Kyoto is a beautiful city and has become one of Japan’s top tourist destinations. It is so well liked, the customs official who processed Jess’s passport said it was the one place we had to go. We boarded our first Japanese bullet train (Shinkansen) from Tokyo station and arrived in Kyoto roughly three hours later.
We were feeling quite a bit poorer when we arrived on the other end since Japan’s train travel is quite expensive. A round trip ticket to Kyoto is one reason people usually recommend the J-Rail Pass. However, after a lot of calculating we had determined the J-Rail Pass would not be cheaper for our intended travel, so we were paying for each individual ticket separately. One way to travel more cheaply on trains is to purchase unreserved seat fares which means you are not guaranteed a seat and may have to stand for the journey. We only purchased unreserved seat tickets and always found a seat, so it worked out for us and saved us a lot of money.
Kyoto is famous for its temples, so we ventured out immediately to find Fushimi Inari-taisha, the main shrine dedicated to the holy spirit of agriculture and industry. The shrine sits at the base of the Inari mountain and has many trails lined with donated orange torii gates leading up the mountain to smaller shrines. Torii gates have been donated since the 1600s either to request a wish or in thanks for a wish being granted. There are thousands of gates at the Fushimi Inari shrine.
Most of the shrines are guarded by a pair of foxes which are understood to be messengers to the holy spirit, Inari. The foxes usually hold something symbolic in their mouth like the key to the rice granary, or a scroll, or a jewel.
There are so many temples in Kyoto, one could not possibly see them all. We decided to wander along the Philosopher’s Pathway in the northeast corner of the city which looked like it would point us in the direction of a few temples. We wandered in and out of some smaller temples and shrines. We hiked up a short path through some amazing woods to a hidden cemetery. We eventually found ourselves on the grounds of the Nanzenji Temple where we found the Suirokaku Water Bridge which was built in 1890 to bring water from Lake Biwa to the temple.
Not long after the Water Bridge, we stumbled on the Lake Biwa Canal Museum which is a free museum that details the building of the Lake Biwa Canal. When the capital of Japan was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1869, Kyoto started to experience a decline in population and industrial power. The solution was to build a canal that would facilitate movement of people and goods and provide hydroelectric power. This expensive project was completed in 1890 and was used for transportation until the 1940s.
Chion-in Temple is the head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism. Everything about this temple is grand. The main hall is beautiful from the outside, although it is currently closed to visitors as it is being renovated. The Sanmon gate is a huge, imposing entrance that leads to a steep staircase to the main temple complex.
Kiyomizu- dera is a Buddhist temple originally founded in 778, although the current buildings were built in 1633. It has an iconic three-story orange pagoda in front. We wandered around the free grounds outside the temple but did not pay to enter as the temple is currently under construction for restoration in advance of the 2020 Olympics. There were also hundreds of people here which made it pretty annoying to visit.
After visiting many temples in the area, we treated ourselves to a belated anniversary dinner at Sushi Imai. Sushi Imai is an omakase (chef’s choice) sushi restaurant that gets rave reviews. We arrived as soon as it opened at 5:30pm to make sure we could get in, and we were the only people there until shortly before we finished eating. The chef prepared us two sashimi dishes and twelve sushi dishes followed by miso soup. The sushi was absolutely delicious. We had octopus and eel, squid, shrimp, fatty tuna all brilliantly prepared and a bottle of cold sake. It was a lovely experience.
The next day we headed to the southwest side of Kyoto to visit the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery. Unfortunately, we had not known we needed to book ahead for a tour and the tours were all full. We were still able to visit the Suntory Museum and do a whisky tasting. The Yamazaki Distillery was opened in 1923 and Japan’s first whisky was produced in 1929. Shinjiro Torii was convinced a Western-style Japanese whisky would appeal to the delicate Japanese palate and reduce the importation of foreign whisky. In 1937, his dream was realized with the release of Suntory Whisky Kakubin. After exploring the museum, we each did a tasting of three whiskys. We did one tasting comparing 12-year-old whiskys: Yamazaki, aged in sherry cask and aged in mizunara (Japanese oak) cask. The second tasting compared 18 year, 12 year and young Yamazaki whiskys. We could definitely tell the whiskys gained complexity and smoothness as they got older. The mizunara oak definitely adds smoothness and the sherry cask adds a nice flavor compared to the yamazaki 12-year which is pretty sharp in both smell and taste.
We also decided to try the AO World Blend which is a blend of whiskys from the top five whisky producing regions in the world: Canada, USA, Scotland, Ireland and Japan. It was too complex! There are too many flavors. Peatiness competes with fruitiness. It is interesting, but overwhelming. Eric thinks there is no hope for world peace. Jess thinks a splash of water helps. Hope?
We compared it to Hibiki Japanese Harmony which Jess thought tasted like round water in the front and whisky in the back. (Can you tell we might have had enough whisky by this point?). Eric thought a splash of water made it better, but without it was not harmonious for him. His favorite was the 12-year mizunara cask.
We left the distillery and hopped on the train to the Arashiyama bamboo forest. There is a paid reserve with monkeys, but we arrived only a few minutes before closing, so we opted to wander around town instead. We paid Y500 ($4.62) per person to visit the Tenryuji Temple Sogenchi Garden shortly before it closed. Conveniently, it was a short cut to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove which you can visit for free.
After walking through the bamboo grove, Jess was re-calibrating her idea of tall trees; the bamboo was giant! On the other side of the bamboo grove, we found a hiking path leading up a hill so we followed it to the top where we found a beautiful view over the city. The path continued into the woods on the hill, but it was getting close to dusk, so we decided to head back home.
Since Nara is less than an hour away by train and costs only Y720 ($6.65) per person each way to get to, it is an easy day trip from Kyoto. We opted to spend a night there so we could see a little more. We found a nice hostel a short walk from the train station, and ended up having the four-person dorm to ourselves. Unfortunately, it rained the whole time we were in Nara, so we had to do all of our exploring in our ponchos.
One of the symbols of Nara is the deer in Nara Park. The deer are wild and roam freely throughout the park which includes museums and temples. Eric was worried the deer would be hiding from the rain, but that turned out not to be a concern at all. They were everywhere even before we entered the park.
Our first stop in Nara Park was Todaiji Temple. The entrance fee for the Great Buddha Hall isY600 ($5.54) per person. The temple was originally built in 752 when Nara was the capital of Japan. It was the lead temple for all the provincial temples in Japan and became so powerful, the government capital had to be moved to reduce the temple’s influence. The main hall has since been reconstructed and is only two thirds the size of the original.
Todaiji is still one of the largest wooden structures in the world. The Great Buddha Hall houses a 50-foot seated Buddha. In the back of the hall, there is a pillar with a hole that is said to be the size of the Buddha statue’s nostril. There was a line of school kids waiting to try to squeeze through the hole to be granted enlightenment in the next life. While we were walking around the temple, a woman came up to us and asked if we would be willing to be interviewed by her students so they could practice their English. They peppered us with questions about where we were from and our favorite Japanese food. They asked if we had tried Okonomiyaki, which is a traditional dish popular in this region. We hadn’t so we got a new tip for lunch!
Afterwards, we walked up the hill to Nigatsu-do which is part of the Todaiji complex and has nice views. It was pretty grey and rainy though, so we could not see much. At this point, we were quite wet and decided we had put in enough effort to see Nara in the rain for one day. We headed back to our hostel to dry off.
The next morning it was still raining. We tried to visit the National Museum, but it was closed for a private event. We were able to visit the Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall (cost Y500 [$4.80] per person) which contains Buddhist sculptures from 500AD to 1330AD. It was interesting to see the different styles and materials of each period.
When we were finished at the museum, we gathered our bags from the hostel and walked towards the train station. Eric had found a place to try Okonomiyaki near the station, so we went there for lunch. Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake made with cabbage. We ordered one with pork and one with squid. They arrived mostly cooked and were placed on a hot griddle at our table to finish cooking. They were both pretty good. Afterwards, we caught the train back to Kyoto on our way to our next destination: Nagoya!