The last leg of our tour was in Kyoto. We had two days in the city where we discovered the amazing history and religions of ancient Japan. Kyoto, is also known as the thousand-year capital and served as the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868. It is the imperial capital of Japan. We stopped to visit many old and interesting places in two full days.
On the first day in this antique city, we went to the west side of Kyoto. We stopped by the Ryoanji Temple, Kinkakuji Temple also known as the Golden Pavilion and the Nijo Castle.
The Ryoanji Temple is the site of Japan’s most famous mysterious rock garden where at least one of the 15 rocks is always hidden from viewer from all angles.
The temple is hidden inside a woodland and with large pond. The site was the aristocrat’s villa that was later converted to a Zen temple.
Along with its origins, the meaning of the rock garden is unclear. The garden’s date of construction is unknown and we do not know who designed the garden, too.
So what does the rock garden signify? You can only find out by seeing it for yourself.
Next we went to the Kinkakuji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It is located a few blocks away from the Ryoanji Temple. The Kinkakuji temple is one of the most breathtaking and famous temples in Japan. The Kinkakuji Temple is a three-story pagoda that gleams brightly in gold. The temple surrounded by twisted pine trees and hovers over a lake where its image along with pine trees reflect in the water like in a mirror. It is a must have photo opportunity. We gathered around the temple and took photos of ourselves with the lake, pine trees and gleaming temple.
We walked around the property and had a glimpse of other interesting landmarks. There we also saw the Rikusho-no-Matsu, a 600 years old pine tree made into to the shape of a sailing boat. The pine tree was a bonsai tended by the shogun and planted in the garden. It is facing the west, meaning people could ride the boat to the western pure land.
And on our way out we passed a beautiful tea house where we gradually slowed down to check out various of booths offering us to sample on some Japanese sweets and green tea. Most of us sampled on the sweets and tea. They tasted really great. Some of us bought tea and boxes of sweets to bring back home to family and friends.
Finally we were able to leave the Kinkaku Temple for lunch and catch a local bus to the Nijo Castle in central Kyoto.
This stunning castle is designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994. It is a truly impressive fortified castle, built as the official residence of the first Tokugawa shogun. It comes with a wide moat, massive stone walls, and heavy gates. The castle is also very decorative and offers a sense of great power.
A visit inside the castle reveals spectacular artworks. It was interesting to learn about the architecture, and painted screens, especially those of tigers painted on the screens showed how Japanese people imagined their appearance. A tiger is not an animal in Japan. The Japanese have only seen them as imports in their skins and so their imagine of a tiger is rather more gentle, close to a domestic cat that were commonly found in Japan. Also in the castle are the famous ‘nightingale’ floors that squeak when stepped on. The squeaking floorboards were designed to alert the shogun’s guards of possible intruders. Photos inside the castle were not allowed.
By late afternoon we left the castle for our kimono dressing appointment in a machiya, an old traditional Japanese style home built outside on the west side near the Nijo castle.
Machiya are those long traditional wooden townhouses.These houses originated as early as the Heian period and continued to develop through to Edo and Meji periods. Urban merchants and craftsmen, a class of people referred to as chōnin or townspeople lived and worked in these kinds of homes.
A total of 11 of us entered the old house along with professional dressing and make up staff, photographers, sign language interpreters and other helpers. The place was a bit crowded but we felt excited for the new experience to dress up Japanese.
We received a short lecture about what we were going to do and a picture introduction of the traditional clothes we will pick to dress up in. The kimono and other outfits were also old too. There were five wardrobe options: the Imperial Wedding Plan (Junihitoe and Sokutai), the Traditional Wedding Plan, the Tono & Hime plan, the Shinsengumi & Maiko Plan, and the Geisha & Shinsengumi Plan.
Both, the women and men were going dressed up in layers of clothing and had their hair done. The women put on Japanese make up. After each one of us picked our clothing the men went to a different room next door of the same house while the women stayed to have their hair and face done. We laughed and photographed each other while getting our hair and face done. The men on the other side kept repeating how so amazed at the layers of clothing the had to put on. By time we were fully dressed up or done, a professional photographer came to make photos of us at different parts around the house and outside, too. We also made photos of ourselves with our own cameras.
We really got to feel the Japan of thousand years ago. It was fun and an unforgettable memory for all of us.
Eventually we had to stop playing and get to an evening social with dinner with Deaf locals from Kyoto. We changed into our normal clothes. Most women keep on their Japanese make up. We hurried into the van that drove us to our site for dinner. We enjoyed some Kyoto speciality and drinks with Kyoto Deaf people. We had a grand time with new friends.
The next morning that was our last day in Japan. We went to the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, visited the amazing Kiyomizu dera, walked down the fascinating Hagashiyama Street, saw the Yasaka Pagoda and Shrine and watched for a Geshia all the way to the Gion.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine was interesting. It is one of the oldest and important Shinto Shrines in Japan. It is famous for its thousands of vermillion red torii gates that trails all the way up through a wooded forest to the top of Inari Mountain. It is also one of the most picturesque site of Japan as seen post cards or in many tourism publications. The shrine is dedicated to the gods of sake and rice. You’ll also see plenty of stone foxes around the temple. The fox is another symbol of the Japanese Shinto religion. It is seen as the messenger of the god of grain foods.
At the entrance of the Senbon Torii, also known as the ”thousand of torii gates” is like walking through a tunnel of torii gates. It’s one of the exciting things to do in Kyoto. Also fascinating to learn is when you turn back to the torii gates you will see on the back columns of the gates with people and companies names. These names are the donator who gave to the shrine. The larger the gates the more expensive.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is voted the best tourist spot by foreigners to Kyoto. We agreed it was one of the most scenic sites in Japan. It was just so exotic, red, beautiful and photographic.
Next we went to the Higashiyama district for our lunch of tasty Kyoto soba and tempura before going up to see the Kiyiomizudera temple.
The Kiyomiudera temple is an ancient institution, dating back to 798 AD. The temple is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. In 1994, it was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage that sticks out like a balcony from the main hall. The main hall, together with the stage is built without the use of nails.
There are stories that many people have jumped off the stage with umbrellas helping them to land safely to the ground. Only a few people who have risked the jump had plunged to death. Though the tradition has stopped but there’s an expression that continues today. It says, ”to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge”.
Now, the fun part of visiting Kiyomizudera is the approach to the historical and atmospheric Higashiyama District. It’s the place where the narrow lanes, machiya wooden townhouses and traditional shops give a feeling of the thousand year old city. The many shops and restaurants in the area have been catering to tourists and buddhist pilgrims for centuries, and the products on sale vary from local specialties such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, sweets, peppers and pickles to the standard set of souvenirs. It is a great place to stroll and experience old Kyoto.
We walked down and through the Higashiyama District to the Hokanji temple also known as the Yasaka Pagoda. This pagoda is special. It stands out beautifully and is an old icon of Kyoto. The pagoda stands 46-meter tall and lies in the middle among old wooden buildings of old Kyoto. We marveled at the tower’s architecture and took photos of ourselves with the amazing pagoda in the background.
The Higashiyama street really keeps travelers busy. One could spend the whole day walking in and out of stores, shops, gallerias and smaller temples. And we were inspired just the same and went into stores, bought stuff, gifts and tried sampled on more sweets, rice crackers and teas offered to us before we could move forward to the GIon District in search for our Gesiha and then a shabu-shabu dinner.
The Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. The streets have special shops for geshias such as offering a section of hair accessories, make up supplies and other stuff. Also there were a number of restaurants and teahouses where the geshia and maiko would go to entertain their clients.
We came to the area, hoping to catch a glimpse of a geshia or maiko on their way to or from an engagement or from running errands. It’s often very challenging to find a real geshia out on the streets in the Gion district because there are many young women who came dress up like a gesiha for the day and walk around the Gion. People often confuse them with a real geisha. And many of them were busily posing pictures for onlookers in the Gion. It is by chance that we have many photos of them. Though to catch a real geshia, you have to learn about them. They move about very fast. They jot out of their house into a taxi and rush on their way to some appointment. They normally don’t walk around the district.
By the time it became dark, our table for dinner was ready. We had a great dinner of shabu-shabu with kobe beef, Japanese vegetables and some wine. Peggy who was our guide with us through out the tour reviewed our itinerary and answered any questions that some of us had about Japan. And then she was surprised with gifts from the group.
We returned to our hotel to pack and get ready for our departure in the evening the next day. We felt sad to know the tour had ended that evening. We promised to exchanged pictures and keep in touch with each other.