We took a superfast bullet train from Tokyo and just two and a half hours later were in Kyoto, the home of many temples. It is a town so full of history that it is almost impossible to walk for ten minutes in any direction from any central location and not stumble across at least several old temples and places of interest. There are so many the guidebook actually warns you that it is impossible to see all of them and so gives the top ten or so for each area, so that it all becomes a little less confusing.
Anyway we arrived and wandered out of the huge, ultra modern train station and up the street, past a huge temple and then to our guesthouse; which bizarrely was called “Costa del Sol.” At reception there was a picture of a Japanese guy somewhere on holiday, which presumably was the Costa del Sol in Spain. Maybe he liked Spain so much he decided to name his guesthouse after the area! Asides from the name though there was nothing Spanish about the place and it all looked very Japanese. Even in the rooms we had traditional style tatami mats covering the floor and then a roll up mattresses on top.
After a little while we headed out for some food and soon found an area of small, traditional restaurants; each one shuttered away so that you could not look in and with ornate lanterns and decorations outside. We ended up choosing one (after ascertaining that it had a menu in English first) and were lead to a small table built into the floor so that you were sitting low down while still having room to stretch your legs. The place was almost empty and the waitress was incredibly friendly and keen to practice her English. The food was incredible and the place had a pleasantly upmarket local feel. It was even relatively cheap!
It was one of the things that we were discovering about eating out in Japan. The food is delicious and varied. Some things are highly random. For example I had some fishcakes, potatoes in soy curd soup and then tempura (deep fried in batter) of aubergines, green beens, mushroom and chilli. Anyway by the time we had had some food and some beer/sake it was quite late and time to hit the hay.
After breakfast the next morning we headed down to tourist info and got some maps and then headed off to see the Fushimiinaritaisha Shrine (who knows how you pronounce that!), which turned out to be highly impressive. A key feature of shrines are the red Torii (archways) and at this one, after a quite large complex of buildings at the bottom, was a hill that had long pathways lined with Torii. There are literally thousands of them and all have writing that can only be viewed from one direction, ie when walking up all appear to be blank red archways and on the way back they appear covered in black Japanese writing. Each one is unique and has different writing on it, implying a huge amount of effort and expense, especially when you consider that these archway covered paths stretch over 4km up and around a hill!
Anyway we started climbing and soon found that in places there were small shops/tea houses in the wooded hill side and opposite those were, what we only guessed to be, family shrines. These individual shrines varied enormously; some had hundreds of tiny torii scattered around them, stone foxes, statues and stone lanterns. Some were small shrines that were all crowded in together and some were huge, amounting to the size of a small cottage. It seemed pretty clear though that the bigger, and so presumably the most important, of these shrines were at the base of the hill, because as we climbed up higher in the sunshine the shrines became smaller and smaller, although the large torii lining the way just kept on stretching on into the distance.
On the way up we noticed some monks tidying up the forest. Now I realise that Japan is a very clean and tidy country but that is just taking things to another level! Admittedly it was only the bit of the forest that was close to the torii, but even so. Also there were vending machines everywhere still. There were loads of them at different stages during the climb, although the prices noticeably got higher as you went further away from the road!
There was a story as well about the stone foxes. These, we were to discover, were almost unique to this particular shrine and apparently are meant to represent spirits that can possess people by entering under their fingernails! How random.
We ended up spending over three hours going around the shrine and torii laden grounds, but we still had enough time to see the largest wooden structure in the world, at one of the central temples. At least we would have if it wasn’t being refurbished and so covered in scaffolding. Also we were later to discover that it was not actually the largest wooden structure as we were to see that a few days later. Still, it was impressive.
The evening was then reasonably uneventful. We did notice a sign for littering where offenders would be charged £165! And that was using exchange rates as of September 08! Otherwise there was a mediocre Chinese meal in a restaurant and me struggling to find an internet café, presumably because everyone has it at home already and there aren’t many tourists to justify opening them?
We were up early the next morning and after brekky headed off to Kiyomizudera Temple, which like the shrine the previous day was on the edge of Kyoto and therefore on the side of a hill.
When we first arrived we saw a sign for something called the “Belly of the Buddha,” so wandered down into it. Inside it was pitch black you were presented with a winding corridor and a rope to hold onto as the darkness was absolute. Amanda wasn’t too keen and headed back and I was feeling very claustrophobic but carried on. After a little, when I had battled with the notions that something was in the darkness with me, I turned a corner and discovered a rock lit up with a solitary light focused on it. It had some Japanese writing on it, but what was really going on here was anyone’s guess! I stopped for a while but then heard a Japanese couple behind me and so had to move on – I was tempted to jump at them in the darkness, but that would just have been evil and besides I probably would have been arrested!
The rest of the temple complex (most of these places weren’t small) was also quite impressive as the main building was built on a huge series of stilts into the side of the hillside. From a certain angle it looked like it was rising magically out of the surrounding woodland.
There was another cuiorsity here and that were the “love stones.” These are situated 18m apart in a sub temple courtyard. There were quite a few people wandering around and you were meant to walk with your eyes shut from one to the other in a straight line across the open courtyard. If you succeeded then you would find true love but if you failed or opened your eyes then you would fail. I tried to do it but bumped into a schoolgirl and so opened my eyes slightly to make sure I wasn’t going to knock her over! So I sort of managed to do it – I wonder what that means!
After that temple complex we wandered around some of the cute backstreets in the area of the city and visited a couple of open gardens that we went past. Soon we were in the district of Gion, which is where the geishas hang out apparently. Sure enough we saw some, although they were in the middle of a professional photo shoot so we headed on to see “the most beautiful street in Japan,” which was very pretty all right (although I found its neighbour to be nicer) and then we went into a small café/bar and had a beer. It cost 1,000 Yen (about a fiver) for each large beer, but the owner threw in loads of nibbles and tried to chat to us for a while in broken English. Like most of the people we met in Japan she was incredibly friendly.
Afterwards we carried on with the sightseeing and so wandered on to Chion-in Temple, although we could not find the entrance (?) and so then went to Shoren-in temple instead, which had a nice garden. Then we went to a neighbouring landscaped park, before staggering knackered back to the hotel. It had been a good day.
We were up early again the next morning as we were off to the town of Nara. This was recommended in the guidebooks as being one of the best towns in the area and there certainly proved to be quite a lot to see.
On arrival we walked about 1km though parts of the city in into a huge park/temple complex where loads of deer was roaming freely. You could buy loads of cheesy deer related souvenirs as well as deer biscuits for 150 yen (about 70p) and clearly the deer knew it as they would look at you in a hungry, pointed way if they suspected you had any. In the guidebook was a warning not to eat the deer biscuits yourself, which I thought would have been reasonably obvious! Maybe not to some people though…
After a while we walked through the Nandaimon Gate, a huge (really huge) gate that was constructed in the 13th century and amazingly is still around. Two warriors guard the entrance/exit at either side, both of whom are several times life size and still fearsome in appearance. It is easy to see that medieval Japanese would have been terrified of such visions.
The gateway led us onto a large driveway, which in turn lead to a large temple, the main building of which is actually the largest wooden structure in the world (and not the temple in Kyoto as previously mentioned). It was truly huge and contained one of the largest Buddhas in the world. Scarily the building is actually a third smaller then the original building which got destroyed somehow back around 1700. The current building is from 1709. The Buddha inside is impressive as well as it dates from 746AD, although the head is more modern as older ones fell off in earthquakes. Given that the statue is 16 meters high and contains 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold, I would imagine seeing that huge head bouncing towards you during an earthquake would be a truly “Tomb Raider” style moment!
Anyway there were no earthquakes that day thankfully so we wandered around the temple and admired the other statues in there, as well as the giant Buddha. The other statues were still huge and amazing, but the Buddha dominated by its sheer scale.
At the other side of the building was a hole in one of the huge supporting beams for the room and this was said to be the “Buddha’s nostril.” Superstition has it that if you can climb through Buddhas nostril then you will obtain enlightenment or something similar. The hole was naturally very small though and could only really be attempted by small children. I was game for a go, but given the number of small children queueing up we left it – probably a good thing!
Then we carried on to another temple where there was the “Nigatsu-do Hall.” This contained a collection of ancient statues that had been collated from previous, older temples that were no longer in existence. All were life size or several times life size and 14 of them were from the 8th century and 2 from the 14th. They were truly impressive, especially because of their sheer age.
After that we headed onto the Kasuga Shrine in the forest, where there were literally thousands of stone lanterns of every size, shape and design imaginable. In some places the stone lanterns stood right next to each other and went 6 deep into the forest. Apparently once a year there is a lantern ceremony at night time and they are all lit up. It must be really amazing.
Inside the buildings then there were ornate metal lanterns, some painted gold and some silver and other colours. There were also “nuns” for want of a better word who had elaborate head dresses that contained tassels and silvery decorations. We wandered around everything anyway. It was all very impressive.
We walked the journey back to the train station and headed back to Kyoto, where we wandered back to the main restaurant district and ended up finding another amazing restaurant.
As it was quite busy we ended up on stools eating at a tabletop that faced the open kitchen. We were chatting to one of the chefs who was really friendly and who taught us some Japanese words and the food was unique and excellent. For example I ate lotus root tempura, then rice with raw egg, soy sauce, onion & seaweed and quite possibly the best salad I have ever eaten. Amanda had rice with green tea soup and then grilled mackerel. I was still a little hungry afterwards though and so ordered crab treumellie, not realise that it was crab liver pate! It came but I could not eat it at all as it was really strong tasting and it just came with some dipping vegetables. Unfortunately because I was facing the kitchen, the chef could see me not eating it and then tried to give more vegetables to see if that would help! It didn’t. Overall though, it was still our best meal yet.