We arrived in Kyoto early afternoon and it was a short walk to the Ryokan. This was again a modern interpretation on the traditional style. This time we had our own bathroom which consisted of a shower in the corner of the room that wouldn’t look out of place on the star deck and an en suite toilet. It was quite a bizarre look. The staff were really friendly and gave us a map and we got out exploring straight away. We headed over to a couple of temples that were easy walking distance of the ryokan. Higashi Hongan-ji, Nishi Hongan-ji and Kōshō-ji, they were large impressive wooden temples and a good introduction to the temples of Kyoto. Afterwards we went up the Kyoto Tower to see the view over the city. It is the tallest structure in Kyoto with its observation deck at 100m and its spire at 131m.
The next day we hired bikes and rode around the city stopping at as many temples as we could fit in. We started the day at Sanjūsangen-dō a Buddhist temple with one thousand life-size statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon which stand on each side of the main statue of Buddha in 10 rows and 50 columns. It is a really breathtaking sight. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos inside the temple. This temple was particularly busy with school children which turned out not to be an isolated incident. Everywhere we went there were hundreds of school children taking photos and asking unsuspecting tourists to fill out questionnaires. It seems that we had scheduled our holiday in Japan to coincided with one of the main times of year that school trips take place.
We moved on from Sanjūsangen-dō to Jishu Jinja Shrine. Which was up a steep hill and gave us impressive views back over the city. Nestled into the side of the hill this was a busy complex of temples, shrines and a pagoda. There is also 2 love stones and it is said that if you are able to walk from one to the other blindfolded you will find your true love, if however you need help then you will need help finding your true love.
We left the busyness and pushed on to Shōren-in by comparison a smaller Buddhist temple and thankfully not as busy as Jishu Jinja shrine. It was wonderfully peaceful and we were able to sit and enjoy the garden before heading to our next stop. Ginkaku-ji meaning “Temple of the Silver Pavilion” is a zen temple with beautiful gardens. It was built as a retirement home for Ashikaga Yoshimasa the shogun and he made arrangements for it to become a zen temple after his death. Our last stop of the day was to Nanzen-ji a zen Buddhist temple with a huge foreboding gate at the entrance. We were slightly late arriving so we were only able to explore the outer gardens and a small temple.
We had the bikes until the next morning so we went into town on our way home and went for a drink in the Ponto-chō district. Ponto-chō is known for the preservation of forms of traditional architecture and entertainment particularly geisha culture. The narrow alleyways are home to many geisha houses, traditional tea houses and restaurants crammed in to every tiny space. For dinner we went to Ipuddo a ramen restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet (this time we found the correct place!). We had high hopes as there was a queue out the door and we were not disappointed. Luckily we didn’t have to wait long as they have a simple menu offering different variations of the same ramen dish so there is a fast turn around. They also have the most delicious pork gyoza (that we’ve since recreated at home). It was so good shamefully instead of trying somewhere new we headed back there the following night.
The next day we returned the bikes and took the train out of town to a bamboo forest. However all the Kyoto schools and other tourists had the same idea! It was an overcast day so the light was a bit gloomy in the forest but the vibrant green colours were still a beautiful sight. We soon decided to head away from the crowds and walk along the Katsura river to the Arashiyama Monkey Park. It was a steep walk up to the top of the mountain where the monkeys are fed and tend to congregate although they are free to roam all over the mountain. It was one of the highlights of the trip, the day had brightened up and there was a great view back across Kyoto and it was fun to try and spot the places we’d visited the day before. When you first get to the top it seems almost a zoo in reverse as the monkeys are milling about and the humans are inside a smallish building with monkeys peering in through the windows. This is because if you wish to feed the monkeys (and presumably to prevent any injuries) you have to go inside the shack and feed them back through the window, it makes for a strange first glance! Otherwise you are free to walk amongst them and apart than the ones hoping for food the monkeys were not bothered by our presence. A mother carried her baby around picking up bits of food and bringing the baby back to safety if it strayed too far from her. After the fun of monkey park we headed back to the station and on to the Fushimi Inari shrine.
The Fushimi Inari shrine rounded off one of my best days in Japan. It consists of thousands of red Torii (gates) lined up only a few inches apart snaking their way up the mountain side. It’s a truly wonderful sight. The bottom was quite crowded and it was difficult to really appreciate the beauty. As we made our way to the top most of the other tourists trailed off and we were left to enjoy the walk. The view from the top wasn’t any better than at the top of the monkey park but it wasn’t the view that made the walk so enjoyable it was the journey up there. That evening we had our second ramen meal at Ippudo we had a drink in a bar which happened to be playing the film Life is Beautiful, which if you’ve seen the film isn’t the sort of pub entertainment you normally see!
For our last half day in Kyoto before heading to Hiroshima we hired bikes again and went to Daitoku-ji, a collection of zen temples, most of which are closed to the public. We were aiming for Daisen-in which is a beautiful zen temple with a peaceful garden but by this time we were getting a little temple-d out! After Daisen-in we hopped back on the bikes and whizzed over to Kinkaku-ji. Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Temple, is as the English name suggests a temple covered in pure gold leaf. The temple looked truly magical over the heads of several thousand school children! It’s on the edge of a lake and surrounded by lush garden. We didn’t have long before our train to Hiroshima and as you are unable to go inside the structure we headed back to the bike rental and on to the station.