It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we’ve managed to come at exactly the wrong time of year. The weather is hot and it’s humid and it’s generally unpleasant. We’re constantly going in and out of air conditioning, so we have no chance of getting used to the heat. we’re typically dripping with sweat wherever we go. Interestingly, though, we’ve so far yet to get sunburnt, despite never reapplying sunscreen. If we’d come just two weeks from now, we’d get to see all of the hillsides bathed in autumn colours. A month from now and the chrysanthemums would be blooming. Four months ago and we’d see the cherry blossoms – five months and we’d see the plum blossoms. In the middle of summer, though, nothing’s blooming. The trees are green, and the rice is growing, and all of this is spectacular enough, but there’s nothing exciting going on, nature-wise. Granted, crowds are down, and natsu matsuri only happen in summer, both of which are extreme pluses, but the weather just gets to us. It’s great to get out of the cold of Sydney, but thirty-five is a little too far out.
Today, we explored bits of Kyoto. Specifically, bits in the north-eastern quarter. Discovered at 6am that the paper panel in the ceiling of our bedroom, behind the light, is a skylight. We started with breakfast in the hotel – Japanese style. Apparently the Japanese believe that to be healthy, you need to eat thirty different things a day, even if it’s only a little bit of each. This is why the meals here are like a thousand small bowls of a little bit each. I found some of them off-putting – even nauseating for a couple, like the cold brick of tofu – but managed to get most of it down. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that we’re the only two guests in the hotel at the moment. The only other people I’ve seen here are the two who work here, and there’s never any change in the number of slippers (or shoes) in the entryway. It’s quite a nice hotel, though.
Breakfast and planning done, we headed out into the city. Kyoto is literally loaded with temples and shrines – they’re literally everywhere. Having spent over a thousand years as the capital of Japan, pretty much every sect and branch of Buddhism and Shintoism have felt the need to set up shop here. We’ve decided to visit just a few of them – if we tried to visit them all, we’d require another two weeks here. Or more. Today we decided on Nijo Castle in central Kyoto, Tenryuu-ji Temple in Arashiyama to the west, and Kinkaku-ji Temple and Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine in the north-west.
Where Tokyo had JR trains, Osaka had the subway and Hiroshima had the Hiroden network, Kyoto has buses. Sure, like all the other cities, there are a few JR lines running here and there, and it does have its own subway network – it’s even still got a tram line or two still running, even if most of the trams have been sold to Hiroshima – but the buses here go literally everywhere. While researching how we’d get to places last night, we basically discovered we can either spend our day changing from private train line to private train line to private tram line, or we could use the buses. The bus map is literally a solid gridwork of buses going basically everywhere, with the exception of the bits of Kyoto south of the JR Shinkansen station.
Pricing is extremely simple too. Within a zone covering most of Kyoto, all bus fares cost 220 yen, regardless of how far you go. For the remaining very small minority of stops, it costs more depending on how far you go. Even better, we could buy a day pass for 500 yen that’d give us free travel on all buses inside the zone, and reduced tickets on buses outside the zone. The bus map even had a box on the back explaining how to use it. The one confusing aspect is this: Kyoto has two bus companies, one called “Kyoto City Bus” with green-and-white livery, which we could use the day pass for, and the other called “Kyoto Bus” with red-and-white livery, which we could not. They even share some of the same route numbers.
Unfortunately, like with the two-day pass in Hiroshima, we only discovered the existence of the pass after we were already at the hotel, and we could only buy it at Kyoto station, which we’d left behind soon after we arrived. In this case, we were even two stops away on the subway. We headed to the nearest major bus stop to see if we could buy it there, but wound up catching a bus back to Kyoto station. Wish we’d known about it when we were at Kyoto station the first time – it was a bit of a waste of 220 yen. Possibly we could have bought it in the nearest subway station, but we’re not sure. We were rushing to catch the bus that was at the stop, when the door closed while we were a few metres away. Now, on Sydney buses you can knock on the door and the driver will sometimes open it – that doesn’t work here, as here you board the bus from the back door and leave from the front. Suddenly a little old lady ran up and hit a little button next to the back door – which caused the driver to stop the bus and open the door again. We thought she was also rushing to catch the bus, but then she smiled at us and went on her merry way. We bowed and thanked her profusely, and got on the bus, having learnt something new about the kindness of random strangers, and how to catch buses in Kyoto.
In any case, we got to Kyoto Station. With our ticket bought and route map in hand, we headed off to catch a bus for Nijo Castle. (Mind you, the route map itself is pretty impressive. It’s even got directions on the back for which buses to catch in order to get from one major location to another.) While we were there, we even snapped photos of Kyoto Tower and the Kyoto Station building itself – we’d missed both of those yesterday, since we went straight from the Shikansen platform to the subway.
James is covering specifics, I think, so I’ll try to be general. I think I’ve been specific enough so far, anyway – I’m seven paragraphs in, and I’m still only as far as about 10:30am. By this point in the day it’s already unpleasantly muggy and somewhat threatening rain, though fortunately it’s not excessively hot. The buses are pleasantly air-conditioned, though. We headed off on the bus to Nijo Castle. I still prefer the train to the bus, as train stations passing are much more obvious than bus stops, but this wasn’t too bad. All the bus stops here are named – most of them after the two crossing streets nearest the bus stop, but a few after the closest major landmark. So the bus stops to the castle go Horikawa Sanjo, Horikawa Oike, then Nijojo-mae (“Nijo Castle Bus Stop”). The next stop is announced audibly on the bus, and displayed on the screen, though it’s only displayed in Japanese. Fortunately, though we got the English bus route map, major stations also have the Japanese name displayed (also, I could recognise at least one character in the names of most of the places we were going).
But anyway, I’ve talked about the buses enough. The castle was impressive, though it had no main keep like Matsumoto or Himeji – it had burnt down after being struck by lightning in 1750, and was never rebuilt. We did get to larger single-storey Ninomaru Palace, though – it’s something I was interested in visiting, to see the Nightingale Floors. The floors there are deliberately set up so that when you walk on them, the nails rub against them, causing a tuned squeaking noise. THat way if a ninja tries to sneak up on you, you can not only hear that they’re there, but even where they are. It was kinda fun to walk around squeaking wherever I went. The door screens were quite impressive too. I found the rest of the castle pretty interesting, though admittedly not overwhelmingly so.
We headed off to Arashiyama, on the west of Kyoto. This was literally the outskirts of Kyoto – not two hundred metres away, the houses stopped and the mountains started. It was our only stop outside The Zone for our tickets, but the driver just waved us off the bus without taking any money. The scenery here was spectacular. The bus stopped right on a river bank, with the famous Togetsu-kyo bridge visible. There were people fishing in the river, and a little dam not too far upstream with a little canal to divert water for a little hydroelectric generator. I just wanted to stand and take photos all day, but we had places to be. First, we had lunch: udon (soba noodles in soup). James had oyako udon (chicken and egg) and I had niku udon (beef). I was pondering oyako don (chicken and egg on rice), but I’ve already had katsudon, and James was having oyako udon, so I decided on the beef. It was tasty.
Then we headed to Tenryuu-ji temple, mostly because it was on the way to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, which was the main reason I’d wanted to come out here today. It was quite nice and serene. It’s apparently one of the main temples of the Rinzai school of Zen – the garden there dates from the fourteenth century. The temple’s name, Tenryuu, means “heaven dragon” – in case you were wondering. We decided to also see the temple itself – it costs five hundred yen to enter just the garden, and six hundred to enter both the temple and the garden. Both are visible from each other, since one surrounds the other, but entering the temple lets you have a much closer look at the buildings. We had to take our shoes off for the temple – and as I put mine down, a huge cloud of dust blew out, reminding me why we take our shoes off to go inside – and put on some too-small slippers. It was pretty nice, and once done inside we got to put our shoes back on and have a closer look at the garden.
We left through the northern exit, into the bamboo forest. It was just as lovely there as I’d hoped, though the rapidly darkening clouds and overhanging bamboo made it quite hard to take nice photos. I decided to just put the camera away and enjoy it. It was a little shorter than I’d hoped, so we wandered back to the bus stop to move on to our next location. We had a bit of a wander heading back, though, and I seriously loved all the little streets we walked down. There was bamboo growing everywhere, and little canals, and quiet little corners and bends and curves and hills. I could easily spend more time there.
We headed off to our next location, Kinkaku-ji temple. We’d need two buses to get there – one which terminated right on the edge of The Zone, and one which’d take us right to the temple. The termination was at a driver rest-stop area, and the driver on the first bus seemed impatent to get us off the bus, but not without taking money from us. We hopped onto the next bus without trouble, and got to Kinkaku-ji.
The real name of the temple is Rokuon-ji. It gets its colloquial name from the golden building that stands at its centre – Kinkaku means “Golden Pavilion”. The building is entirely covered in gold leaf – according to the guidebook, it’d glow even in clouds. It was cloudy when we were there, and it really was glowing. I was quite impressed with the effect. On the downside, it started to drizzle while we were there, and turned into a full-on shower as we were almost leaving, only to suddenly clear up right as we left, turning the already unpleasently humid day into an absolute swamp.
I mostly wanted to visit Kinkaku-ji (incidentally, completely unrelated to Ginkaku-ji, “Silver Pavilion”, in Kyoto’s east) because I’d seen it in an episode of anime. The characters in that episode also visited a nearby Shinto shrine, Kitano Tenman-gu, only a couple of blocks’ walk away, so we decided we would head there. Unfortunately, it was 5:30 by the time we arrived, so the main shrine was closing up. We did wander around the grounds a bit, though. We rubbed the nose of the cow statues, which is apparently supposed to make you smarter… couldn’t help but notice it was rubbed quite smooth already.
One interesting thing I learnt was that whenever there’s two lion-dog statues flanking a gate or tori or similar, one of them always has its mouth open, while the other always has its mouth closed. This is because one is going “ah” and the other is going “um”. I have no idea why this should be the case, but I had a chance to check it out at the places we visited today, and it was seriously always true.
With the sun setting and the time heading towards six, we decided to head home – via Kyoto station so we could buy another day pass for tomorrow. I got a lovely photo of Kyoto Tower at sunset, though it was a bit rushed as we were heading for the bus back to the hotel. In any case, we’re only planning on three bus rides tomorrow, but since three rides cost 660 yen, and the pass costs 500, we’re already saving money. Dinner was largely the same as last night’s, with a few variations. Still the same unpalatable soup, though. James liked it.
Tomorrow we’re going to visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which is supposed to have spectacular views of Kyoto, and Fushimi Inari Shrine, the head shrine of all Japan’s thirty thousand Inari shrines, with long paths of red tori gates. Both are on Kyoto’s south-eastern side. Then we’re heading off back to Tokyo on the shinkansen in the afternoon. This still leaves two quarters of Kyoto completely unvisited, and the other two only barely visited – plenty more to do next time, then?
Today’s photo count: three hundred and five.