Recently I had the pleasure of doing something I did not ever think I would. I always knew that I would travel to many places, and perhaps stay in some of them for extended periods of time. However, I did not ever expect to return to a country for a tenth visit, ten consecutive years in a row. This year, I did just that. The country; Japan. Nippon. 日本.
I could try and recount a chronological account of the trip, but I don’t want to do that. I want to treat each scene as it’s own chapter, independent of the others. Each place, city, scene, suburb, store – seem to exist in their own frame of reference, with it’s own time-space continuum. No other country could display such diversity in culture, yet remain so homogenous.
Let me begin then, with Kyoto for no other reason than when I think that out of all of the photos I took on this recent voyage, one stands out in my mind as being the best – the featured image of this post. It’s an image of the distant blue rolling hills at dusk, taken on a bridge that links the old part of the city (Gion) with the new. Consider it a metaphor for all of Japan – such history, so close to our modern world.
This tenth trip was made all the better with the company of a group of friends. Four of us went to Kyoto; I was the only one who had been before. Only one had not been to Japan though. We decided to splurge out a bit here and stay in a very nice Ryokan (traditional inn), in the centre of the old part of Kyoto, Gion. The Ryokan was named Gion Hatanaka, and it comes highly recommended.
The day we arrived in Kyoto we decided to go to the Fushimi Inari Taisha (shrine) in the afternoon. I knew from experience that it was out of the way, a little bit apart from the other Kyoto attractions, and would take the better part of an afternoon. So it made sense to get it “out of the way” (I wish there was a more positive sounding phrase in english) on that afternoon. I also knew from experience that it is quite literally awesome. An awesome experience. So I wanted to show my friends what I consider some of the best of Kyoto straight up, as they had been somewhat skeptical of the value of Kyoto.
Well, I sure showed them. The shrinecomplex occupies a mountain, with paths winding steeply to the top, from the main shrine at the base. The paths are lined with red gates (Torii) that one passes through, each gate an offering to ancestors purchased by the still living. The emblem of the site is the fox, and if you ever get there, you will see many of them in stone form as you ascend the mountain. Four of us started at the base; not all of us reached the peak. A pity for them, as near the top a magnificent view of greater Kyoto is afforded the ones who exert the energy to get there.
When you are next in Kyoto, go to Fushimi Inari.
We ate lunch this day at “Issen Yosyoku”. What a strange place that was. Apparently you are served by “the four most beautiful women in Kyoto,” mannequins that sit at each table and stare at you whilst you eat. Weirder still were the wooden tiles adorning the wall (the same as those commonly seen at shrines), painted long ago with hilarious and lewd scenes. The only item on the menu, we quickly discovered, was their take on Okonomiyaki, for ¥680. It was so oishi. I had to have two, that’s how oishi it was.
Dinner was had at “Tenkaippin” next to the Yasaka shrine in Gion, a Kyoto-based ramen chain. Again, incredibly delicious. I had never had a ramen like this, “70’s style,” so thick and gelatinous. Once again, highly recommended – I know my ramen.
The next day we each hired bikes for ¥1000. It was a very hot day this day. So we slathered up the sunscreen and got riding, along the River Kamo towards the Imperial Palace. Once we arrived, we found that tours of the insider were by prior booking only, and only at allocated times. We decided to skip it, as the grounds around the palace were quite pleasant enough.
Next, we headed across the city to Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion, then Ryoanji, the zen rock garden. We stopped for lunch at an unassuming sushi joint that was quite cheap and highly automated. Musch sushi was had. After this, we kept cycling along the road to Ninnaji, another temple complex that was closing as it was around 5pm by this point. Two of us returned to Gion; enough exercise for them in one day. Never enough for me, I say. Next stop was on the other side of the city, Arashiyama. Here is where one finds the Bamboo Forests, which are quite enchanting, if a little tame. Also at Arashiyama is a great spot to watch the sun go down, mountains all around, a wide river flowing and traditional Kyoto architecture. A truly beautiful spot. We didn’t go this time, but the monkey park is in Arashiyama & it’s well worth a visit.
Ben & I ended the day with a long 10km ride across all of Kyoto along Shijo Dori back to Gion (bringing the total distance of the day to 27km). This alone made the bike rental worthwhile. Rarely does one get to see so much of a city, so quickly, and yet feel so much “in” it. Riding across Kyoto, more than any of the shrines and temples, really made me feel like I knew the place.
We ended this day in a much deserved onsen bath in our ryokan, Gion Hatanaka. The extremely hot water soothes the muscles, the cold beer and whisky soothes the soul. If you are looking for a quality place to rest your head in a nice area of Kyoto, I can happily recommend Gion Hatanaka for it’s hospitality, atmosphere & traditional Japanese style rooms that are quite comfortable.
One more day; this day we leave for Nagoya by Shinkansen. Not before one last temple, Chorakuji. This was the oldest one we saw, the most understated, the least popular. Whilst at Kinkakuji one has to line up with tour busses to get in, and Fushimi Inari is filled with people, we did not see another soul at Chorakuji except for the monk that resides there. It used to be a very important place of worship, and played a part in ancient Japanese political life. Today it is a very peaceful, very scenic gem on the hillside above Gion.
We stayed this night at Nagoya Traveller’s Hostel, in an area of Nagoya that at first seemed like a red light district, Sakae. Soon though, all of Nagoya seemed to give off a red light district vibe. We didn’t spend enough time in Nagoya for me to really form an opinion either way on it, so I won’t divulge much except that I would like to go back and immerse myself a bit more. We were there so that we could easily visit the Toyota factory in nearby Toyota the next day. We did a fair bit of shopping, which Nagoya is known for, and ate at a delicious yet expensive Yakitori joint (chicken parts on skewers).
For our trip to the Toyota factory we loaded our bags into a locker at Nagoya station. It’s then about an hour by two trains away. We each were quite surprised by the factory; we expected immaculately clean, sparkling white labs where robots made cars to precision. In reality, the factory has a 70’s vibe to it, is a little dirty, and robots really only do welding work. The key is that everything is a highly scripted and polished process in which humans are still the most important part. If you want to check it out, it’s called the Toyota Kaikan Museum, and it’s free – you just need to make a booking.
As the Toyota Kaikan Museum trip took most of the day, when we returned to Nagoya we promptly boarded a Shinkansen to Tokyo, a story I will regale you with another day. For now though, I’m thinking about the next time I’ll get to see beautiful Kyoto again.