. Expecting to find a small residential community at the end of the train line Beth and I were surprised to find Fujisawa and a bustling city of commercial activity. Certainly off the tourist path, this town was all business with dozens of skyscrapers and elevated pathways. After walking around, visiting a local park, and enjoying a curry lunch at CoCos, we decided to head over to Enoshima Island.
Enoshima Island is a treasure trove for vacationers, Japanese and foreign alike. It was a mainstay location for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, with its famous Shoden Marina built for the sailing competitions. It also features a high-class onsen and hotel, dozens of Shinto shrines, and great beaches. But what the major attraction on the street seemed to be is a Japanese dish that features what looks like noodles with eyes. In reality they are little white, wormy looking fish and the Japanese love em! Add that to the squashed and dried octopus, squid, and jellyfish lines and you have yourself one seafood loving populace. I have yet to work up the nerve to try it myself, so we moved on to the shrines and famous lighthouse.
The lush and hilly island is covered in different Shinto shrines and monuments, dedicated to a host of gods and goddesses. The main building seems to be have something to do with love, luck, and relationships, as noted by the frequency of relationship oriented prayer cards, not to mention the week-long Valentines Island celebration where the everything is drapped in pink lights in February. Despite walking from shrine to shrine and through various gardens, this is still city property and the grounds are covered with trinket shops and restaurants. We even saw a street performer and his monkey do so wild tricks to a massive crowd’s amusement.
Continuing on we got to see the famous lighthouse and botanic gardens, founded by British merchant Samuel Cocking in 1880. Though much of the greenhouse area was destroyed in a 1923 earthquake, the gardens and towering lighthouse have becoming an emblem of the town, attracting thousands of visitors each week. As we made our way back we had both worked up a hunger and decided to treat ourselves to some street food. Beth’s picked out some of the best corn on the cob, complete with soy sauce dressing, while I got to try my first massive dumpling (really they are almost as big as a Chipotle burrito), but not nearly as filling. We enjoyed our street food, walked back to the train and witnessed a beautiful sunset through the windows on the way back to Kamakura, truly a great weekend exploring. Next week Tokyo…stay tuned!!!