Temples and blossoms and shrines, oh my!

Part 1 of 2

When I first decided to move to Japan, it conjured up images of Buddhist temples, sprawling gardens, cherry blossoms galore, and kimono-clad geisha teetering through narrow alleyways. I discovered this romantic image does exist. It’s in Kyoto.

While Okinawa is amazingly beautiful, it has been shaped by history in a much different way than mainland Japan. Repeated wars have ravaged the strategically positioned island, leaving behind only small reminders of the castles and temples that once graced the land. The island was also once
its own kingdom separate from Japan with a rich culture and language of its own. Japanese acquisition of the island has certainly spread Japanese culture to the old Ryukyu Kingdom, but there is still something uniquely special about Okinawa that you don’t find in the mainland.

Conversely, there is something uniquely special about mainland too. Kyoto in particular carries more tradition and history than my mind can absorb and it is apparent everywhere you go. It also carries more people than I could imagine. The cherry blossoms were peaking while we were there, making it prime time to visit. Note: you must not mind being crammed in small spaces with lots of people if you visit Kyoto during peak season. It’s unavoidable.

Narrow streets packed like sardines

Fred was dubbed the master of itineraries for this trip. This was unusual for me as I normally take an obsessive interest in planning trips. He did an exceptional job, however, and may be promoted to head vacation planner soon.

Our trip began in Kobe. You may have heard of their beef. The two main airports for Kyoto are Kobe or Osaka. From there public transportation gets you to Kyoto. To give you an idea of how densely populated Japan is, an “island” had to be man-made by filling in the ocean to accommodate the Kobe airport. Filling in ocean is very common in Japan, even in Okinawa. Just look at Google maps (click here). Slightly smaller than the state of California, it has to fit over triple the state’s population in the same space.

Airport island out the window

We took a combination of trains and buses to get to where we were staying. With Fred’s planning and a trusty transportation map, we had no problems navigating. If you ever get lost in Japan, wonder around a train terminal while looking at your map and you’re bound to have at least one older Japanese man ask you in English if they can help you find your way. This happened to us several time. Just know that if you look young, they will most likely advise you to walk instead of telling you which bus to take because “walking is healthy for you – you are young!” This sage advice almost caused us to miss our Imperial Palace tour. But I did feel healthy.

You never know what you'll see on the subway

Because we planned our trip to Kyoto rather last minute during peak tourist season, we had to get a little creative with lodging. Kyoto hotels are Manhattan-expensive - even more so during peak times. A good alternative to the big hotels are traditional Japanese Inns called ryokans (picture traditional tatami mats, futons and public baths). Kyoto is ryokan capital, but most of the decent ones were booked solid. Instead, Fred found an apartment in Gion to stay at for the first two nights and a no-frills ryokan on the last night near the same area. For those of you who haven’t read Memoirs of a Geisha, Gion is geisha central and home to other assorted, ahem, “establishments” – more to come on this in Part 2.

Move table, roll out futon, and this is where you sleep.

The apartment was on a narrow, cherry blossom-lined street overlooking the river. I couldn’t have asked for a better location. I could, however, have asked for a better bed. I guess sleeping on tatami mats for centuries will result in a cultural tendency towards hard beds. But it was nice staying in a more traditional Japanese apartment. I would recommend the experience. Our house in Okinawa is so Westernized that you sometimes forget you are in Japan. It had all the proper Japanese components: a separate room for the toilet, a shower/sink room, sliding paper doors, fluorescing lighting, rice cooker, tea maker, a wok, and of course, chop sticks.

Our Gion apartment is just above the hair salon.

We wasted no time and spilled out into the town immediately. We wandered by foot through Gion and the central city portions of Kyoto. The contrast of old versus new was incredible. Modern buildings loom over historic tile-roofed tea houses on the same block. From the main street filled with neon lights and cars whizzing by, you can duck into a narrow pedestrian street lined with quaint storefronts and cherry blossoms. It almost felt like two cities combined in one. People gathered at the illuminated cherry blossom trees to pose for pictures. Amazing smells from the restaurants and tea houses wafted through the night air. Leave it to us to get distracted by a Guinness sign and end up at an Irish pub in beautiful Kyoto. I felt we were allowed this cultural faux pas since we live in Japan and can eat Japanese food whenever we want. We were clearly compelled by a much higher cause. (p.s., they still sell ZIMA in Japan)

Late night cherry blossom viewing

After a not-so-great night’s sleep on our hard bed, we braced ourselves for a full day of temple hopping and cherry blossom viewing. Fred had done some research and narrowed down a list of top sights to see. A short taxi ride away was our first stop at the Silver Temple. The weather was cold and overcast, which actually worked in our favor in terms of lessening the crowds. The temple was fairly quiet and we were able to explore without feeling rushed. Fred fed me historical factoids from the self-guided audio device we rented for 500 yen. A general theme throughout all the temples and shrines we visited is that almost none of them are the original structure. They practically all burned to the ground in whole or in part at various points throughout history – some more recently than others. But for the most part, all were rebuilt to mimic the original and are still pretty ancient by American history standards. I believe the oldest we saw was a 400-year-old garden and the youngest was a Buddhist temple burned down by a rogue monk in the 1950s.

Burned down by a monk in the 1950s.

Leaving the Silver Temple, we found ourselves on the Philosopher’s Walk, a cherry blossom-lined path along a stream that a local professor once walked daily. The shops along the walk were filled with souvenirs and various local foods including wagashi. Wagashi are sweets that originated from the Japanese tea ceremony served to offset the bitterness of the tea. The tea ceremony was cultivated in Kyoto, and consequently the city is known for their many varieties of wagashi. We sampled our fair share of wagashi and a couple other treats along the way.

Along the Philosopher's Walk

Kyoto also takes pride in their locally made tofu. Many restaurants along the way touted to have the best tofu in Kyoto. Being the tofu connoisseurs that we are, we were quite pleased with the abundant selection. We picked one of the many tofu restaurants and grazed away. Oishii (delicious).

Best tofu lunch in Kyoto

The day continued with cherry blossoms, wagashi, temples and palaces. We had an appointment at 3 p.m. for a tour of the old Imperial Palace. To see the grounds of the palace, you have to request permission from the Japanese government in advance and go with an official tour leader. Fortunately for us, we were able to obtain permission even with our last minute planning. Only catch, the English tours were full – Japanese only. We did our best at pretending to understand our tour guide – we laughed when everyone else laughed, looked wherever he pointed and bowed appropriately at the end. I’m certain we had them all fooled.

Our Japanese tour group

I blended into the group nicely

Part 2 of Temple and blossoms and shrines, oh my! coming soon(ish)...I promise.

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