Thursday, October 16, 2014

Kyoto: South and West - Non-Temple Travels

An excessively overdue recap.

I can only hope that blogging about our trip to Kyoto area a solid 5 months late will provide me with a helpful and insightful filter that improves my writing, rather than rendering it jumbled and hazy. *fingers crossed*

We went to Kyoto in May during one of Japan's two vacation seasons. Japanese are renowned for being hard-workers who take little vacation and, like many things in Japan, when they do take vacation, they all do so at the same time. It is not difficult to imagine the effect this has on travel prices, hotel availability and the serenity of Japan's many popular and theoretically serene temples, shrines and gardens. We planned late, as we often do with travel, and were unable to secure an affordable hotel room anywhere in the city. The few vacant rooms we found would have set us back thousands of dollars. No thanks. So, we went to our trusty fallback, Air BnB where we managed to secure what I'm fairly confident was the absolute last affordable room available in central Kyoto. 

When visiting Kyoto, centrally-located accommodation is very important because the sites of the city are scattered far and wide in all directions, yet most are accessible by train or bus from Kyoto Station. The map here shows just a handful of Kyoto's many sites and excludes some of my personal favorites which are farther out from the center, but clearly shows the distribution of sites as if they were numbers on a clock. And, word to future travelers, don't try to walk around the clock. It is not feasible.

We managed to see sites in all four directions: 


Within one hour to the south of Kyoto by train, you can visit two of my absolute favorite sites: Nara, and specifically Todaiji (a temple the name of which translates to the Great Eastern Temple, 東大寺), and Fushimi Inari, a peaceful yet lightly grueling hike best done in the morning when it is shrouded with a light mist that only adds to its spiritual allure. 

As I have mentioned previously, I first visited Japan 10 years. My sister and I went on a whirlwind tour of as much of the country as could be seen in two weeks. It was an overwhelming experience in every respect from attempting to penetrate the language barrier, navigate new cultural norms and drink in every last panoramic vistas, palace, temple, and landscape. And, in the 10 years in between then and now, most of every gold-leafed tile, delicately carved wood masterpiece and lacquered detail blurred into one kaleidoscope memory of Japan. Todai-ji is the only exception. It was a site so magnificent to behold that it could not be melted into an alloy memory. 

I wish I could let the pictures speak for themselves, but they cannot. I have not ruled out the possibility that this is in large part due to my photography skills; however, part of Todai-ji's appeal is its somewhat impossible-to-capture nature. Todai-ji's main hall is the largest wooden building in the world. This is alone quite impressive, especially considering it was built in 752 in a country plagued with earthquakes, no less. 

The inside of this temple, which would be imposing in its immensity if it were empty, nearly fades into obscurity as each visitor enters coming toe-to-face with the 15-meter tall bronze Buddha statute that resides in the center of Daibutsuden. I have since seen other big Buddha statutes in Japan and have learned that there are some that are much bigger still than that at Todaiji, but the outstretched hand of the Buddha at Todai-ji has left its hand print on my memory. It is ethereal like nothing else I have ever seen and having the opportunity to see it again after 10 years was as wonderful as seeing it the first time. 

I post this photo of Buddha under protest as I believe that no photo that I took can do justice to this statue but feel this blog post cannot be complete without some image of the subject of my raving. 

On the same train line that travels to Nara (the JR Nara Line), about half way between Nara and Kyoto, is Fushimi Inari. I had never been to Fushimi Inari before. We put it on the itinerary largely because my wonderful and considerate husband was adamant that we integrate into our trip a number of sites that I did not see during my first visit to the area so as to explore together. And, five months out, I am very glad that Fushimi Inari was one of the sites that made the list. As with all of the sites we saw in Kyoto (save Todai-ji), everything in the Kyoto area is more beautiful, more peaceful and more available to be enjoyed in the early morning hours, especially during the Japanese holiday seasons. 

We arrived about 8:30am as best I recall, and wound our way to the back of the temple grounds to where the largely open space gave way to a well-forested area and a hiking trail marked by an endless succession of orange gates, which are called torii. The hike, which takes a couple of hours round-trip (and we got lost once!), is spectacular because it is wholly confined in an endless canopy of torii.

It is a silly delight to wonder at each turn if you have reached the end, wonder if perhaps this is the last only to peer down the next stretch of trail and find it similarly canopied in orange just like every stretch of trail before it and every one that follows.The hike at Fushimi Inari is special because unless you have done this hike before, you have never done anything like it. It is also a great respite for the temple-weary traveler, offering a revitalizing change of a pace, a healthy dose of exercise and fresh air (things I will rarely turn down). 


Some 20 minutes west of Kyoto by train is a more rural tourist district called Arashiyama. It is perhaps most famous for its bridge, I founds this to be the least appealing of its sites. Much more beautiful and perhaps nearly as famous is the area's bamboo forest. It also offers a monkey park (which we skipped having already been to Shiga Kogen), many temples, a large park, boat rides on the river, shopping and more.

Neither of us had been to Arashiyama before and that I didn't get there in my first trip to Kyoto area was a mistake. We visited the area in the morning, so it did have the built-in advantage of some serenity, and the lush bamboo grove is a site where a little less hustle makes a big difference in the experience. The path through the grove was much shorter and more direct than I would have liked. The trail is fairly straight and the high fences on either side prevent any meandering off the beaten path. The precautionary fences are, of course, completely understandable, but they do make it more difficult to get lost in the beauty of the groves. So, if you can, go in the morning in order to get the most out of these magnificent groves of what are technically grass, not trees.

 We limited ourselves to a few of Arashiyama's many other sites because, as good Kyoto area tourists, we had to pack in as much as possible. That said, everything we did and saw there we enjoyed. We had a packed lunch in the park adjacent to the bamboo groves and took a nice walk along the Oi River and watched the river traffic.


The ultimate highlight of our visit to the Kyoto area happened in Arashiyama, totally unexpectedly: we saw a geisha! Once ubiquitous in Kyoto and throughout Japan (estimates are there were 80,000 of them 100 years ago), it is now estimated that there are just over 1,000 geisha in the entire country. It is quick math to appreciate then that the chance of seeing a geisha in the street in a country of 126 million people, or even in Kyoto, a city of nearly 1.5 million people where most modern geisha live, is extremely slim.

Like needle in a haystack slim, yet, there she was:

... and this is why I travel, this is why I'll always travel - so that I may have even the briefest glimpse of that which is rare, alluring, heart-stopping and all-too-commonly disappearing in the world. And among that which is rare, one must count a geisha.

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