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.