If visiting Tokyo feels like going to the future, then visiting Kyoto is going back in time. The train station is sleek and modern but as soon as you leave it you are in the land of temples and shrines and women wearing kimonos around town. That also means tourists and people speaking English and places that take credit cards – all things that I can appreciate while travelling but that I had gotten used to doing without in Tokyo. I wrote in my journal, “it feels so strange to be in Gion district with souvenir stores and trash cans. Today I actually saw some (extremely uncomfortable-looking) benches…and an older woman sitting on the floor! Mind blown.”
After my Kamakura temple tour, I had my work cut out for me. On the first day I went to Kinkaku-ji temple (the Golden pavilion) then Ryoan-ji (with its serene rock garden), and then Nijo Castle, but somehow I just wasn’t feeling it. Kinkaku-ji is amazingly beautiful but it seems strange to me that a Buddhist temple would be gold-plated. I couldn’t get my head wrapped around the irony of that. And the Ryoan-ji rock garden – set up in such a way that you can never see all 13 stones – felt like a good place to sit and meditate or read but it was overflowing with crowds. Nijo Castle was neat and I was grateful to be able to go inside after the fly-by visit to the Imperial Castle in Tokyo, but there is not much to see other than the building structure, the moat and the “nightingale floors” which were designed to creak musically and deter intruders. All of the furniture and original screens have been moved to another museum.
And I was getting tired by this point. It was hot and humid and my feet were killing me. I had brought my flat Toms with me to Japan, because I had prioritized having cool feet and being able to slip them on and off several times a day, but my feet weren’t standing up to the endless walking with no support. I tried to buy some insoles but I’m sure the Japanese manufacturers couldn’t even conceive of my size 10 feet and so they only came 2/3rds of the way up. By the time I got to Nijo Castle in the afternoon, I had taken to calling them my nightingale shoes because they were squeaking all kinds of different notes.
In the evening I put on a dress and went to visit the Gion and Pontocho districts, both historic “geisha” districts (although Gion is the more notable) that are laid out with red lanterns and bamboo slatted storefronts with so many beautiful shops and restaurants as well as the historic teahouses.
“Geisha” actually means ‘art person’ in Japanese and includes males. In Gion, they prefer the term geiko, ‘a woman of art’. Maiko (‘dance child’) are geiko / geisha in training and are identified by higher platform heels and extra hair ornaments. Several photographers were hanging around the main teahouse, trying to get a glimpse of the women on their evening rounds but I was both bored by that exercise and feeling weirded out by the theme park level of tourism in the area so instead I wandered up and down the narrow alleyways, checking out all the things. I overheard one man saying to his wife at a cafe, “yeah, but even if we stayed here for a month you couldn’t eat at ALL of them,” and I knew exactly how she felt. Taking shortcuts and back alleys, I actually ran into both a geisha and a maiko with their entourages, trying to avoid the crowds. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo but I was pretty satisfied with that experienced and went off to find some Kyoto-style sushi.
The next morning I climbed the sacred fox mountain. I had considered visiting the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine with its ten thousand orange torii gates the previous day but changed my mind when I read in my guidebook that I should allocate 2-3 hours. Why on earth?! The shrine is a bit south of Kyoto but other than the time needed to get there I couldn’t understand why I would need so much time to get my calligraphy book signed, throw some coins, ring the bell and pay my respects – as I had done in all of the previous shrines. But when I arrived and set off (through a side door again, I am always missing the main gate), I saw people walking their dogs and doing landscape maintenance. I walked for ten minutes or so, wondering where the famous Pi-shaped gates were or even a map and then I found both – the shrine sits on Inari mountain which has four main shrines and thousands of sub-shrines, spanning about 4 kilometres. The orange torii gates cover the entire mountain in all sizes – corporations sponsor large structures that form an archway over the trails and smaller versions are sold as emas that visitors can buy and leave at the shrine. As if this weren’t enough to cover the whole mountain in orange, as I walked up the mountain I passed huge stacks of “used” emas, collected from the shrines to be burned as an offering to the gods.
The god, in this case, is Inari, the god of rice but foxes are the messengers of the gods and highly represented here. The main gates feature a pair of fox statues, one with a key to the rice storeroom in its mouth and the other with a jewel that represents the spirit of the gods. This iconography is repeated all over the mountain, with some fox statues wearing red aprons and toques and with fortunes tied around their feet – clearly recently cared for – while others were many years old, broken and eroding. Some of these were also dressed in deteriorating red aprons and toques and in addition to the statues, fox-shaped emas were also for sale so the effect was hundreds of fox eyes staring out at you which gave the mountain a vaguely creepy air. I was there early in the morning and there were a few hikers around but the udon shops weren’t open yet and I saw no crowds until I was almost all the way down again. I did pass one man who was off to the side of the trail surreptitiously brushing the long blond hair of a doll. I thought it must be for an offering but when he saw me coming he turned away and hid it in his jacket.
As I was climbing up and up, the landscape alternating between orange gates and landings full of foxes and shrines, I had plenty of time to think about my time in Japan and how this year has changed me as a person. I wouldn’t call it a meditation per se but when I arrived at the shrine at the top of the mountain, it was so anticlimactic to make it obvious that the journey was the reward (and maybe an udon soup if the shops were open – the sake for sale is to give to the foxes).
When I got back down to the main gates it was late morning and the busses had started to arrive. School children were all over the main shrine area, taking selfies while they rang the bell to wake up the gods, hanging strands of origami cranes and giving carrot offerings to the horse shrine. An older woman who had been sweeping the plaza with a wooden broom when I arrived was now sitting in the shade watching her work being recreated for her. On the way down I had been thinking that it would have been nice to bring a book and maybe spend a few more hours there but my feet were killing me. In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have come for a mountain hike in my bad shoes if I had known what I was in for in advance, but I’m glad I did because it turned out to be one of my favourite places in Japan.
Since I missed out on kitsune (fox) udon soup on the mountain, and since it was on my way back into town, I decided to stop in at Nishiki Market instead of pressing on into the countryside to visit the Suntory distillery. People kept telling me that I would like Kyoto better than Tokyo and I can see why that would be a popular sentiment. It has the tourist infrastructure, the beautiful temples and shrines, the decades of ex-pat writers coming to study, etc. All of the Americans I met on my flight from Korea were headed there, but I’m not so sure. Tokyo is far more closed to outsiders and that makes it interesting to me; I want to learn Japanese so that I can hang out in the yakitori bars with people after work and I want to learn what all the things in the depachika department stores taste like. When I was planning my trip, I chose Japan because I wanted to explore somewhere that I could lose myself, struggle, and grow. Tokyo floored me in that regard but Kyoto is different. I spent the entire time I was there making (what felt like) huge decisions – should I eat lunch or go drink whisky? Should I spend the day at the fox mountain or go to the Arashiyama bamboo forest? Should I go to a Maiko show or stay in a traditional Japanese inn? But other than getting lost on the bus, it didn’t challenge me in the same way that Tokyo did. I love that the Japanese literature books I’ve been reading (some written a very long time ago) take place in the spots I was visiting, and I could have easily spent a month there and seen everything that I wanted to (maybe even found my way into the local culture) but Kyoto felt closer to vacation than travel, as my husband likes to say.
And even though I agonized over some of my decisions, I regret nothing. Nishiki Market was lovely and has at least one of every Japanese delicacy; seafood (both dried and fresh), tea, dessert, fresh produce, snacks, all kinds of pickles, knives, and lunch. I wandered through the stalls and sampled matcha tea flavoured warabi mochi (a softer, looser version than the traditional rice cake…something like a savoury marshmallow), tai yaki (the fish-shaped cake filled with red bean paste), and kasuzuke (pickles made with fermented sake lees). After feasting my eyes, I tucked into some udon noodles with grilled mochi wrapped in nori and a beer – so satisfying after my hike! In the evening I had burnt miso ramen from Gogyo so it turned out to be a day of noodles…always a very good day.
The next day I spent in eastern Kyoto, visiting Kiyomizu-dera temple and the Higashiyama area around it with its ancient shops and restaurants. Some have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for hundreds of years. Kiyomizu-dera is a wooden temple (unbelievably, no nails are used in the entire building) high up on the hill so it has survived many of the fires that ruined other wooden temples from the same era. It also meant that it was a bit of a hike – my second mountain climb in as many days in my terrible shoes, but other visitors were walking up the trail in traditional kimonos and sandals so I kept my grumbling to myself. The view from the top was worth it in any case. Kiyomizu-dera is celebrated in all seasons because of the beautiful view out over the cherry and maple trees to the city below.
It was extremely crowded but I spent some time wandering around the main hall, and drinking from the Otowa waterfall where you can choose from a stream for longevity, success at school, or luck in love. There is also an entire shrine dedicated to the god of love and that might have explained all the teenagers. Like all the shrines, there were charms and fortunes for sale but the main draw are two stones that you have to walk between with your eyes closed in order to find love. I laughed at the idea of this – clearly conceived in a time with far fewer tourists crowding the platform – but I didn’t stay long.
I had been on the fence about staying in a traditional ryokan inn because they are expensive and many ban tattooed people from the public bath – an important (in some cases necessary) part of the experience. But the exquisite seasonal kaiseki set menus (another important and necessary part of the experience) are planned ahead so they are unable to cater to dietary needs – meaning that I could plan to do it on some future trip, but not with Matt. I decided to book into Yuzuya Ryokan and at times it was strange – basically eating a tasting menu by myself, in a yukata (Japanese pajamas) but the food was incredible and I managed to avoid the public bath experience and offending anyone so that worked out.
I crawled into bed, full from my amazing dinner and fully prepared to go to sleep at 9 PM when I heard drums outside. I knew it was a full moon because I’d seen notices for various full moon festivals around town (the September Harvest full moon in particular is very special) but it hadn’t occurred to me that one would be happening at the Yasaka Shinto shrine right next door. I ran right over and got to watch the Taiko drummers and shrine maidens, grinning like mad at the unexpected experience – especially just a couple of days after happening upon a Shinto wedding!
In the morning, I went back to the shrine to get a stamp for my calligraphy book and then continued on to Chion-in temple next door. It has a beautiful winged Buddha but more importantly, it gives out 3 stamps – one for the temple, a poem and a Buddhist sutra – so that made my day, and then I was ready to hop on the train for Mount Koya.