This post has been a long time coming and was first proposed by a reader of this blog who was particularly interested in the snippets of information about travelling in Japan that appeared on my blog. I usually don't post this often but page views have gone through the roof recently so I guess there are people out there hungry for some new material to read. If you read 'm, I'll write 'm.
When I started this post, I thought there wouldn't be much to say and now I realise that there is just so much you can write about - maybe too much - and that everyone is doing it. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote my first novel, Memoirs of a Vending Machine was that I wanted to share my unique experiences but really didn't want to write another travel book to add to the stockpile of unread travel books published as ebooks so I wrote some literary fiction. The book is doing fine now and you can read about my difficult journey in previous posts. Compared to others however, the book hasn't gone as well as I had hoped so as far as travel writing goes, I might as well join 'em 'cause I sure as hell could't beat 'm.
Secretly, travel writing is something I have wanted to dabble in for a while now as I have been to Japan so many times now and I really do relish the opportunity to share my experience and my view. Because there is so much to say, I have decided to break this up into a series of posts and see where that leads. I intend to start of with a series of recommended things to do in Kyoto and give commentary on how I have gone about this and anything else that I think would be worth knowing. Then I'll see where idea takes me.
To begin with and by way of explanation, the reason I have been to Japan so much is that my wife is Japanese. We met in Japan, lived there for quite a few years, had two kids and kept a pet turtle before coming to Australia to live. I taught Japanese at High School after coming back and ended up organising a school trip to Japan every year after for 10 years or so. In some years, I did three or four trips that included, visiting relatives, participating in langauge exchange or professional development as well as the school trips. My favourite place on field trips became Kyoto.
Heads up, I am NOT an expert and this is NOT a travel log per se - this is just Kyoto from my perspective and you are free to take my advice or leave it, although I have done Kyoto quite a few times. Please don't rely only on this post and make sure you get a map and do some research yourself before embarking on the tour I suggest.
What I really like about Kyoto is the old world charm that remains despite the new world hustle and bustle that pervades Japan. It is a sort of sophisticated chaos that lends itself to art and expression. There is no denying that amongst the Japanese, Kyoto is a very cool place to live or to have come from and just talking about the place elevates any conversation to a higher level.
It is famous as the first Japanese capital. In fact, the Kanji characters used to write the name Kyoto translate to capital city. Kyoto is full of temples.Of note are Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji, Ryouanji and Sanjyusangendo. Nijo Castle is good for a look and some of you may be familiar with the nightingale floorboards referred to in many novels about Japan. An absolutely stunning photo can be taken at Fushimi Inari Shrine. I would prioritise Kiyomizu Dera and have chosen this as the first must-see destination to write about.
I've found that the best way to do the Dera (Tera = temple) is to walk there. I know, taxis are easy, the bus would be a unique experience and a tour bus would be perfect but what you won't do if you take the easy way out is to walk the walk along the back streets that are the real Kyoto. This is where the old world charm is locked away and to get that, you need to walk. There is no rule in existence that states that a tourist in Kyoto must walk fast. I won't lie to you, there are some challenging hills to conquer but if you pace yourself and rest along the way, you will be rewarded - and the walk will do you some good.
Note the following entrance fees and opening times. Better check about current renovations and how this will affect your visit during 2013 before you go.
Hours:6:00 to 18:00Closed:No closing daysAdmission:300 yenSpring and Fall IlluminationHours:18:30 to 21:30 (mid March to mid April and mid November to early December)Admission:400 yen
So to do the walk, it is best to assemble your minions at Yasaka Jinjya before embarking on this epic journey. It's fairly central and prominent on any map of Kyoto. This is a particularly beautiful place at night and if you have a nearby hotel, I would recommend a look at the end of an evening stroll. I always try to get a hotel somewhere along or near to Shijo Dori because it is smack bang in the middle of everything cool and gives me easy access to Teramizu Dera at the east end of Shijo Dori. The temple is an easy walk or as little as a couple of stops by bus if you get hotel that is a little too far down the Dori. If you are happy to pay the 600 yen surcharge for a 1 minute taxi ride, you may also wish to do this. On the way, you can visit the Gion District or Pontocho, the famous tea house street - but I'll save that for another post. I will also mention the Philosopher's Path, Kyoto Handicraft Centre, Kyoto Station and the Kyoto Imperial Palace but but I'll look at these places another time. I have stayed at a Ryokan or two and suggest a nice place to stay but I'll save this for another post as well.
I have stayed at the Kyoto Central Inn a couple of times. It's small but reasonable and so convenient to everything. The foyer is a good assembly area for groups and there are laundry facilities here. They seem pretty good about foriegners. If you are with a group, it's best to get yourselves booked on the same floor but you'll find that the staff will generally do this anyway. Be careful to get the back rooms, accessed at the rear of the front desk as the front rooms are old and only marginally bigger than a cupboard, although the twins are pretty good for teenagers or couples that aren't too fussy. If you are on a budget, this may suit you and all the facilities you need are there, including your own tiny shower and a TV. You'll have to eat out but that's the idea isn't it? It is pretty much a quick left out of the Hankyu line's Kawaramachi exit 6 and is so convenient to Shijo/Kawaramashi for shopping or for the teahouse street of Pontocho - and for getting around the rest of Kyoto and Osaka.
Another favourite of mine is the Karasuma Kyoto Hotel just a little further away from Yasaka Jinjya but it gives you good access to Tera Machi which is great for food and shopping and the Nishiki Market. It is pretty much a hop skip and a jump from the Shijo stop of the Karasuma subway. If you are really lazy, you can get a bus on Shijo Dori a round the corner and ride a few stops to the Gion stop which is opposite Yasaka Jinjya or catch a taxi as there is a rank nearby.There are a couple of tricky train swaps to get to Kyoto station but the hotel is awsome (by my standards, anyway). The price is quite reasonable and there are a shed load of amenities and services. I booked a floor for a group a couple of years ago and found the triple room a pretty good option for a bunch of teenagers. Oh - it is really hard to top the Starbucks virtually placed on the hotel's doorstop and there are restaurants and convenience stores near by. These hotels are fairly budget priced and there are much more expensive hotels available. I'll talk about other places I know about in subsequent posts.
Anyway, back to Kiyomizudera; Walk in through the main entrance and don't forget to look back to take in the view of modern Kyoto along Shijo Dori. (makes a nice holiday snap) There is a kink in the pathway to the right so just follow and when it straightens up, you just walk ahead to the other side of the temple area to a smaller exit. You should find yourself next to a small little park called Maruyama Koen This is a good stop for a quick lunch if you are a cheapskate like me and you purchased your lunch at the Lawsons convenience store accross the road and opposite Yasaka Jinjya. (There is a pretty good street view on Google Earth of this area)
You walk forward to an open area in front of Maruyama Pond that includes another little resting place and an icecream stand with koi ponds and a little bridge. Don't go over the bridge. You just hang a right past the icecream shop and follow your nose forward. Every now and then, you may pass a young Maiko (apprentice Geisha) or a real Geisha if you are lucky. If they are out in full regalia, they are usually happy to pose for a brilliant face-book-postable snap. You walk on past the Buddha dedicated to the dead from WWII (Ryozen Kannon Temple), then some rickshaws then hang a left and then a snappy right. If in doubt just follow all the other people walking in the same direction or ask - Kiyomizudera wa? Someone is bound to help out and just point. You will know you are getting close to the main shopping road that leads to Kiyomizudera when you start walking up at quite an angle. Wonderful little stores will appear that sell everything from yakimono (Japanese hand made earthenware and pottery) , elegant, colourful sensu (hand held folding fans) or maybe some Japanese delicacies such as tsukemono (pickles). This will come to an end and you will be thrust into another street full of interesting shops and people everywhere. You turn left and again walk up but at a much gentler slope. This leads to the entrance and you just keep going up. Along the way there are even more little stores, cafes and eateries. Try some machya icecream (green tea ice cream), you'll love it. If you are with a group of high-school boys, you can even get a replica katana (samurai sword) but you'd better make sure it is boxed and labelled as a souvenir or you may have trouble with customs when you arrive home. When the stores finish, the entrance stairs await. This is the best spot for a group photo if you need one. If you loiter for too long, someone may ask you to take a snap of them or sometimes with them.
So you walk up the steps and follow your nose, pay the fee then 'do the dera'. Make sure you visit the stalls that sell Omamori (charms, talismans) and it is perfectly ok for you to sip from each of the three cups of water at the otawa-no-taki, the waterfall where visitors drink for health, longevity and success in studies. So that's how you do the Dera really. It's best to take your time walking up to view the stores before buying. The route you take to see Kiyomizudera, will take you back down the same road and it is easier to buy on the way down than the way up.
When I take highschool kids on these tours, I always make sure I take the same route back as the one I used to get there because I love that walk so much but you may just chose to catch a taxi at the bottom of the street leading away from Kiyomizudera. At the very end of the street, if you turn right, it is a fairly quick walk back to Yasaka Jinjya so it is not a problem if a group splits into the agile who take the long way back and less agile who just take it easy, take the quick way and get a few snacks at the Lawsons before meeting the die-hards in front of Yaska Jinja on their return.
So that's the first Kyoto post in all it's glory. If this post proves to be in any way a all popular, I'll follow this up with advice on a trip the the Kyoto Handicraft Centre then a quaint little tram ride to Eiga Mura, home of the Kurosawa movies. I might even get to Shin-Osaka station, The Midosuji Subway, Umeda, Nanba, Tennoji, Mino Mountain and a host of other great places to see in the Kansai area. Shizuoka Ken could be featured as well as Hyogo prefecture, Hiroshima, Miyajimi, Himeji and Tokyo - who knows?
BTW: I've added a new widget link (up and to the right of this page) to a new post on Soundcloud. It was a Christmas song - Jingle Bells - and was done in a sort of hip hop style for a jazz ballet group. Worked well for the group and I have made it downloadable if anyone wants to use it.
That's all for now
Ja Mata Ne