Kyoto is on the must visit list for those travelling to Japan, especially when in cherry blossom season. Our travel time, however, was July, but we still found it to be one of the loveliest cities in the country, thanks to its architecture, history and culture…especially the links to the traditions of the Geisha.
We had chosen a top spot for our stay in Kyoto, both for location and comfort. The ANA Crowne Plaza Kyoto upgraded us to a castle view room, which was the perfect place to watch the sunset over Nijo Castle of an evening, sipping wine before going out to dinner. There was also a subway stop on the corner, so we could easily get to most places in Kyoto that draw tourists. [See our article on ANA Crowne Plaza Kyoto here]
As we had arrived at our new hotel an hour or so before check in time, we left our luggage with the porter, and grabbed a quick, light, lunch at the hotel’s Cozy Café. Being the first afternoon in another new city, there was no time to waste, so sated, we headed out to explore the nearest site on our ‘must see’ list – Nijo-jo Castle. Being directly opposite our hotel, it was easy to access, no buses or trains required.
This impressive castle was built in the early 1600s as the Kyoto residence for the Tokugawa shoguns (military warlords), demonstrating the power the Shogunate held over the emperors in the Edo era. In the mid-1800s, the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, initiated the ‘handover’, returning authority to the Imperial Court. The Seiryu-en garden that surrounds the palace is a lovely spot to wander and escape the crowds streaming through the buildings.
A few short subway stops from our hotel took us to the centre of the shopping district. We enjoyed the escape from Kyoto’s humidity wandering a funky shopping arcade along the picturesque canal west of the Kamo River. Could’ve spent days in Shinkyoguko arcade, but instead settled for a few hours of window shopping and then finding a spot for dinner.
We had set out to find some ramen noodles, even did prior research on where to find the best, only to discover that ‘the best’ place did not sell any type of ramen except pork. Found a vegan place instead called Matsuontoko that offered a vegetable Kyoto curry. It was deliciously spicy and full of flavour, but had very few vegetables in it – pretty much all rice and sauce. Tasty, but a bit of a rip off.
We followed the advice of our concierge at the Crowne Plaza, and had an early start for the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine and the enchanting walk behind it. We arrived about 8:30am, and were glad of the timely start for a number of reasons: while the 27 degrees at 7am didn’t really increase throughout the morning, the humidity did, as did the number of people traipsing up this big hill. We didn’t actually realise the number increase as we chose the faster (less scenic) alternate route to descend, but when we got to the bottom we were astounded at the crowds. Very glad we chose not to battle against that stream of hikers, often teetering in the most inappropriate of shoes!
The deep orange and black wooden arches that frame this stepped pathway are an iconic image of Kyoto. Carved stone deities gather in clumps along the route, surrounding shrines and awaiting the offerings of the devout. The shade provided by the lush green, tree-filled setting was such a relief from the heat, which really hit upon leaving the forested area as we returned to the busy street. You know that it’s hot and humid when you drink a large bottle of water over a couple of hours of physical activity and don’t need to pee!!
Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama
The big fancy way of visiting this part of Kyoto is the circular route of the scenic ‘romantic’ railway and riverboat combo. However, we had not done our research and it was $100 AUD for two, and as they did not accept credit cards, we had to pass. It did look enticing, though, with the riverboat segment being in a vessel of antique-looking design, bouncing along down some tame rapids.
Still, the stroll through the bamboo grove minus the excitement of the rapids was a relaxing and surreal way to pass the time. Its gigantic forest of green stalks was both eerie and romantic, and as such meant we stumbled across the occasional bridal photo shoot. By the time we left the bamboo grove, though, the place was swarming with tour groups, and it was a relief to leave the rapidly filling pathways for the quaint, if touristy, cute suburb of Arashiyama. Was briefly tempted to purchase a beautiful umbrella (no one does umbrellas and parasols like the Japanese), but concern for the safe transport of it home deterred me. Besides, after seeing one in a shop window the other day that was simply perfect for $250 AUD, the others just weren’t as appealing.
We were intrigued by the sale of icy cucumbers on sticks – just like ice-blocks, sitting in big donuts of ice, waiting for customers to make their selections. A much healthier option than frozen soft drink treats!
We visited the most charming and scenic parts of Kyoto in the evening, the traditional Geisha precinct of Gion. The exquisite, neat and compact streets were evocative of another time, where once there were no tourists with selfie sticks posing with their practiced head tilt for the perfect shot. But even the many, many posers could not mar the experience of wandering this historic and pretty part of the city.
We decided that Udon noodles were in order for dinner (we had not yet eaten them in Japan) and found Yagura Restaurant on the main road of Shijo Dori. We went with the cold noodles and tempura that came with a dipping sauce. The way to eat cold udon is to mix as much of the supplied shallots, minced ginger and garlic into the dipping sauce as is desired, lift the noodles into the sauce with the chopsticks, and devour them, slurping away. Apparently, slurping is actually an important part of the process of eating noodles – it allows the flavours to develop as they are consumed. It may go against the social mores of eating in western restaurants, but we slurped till our bodies were content.
The ending of our noodle feast was timed just right for an afternoon walk along the Kamo River, leading into that magic-light time of twilight. Walking along the east side of the river gave us spectacular views of the west, where it looked like 100 restaurants and bars were perched on the banks with superb aspects to enjoy the end of the day and the views. Finally, the temperature had dropped, and there were people out jogging, cycling, walking and sitting along the banks on both sides. We even saw a couple of cranes and ducks, and even the clouds helped put on a show, playing with the remaining light in the sky.
Our Japanese journey continues with Nara…
Accommodation: ANA Crowne Plaza Kyoto