Saturday 15th April 2017 – Kyoto
Despite a 2 hour delay on our flight from Cairns to Kansai, we managed to dash out of the airport and jump on the last JR-West express train to Kyoto at 10:16 which took us directly to Kyoto station. We’d been surprisingly smart and booked a hotel just outside of the station so a 5 minute walk after leaving the train and we were in the lobby of the Daiwa Roynet Kyoto Ekimae (where Eki means station – exactly!) and checking into our smart little room with a high-tech toilet. It had been a long day and fortunately we’d booked food on the plane so we were able to crash.
The next day was due to be cloudy in the morning but changing to sunny all afternoon, so we left our bags with the hotel and walked from Kyoto station towards our first stop of the day the Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine. The shrine starts at the bottom with several temples then climbs for 4km around the wooded slopes of the Inari-san, lined with dozens of gates, painted orange and inscribed with the details of the person or company who made the offering.
At the bottom there where so many people we shuffled along but very few people climb to the top so as we got higher the numbers dropped and we started to get really good views of the thousands of shines that line the path. There are 5 main shrines along the route and in amongst the arches are stone shrines and hundreds of stone foxes, some of them wearing red bibs. The fox is considered the messenger of Inari, the god of cereals, and these foxes are often shown holding something in their mouths which is the key to the granary. The Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred, somewhat mysterious figure capable of ‘possessing’ humans – the favoured point of entry is under the fingernails – so as there were lots of them around we kept an eye on our hands.
We reached the top shrine, dodged a short shower by standing under the eaves of one of the temples, before continuing on and round the hill, back to the main shrine. At the bottom the path to the station is lined with food stalls serving up some weird and wonderful things, so we bought a carton of fried chicken and headed towards the train.
The network of trains around Kyoto isn’t always clear but we managed to jump on the right train and headed up to the Higashiyama district and the old town Gion. Gion is the famous Geisha quarter and still has roads that are lined with 17th century traditional restaurants and tea houses, many of which still host Geisha entertainment.
We walked down Hanami-koi on the lookout for geisha, and headed towards Kennin-ji the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. It’s a stunning and tranquil place compared to the roads outside, and a lady dressed in full kimono and Geisha makeup (very hard for us to tell if she was a real geisha or someone dressing up for the day) posed by the small stone bridge as cherry blossom drifted down. Needless to say I lost Wayne the photographer for a good 10 minutes but as the sun was shining and the garden a lovely tranquil spot I didn’t mind.
Looking for a lunch spot we walked around Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, one of the restored areas in town lined with old wooden houses, traditional shops and restaurants. The whole of Kyoto had come out for the day, and lots of the ladies and some of the boys, had chosen to rent traditional kimono for the day and walk round the old town posing for selfies. The kimonos are so colourful, they were like butterflies tottering around down in their wedge sandals, worn with socks that have a separate bit for the big toe so the sandal toe post fits.
We found a noodle shop selling soba noodles with a queue out the door, so we joined the queue then sat down for a couple of the set meals. Full, if slightly baffled by some of the things we’d just eaten we walked it off in Maruyama-koen, a local park and one of the best places to see cherry blossom in the city. Hundreds of local people where having picnics under the cherry trees or just wandering around the gardens – it’s a really lovely spot particularly at the entrance where the brightly coloured Yasaka-jinga shrine stands guard over Gion.
We headed back to the hotel, with help from a lovely member of staff at the Kawaramachi train station who could see we were completely baffled by the fact that the 2 lines we needed to use were run by different companies and didn’t connect, grabbed our bags and headed north to the hotel arranged by our tour.
Having checked in to our huge room with another complicated toilet, we headed out to the Sushi Shigetomi restaurant just round the corner. It was a great spot, the lady of the house spoke a little English, so we ordered a couple of beers and the chefs sashimi recommendations and sat on the floor with our legs dangling into the pit under the table.
The food was delicious, rice topped with various toppings including tuna, trout, cuttlefish, and our lovey host insisted on giving us a a taste of saki as an introduction to the country. It’s a lovely little local restaurant and as we were leaving both our host and the sushi chef came to the door to say goodbye.