Wednesday, June 27, 2012


The first exciting thing about our time in Kyoto was getting there because we took our first ride on Japan’s bullet train, the Shinkansen. Like everything else in Japan, riding the train is easy, efficient, and comfortable. And when you ride the Shinkansen, it is also very fast - 300 km/h. It’s especially impressive when you are stopped and a station and another one whizzes by, and you realize just how fast you were going.

Kyoto was the capital city of Japan until 1869, and was the site of the country’s important religious and cultural development from the 8th century until then. It is therefore still viewed as the cultural repository of Japan – a guidebook compared Tokyo to a trendy teenage sibling of the gracious geisha that is Kyoto (and by the way, have you ever noticed that Tokyo and Kyoto are the same words with inverted syllables?!). Seventeen of Kyoto’s hundreds of shrines and temples comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site for their importance to world religion and architecture, and we spent five days exploring as many of them as we could. Our days were full of temple-hopping and we were always exhausted by dinnertime. But we didn't want to leave anything out – each temple or shrine was truly special: the first zen garden in the world, or the largest wooden structure in the world, or the one ensconced in a fantastical bamboo grove. If any city had even one of these sights, it would be a large draw, so it was amazing that we were in a city with dozens of them. We learned the lesson, though, that variety is the key to a successful day of sight-seeing, and we probably shouldn’t have tried to do all temples, all day.

So we will spare you from a day-by-day log of everything we did, and instead show you some of our favourites. The nice thing about the first day was that we rented bicycles to get between temples, and the first place we visited was a definite highlight. Fushimi Inari shrine, founded in 711, has thousands of vermillion torii lining the circuitous paths to the many smaller shrines in the mountain complex.

It was lovely to stroll inside the trellis of gates with sunlight streaming in, and peak at the all of the other shrines in the forest.

The final temple we rode to that day was also one of our favourites for its amusing spiritual activities. Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 798, although the present structure – built of wood without using a single nail – was built in 1633. It is famous for its large veranda built on wooden pillars overlooking the city, and for its natural spring water that is said to have spiritual healing powers (Emilie and Antonia tried the water – James and Yann weren’t brave enough).

We also spent some time at the love fortune-telling rocks at the temple. It is said that if you can walk in a straight line between two stones 18 metres apart with your eyes closed, you will have success in your love life. We all tried, but only Yann and Antonia succeeded. We figured that one success per couple was enough to ensure our lifelong happiness.

That evening we decided to attend a dance ceremony at a shrine close to our hostel. We were perplexed when one priest of obvious importance called musicians up one by one to perform and then stood perfectly still with his eyes closed while the music played – had we come to the wrong event? Where was the dancing? Upon much closer inspection, we realized that the priest was in fact moving his feet one at a time in minute, infrequent steps.

Kyoto is the birthplace of the zen garden, and we got to see several of the most famous arrangements of rocks and moss in the world. The idea behind these elegant gardens is to recreate a landscape – large rock formations might represent mountains in a ‘sea’ of raked gravel.

The ability to meditate on the essence of these natural formations is thought to transmit the mystical significance that is always around us, but difficult to interpret. At one temple, the rocks represent animals that are at different stages in their zen development. A foolish turtle is swimming against the tide, trying to hold onto his youth; a resting cow has accepted the impermanence of life and has begun asking existential questions. Our favourite was the large enclosure of nothing but raked sand representing eternity at the Daisen-in temple. Two conical mounds of sand are the only structures, waves radiating away from them. There are no rocks because in this eternal universe, there are no more obstacles, only a free flow of energy.

We can’t say that we learned much about the meaning of life from the zen gardens, but it was very exciting to see our first one, and they were among our favourite sights of Kyoto. They do somehow inspire peace and introspection; we noticed that visitors are immediately quiet and respectful in a zen temple, despite the lack of any signage requesting it. At least, we tried to be respectful – while approaching the entrance to one of the most famous zen temples, Emilie stopped to take a picture and stumbled as she got out of her optimal-photographer pose. She landed right in a bed of carefully raked gravel, leaving a few dents. Luckily no one was around to witness our desecration, but we felt very sorry. When we turned the corner and crossed the threshold to the temple building, we noticed a sign prohibiting photography with an explanation that photographers can ruin the ambiance of the garden. No kidding.

Zen temples also like their bamboo, and we got to visit Japan’s largest bamboo grove at Tenryu temple. We enjoyed our stroll through the shady path, with sun glinting through the swaying bamboo. It was a slightly grander way to create the same peaceful feeling that we had at the rock gardens.

After the bamboo grove, we took a break from both the spiritual and the peaceful with a fun visit to Iwatayama Monkey Park. The 170 macaques who live in this park are wild, but the promise of food entices them to the viewing area. We climbed a steep mountain path and were very excited to see our first macaque at the feeding enclosure, but there were so many monkeys, and we could get so close to them, that soon we didn’t bat an eye at crossing inches from a monkey who was beside our path. We first entered the feeding enclosure, where people are the ones who are caged and monkeys cling to the sides of the chain link to take peanuts and bananas from our hands. Outside the enclosure, where there is no feeding and the monkeys are more calm, we were able to come very close to them and watch them play or pick fleas off each other. The best part was seeing the babies – one was just four days old – and the cute young ones who were old enough to jump and play, but without much coordination.


On our last day in the Kyoto area, we took a day trip to nearby Nara. Nara was the first capital city of Japan, from 710 to 784, and is famous for the magnificent Todai-ji temple, which houses one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, as well as hundreds of tame deer that roam the temple complex. When Todai-ji was founded in 728, deer were thought to be messengers of the gods, and were encouraged to live in the surroundings. They have since become mascots of the area, and protected National Treasures of Japan. There are even caricatures all over the small town of a cute Buddha with antlers. When we read about Nara, we pictured an idyllic forest with peaceful deer scattered about to add to the serenity. The temple is located in picturesque, forested grounds, but unfortunately the entire area is overrun with tour buses and school groups – anything but serene. The deer are calm enough to be approached and pet, which was a fun experience.

However, when they are being fed, they become crazed and a little scary. Antonia loved petting the deer and bought special biscuits from a vendor to feed them, but even before she opened the package, the deer that had previously been so peaceful got a crazy look in their eye and made an aggressive play for the chow. Four or five deer were competing for each biscuit, crowding Antonia, nudging her, and even butting her from behind. It was overwhelming, and from then on we settled for petting the deer without offering them a snack.

Before heading for Todai-ji, we stopped to see Isuien garden, said to be one of the loveliest in the area. We don’t disagree; its serene pond is surrounded by perfectly-manicured moss, stone paths, and bridges, and reflected the blue hills in the background.

Todai-ji is the largest wooden structure in the world, and indeed it was very impressive. We entered to gaze at the serene Buddha, one of the largest bronze structures in the world.

Because temples are always more fun when they come with zany activities, there is a hole cut out of a beam inside the temple, said to be the exact size of Buddha’s nostril. If you can squeeze through it, you will attain enlightenment. Children were lined up to try, as were many small, old ladies. We stood watching and some locals encouraged us to try, surely thinking of how much fun they would have laughing at us when we got stuck half-way. We decided that Yann’s slender frame would have the best chance of enlightenment in our group, and we convinced him to try it. To the crowd’s surprise and delight, he succeeded, and in his mind earned the last word in any disagreement until the end of the trip, since he is the only one who is certifiably enlightened.

In Kyoto we usually found lunch in a fastfood noodle joint - almost always ordering kitsune (fried tofu) with udon or soba, because that is the one vegetarian meal that we know how to order. Things got complicated when we had to deal with a vending machine that didn’t have pictures, and we would ask another customer for help. 

For dinner, we would usually cook in our hostel to try to save some yen. The standby was ramen with tofu and veggies, meaning that for days we ate some form of noodles twice a day – tasty enough, but a little repetitive. So we were happy to find the curiously-named but delicious Mr. Young Men’s restaurant. It specializes in okonomiyaki, which is a Japanese “pancake” of meat, fish, and/or veggies mixed in a batter and fried on a griddle. Since we were able to communicate our vegetarian needs and it wasn’t too expensive, we went back more than once.

After dinner, we would explore the traditional neighbourhood around our hostel. Gion is the centre of nightlife for Kyoto’s upperclass, and its picturesque streets are full of antique wooden buildings and lined with red lanterns. It is most famous as the epicentre of Japan’s geisha culture, as they are called on to entertain the clientele that frequent the centuries-old teahouses and restaurants. These establishments are so exclusive that patrons are admitted only by referral – as tourists without any connections in high places, we certainly couldn’t get into any. Seeing a geisha perform was therefore out of the question, but we did join in the popular tourist activity of trying to catch sight of one as she entered or exited the teahouses. This is a rare occurrence, as the geisha are only at work for a certain period in the evening, and they come and go discreetly through back entrances and small alleys. Many tourists at our hostel hadn’t managed to see one at all, so we thought ourselves quite lucky to see three on our first night. They are instantly recognizable in their chalk-white makeup and ornate hairdos, and they walk gracefully but very hurriedly so that they are seen as little as possible by the general public. They are very beautiful and really were exciting to see. The challenge for us became getting a good photograph of a geisha, and although it seems like a strange comparison, it seemed very much like wildlife photography: “I see one! Run! Which way is she headed? Go up the next alley and she’ll run right into you!” There are rules to follow, though, when you're trying to photograph a geisha, and we tried to be respectful by never obstructing her path or bothering her in any other way. This was the best image we could capture on our first night of geisha-watching:

By the third night, James and Yann were becoming experts. They would run from Emilie and Antonia at the first sign of a geisha down any alley (it was understood that Emilie and Antonia would only slow them down and perhaps scare away the shy subjects by tripping into something ancient and sacred).

They became very skilled at navigating the alleys of Gion and setting their cameras for the perfect shot, and they impressed many tourists who couldn’t hope for a photograph to remember a lucky sighting. One traveller that we came across even took a picture of James’ picture and had to settle for that.


  1. Caught up on your blog today! Amazing!! Take good care you two! Love from the Peg!

    Also, I think my favorite line was about Antonia deciding that the green tea Kit Kat is her favorite Japanese innovation!!

  2. What the hell! Where be the adventures of Toni and Jumbo as they visit an insomniac alcoholic pipe welder? Don't get me wrong, the Kyoto post was lovely, but Eugene needs him some bicycle porn right about now, damn it :(