Japan: Day 5 - Kyoto

An early morning was in order to take advantage of being able to watch the sunrise from the rooftop of Gion Yasaka house (one of the amazing apartments Japan Experience have available to rent in Kyoto) and was definitely worth it. The view of this amazing landscape with mountains surrounding the city from every direction except south is spectacular.

 Today was set aside to find out all about this cultural and historical capital of Japan, with its proliferation of shrines and temples that lie between the concrete constructions of the urban sprawl. The Imperial family lived here for centuries which makes sense as to why there would be so much to see and do here in Kyoto.

To make the most of my sightseeing in Kyoto InsideJapan booked a local guide for me who would tailor her private tour around what I would like to see (depending on time restraints of course). I met her at 9am to discuss the days itinerary and for her to get an idea of what I wanted to achieve from our day together. After choosing the places we were going to visit and her working out the best route to ensure we could accomplish our list within the 8 hours together, we set off for our first stop - Kinkaku-ji.

The best way to get around the majority of Kyoto is by bus. A day pass for the city bus system is only 500 yen (£2.75). We took the bus for 15 minutes heading north to Kinkaku-ji.
 Kinkaku-ji is also known as Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Kinkaku-ji is a three-story building on the grounds of the Rokuon-ji temple complex. It was originally a villa called Kitayama-dai, belonging to a powerful statesman called Saionji Kintsune. Kinkaku-ji's history dates back to 1397, when the villa was purchased from the Saionji family by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and transformed into the Kinkaku-ji complex. When Yoshimitsu died, the building was converted into a Zen temple by his son according to his wishes.
The top two stories of the pavilion are covered with pure gold leaf. The pavilion is not open to the public, but is in clear sight across a beautiful pond called Kyōko-chi (which means Mirror Pond), that reflects the building making the gold leaf shimmer in the water.
The gardens within the Kyōko-chi are literally perfect. It's a very tranquil environment and is exactly how it was centuries ago - in a way it does feel like you've travelled back in time ... just with a lot of Chinese tourists carrying selfie sticks! Beautiful ponds, amazing gardens and perfectly formed pine trees make this an experience never to forget.
In a zen like state it was now our quest to travel to the Nishijin Textile Centre. Now this might not sound that interesting, but the guide told me about it and I definitely thought it was worth checking out. To get here we hoped back onto the bus for 10 minutes.
The Nishijin Textile Center is within Kyoto’s traditional weaving district, Nishijin. The building itself feels rather eighties and a little out of place, as well as some of the exhibits on dismay ... BUT, upstairs you can see a few traditional looms being operated by old Nishijin ladies. The kimono is traditionally made of silk. Modern kimonos are widely available in less-expensive fabrics, but not here! Everything is silk and is made by hand.
The finale was to watch a kimono fashion show on the ground floor in which a series are superb kimonos are modelled to show the differences in styles available.
From here we took a 10-minute bus ride to Nijō Castle. Nijō castle dominates the center of Kyoto as the land it occupies is vast. Built in 1603 by Togukawa Ieyesu, the first Shogun of Japan, it served as his official audience hall. Intended to impress visitors, the showy castle is more palace than fortress, with defences designed for looks rather than security. The cautious Shogun knew that the most likely avenue of attack would be from treachery within, so he had hidden guards posted in the rooms and "nightingale" floors that squeak at the lightest pressure. These floors still squeak no matter how lightly you try and tread. It was accomplished by a series of nails fixed at an angle that squeak when pressure is applied.
The castle consists of two concentric rings; the Ninomaru Palace and the ruins of the Honmaru Palace (surrounded by a moat), along with a series of support buildings as well as several gardens.
In every room there were paintings on the wood panels, mainly of large pine trees (which stand for great power and strength ... used by the Shogun to in a way, show off to his guests!)
It was amazing walking through the halls thinking of all the meetings and decisions that had been made amongst the most senior of men within Japanese through the centuries.
As with Kinkaku-ji, the gardens and area surrounding the palaces were stunning.

From here it was bus time again! This time we headed into the centre of town to check out Nishiki Market. This is a marketplace located on a road one block north and parallel to Shijō Street (the main shopping street in Kyoto). Rich with history and tradition, the market is renowned as the place to obtain many of Kyoto's famous foods and goods. It's a rather narrow street with the shops very small, most of them more like a stall than a shop. It's mainly food on sale and mostly seafood along with some pretty strange tasting delicacies! With over 100 shops along the 100 metre stretch it was fun navigating through the crowds whilst trying to sample some of the items on offer. Pickled cabbage was my least favourite. Dried ginger dipped in cinnamon was my favourite. And as for the squids and mini octopus on sticks that a fair few teenage girls were tucking into ... I'll leave it for you to decide what I thought of that!

By now we'd worked up an appetite (probably because we must have walked at least 5 miles around those vast palace grounds), so with the taste of gingery cinnamon still on my tongue we grabbed some lunch. We went to a little place called Machiya which was next to Kyoto station. We had suji-kimchi yakisoba and a pork okonomiyaki. It's cooked in front of you and then brought to your table which has a hot plate built in the middle to keep the food warm as you eat. I've had Okonomiyaki in London before but this tasted much better.
With our bellies full, it was time to head to where I'd been excited about all day. We took the train from Kyoto station 5 stops to Fushimi to check out the Inari Shrine, but more for what it's actually famous for ... it's crazy amount of torii!

So far whilst on this trip I've seen a fair few torii gates; the most impressive being the Hakone Shrine torri in Lake Ashi. The Inari Shrine isn't famous for the odd one or two torri ... it's famous because of the 10,000 plus torri that lead to the main shrine at the top of the long and winding mountain trail.
These torri have been donated by charities, companies, the rich and the powerful far and wide over the years (there is actually a price list on site if you have the brass to purchase one and have it installed ... but with the largest costing 1 million yen, I think I'll give this opportunity a miss!)
The trek to the top is long but definitely worth it. The vies from the peak of Kyoto are fantastic. The thing that takes the most time is trying to get a photograph of the torii without anybody else in the view (which is what a around 75% of the tourists are doing). You turn a corner to see the dismay of a budding amateur photographer as they were lining up the perfect shot before you appeared in line of sight! But I managed to pop off a few across the trail which I am rather proud of (it's all about timing!)
After the long walk down (you don't think about that bit before you turn around at the top) we headed for our final stop - Hanamikoji in Gion.
Gion is Kyoto's most famous geisha district, located around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the Kamo River in the west. It is filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) entertain. They are only normally around during the evening when they are performing within their geisha house, but during the day you can see a lot of girls who've dressed up as geishas to walk the streets, pretending they are the real thing (supposedly this is big business in the area!)
After a casual stroll looking for real geisha (unfortunately none were seen) it was time to call it a day with my guide, who had been absolutely fantastic. So informative and patient with my (many) questions. So a big thanks to InsideJapan for the tour, it was great to see Kyoto through the eyes of a local.

And I was back just in time to collect my luggage, but not before catching the sunset from the rooftop ...

Here's a few other shots I took throughout the day:

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