Fall trip Part 1
September has been a challenging month. Will has been sick on and off, and it’s been raining almost every day. We’ve spent too much time at home, and I’ve been slipping into a deeper funk each day. Mike has also been working really long hours and with his fortieth birthday this week, we needed a get-away. We’d yet to visit Kyoto which served as the capital of Japan for over a thousand years and due to its historic influence was spared the destructive bombs of World War II. This preservation of ancient temples and shrines is why Kyoto always tops Japan’s must see list. We decided to start the week there as well as use it as a jumping off place for other areas we wanted to see.
The first morning of vacation, Mike slept in while I took the dogs to the kennel. We’d agree that in his exhausted state, he could opt in and out of my ambitious itinerary. We headed up to Tokyo late Tuesday morning and boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) for Kyoto. A little over 2 hours later, we arrived at Kyoto Station and checked into an Airbnb apartment near the station. Will was thrilled with the bunk bed in his room and quickly dubbed our Kyoto pad the “Bunk Bed Apartment”. It was difficult to drag him away but I’d hoped to squeeze in a little site-seeing on the only sunny day forecast for our Kyoto stay. Mike stayed behind and took a nap while Will and I hopped a bus to Kiyomizudera Temple. The bus dropped us off at the bottom of a narrow shopping street. We passed many small souvenir shops and lots of ice cream stalls as we climbed up to the temple. I was delighted to see a pagoda at the entrance as the pagoda is one of my favorite aspects of Japanese architecture. As happy as I was at the temple entrance, Will was equally unhappy as he had been denied ice cream multiple times. He quickly recovered as he began to run around the base of the pagoda and even more so as he discovered there were some things he was allowed to touch inside the main hall of the temple. He got to play a singing bowl, and there were also some vertical poles that he could move up and down. Obviously there was something you were trying to accomplish with this but I have no idea what it was. This older part of the temple, impressively built without nails, was very charming. We both enjoyed the large deck hanging over the side of the ravine and offering lovely views of another pagoda and Otowa waterfall. This waterfall is why Kiyomizudera (which literally translates to Pure Water Temple) was constructed on this site. We walked down the stairs to the fountain at the base of the Otowa waterfall. It is believed that if one drinks from the waterfall he/she will be blessed with either success in school, success in their love life, or good health. I’d read that you chose what stream to drink from in order to receive a specific benefit. I realized the Japanese people standing in line behind us spoke English so while we waited our turn I asked which stream was which. They responded that it was all the same and you just set the intention for which one you wanted. Will was excited about drinking from the waterfall, which made waiting our turn easier. Cups attached to long handles were provided and even were stored in a UV sanitizing lights. After our turn drinking pure, cold water at the fountain, we climbed the hill to see the other pagoda. The sun was setting, and it was quite beautiful to look back at the temple in the dusk sky.
Mike sent a message that he was at the Jam Hostel and Sake Bar in Gion if we wanted to meet him and then grab dinner. It was about a 25 minute walk away, and I decided Will and I would hit the pavement. I found some delightful narrow streets to wander through that really did look like we are stepping back into time. Will got sidelined by a talking dog in a souvenir shop, so it took us quite a bit longer to get there. Mike had no complaints about our arrival time as he was enjoying the sake bar and later said it was the best sake of the trip. Around the corner, we found a small yakitori restaurant, which is one of Will’s favorite things to eat. We completely pigged out on skewers of grilled meatballs, chicken, steak and mushrooms. My favorite was the grilled asparagus wrapped in bacon then layered with cream cheese and toasted with a torch right before serving. Delicious!
Wednesday’s weather called for rain and thunderstorms. It was raining steadily as we left the apartment, but slowed to a drizzle when we arrived at Daigo Temple. There were few people at this temple, a contrast from everywhere else we would visit. We first toured the Sanboin building, built in the 1100s and the former residence of the head priest. Will loves anything with tatami mats and really enjoyed walking around inside the building. He wanted to explore each room multiple times which allowed Mike to sit quietly admiring the peaceful garden outside. From there we walked to the lower Daigo complex and found the five-story pagoda which is Kyoto’s largest and oldest surviving building (constructed in 951). We continued back to Bentendo Hall and pond which was the most idyllic setting of the lower grounds. The whole temple was very serene as we practically had the place to ourselves. We contemplated doing the hour hike to the Upper Grounds, but I was interested in hiking the trail at Fushimi Inari so we ventured on.
Just after getting hopping off the bus at the train station, I patted my pockets and realized my camera was not in my pocket. I had made a mental note when I put on the pants that morning that I should not put my camera in my hip pocket because I knew things easily fell out. Somehow I’ve neglected my own advice. I frantically went through my bag in hopes I’d put it away. But I soon realized it must’ve fallen out on the bus. I’ve heard lots of stories of people recovering lost items in Japan so I tried to not freak out too much. It was a local bus so the odds were very high that a Japanese person would turn it in. I just had to figure out how to get it back. Fortunately I had paid attention to the bus company and within a few minutes had found a phone number to call. I held a few minutes of awkward conversation before an English speaker got on the line and a few more awkward minutes before he was able to understand exactly where I’d gotten off the bus and that my camera was missing. He told me that it would likely turn up at the end of that driver’s shift and got my phone number to call me back in a couple hours. We continued on to from Fushimi Inari, and I tried not to stress about it. I had my phone so I could use that as a camera in the meantime, and I reasoned that if my camera didn’t show up it was much better to lose it at the beginning of the trip instead of at the end of the trip.
Fushimi Inari was one of the destinations I was most excited about seeing. It’s an important shine but the main attraction is the thousands of Torii gates that straddle trails up and around Mount Inari. I love the Torii gate as it is such a symbol of Japan. I must not be the only one that feels this way as this is one of Kyoto’s most popular sites. It was very crowded at the shrine which I could tell was turning Mike off. However, I urged Mike on saying I’d heard that you could out walk the crowds as most people did not walk the whole trail. The crowds did continue longer than I anticipated but eventually they thinned out. Will had already tired out at this point and no longer wanted to walk. It wasn’t long before putting him on my back that he fell asleep. It drizzled on and off on the 2 hour long hike, and we heard distant thunder a couple times. The humidity felt like it was 150% and we are drenched in sweat. We took a break about 30 minutes from the top guzzling sports drinks to replace the moisture. At the top of the mountain my phone rang, and I was so happy to hear that my camera had been found.
We wound our way around the backside of the mountain passing some of the prettiest places on the trail. Large beautiful trees grew and walked through a couple tiny shrines along the side of the trail. There were very few people this far out and it was very peaceful. Despite the crowds and the weather, I still really enjoyed this trek. Will woke up to the bottom of the trail and I convinced him to come on a camera recovery mission with me. Mike was off to explore the nearby sake district. As we were saying our goodbyes, it began to rain harder accompanied by thunder and lightning. The thunder and lightning grew close together, and I ran to the train station just as some loud thunder boomed. We are standing in the train platform and lightning flashed and incredibly loud crack of thunder came right on top of it. Several people screamed on the train platform. I was very thankful to board the train and be in a safe spot. I was initially remorseful that I had to take the time to go get the camera, but it was actually a relief to do nothing but ride a bus and train. The crazy loud thunder and wicked lightening continued all the way to the bus depot. We found the depot easily and signed out my camera. We still had a couple hours before we are going to meet Mike, and I was debating what to do with Will. Although the storm seemed less threatening, there was still rain and distant thunder. The Kyoto Railway Museum would’ve been the perfect activity but it was a closed on Wednesdays. I was thinking about Nishiki Market but Will expressed interest in exploring more of Kyoto station as we passed through. Will then pointed out an ice cream display at the same time I noticed a lot of wine bottles in a restaurant window. I asked him if he wanted to go on a date with me. We each got dessert, and I had a glass of wine as we celebrated a successful mission accomplished. When walking back to the bunk bed apartment, we also discovered that we could walk several blocks underground out of Kyoto station cutting the outside portion of the walk back to the apartment in half.
The poor weather continued into the evening so we decided to return to Kyoto station for dinner. I hadn’t realized that the station was 11 stories high and several restaurants were on the top floors. As we rode the escalators up, we discovered a light show being cast on the adjacent large staircase. We stopped to watch and Will immediately started climbing up the stairs following the lights. He loved it. We had a simple traditional Japanese dinner including sashimi, udon and tempura. We then explored more of the station discovering lots of beautiful views of Kyoto as well as more lovely lights inside.
Thursday AKA Mike’s 40th Birthday
Kinkakuji, or the Golden Temple is another one of Kyoto’s best known tourist attractions. I let Mike know that it would likely be packed with tourists. He happily slept in while Will and I left early to get there right when the temple opened. Lots of tour groups and school groups had the same idea. This temple was packed! Fortunately Kinkakuji is built on a pond, and it’s organized with a have a one-way circuit that you walk along so it’s very easy to view and photograph this iconic temple. The grounds were also fairly small so it didn’t take long to see the beautiful temple and grounds. We wouldn’t have to rush to meet Mike at Arashiyama. We did light a candle for Mike for his birthday and one for Will to keep him safe and sound. We also grabbed a snack at 7-11 before heading off to meet Mike. We had a lucky stroke when Will and I happened to board the same train car Mike was in as we headed to Saga-Arashiyama station. Our plan was to take the Sagano Scenic Railroad about 30 minutes north then take a two hour rustic boat ride back down the Hozu River followed by a visit to the Arashiyama bamboo forest. When we arrived at the station, multiple signs stated the Hozu River Cruises were not running due to high water. I felt really bad for Mike because that was the activity he was most looking most forward to on this trip. At least they were advertising it here since I’d read it was a bit of a walk from the end of the train ride to the boat pier. It would’ve been more disappointing to discover it then.
We decided to still take ride the scenic train upriver and fifteen minutes later we chug-chugged out of the station. The muddy river certainly was swollen and moving swiftly contrasting with the photos advertising the river cruise. The train followed a narrow ridge between the mountain and the river which we crisscrossed a couple times before arriving in the town of Kameoka. The train station sat next to a rice patty along the river. A few river rafting and kayak outfitters were located there as well but to Mike’s disappointment none were open. We took a short walk to the JR train station and boarded the train back to Arashiyama and the bamboo grove. As soon as we entered the bamboo forest, Will asked to be carried and quickly fell asleep. I suggested Mike and I sneak in a relaxing lunch then come back to the grove after. We found a steak place a block away, and had a delicious and quiet date. Will woke up just as we were finishing. I’d packed plenty of food for him, so took him outside for his lunch as Mike settled the bill.
Since Arashiyama is on the outskirts of Kyoto, I hadn’t anticipated as many people as we found inside the bamboo grove. This was definitely a popular spot to visit too. The people weren’t as bothersome as the taxis that drove through the narrow path forcing us to push against the fence that separated the trail from the bamboo grove. It was still a picturesque place completely surrounded by the tall green bamboo swaying in the wind. Will had a blast running and insisting that Mike play tag with him. After finishing our stroll, I realized we still had time to see another site. The only other must do on my list was Nijo Castle, the Kyoto residence of the first Shogun. Mike wasn’t really interested and decided that he was going to head back to Kyoto and maybe explore some more breweries. So Will and I boarded the train for Nijo.
The Guidebook states that Nijo castle is the finest surviving example of feudal castle architecture in Japan, and it’s another hot spot on the Kyoto list. Whether it was the return of rain or the late afternoon hour, I was happy to see there were fewer people visiting than I expected. I even sent Mike a message to see if he wanted to join us, but he had settled in for a drink at the top of Kyoto Tower. The grounds reminded me a lot of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, but unlike the palace we were allowed to go inside the castle (photographs were prohibited). When touring things with Will, I feel we either speed through or take forever. A school field trip did allow me to slow him do to view the various receiving rooms and living quarters, but for the most part we toured the castle at a fast clip. Back outside, Will was content to play with the rocks for twenty minutes. The rain kept coming on and off. While raining, he would walk. As soon as it would stop, he’d want to settle and play with rocks or sticks. This drives Mike crazy but I had officially done everything we could on my list and the castle garden was a pretty nice place to relax. I realized that I was officially out of my September funk.
The grounds were larger than I had imagined and with Will often stopping to play, it was after five by the time we Mike at historic Nishiki market. Some of the stalls were already closing but we quickly gathered that since we live in Japan this market was not that different from other food markets we’ve visited. Of course, Mike was most interested in the sake shops and managed to find an unfiltered sake that’s usually only sold at the holidays. He also did some sake tasting at another stop. We didn’t want to spoil our dinner but we couldn’t resist munching on a few things. I had some salmon jerky, and Mike got a small octopus wrapped around a hard-boiled egg. Will inhaled a meatball yakitori. After exploring the market we took a short walk to Pontocho Street. The whole street is lined with the restaurants and true to form we got overwhelmed easily. We had originally hoped to dine outside. However, it had been raining on and off since mid-afternoon, and we were concerned that we’d get stuck outside in the rain. The birthday boy spotted a whiskey bar and he popped in sending Will and I to select a restaurant. Will became very excited at another yakitori restaurant spotting. This one had a much more extensive menu then the one from the other night as well as a nice-looking wine list. Therefore we wrapped up our last night in Kyoto just like first–dining on delicious yakitori. Well, Will and I wrapped up the night, Mike decided to go to tie one on for his birthday. Stay tuned to see how that worked out for him and for the next few days in Wakayama Prefecture.
More photos, video links and helpful links below.
- Arashiyama Area (Bamboo Grove area)
- Location: Arashiyama station https://goo.gl/maps/rCts1quy9zH2
- Daigo Temple
- Location: https://goo.gl/maps/JFCK2JfJiNn
- Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Location: https://goo.gl/maps/PnZjzfBAw4s
- Fushimi Sake District
- Gion District
- Jam Hostel and Sake Bar: http://www.sakebar.jp/
- Kinkakuj i (Golden Temple)
- Kiyomizudera Temple
- Nijo Castle
- Nishiki Market
- Sagano Scenic Railway
- Hozugawa River Cruise (boat ride that we didn’t get to do)