This spring break, I challenged myself to be in seven cities in seven days, but I don’t often do things by halves so I added a few little bonus rules. For a recap of said rules, click here. In the last post I’d just arrived in Kyoto, ready to start the challenge…
After a pretty comfortable sleep, I let myself wake up slowly. I may have wanted to fit a lot into a day, but at the same time it was still my holiday and I was allowed a lie in.
I hadn’t really thought much about where I’d go in Kyoto as the sheer amount of choice had caused me to barely decide at all. It would’ve been almost impossible to fit Arashiyama into my time frame and even though it was one of the places I wanted to go most, it ended up being postponed for a future trip. I was recommended Fushimi Inari and given that it was already high up on my list, it automatically shot to first place. But, Fushimi Inari is open 24/7 so it wasn’t the first place I went.
I’d ended up chatting with the guy that runs the hostel the night before, and he was in the lobby area when I was about to leave in the morning. Once I’d mentioned where I was going, he suggested that I bought the Kyoto Day Pass – which is unlimited bus travel in the space of one day, for a flat fee of 600 yen. I’d already heard about the pass before and I’d initially decided not to go for it as I wasn’t sure if I’d use it enough for it to make a difference. But just having the option made it worth it and I wouldn’t be losing that much money anyway. I bought a pass from the driver and I rode the bus for half an hour, which was by far the easiest way to get to my destination.
We pulled up at the right stop and I only had a short walk before I reached Kinkakuji.
Known as the Golden Pavilion in English, this place is one of Kyoto’s seventeen World Heritage Sites. It’s also somewhere I’ve discussed with my students so it made sense for me to visit before the same module rolls around next year (and this time I can use one of my own photos as a flashcard!)
The official name for Kinkakuji is Rokuonji, but it’s popular moniker comes from the gilded layer of gold (or kin, 金) on its top floors. Founded as a place for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu to retire, it became a Zen temple upon his death. Unfortunately it doesn’t exist in its original state now as it has burnt down several times since its establishment, however, its most recent reconstruction was completed in 1955.
I’d seen it so many times when researching places to go that it won me over, and maybe because I’ve seen so many pictures, it almost didn’t feel real being there. It was like being inside one of those photos, only this time there were way more crowds and an accompanying rumble of voices to match.
However, despite how busy it was, it still managed to keep some of its peace and tranquility. Whether it’s a side effect of living in one of the biggest cities in Japan, or visiting Tokyo regularly, but the amount of people didn’t bother me too much. I could tune out the chatter in the background and could I really judge the hordes of selfie-takers when I was doing the exact same thing?
The sun was out, the pond’s surface was still, and I could still hear the birds singing overhead. And that’s what really mattered.
I took quite a few photos of the main building before wandering down the path to see its grounds. Away from the actual Kinkakuji, the train of tourists became more staggered, making it easier to explore the gardens at my own pace. There were a few little shops along the way and I ended up buying myself a good luck charm with the kanji for Kinkakuji (金閣寺) embroidered on the back. I am a sucker for small mementos of a trip and this seemed like the perfect thing. It’s sakura pink with gold thread, it’s intended for passing exams, and given that I should be taking my next JLPT in a few months it has good timing too.
The grounds were beautiful, and the warm weather meant I was able to appreciate them fully. The path concluded with a small shrine where dozens of incense sticks were lit. The smoke did blow in my direction and I had a split second of thinking “I’m going to smell of it all day now” but to be honest, I don’t mind that because a) it’s supposed to be a good thing and b) I actually like the smell. Even if I didn’t, I live close to a cemetery so I should be used to it by at this point. I doubt anyone would notice if I was going round shrines anyway.
There was another gift shop, where I bought a postcard for my grandfather. I like to send him one when I go somewhere interesting. It’s a little bit more ‘old school’ than posting on here and I like it that way.
A few minutes later I passed another shop which sold matcha ice cream and yaki-dango with mitarashi sauce. It was then I realised that I’d been too hasty to get out and see Kyoto and I’d forgotten to eat anything. My stomach was protesting at this point and I will rarely turn down mitarashi dango so I ended up buying a stick as ‘breakfast’. Not the healthiest option, I know, but better than nothing.
The dango were still warm, the sauce was just the right level of sweetness, the outside was slightly more chewy than the inside and honestly – especially after eating the supermarket stuff for so long – it’s the best I’ve had probably ever. Many Japanese people have been surprised when I say it’s one of my favourites but I’ve loved mitarashi dango for over two and a half years now.
By this point, it was more brunch than breakfast so I figured I should get some ‘proper’ food. I took a brief detour to an okashiya (お菓子屋, sweet shop) to pick up some konpeito for a friend, then caught the bus to Kyoto Station. As the midway point between my two destinations that day, I figured it’d be a good place to find something to eat.
Remembering my challenge to find a local specialty or some other kind of relevant food to eat, I went on a hunt for a restaurant. I’d read that a good thing to eat in Kyoto was kitsune udon, and I found a place in the underground shopping area that sold it. Kitsune is Japanese for ‘fox’, but this dish isn’t necessarily named after its ingredients. Instead, it’s called kitsune udon due to the fact that it contains fried pieces of tofu, which are allegedly a fox’s favourite food. So it’s an udon recipe for foxes, as it were.
This was very relevant as I was about to head off to Fushimi Inari Taisha, which is a shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, agriculture, and prosperity. Foxes are said to be the messengers of Inari and as a result the shrine has several statues of them, so… very fitting.
I saw on the menu they had kitsune curry udon, and I knew instantly I wanted that one. It was a pretty big bowl when it arrived and I silently thanked the fact that I hadn’t eaten much that day. The noodles were just the right texture, the fried tofu was spongy in the best way and the curry base had more spice than I was expecting but that was okay with me.
Feeling full, it was time to catch the train to Inari Station. It’s a short trip there on the Nara line from Kyoto Station, and Fushimi Inari is basically across the road, so it’s very convenient.
Another one of Kyoto’s most famous attractions, Fushimi Inari is the most prolific Inari shrine in the entire country. It’s more than 1,200 years old and acts as the head shrine for the other 32,000 sub-shrines in Japan.
It’s also the site of the famous Senbon Torii, and if you’ve ever seen a photo of multiple red torii gates down one path, it’s probably here. The torii wind their way up Mount Inari and all the way back down again, and to do all that takes a good couple of hours at least. So first, I took a look round the shrine itself.
I washed my hands, gave a lucky five yen offering and prayed. I’m nowhere near a spiritual person but I figure that anything is worth a shot. It’s kind of turning into a habit though.
Then, I walked around taking photos and despite the forecast saying the sakura would be in full bloom that day, they were just a little short. Regardless, the place looked stunning with the pale pink blossoms against the bright red structures of the shrine. Fox statues flanked each set of stairs and I got some shots of them too. There was a small booth selling omikuji (or paper fortunes) and I was tempted to buy one but last time I did it wasn’t very good news…
After a while I ended up at the entrance to the Senbon Torii and I began the journey up Mount Inari.
The Senbon Torii are one of the most iconic images of Japan and the name generally translates to the ‘thousand gates’. I’d heard quite a few comments about how it was nearly impossible to get a photo without any people but I found it relatively simple. Sure, it was pretty crowded around the bottom, but as soon as I climbed higher, those crowds seemed to disperse a little and all I had to do was hang back for a minute before I could get the shot I wanted. Maybe that has something to do with the fact I went in the late afternoon, but at least I didn’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn.
It’d take a miracle to get me out of bed before six.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wooded patch through the row of gates. The daylight was filtering through in a way that seemed beautiful, and I decided to duck out through one of the gaps to take some pictures. I got a close-up of some back-lit leaves, almost translucent in the sunbeams. There was a bit of a drop beyond, and with my heart in my throat I wedged my foot into the tree roots so I wouldn’t fall.
Along the way I ended up bumping into a group of people from Glasgow. I’m a Northerner who’s lived in Japan for a year and a half, so I know how uncommon it is to hear accents from north of London and my ears pricked up instinctively.
One of the friends hung back to take my photo with the torii and we ended up chatting before he left to catch up with the others.
I kept climbing, thinking about how I’d totally already passed a thousand gates (which was true as there’s somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 nowadays). Eventually I reached the top and I know so many people do that trip every day but it did feel like an accomplishment for me – a girl so non-athletic that I gave up walking home and started taking the bus. Clearly all you have to do to get me to exercise is to bait me with famous landmarks.
After a moment to catch my breath, I began my descent and kept going until I came back to the Yotsutsuji intersection – a flat area with a panoramic view of Kyoto.
It wasn’t quite sunset but it was quickly approaching the golden hour so I sat down to have a drink and look over the city.
By sheer coincidence, I ended up sat by the same group of friends and we started talking. We hung out for maybe an hour, getting the train back to the centre of Kyoto before parting ways.
I could’ve pushed myself to go somewhere else but in my head I realised just how busy I intended the next week to be, and figured that after all the walking I’d done that day it would probably be a good idea to have a chilled out evening.
I headed back to my hostel, picking up some dinner from the conbini on the way. I’d had a craving for yakisoba since I saw it at the service station the day before but unfortunately they didn’t have it, so I ended up getting chahan instead. Pairing it with a small shot glass of sake I’d brought with me and complimentary green tea from the kitchen area, I sat down to eat, simultaneously charging my camera and sorting out some blog stuff in my notebook.
In hindsight, it was a very good choice to stay in. After all, I had a big day ahead of me…
Day 1 of 7
City visited: Kyoto
Relevant food: Kitsune Udon
So I had a slow start on the first day of my challenge… but do you prefer having a lie-in or getting out there and experiencing things ASAP?
Keep an eye out for Day Two next Sunday!