Time to save the best for last. We had run through the subways of Tokyo, flown up above the city of Kobe and eaten through the city of Osaka, but one of my favorite cities on this trip (at least photographically) was Kyoto. The three places I really wanted to see on my trip were the Fushimi Inari Shrine, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and the Kinkaku-ji Temple. Our wonderful hosts made sure that we saw these stunning sights, plus a whole lot more!
Fushimi Inari Shrine: The Walk of a Thousand Gates
I’d heard that the best way to see this shrine was to try to beat the crowds by getting here early. But since we were traveling from Kobe and the faster train was cancelled due to an accident, we didn’t have a chance to get here before 11am. And it was crowded. Really crowded. At the beginning of this walk, you feel like you’re just swimming along with the masses. But it does get better. The further you go up, the less people there are. And if you’re just a bit patient (and at the ready), you can get a shot with few to no people in it.
Inari is the considered the patron god of business. Although the earliest structures of this shrine to this god were built in 711, it wasn’t until the Edo period in the early 16th century that businesses each started donating one torii, or gate, to make a wish come true. As a result, there are now around 1,000 of these red-orange gates along the path upwards to the top of the mountain.
Walking up this mountain worked up a bit of an appetite in us. Thankfully there was no shortage of restaurants to eat at nearby. We chose a tempura restaurant. This is a big difference between Japanese restaurants in the US and in Japan. In a Japanese restaurant in US, you may find ramen, udon, tempura and/or sushi on the menu. In Japan, each restaurant specializes in only one thing. Which means that if you go to a tempura restaurant, the only thing that you’re getting is… tempura. But the good thing is that since the restaurant only does one thing, they do it really well.
Gion: Kyoto’s Famous Geisha District
Gion is Kyoto’s famous geisha district. I’d been fascinated by the geisha since reading Memoirs of a Geisha, so it was fun to walk the streets that were mentioned in the book. Although there are many in kimonos that are walking the streets of Gion, these are 99% tourists dressed up as maiko (or apprentice geisha). Unfortunately, there aren’t many of these skilled artists remaining and even then, they are difficult to see in person, as they usually only work in the evening privately at tea houses. Amazingly enough, our friends, longtime Kyoto residents, were able to tell the tourists from the geisha. And sadly, all we saw were tourists. But, it was still nice to be able to walk around this district and imagine what might have been in years past.
At the edge of Gion sits the Yasaka Shrine. Initially constructed in 656, this Shinto shrine is one of the most well-known in Kyoto.
For dinner, our friends took us for yakiniku, which literally means “grilled meat”. It was similar to Korean BBQ, but this was Japanese style. This restaurant, Kikusui, has a beer garden in the summer months, where we could sit on a rooftop overlooking Gion while getting to know our new friends over BBQ beef and beers.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Another spot that I wanted to see was the beautiful Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I’ve always loved being in the presence of bamboo – the rhythmic swaying of the stems with the slight rustling of the leaves always puts me at ease. Well… unfortunately the mass of tourists walking up and down the paths didn’t really give me that peaceful feeling that I was looking for, but despite that, this bamboo forest was still a beautiful sight to behold.
Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji literally means, “Temple of the Golden Pavilion”, and rightly so. The original building was purchased by a shogun in 1397 and after his death, according to his wishes, the building was converted into a Zen temple. The original structure burned down in 1950 by a young, novice monk and was rebuilt in 1955 into the structure that we see today. Photos don’t do this temple justice as it looks yellow in photos, but beautifully-golden in person. The top two stories of the pavilion are covered with pure gold leaf.
Due to a lack of time, we were truly only able to hit the highlights of Kyoto. But we were so grateful to our new friends who helped see all we wanted to see in a limited amount of time. We ever were able to make a stop to see the beautiful countryside somewhere near Kyoto …
Asia, you were awesome. The food, the people, the sights … provided so many memories that will stick with me for a long time. But hopefully not too long, because I would love to return to explore the two countries of Korea and Japan again.
But for now… it’s time to return “home” to France. Next time, I’ll return to the Loire Valley during a different season – autumn – and a few more châteaux.
Until next time…