For our 4 year anniversary, we decided to visit Kyoto which carries the reputation as Japan’s most beautiful city and is home to 14 world heritage sites.
It is arguably the most well known place in the country to view cherry blossoms and we felt so lucky that our visit coincided with the very short cherry blossom season (April 1st-15th, with days varying depending on the weather).
Though first thing’s first.
Ice cream for breakfast!
I used to get orange sorbet from Baskin Robbins all the time when I was younger, but I haven’t seen it around as I got older.
So obviously I had to have it as soon as I saw it calling me from the train station mall!
Ry was also thoroughly impressed by the Dragon Ball Z references at these restaurants.
If you’re unfamiliar with Kyoto, it is a huge city that was the capital of Japan for over a millennium and it was among the few Japanese cities that escaped the allied bombings of World War 2.
Consequently it has a rich cultural heritage and an abundance of prewar buildings, including an unparalleled collection of palaces, temples and shrines, built for emperors, shoguns (military commanders) and monks.
However the city is continually undergoing modernization with some of the traditional Kyoto buildings being replaced by newer architecture, such as the Kyoto Station complex. Our first impression of the city was of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto. However we soon discovered the city’s hidden beauty in the temples and parks that ringed the city centre.
Being the silly sausages that we are, we thought that we could just turn up in Kyoto and decide what we wanted to do. In Hong Kong, we are used to having tourist attractions dotted around our MTR (train) maps and it tells us exactly which stop to get off at for your desired destination. However they didn’t have this in Kyoto, so definitely plan ahead as the sites are dotted all over the city!
How cute are their train tickets?!
The Kyoto Imperial Palace used to be the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868, when the emperor and capital were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo.
It is a walled complex that sits in the middle of the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park. The original imperial palace was built in 794 and was replaced numerous times after destruction by fire. The present building, on a different site and smaller than the original, was constructed in 1855. Enthronement of a new emperor and other state ceremonies are still held here.
Although you’d usually need to book a visit in advance, we were lucky enough to visit on the few days in spring (April 4th– 8th) that didn’t require a reservation.
This building is the Shinmikurumayose.
It was built as a new carriage entrance on the occasion of the enthronement ceremony of the Emperor Taisho in 1915.
Here is the right side of a pair of folding screens painted by the artist, Yasunobu Kanoh (1614-1648), using Indian Ink. He played an important role in the early Edo period, being engaged in drawings of the Palace several times.
Next up is the waiting room for official visitors to the Palace of dignitaries, known as the Shodaibu-no-ma.
I found it really interesting that individuals were ushered into three different rooms according to their rank (the least important would be placed in the cherry blossom room, while the most important would wait in the tiger room).
The Kogosho was used as a ceremonial hall for the Coming-of-Age ceremony of Princes as well as for occasions when the Emperor received shoguns (military rulers of feudal times) and daimyo (feudal lords).
The present building was reconstructed in 1958.
Manzairaku (traditional court music and dance) was often performed by 4 or 6 dancers on happy occasions, such as the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Taisho.
As the Oikeniwa is a garden designed for a stroll, the path encircling the pond offers ever-changing perspectives of the garden.
There were a few more buildings too, but these were just our highlights.
Next up was lunch!
Ry went for the fried chicken and pork lunch set, which came with a boiled rice, miso soup, gherkins and tofu…
…while I went for a delicious pork and kimchi combo.
We both really enjoyed our meal, but unfortunately the restaurant didn’t have an English name, so I’m afraid we can’t share it with you.
According to Google, the top destination that came up for things to do in Kyoto was the Kiyomizu-dera, a world heritage sight. This literally translates to ‘Pure Water Temple’ and it is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan.
So off we went, passing cherry blossoms and a cemetery on the way…
Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall and derives its name from the fall’s pure waters.
The temple was originally associated with the Hosso sect, one of the oldest schools within Japanese Buddhism. However it formed its own Kita Hosso sect in 1965.
Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall, 13 meters above the hillside below.
As we managed to get there only an hour before it was due to close, we didn’t bother joining the huge queue. However we’ll aim to get there earlier another time, as the stage is said to offer impressive views of the city.
‘To jump off the stage at Kiyomizu’ is a popular Japanese expression that is equivalent to the English expression ‘to take the plunge.’ This refers to an Edo period tradition that suggests that one’s wish would be granted if they survived the 13m jump from the stage. 234 jumps were recorded in the Edo period and, of those, 85.4% survived. Unsurprisingly, the practice is now banned.
Similar to the Buddhist buildings at the Nan Lian Gardens and Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong, many of these structures were built without the use of nails.
Although we didn’t manage to get a photo of this, the Otowa waterfall is beneath the main hall, where three channels of water fall into a pond. Visitors can catch and drink the water, which is believed to have wish-granting powers.
The temple complex also includes several other shrines. For example, the Jishu Shrine is dedicated to Okuninushi, the god of love and ‘good matches’. The Jishu Shrine possesses a pair of ‘love stones’ placed 18 meters apart and lonely visitors can try to walk between them with their eyes closed. Success in reaching the other stone with their eyes closes implies that the pilgrim will find love. However if one needs assistance in the crossing, this suggests that a go-between will be needed. The individual’s romantic interest can assist them, too.
By the temple lies the steep and busy lanes of the atmospheric Higashiyama District. Many shops and restaurants in the area have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for centuries. Products on sale range from local specialties such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, sweets and pickles to the standard set of souvenirs.
We also bumped into our favourite forest spirit 😉
Next up, we stumbled upon Gion, which is the famous entertainment and geisha quarter on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa.
While Gion’s origins were in the teahouses catering to weary visitors, the area eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in Japan.
Nevertheless, Gion remains dotted with old-style Japanese tea houses called ‘machiya’.
The area comes alive in the evening, with entertainment that may include cocktails, conversation and games as well as traditional Japanese music, singing and dancing.
The geisha in the Gion district don’t refer to themselves as geisha (meaning ‘artist’), they refer to themselves as geiko, which essentially means ‘a child of the arts’ or ‘a woman of art’.
Although the sky had turned dark, we were determined not to miss out on seeing the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, which is basically a long walk path lined with tall bamboo groves towering over you on either side.
We got a little sidetracked by the food stalls though…
Unfortunately, we got ripped off for these expensive and mediocre tasting chicken skewers, but at least it stopped our tummies from grumbling for a little while.
Obviously it would have looked more awesome if we could see the bamboo forest or the path ahead of us, but walking around in the pitch black was also quite the experience…
We whacked the flash on and hoped nothing terrifying would show up on the screen.
It was fair to say that I was pretty terrified.
Luckily, we made it out alive and found a cosy spot for dinner.
We had our private booth with a bell to call a waiter in.
They brought our dinner which we could keep it sizzling away on the hot plate.
Ry went for the okonomiyaki which is a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked”.
Finally back at the train station…
…and I’ll leave you with this photo.
You’re welcome 😉