We moved on from Takayama to our last stop in Japan; Kyoto. By now we had gotten the hang of riding the bullet trains and we loved how nice (and fast) they were. A little different from back home! We stayed in the Gion neighborhood, which is where Geishas are known to walk about. We saw a couple in our time there; we think at least one of them was true and not just someone dressed up. Nearby our hotel is Pontocho, an alleyway packed with atmospheric bars and restaurants. Half of them overlook the Kamogawa river. We ended up walking through a few times and trying different places; the bars packed in together was reminiscent of Golden Gai back in Tokyo. Some were better than others, but it was still neat. Our first full day consisted of us following the Philosopher’s Path, a nice little stone path that leads you through many different temples and shrines. It’s named after Nishida Kitaro, a famous Japanese philosopher who practiced meditation while making his daily commute to Kyoto University along this route.
When in Kyoto, we had to visit Fushimi Inari-taisha, which is an important shrine at the foot of Mount Inari that is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. His messengers are thought to be foxes, so there were tons of fox statues scattered throughout the grounds. The shrine is famous for the thousands of vermillion gates that mark trails leading up the mountain. They are known as torii and symbolize the transition from the mundane to the sacred. They are commonly found at and can be used to identify Shinto shrines. We walked about halfway up the trail through all the gates, and although it was crowded with other tourists, it was neat to see. There were hundreds of other smaller shrines along the way as well.
We also took a daytrip to Nara, which is famous for the deer that roam freely through the city. It is also the home of many significant temples and artwork which date back to the 8th century, when it was once the capital of Japan. Sadly, it was raining while we were there, but we didn’t let that put a damper on things and it ended up being one of our favorite days. Walking out of the train station it wasn’t long until we started to come across some deer. Totally unafraid of humans, they would just go about their business and not mind the fact that everyone was trying to get closeup pictures with them (us included). Nara was nice since all the main attractions were so compact and it was easy to see everything we wanted. We walked through both Kohfukuji Temple and Todai-ji Temple, which is the home of Daibutsu (Great Buddha). Towering over us, the 52 ft tall statue was an imposing sight. This temple is also the largest wooden building in the world.
On our last day in Kyoto, we took a tour through the backwoods of Arashiyama. Located on the edge of the city, it’s a heavily forested mountain area with loads of charming traditional houses and shrines. Our tour took us further out than where most tourists go, and it was interesting to see the lesser-traveled areas. Our first stop was to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a Buddhist temple well-known for its 1200 small Rakan (the term for someone who has attained nirvana) statues. While the temple itself was built hundreds of years ago, the statues were only built in the 80’s. Each statue was carved by a different person, so they are all unique and have their own neat quirks. Some with baseball bats, glasses, and one even had a Walkman. Moving on, we visited other small locations such as a Buddhist graveyard, a moss garden, the preserved thatched hut of Mukai Kyorai (a famous Japanese poet), and a villa built by a Japanese star of silent samurai movies in the 20’s. All the while it felt like we went back in time as we walked down pleasant residential roads with original old-style houses. We ended the tour at the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest. By this time, it was raining heavily, so a lot of other tourists had been driven away. We got some pictures, then made our way back to Kyoto.
Japan was definitely a place that we would go back to, there was tons to do, the food was good, and we really liked the whole culture there. It was also nice to see my family and be able to spend time exploring Japan with them!