Tuesday, June 10, 2008 Japan Japan

Temples and shrines in Kyoto

Out for a stroll [Enlarge]

Heading back south from Tokyo to Kyoto, we requested seats on the right-hand side of the train so that we could see Fuji-san as we passed... and mother nature made sure again that we didn't see the mountain, by laying on thick cloud and drizzle. Maybe next time we're in Japan we'll finally get to see it.

We were due to spend a day and a half in Kyoto, and as usual we began with a visit to the tourist information centre to book accommodation. The impressive Kyoto station has two information desks, but the easy-to-find one is not very well set up for gaijins (foreigners). The one with English-speaking staff is tucked away on the ninth floor, accessed by a tiny elevator in the middle of a department store! But it is a great facility, with a travel library, leaflets, guide books, a notice board full of local events, and an accommodation booking desk. The helpful staff found us a low priced hotel. We also collected some leaflets, each of which we had to request specifically—the lady wasn't volunteering anything!

Our first stop was To-ji Temple. We had seen this five storey pagoda—the tallest wooden building in Japan—from the train between Shin-Osaka and Tokyo as we passed through Kyoto a few days ago. On our new city map it looked about 800 metres from the hotel to the temple, so we set off walking. Three kilometres later we finally arrived! With only 90 minutes until it closed, and a 500 yen each entrance fee (GBP 2.39 / USD 4.67) we decided to make do with the view of the pagoda from the gate.

Possibly the orangest thing in Kyoto. [IMG_4247]
Gate to Yasaka Shrine [Enlarge]

We headed back across town to the Gion area of Kyoto for the evening. This is the place to see a real geisha if you're lucky. Sadly all we saw was crowds of gaijin. But again we managed to not spend any money, opting instead for a look around the (free) Yasaka Shrine.

OK, so what's the difference between a shrine and a temple in Japan? Shrines are Shinto, which is the native religion of Japan. They are often painted bright orange, and usually have a torii (gate) through which you have to walk to get in. Temples on the other hand are Buddhist, which is the 'new' religion imported to the country by the semi-mythological Prince Shotoku in the early 7th Century.

The next day we had a late start, as we're still catching up on a year of lost sleep. Kyoto is pretty spread out so we decided to buy a one-day go-anywhere bus ticket for 500 yen (GBP 2.39 / USD 4.67). That decision was easier made than actioned. Our bus map said we could buy this pass at any bus station, information office or subway ticket office. But our local subway station didn't have a ticket office, just a row of machines. Having briefly failed to work out what buttons to press we asked the single member of station staff we could find—the assistant at the ticket barrier. In between letting people through the barrier he came over and helped us to buy a bus ticket from the devoid-of-any-English-whatsoever automatic vending machine. Slightly embarrassingly however, it did have a huge great picture of a bus stuck on the front. But our helper was patient, as he probably has been with gaijin a million times before. Japanese people seem to be universally helpful and courteous, and they'll go out of their way to assist you.

A tiny part of the awesome whole. [IMG_4383]
Part of the Kyoto bus map [Enlarge]

Next we had to find our bus. The Kyoto bus map tells you everything you need to know about getting around Kyoto by bus, but the downside is that it's a work of awesome complexity. The picture to the right shows one small part of it. If you want, you can find a PDF of the whole thing here. It gives the bus routes, numbers and the locations of bus stops as well as complete pricing information. What it doesn't mention is that in some places there the different buses stop at slightly different points along the road, and finding the right point involves walking up and down the street trying to decipher the mostly Japanese signs. After a little while we found the right stop and set off for our first destination.

Honen-in [Enlarge]

Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) is on the eastern edge of the city. It's a major tourist trap and costs (another) 500 yen to get in. And it's not silver anyway, so that wasn't where we were going. A short walk away from it, across a narrow stream and up a hill along a dark, winding path through a bamboo grove is the lesser known Honen-in Temple. That's where we were going. Peaceful, shady, cool, covered in moss and surrounded by jungle, and free of charge to enter, it was a wonderful place of fish ponds, gardens and vines. There was a small art exhibition in one of the temple buildings and the artist gave us a couple of free postcards to take away.

We walked back down the hill to the bus stops. We planned to go next to Nijo castle. After another slightly confusing search for the bus stop we crossed the road, and caught our bus. Almost immediately we realised we were going the wrong way. So we changed our plans and decided to skip the castle and go straight to the Golden Pavilion, perhaps Kyoto's best known sight. There was no chance to see the Golden Pavilion without paying the 500 yen and joining the crowds, but this one we were willing to pay for. So after a quick picnic we coughed up our first entrance fee. The Golden Pavilion is indeed very, very golden (its top two stories are covered with gold leaf), and sits on an island in the middle of a mirror pond surrounded by a perfectly crafted Japanese garden.

Golden Pavilion [Enlarge]

On the way out of the pavilion garden we had two failed attempts at throwing a one-yen coin into a little pot (it brings good luck, especially for the owner of the pot). Then we leapt on to another bus and went north. On reflection, maybe choosing one-yen coins to throw at the pot (worth half a British penny / 1 US cent) was a bit too tight-fisted of us... They are small and made of aluminium, and so light that they don't fly straight.

Next it was back to trying something not on the average Kyoto agenda: Kamigamo Shrine. It's right on the northern fringes of Kyoto city and is the end of the line for that particular bus. We arrived as a wedding party was assembling. The bride and groom were posing for pictures between two cones of white sand, about a metre tall, which are supposed to be symbolic of mountains for the temple's nominated god, the God of Thunder, to descend upon. This was the second lot of wedding pictures we'd stumbled upon in Japan—the first was in Shukkei-en in Hiroshima. We much prefer these tiny glimpses of real life to the mass produced "cultural experiences" that are forced upon tourists.

Most things in Kyoto seem to close quite early—between 16:00 and 17:30, depending on their whims and with no correlation to our guide book. We called it a day and caught a bus back to our hotel. Total spent on sightseeing in Kyoto, including our all-day bus ticket: 1000 yen each (GBP 4.77 / USD 9.28). You could spend a fortune here, taking the easy route (taxis) between the attractions and only visiting the popular places that cost money to get into, but we've had a great time, and seen more than enough temples and shrines for a while! Tomorrow we will use our Japan Rail Passes for the last time and take our longest train ride in Japan: 953.6 kilometres, involving four trains, to get down to the bottom of the Japanese mainland and the city of Kagoshima, known as the Naples of the East.

Map of Day 563

Day 563
Tokyo to Kyoto

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.