First Kyoto and then Nara

With a population of around 1.5 million, Kyoto is lined with breathtaking temples and shrines on every corner. These are places where locals and tourists alike gather to share a moment of peace.

17 dk okuma

Day 8 – (October 6) Kyoto

It was exactly 16:57 when we arrived in Kyoto from Himeji. It was one stop from Kyoto central station to Hilton Garden Inn Kyoto Shijo Karasuma where we would stay. After completing the check-in procedures, we went out. Our destination was Fushimi Inari Temple, which we planned to visit tomorrow.

Fushimi Inari is the name of an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is one of the buildings that define Japan. There are actually many of these buildings in Kyoto, but this temple with thousands of red doors is one of the symbols of the country. We had to take a taxi to reach the temple before it got dark. This was our first taxi experience in Japan. Even though the distance was close, the amount we paid was close to the sum of money we would spend on the subway during the day. In front of the temple, we again encountered a crowded group of people. The sun was getting ready to set just above this giant torii gate, whose name we later learned was Romon. On either side of the main gate, giant cat statues were looking at us with a slightly nervous look, ready to pounce on us at any moment. As the sun was getting ready to set in all its glory, the color of the sky was changing into the color of the temple gates. Thousands of torii were waiting for us on the path that started right behind us and it was getting dark fast.

Parallel rows of gates called Senbon Torii

The trails lead to the forested area of the sacred Mount Inari, which is 233 meters high and belongs to the temple grounds. Fushimi Inari is the most important of thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Since foxes are thought to be the messengers of Inari, there are many fox statues on the temple grounds. The animals I mistook for cats at the entrance turned out to be foxes.

The temple dates back to before the capital was moved to Kyoto in 794. Our goal was to walk along the mountain path under the gates and we were going to walk with a large group of tourists. The main building of the temple is as fine a piece of architecture as the paths. After repeating our wishes here and addressing the relevant authorities one more time, we finally set out on the path of thousands of gates.

Behind the temple, we were now inside two dense, parallel rows of gates called Senbon Torii (“thousands of torii gates”). The longer this walking trail went on, the less touristy it became, and the darker it got, the more deserted it became. We had read that these gates were donated by individuals and companies. The name of the donor and the date of donation were written on the back of each door. Of course, the real question is how much? I’m sure no one except the tourists from our country noticed this, but let’s not let the subject pass without answering the question. The donation amount was around 400,000 yen for a small door. It was a disappointment to learn that the inscriptions on the doors were the names of the businesses and donors. I actually believed that these were proverbs or sacred words guiding the Japanese. The larger the doors, the larger the amount to be donated. We are walking under doors worth millions of yen.

Senbon Torii

The hike to the top of the mountain takes about 2-3 hours. There are a few restaurants along the way, including Inari Sushi and Kitsune Udon, both of which serve locally themed dishes, including pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), said to be a favorite food of foxes. But food is not on the agenda. We’re not going to the summit either. Our only goal is to descend the dark mountain without getting lost.

After about 45 minutes of climbing and a gradual decrease in the density of the torii gates, we reached the Yotsutsuji intersection about halfway up the mountain, where the night view of Kyoto was spectacular. After a rest at this junction, we started our descent.

It was unlike any mountain path we had ever walked before. We walked and walked through the temple’s seemingly never-ending tunnel of gates. Thousands of red-colored torii gates lined along the way, protecting us from the forests and wild animals of sacred Mount Inari. Or so we believed. We were feeling the effects of being in Japan for a week.

Day 9 – (October 7) Bamboo forest

Bamboo Gardens

The morning of October 7 started as usual with a hearty breakfast at the hotel. Today’s program is a bit crowded. We will first go to the Arashiyama area to see the Bamboo forest and monkey park, then Kinkakuji and Ryoanji garden and walk around the city.

Arashiyama is an area just north of Kyoto, spread across the foothills and famous for its green spaces, zen gardens and temples. The bamboo forest and Togetsukyo Bridge are also here.

The fastest way to get from Kyoto Station to Arashiyama is the JR Sagano Line. We used this line and reached the center of Arashiyama in 15 minutes. We were no longer surprised to see the crowds that resembled the holiday crowds. Since the first day, every stop we went to, every street we walked on was crowded and I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t seen this crowd on the 9th day of our trip.

The first stop in the area was the Bamboo Gardens. It was great to walk on the paths. Watching the bamboo towering above us, time passed without us realizing it. Especially the long bamboo stalks that started to sway back and forth with a light wind and the sounds they made resembled a natural orchestra.

The mystical bamboo path in Arashiyama is every Instagrammer’s paradise, a meeting place for photography enthusiasts. It is forbidden to take bad photos here. The environment is not suitable for that. I tried and failed.

The mystical bamboo path in Arashiyama is every Instagrammer’s paradise

If you’ve ever clicked on a list of “places to see before you die” or the most beautiful forests in the world, you’ve probably seen a photo of Sagano. The 500-meter path can easily turn into a photogenic hike to the peak of your photographic abilities. The towering green stalks of bamboo sway in the wind, eerily bumping and bending and rustling their leaves. The sun is trying to filter through the dense grove. On the wide path through the middle of the forest, camera-toting tourists record the scene. Thin beams of light reach the ground and hit the cameras and phone screens. Everyone is happy with the beauty of their shots. Thinking that they are now in a class of their own when it comes to photography, they continue walking down the path with heavy steps.

The beauty of this emerald bamboo grove is a source of income not only for tourists but also for Kyoto artisans making souvenirs. Small shops lining the main street of Arashiyama are filled with products made from bamboo.

Initially, we thought we would visit the famous bamboo grove and get a taste of this popular travel destination. But we underestimated both the natural and cultural richness of Arashiyama. There is so much to discover in this region.

We left the forest and walked around the nearby Tenryu-ji temple and its garden with Sojenchi pond. Tenryuji is the most important temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. It ranks first among the city’s five major Zen temples. The temple buildings have been destroyed by fire and war many times over the centuries. Most of the existing halls, including the main hall (Hojo), the drawing hall (Shoin) and the temple kitchen (Kuri) with its distinctive small tower, were built during the relatively recent Meiji Period (1868-1912).

Togetsukyo Bridge

From here we walked to Togetsukyo Bridge, one of the well-known landmarks of Arashiyama. There were people traveling on the river with the boats they rented, in fact I was supposed to go out on the river with one of these boats, but I had to give up this love with the insistent warnings of Yelda who didn’t trust my captaincy.

One of the most enjoyable ways to visit the area is to rent bicycles for about 1000 yen, but I gave up on this plan considering the traffic flowing on the left and the crowds of people.

We crossed the bridge and climbed for 10 minutes to Iwatayama Monkey Park. It was a different sight than we expected. I thought monkeys were roaming around like the deer in Miyajima. It is only allowed to give food to monkeys behind the fence in a certain area of the park. So it’s the opposite of a zoo. People who want to feed the animals go into cages. And the monkeys freely nibble the food people give them around these cages. While everyone was taking care of the monkeys, we found a bench and turned our backs to the monkeys. Because there was a magnificent view of Kyoto right in front of us. After relieving the tiredness of climbing here, we started to descend. We couldn’t wait to see one of the most famous places in Kyoto, and soon we would be standing in front of a gold-plated mansion and thinking long thoughts.

Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji, also called the Golden Pavilion

Kyoto has many temples of historical significance. They all have their own unique atmosphere and aesthetic appeal. If we tried to do justice to each and every one of them, we wouldn’t be able to leave Kyoto for a few months. But we do not skip the must-sees. Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is one of the few temples that caught our eye on our Kyoto trip. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu spent his retirement days here. After his death in 1408, it became a temple. Each floor represents a different architectural style and overlooks a large pond. It is an impressive structure. It is covered in gold, is it possible not to be impressed?

Passing by the pavilion, the road leads through the temple gardens, which still retain their original design. In the gardens, there is the Anmintaku Pond, which is said to never dry up, and statues where people throw coins for good luck.

We had read that the best time to visit this place is early in the morning. In the afternoon it was crowded with school buses and organized tours. We didn’t want to betray the crowds that we had gotten used to from the moment we set foot in Japan. We were in front of the temple at the busiest time of the day.

I can’t decide whether to look at the mansion itself or its reflection in the lake. With the pressure of the crowd behind me, it is impossible to watch the mansion for long. We follow the road and approach the pavilion. I can’t take my eyes off the reflection of the temple. It’s a beautiful view, no doubt, but since it’s a cloudy day, the golden pavilion is only occasionally illuminated, and when the sun disappears, so does the reflection and the glow.

As we follow the path and walk around the lake, the pavilion continues to pose differently from different perspectives. It’s easy to get good photos but there were too many people around. So it is better to be patient and wait. The best view is right opposite the temple, by the lake. Although the light is low, we will have to make do with it. Tripods are not allowed here.

It took us about an hour to walk around Kinkakuji temple. Because of the crowds, we didn’t get to enjoy this very special place. We should have listened and come in the early morning. Kinkakuji is one of the must-visit places in my Kyoto itinerary, but the most important thing is to decide whether a trip to Kinkakuji is worth it for you. Once you make that decision, the rest is easy.

Dreams in the rock garden

The gateway to dreams Ryoanji zen garden

Ryoanji Temple is home to Japan’s most famous rock garden. Originally an aristocratic villa during the Heian Period, it was converted into a Zen temple in 1450. It has been attracting visitors ever since. We were one of them and in the Zen garden of this temple, we dreamed, we were swept off our feet and reached other realms.

The history of Ryoanji’s famous rock garden is a mix of fact and legend. The date of the garden’s construction is unknown and there is much speculation about its designer. The garden consists of a rectangular pebble plot surrounded by low earthen walls, with 15 rocks rising above it in small groups. Another interesting feature of the garden’s design is that from any viewpoint at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer.

Some think of rocks and dredged pebbles as the sea and the islands that rise above it. For others, they are mountains rising above the clouds. For others, each one looks like an animal. So the meaning of the garden is as ambiguous as its origin. It’s not one of those image tests that are fashionable on social media, but those who look at it are immersed in different worlds depending on their mood. Since the meaning of the garden is not clearly stated, it is up to the viewer to find it.

As I quietly wandered around the temple grounds, there was an attractive pond called Benten Island, after one of the Seven Lucky Gods, and a stone with some inscriptions on it. I was impressed when I read the meaning:

I am learning to be content.”

This garden invites you to a spiritual nirvana. A serene space shrouded in mystery. While only 14 rocks can be seen in the garden, those who can see the fifteenth stone are said to have reached the final stage of enlightenment. Because in Buddhist numerology, the number “15” represents perfection. Nevertheless, the abstract design of the garden does not prevent the effort to see all 15 stones at the same time from any angle. We cannot see the 15th stone. We will still have to work on our maturity. The reflection on the rocks is open to interpretation. Whatever it means, come here and find out what it means to you.

Besides the stone garden, there are some pictures on the sliding doors (fusuma) of Hojo’s tatami rooms and a few other small gardens at the back of the building.

By the time we left the garden it was getting dark and we were too engrossed in our zen thoughts to pay much attention to our stomachs. When we got to the city center we stopped by the Nishiki district, a foodie paradise in the center of Kyoto.

We wandered down a narrow five-block shopping street lined with shops and restaurants. The market, known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, is famous for its fresh seafood, knives and cookware. Seasonal foods, sweets, pickles, dried seafood, sushi are everywhere. Each shop specializes in the product it sells. Almost everything sold in the market is locally produced. The restaurants are small, everyone shoulder to shoulder on a few stools. There is no place to sit in most of the food stands anyway. Whatever is cooked is served and eaten in front of the shop. In a country where eating on foot is considered inappropriate, there is no other option. If you walk away from the front of the shop, it is impossible to find a box to throw your garbage.

Japan’s first capital Nara

Day 10 – (October 8) Nara

Nara is less than an hour from Kyoto and Osaka

Japan’s first permanent capital was established in 710 in Heijo, today known as Nara. Before that, the capital was moved to a new location whenever a new emperor ascended the throne. When the influence of the city’s powerful Buddhist monasteries and the political ambitions of Buddhist monks became a serious threat to the government, the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 and then to Kyoto a few years later.

Nara is less than an hour from Kyoto and Osaka. Because of its historical importance, the city is full of cultural treasures, including some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples. The most famous of these is Todaiji Temple. The large temple with a giant Buddha statue inside is also the city’s landmark.

Messengers of the gods

The deer that roam freely in the park are registered as a national natural treasure.

Nara Park, a 45-minute train ride south of Kyoto, is home to more than 1,000 sacred deer that have learned to bow for treats. The weather is rainy. We met Japan’s first rainy weather in Nara, so we put on our raincoats and head to the park to meet the messengers of the gods. The park is located in a large and wooded area stretching up to Mount Wakakusayama.

At the entrance to the park, a few “messengers” block our way. They approach our hand as they do with all other visitors. But we have no food to give them. At least for now. Hoping to meet again on the way back to the temple, we dodge the deer and enter the temple hall.

Open hand of the statue is the size of a human.

Until recently, Todaiji’s main hall, Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), held the record for the largest wooden building in the world. The massive building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze Buddha statues (Daibutsu). The seated 15 meter tall Buddha represents Vairocana. Open hand of the statue is the size of a human.

The Daibutsuden Hall also displays several small Buddhist statues and models of old and current buildings. Another popular attraction is the pillar with a hole at its base the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. It is said that those who can pass through this hole will attain enlightenment in their next life, but the hole is so narrow that only children can pass through. As you approach Todaiji, there is a large wooden gate watched over by two stern-looking statues. It is called the Nandaimon Gate.

After our visit to the temple, we encounter deer again. The deer roaming freely in the park are registered as a national natural treasure. They are used to being fed by tourists coming to Nara. They take what they can from you and continue on their way, in return they allow you to touch them.

Nara’s deer have always been friendly with the people of the region. In 1177, Kujo Kanezane, a nobleman visiting the region with his family, came across a herd of deer with his traveling party. Seeing the deer approaching, a young boy got out of his carriage and greeted them. According to the records, this is how the first contact began. It doesn’t sound like a very interesting story. During the construction of the temple, the contact between humans and deer increased and a friendly relationship began that has lasted to this day. Those who broke this relationship, hunted deer or mistreated deer had their property confiscated and some were punished with death.

Deer are everywhere in the park today. Baby deer were frolicking in the park when we met them again on our way back to the temple. The older ones are asking the tourists for something to eat. Each one is looking for special deer rice crackers to be offered to them. The cunning deer in search of treats have taken control of the entrance and exit of the temple. They distract the tourists and prevent them from going any further without giving them crackers. Most of them are waiting in front of the temple gate to pose for tourists. Everything here is based on mutual benefit. The deer don’t turn around and walk away when they get the cracker they want. They bow their necks and greet you a few times. The cracker the deer eat is called Shika Sembei.

We’ve fed the deer, now it’s our turn. Today there was a festival on the main road to the park, a food festival. Despite the rainy weather, the festival area was full of visitors. We were as happy as the deer we gave food to in the park where different foods were prepared and sold.

Back in Kyoto, we had time to walk around a bit more. Kyoto is considered one of the best places in Japan to enjoy the cherry blossoms. Although we didn’t get to see those days of the city, we came to another beautiful period of Kyoto in autumn. Today it was raining and the cherry trees had lost their leaves, but we were not going to leave the city without seeing this famous road. Since we didn’t arrive at the right time, there was no one else around but us. In fact, the road didn’t make much sense without the cherry blossoms. In the early 1900s, Kyoto University philosophy professor Nishida Kitaro used to take walks on this road whenever he was bored. He would ask the questions he was looking for answers to one more time on this road.

Day 11 – (October 9) Kiyomizudera

Kiyomizudera Temple is also a sacred place dedicated to the gods of love and longevity

Famous for its large wooden terrace, Kiyomizudera (Pure Water Temple) is one of Japan’s most famous temples. It was founded in 780 on the site of Otowa Waterfall in the forested hills east of Kyoto and named after the pure waters of the waterfall.

The expression “jumping off the Kiyomizu stage”, a popular stunt during the Edo period, continues to be used centuries later as a Japanese proverb meaning to take a risk or to ‘take the plunge’. It’s not just a proverb… More than 200 people jumped from the terrace of the temple, believing that their wishes would come true if they survived. Most of them died on the spot.

Kiyomizudera Temple is also a sacred place dedicated to the gods of love and longevity. Behind its main hall is Jishu Temple, a temple dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking. Expectant mothers, those who are looking for a partner, those who want to know the future of their love life come into contact with the water flowing inside the temple. There is a long line in front of the water. There are no restrictions on the range of wishes. A long life, success in school, more love, more money…But try not to drink as much water as you wish. Or drink more water than necessary to get your wish immediately. You don’t want to look desperate.

The most striking part of Kiyomizudera is the wooden stage that stretches from the main hall to the 13-meter-high hillside. The stage is adorned with countless cherry and maple trees that turn into a sea of color in spring and autumn, as well as a beautiful view of the distant city of Kyoto. Together with the stage, the main hall, built without the use of nails, houses a small statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon.

Historic road

Those who complete their visit to the temple cannot return home without wandering the streets of Higashiyama.

One of the most fun things about visiting Kiyomizudera is wandering the busy roads of Higashiyama. The shops and restaurants here have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for centuries. There are all kinds of souvenirs, but nothing beats the local sweet specialties.

It is also one of the city’s best-preserved historic districts. Especially this narrow road between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine and the traditional shops take visitors on a journey through time. This walking route is about two kilometers long and can be completed in half an hour.

Ryozen Kannon

At the end of the walk we come across another giant Buddha statue. His name is Ryozen Kannon. From where he is sitting, he is looking at Kyoto. Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, is depicted. The statue, built in memory of Japanese soldiers who died during the Second World War, is 24 meters high. After going inside and visiting the museum, we stopped by Yasaka Temple.

Yasaka Shrine, home to the Gion Matsuri, is another famous temple in Kyoto. Its lanterns are lit every evening. Yasaka Pagoda, the last remnant of Hokanji Temple, is also here. The most visible tower of the Higashiyama District is open to visitors from time to time, but it was closed the day we were there, so we just watched it from outside.

It was time to end the day and indulge in the unique flavors of the beautiful Japanese cuisine. We were in one of the best places in the city for this: a long, narrow street called Pontocho, a temple for foodies. One block west of the Kamogawa River, both sides of the narrow street offer something for every wallet, from cheap yakitori to traditional and modern Kyoto cuisine. Most of the restaurants on the east side of the street face the Kamogawa River. From May through September, many build temporary platforms over the flowing water where customers can dine al fresco.

We have come to the end of another day in Kyoto. Actually, we have come to the end of Kyoto because we will leave for Tokyo at 17:00. We arrived at the station early, taking our luggage from the lockers where we left our luggage and started to wait for our Shinkansen.

With a population of around 1.5 million, Kyoto is lined with breathtaking temples and shrines on every corner. These are places where locals and tourists alike gather to share a moment of peace. Whether it’s a space to house sacred objects or a place to worship, each one is special. Those planning a trip to Japan should reconsider their plans. This is not a city that can be visited in a few days like ours.

When we first arrived in Kyoto, it looked like any other modern city in Japan. Yet it was clear that there were many secrets waiting to be discovered in the alleyways and foothills. This is the intersection of all the concepts that make up the definition of Japan. A strong sense of tradition, old wooden buildings, ancient pagodas, pristine gardens, cherry blossoms, peaceful landscapes and even geisha…

Next: We’re going to Tokyo, but first Mount Fuji

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