Kyoto (A Birthday Adventure in Kansai)

When I visited Kyoto back in March, there was so much left that I wanted to see and I left the prefecture feeling slightly unfulfilled in a positive, “I really want to come back” kind of way.

Because of that, when I was organising my trip to the Osaka area, a little ‘what if…’ started to form in the back of my mind. It wouldn’t cost much more to tack on an extra day in Kyoto and I could easily book my night bus to leave from there instead. Travelling by night bus, I wouldn’t have to arrange accommodation in two cities, but I could still make the most of another 12+ hours in the ancient capital.

I checked out of my hostel in Osaka and caught a rapid train to the main station in Kyoto, arriving in about 30 minutes. My first priority was finding a coin locker for my case (which I did), and my second was to grab a quick breakfast while going over my plan of attack for the day.

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Hello again, Kyoto Station.

I’d spent a bit more at USJ than I’d been expecting, so my first port of call was the post office to get more cash and then it was straight to Nijo-jo, a castle in the north west of the city. I’d heard about this castle before, and I’ve had a three year long love affair with Japanese shiro (城) making them a must-see in every place I visit. I mean, I’ve written about at least five castles on this blog alone. My friend’s recommendation was the final deciding factor and it became top of my list for my second time in Kyoto.

Nijo Castle is a very important location in Japanese culture and history, being the place where the country’s last shogun relinquished his power. To enter the castle grounds, you pass through an ornate gate called the Karamon, which was inspired by Chinese influences. It features intricate wood carvings and considering how expensive it must have been to commission, it was a status symbol for sure.

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Karamon, Nijo Castle

This was the first castle I’ve been to that’s all on one level, and the difference was a nice change. I meandered around the building while taking care to check out every room, the floorboards ‘singing’ underfoot. The flooring of Nijo-jo has come to be known as “uguisubari“(鴬張り), or “nightingale floors” due to the sound it makes when you walk on it. This is due to the nails making contact with metal clamps while under pressure, and with every step and every ensuing squeak, it does sound a lot like a shrill little bird. It’s a practical feature which would be very useful in a fortress – you’d always be able to hear an enemy coming.

The most important room in the castle is the room where official ceremonies took place. This was where the Tokugawa shogunate ended, ushering in a new era which saw the institutional power handed back to the Emperor and the Imperial Court. There were replicas of the noblemen kneeling metres away from the shogun, who was sat on his own raised platform on one half of the room. The idea was that such an important figure could not at the same level as everyone else, so much like a throne in Western culture, he would’ve been placed physically higher to indicate his rank.

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Nijo-jo

The room interiors were beautiful, featuring restored art that was painted onto the wall panels. I didn’t really want to leave, but I’d looped the whole of the castle and I still had the gardens to explore. I came across a row of fuurin, glass wind-chimes that are shaped like domes and are traditionally painted with imagery like flowers or fireworks. They definitely represent part of ‘Japanese summer’ in my head so I got a couple of quick pictures, one of which is currently acting as my phone background. I will probably replace it with an autumn themed background soon, but Japan’s weather has only just changed so there wasn’t much point in getting ahead of myself.

The gardens were beautiful, and when I went, it didn’t seem like there were many people about. I could wander through quietly, gazing wistfully at the still waters of the castle moat and wishing that I could jump in and escape the heat.

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Fuurin, glass wind chimes

Close to the exit was a small tea house that served various different drinks and desserts. I wanted to take a look around and in order to enter, you had to order something so that’s exactly what I did. I was practically roasting in the midday sun, so I figured the best way to cool down would be to have a bowl of kakigori so I chose my flavour and waited for it to arrive. When it did, it was bigger than I’d expected and I tried to eat as fast as I could before it all melted, instinctively resting my wrists on the glass bowl to lower my body temperature at the same time.

The tea house was a little crowded, but I was sat in the outside area so it wasn’t loud at all. Between the low rumble of conversation behind me, the lush green in front of me, and the sound of cicadas emanating from the surrounding trees, the atmosphere was so relaxing and I was glad I’d had chance to chill out a little before heading back towards the city centre.

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Mango kakigori

I got back to the main station via the subway, then switched to a bus for Kiyomizu-dera. Unlike last time, I didn’t feel like a 1 Day Pass would be worth it seeing as this was the only bus journey I was planning on taking. If you aren’t intending on using the buses a lot, it’s pretty simple to get by with an IC card like Suica, Pasmo, or the Kansai region’s ICOCA. I personally love the name ICOCA because it’s a deliberate play on the phrase 行こうか (ikou ka?) which means “shall we go?”.

The bus took approximately half an hour, and there was a little bit of a walk from the stop, but thanks to Kiyomizu-dera being a major tourist destination it’s easy to find.

Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous of all of Kyoto’s landmarks, being awarded the title of World Heritage Site in the 1940s. It’s a Buddhist temple that was founded in 778, ascending up Mt. Otowa in the south east of the city.

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Kiyomizu-dera

Kannon is it’s enshrined deity, and according to legend, a monk named Kenshin had a dream which told him to find a ‘crystal spring’. He eventually came across Otowa-san’s waterfall and hermit approached him there, offering him wood from a sacred tree to carve into a statue of the goddess. Kenshin decided to build a temple to honour her in the same location, and called it “Kiyomizu-dera” or ‘pure water temple’ in English. Thirty buildings belong to Kiyomizu-dera, but the most well-known part is the Main Hall, which overlooks the slope below.

From the main steps, you can see a panoramic view of the whole of Kyoto. I had a similar experience at Fushimi Inari five months before, but this was slightly different. Not only had the angle changed, but I felt like I was more familiar with the city this time around. I could still enjoy it though, and I hung around for a little while, taking photos and appreciating the sight ahead of me.

After that, I bought my ticket to enter the temple grounds.

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A view over the city

Even though the traditional red buildings in front are beautiful in their own right, most people do go for the main hall (kondo), whose photos are featured on countless travel guides. To reach the point where those pictures were taken, you actually pass through the hall itself.

You can just walk through, but you can also explore more if you remove your shoes and step up onto the raised platform, and I chose to do the latter.

Unfortunately, Kiyomizu-dera was undergoing renovations when I went, but they’ve been in progress for about 2 years now with no end date announced so I figured there was no point in waiting for them to be finished. It didn’t make for a good photo with all the scaffolding and netting, but hey, at least I was there.

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Still worth it

If you climb down a staircase close by the main hall, it leads further down the mountain to a structure which controls the flow of the waterfall. In order to improve your fortunes, you can drink from one of three streams, each dedicated to a different aspect of life. The queue was really long and I may have lined up if I didn’t only have a day in Kyoto, but my time was tight and I decided not to.

A short walk away from Kiyomizu-dera is another one of the most iconic sights of Kyoto (alongside Kiyomizu-dera itself, of course). If you’ve ever checked out the Instagram tag for Kyoto, you’ll have probably seen quite a few photos of Yasaka Pagoda, part of Hokanji Shrine. I pulled up Google Maps to figure out where to go, and even though I didn’t get lost, I wasn’t exactly in the right place. Yes, I was practically right next to the pagoda, but I wasn’t on the right street to get the perfect instabae shot.

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The streets of the Higashiyama area

Close by are Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka, a set of streets in the Higashiyama ward that have attempted to preserve the feel of old Kyoto. And they’ve certainly succeeded. Despite being a touristy area full of souvenir shops, there are still quite a few stores selling things like glass hair pins, and quite a few tea shops too. All the buildings are old fashioned and if you were to walk down it with no people around, I’m sure it wouldn’t feel like 2019.

I tried a road off the main street, which miraculously turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. The path wound down a slight hill with the pagoda standing tall at the end, framed by the surrounding buildings. It was late afternoon so the sun was lower in the sky which made it look even more beautiful. It may not be able to match the pictures taken by professional photographers, but I’m still happy with the one I got in the end.

After all, it was founded in 592, making it the oldest pagoda in all of Kyoto (which is saying something in the former capital).

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Yasaka Pagoda

Around the corner from the ‘pagoda street’ is quite possibly one of the most famous Starbucks Coffees in the world. Belonging to the group of stores that have been modelled after the local culture and/or surroundings, this stands out as being the only one which has tatami flooring. The outside literally looks like it could belong in Spirited Away, and the interior design looks exactly like a traditional Japanese house, if not a little more modern. In fact, it took me a while to find it, because it camouflaged so well in the row of other buildings. The usual mermaid logo has had a minimalist makeover, and the sign is wood instead of green.

I entered, not expecting to be able to find anywhere to sit down. This part of Kyoto had already been really busy (which is not to say that the rest of the city hadn’t) and this particular coffee shop’s fame had skyrocketed since it hit YouTube and other social media outlets. But I was desperate for a drink, and even though I knew there were plenty of kissaten (喫茶店, tea shops) down the street, I’d made my mind up.

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The best looking Starbucks I’ve ever seen

I would at least try to find somewhere, so I ordered an iced tea – the drink that quickly became my summer favourite. I wouldn’t add syrup because sugary drinks can often feel heavy in that kind of heat and I’d always forego the milk or lemon that they’d offer too. It’s cool, light, and refreshing, with still enough caffeine to wake me up a bit.

I wandered around looking for a seat, and I was able to look into all of the rooms and appreciate how unique this Starbucks was. After a few minutes, I stopped in one of the tatami rooms and even though there were available cushions, the tables they belonged to were occupied. Fortunately for me, there was a bench that was probably supposed to be for taking off your shoes. I’d been walking for ages, so I sank down onto the far end before realising how much I’d needed a break.

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Inside one of the tatami rooms

I sipped at my tea, making a conscious decision to not rush things. I doubt it would have done my body much good if I suddenly rehydrated like that. Plus, I wanted to enjoy where I was. Eventually, I did have to leave though, and it was on to my next destination.

My first intention was to head directly to the Gion district, but as I walked down the road I came across Yasaka Shrine on the way. I checked the time and one quick mental calculation later, I felt like I could justify a detour.

I’m not going to lie, it was a very quick detour, so I could only spare about 20 minutes at the most to take a look around. Yasaka Shrine dates back to 659, and was formerly known as Gion-jinja (Gion Shrine) until the Meiji Era. It’s the historic location of the Gion festival which is held during July and draws large crowds every year. It is dedicated to a trio of religious figures: Kushinadahime, Yahashira, and the main god, Susano’o.

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Yasaka Shrine

The dying sun cast a golden glow over the shrine, and the vermillions and crimsons of the painted buildings turned bright and almost orange in the first stages of sunset. The gold decorations stood out, shining strongly with reflected light. I probably visited at just the right time because it was stunning.

Opposite from the entrance is a shotengai, or shopping street, and my love for these have been well-documented across this blog. It may not have been my favourite kind, with a domed roof over a pedestrian pathway, but it still had canopies covering the pavement on both sides of the main road with paper lanterns hanging from them. I walked down Shijo-dori, ready to explore the Gion area.

As I arrived, I played the BAND MAIKO song ‘Gion-cho‘, which is a rock song about the old district, stylised with elements of traditional Japanese music. It really emphasised the atmosphere, and I got the warm feeling in my chest that I get when I have one of my “I’m really out here” moments.

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Shijo-dori

By this point the sun was well and truly setting, orangey-yellows making way for pastel pinks and lilacs, fading into a deep indigo as the evening went on. I stood on Shijo-Ohashi Bridge, looking over Kamo River and between the mountains in the background, the colours of the sky mirrored in the water, and the row of noryo yuka along the riverbank, I took my time getting as many photos as I could.

Kamogawa has a few side streams, and upon development of Kyoto City, roads have been built parallel to these streams. Businesses still operate between the river and its offshoots, so Gion is home to many small bridges linking those businesses to the main roads. I wandered along a stream on the east bank, taking in my surroundings as I went. On one side were modern bars, conbinis, and illuminated signs. On the other were wooden bridges, with low hanging tree branches and the sound of water trickling over the rocks below. The dichotomy between the two was enough to make me stop for a moment.

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Kamogawa

Further down the road was the Kyoto branch of Hard Rock Cafe, and just like Starbucks, this too was made to look like ‘old Japan’. I was heading in the right direction though, and within a few minutes, I was where I wanted to be.

I remember watching Memoirs of a Geisha a long time ago, and even though I’m now aware that it’s not the most accurate of movies or the best representation, the otaku Jenny from the past wanted to watch anything related to the country. The bridge featured in the film was based on a real life location, and despite it being shot in a studio, you can find its inspiration in Gion.

I clearly wasn’t the only person who’d had the idea, and there were a few groups of tourists taking pictures once I got there. This was my last stop of the day, and it was now pretty dark, so I hung around until the people dispersed a little before I took some pictures of my own. I didn’t see any real life geisha during my time in Gion but it’s not very common to see them unless you pay to enter an establishment.

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The Memoirs of a Geisha bridge

I’d also hate to come across like one of the tourists who take photos of them without their consent, because at the end of the day, they are just people going to work, and if you’re desperate to have a photo then you’d also be willing to pay for it. Don’t be that person.

Afterwards, my batteries and power banks were all running a little low, and I wanted to make sure I was back around Kyoto Station well in time for my bus back to Yokohama. I stopped off at McDonald’s, coincidentally 3 years exactly since I was in a McDonald’s in California (according to my Facebook memories). I took a second to appreciate how different things were now, and how much I’d changed. 3 years ago, I was on holiday, escaping a job I hated and prone to panic. That day, I was on my summer holiday from a job I love, and even though I still have my anxious moments, it’s not nearly as prevalent now.

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Back to Yokohama

I hung around until I felt like I couldn’t camp out there anymore. Seats were scarce and it wouldn’t be fair if I kept hold of mine while I wasn’t eating. While heading to the bus terminal, I made the resolution that I wouldn’t mention this trip at work, because I did not have the time, money, or luggage space to buy omiyage again. In my defense, I’d already bought omiyage for all three schools this year, on three separate occasions, so it does add up pretty quickly.

I’d been slowly melting all day, and the last thing that I wanted was to be gross and sticky on the night bus, so I freshened up in the bathroom and put on the change of clothes I’d put in my backpack. Along with my Spider-Man shirt from the day before and a pair of soft, flexible leggings, I was dressed comfortably enough that the journey back wouldn’t feel too bad. By that point I still had over an hour to go so I sat on the balcony area at the terminal, taking out my Kindle to read some more of the book I’d started two days before. Night had definitely come, but the air was still very warm, and there was enough artificial light to read properly.

I may have been extremely tired by then, but I do have to say that it was a damn good birthday trip.


Out of all the places I went to in Kyoto, what would be your number one pick? Leave your answer in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Kyoto (A Birthday Adventure in Kansai)

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