The Republic of Korea recently celebrated Memorial Day, so Chris and I took the holiday opportunity for a long weekend visit to Kyoto, Japan. Osaka is just a little over an hour flight from Busan, and Busan is just about a 90-minute drive from our home. However, getting to the airport early, taking a train from Osaka to Kyoto Station, and getting from Kyoto Station to the hotel makes it about an eight hour “traveling” day. Still, it was an easy journey. And just a note: Our trip included nothing unusual. We covered the highlights of Kyoto, so I’m not revealing any secrets. However, as one who has visited Rome, New York City, and London and who never thought she’d see Asia, Kyoto is a destination city and belongs on the proverbial bucket list.
Upon arrival, it was pouring rain, and we walked the ten minutes from the station to our hotel with luggage and umbrellas. Happily, the clothes within the luggage stayed dry.
After checking in, we walked a short distance to a halal ramen restaurant that had no more than 14 seats and was constantly busy. We ordered and paid from a machine and then gave our ticket to an employee. We went with the spicy miso but ordered heat level one (and it was plenty spicy!).
Our first real day in Kyoto was filled with activity. We started the day walking to a train station a little over a mile from the hotel. We grabbed a quick breakfast from a convenience store and then took the train to Arashiyama, which is a very popular district with tourists that apparently has been popular since the late 700s!
We crossed the Togetsukyo Bridge to the bamboo grove and quickly fell in love with bamboo.
From there we went to the Monkey Park Iwatayama. It is located in the Arashuyama mountains and involved a short hike uphill. As every hike in Korea (and most walks) involve going uphill, we were ready for it. After the walk up, there is an open area where hundreds of monkeys roam. It was fun, and we were able to see several young monkeys as well as a baby, but the views of the city were perhaps the most impressive aspect of the attraction.
We hiked back down and stopped in the neighborhood for some udon, tempura, green tea ice cream, and a shave ice. We then traveled by bus to Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), a Zen temple with the top two floors completely covered in gold leaf. It is beautiful and apparently most impressive on a sunny day, but we were grateful for cloud cover as the weather made for pleasant outdoor sightseeing. The temple is built
overlooking a large pond, and, like so much of Kyoto’s attractions, has lovely gardens. Our last stop of the day was Nijo Castle, built as a residence for a shogun (military dictator). The day ended with dinner at a gyukatsu (deep fried beef cutlets) restaurant.
Day two was rainy and overcast, which made for a wonderful touring day but not the best photos. We again started the day with breakfast from a convenience store (conbini). It may sound strange, but the convenience stores in Japan are stocked with a variety of fresh offerings from sando (sandwiches), oden, bento, onigiri (rice balls), and pastries. All are very well-priced. I didn’t try it, but the fried chicken also looked pretty tasty.
We spent the day on the bus and our feet. An all-day bus pass cost about $6 (US) and pays for itself in three trips. We went to Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), my second favorite place of our visit. The gardens are magnificent, so we took our time. We then walked the Philosopher’s Path to a tea house for a little lunch.
We seemed to be the first customers in a beautiful little place run solely by one woman. After we finished our lunch, several separate parties came in, and I wondered how she was going to manage cooking, preparing drinks, taking money, etc.
We ventured to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, which has over three floors of wonderful souvenirs. I did some price comparisons, and it is fairly priced. The store has very high-end items as well as more reasonably priced options and a great selection of cultural books (many in English).
Having loaded up on treasures, we lugged our purchases over to Kiyomizu-dera, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It is immensely popular but well worth the visit. I had read about the Tainai-meguri (womb of the goddess), a room near the entrance of the temple where one ventures down stairs and a pathway in complete darkness, holding onto a thick rope with large beads. It is supposed to represent the womb of a female Bodhisattva, and emerging from it is supposed to represent rebirth. I knew I had to experience it. I have had moderate claustrophobia, and the idea of being in something unknown in complete (100% complete) darkness fascinated and frightened me. When we entered, I panicked for a moment and had to let the people behind me move ahead before entering the complete blackness. Then I regulated my breathing, moved forward, and tried not to fight the fact that I could not see anything. It was also very hot, which added to the claustrophobic feel.
After walking through the blackness for a couple minutes, there is suddenly a dim light drawing attention to a large power stone. On the stone is engraved a sacred symbol. Visitors spin the stone, making a wish. Visitors then walk forward into brief blackness again and come back out into the light. It was really an amazing experience for me. I don’t think I’m ready for a sensory-deprivation tank anytime soon, but I feel that Asia is helping me conquer fears. (I think Korea helped me largely overcome my fear of heights.)
From the Tainai-meguri, we went to the main temple. The main hall’s roof is under renovation until 2020, but it is still open and is a wonder of woodwork and massiveness. There are also wonderful views from various balconies. We ventured to the Otowa waterfall from the fountains of longevity and fortunate love life, skipping the fountain of success as it is considered greedy to drink from all three. We could have spent hours at this temple but had limited time. It was definitely a worthwhile visit.
We ended the day with a visit to Nikishi Market, accomplishing everything by bus and foot. The Nikishi Market is great fun and allows visitors to sample all kinds of food on sticks. Unlike the State Fair of Texas, where you can indulge in fried butter, fried Twinkies, and fried corn dogs on sticks, Nikishi Market has little fishes (eyes, tails, scales included) on sticks and various other delicacies. I mainly went for some seasonings to bring back home and scored with some sesame seasonings and dressing. There is also a Nikishi Shopping area with lots of retail, but we skipped that.
Then it was back to the hotel for a rest and then dinner at a yakitori spot with about four tables and counter seats. Yakitori is grilled skewered chicken. One orders multiple skewers to make a meal, usually starting out with a few to determine what they want more of before ordering again. We waited a long time for six skewers so opted to not wait around for round two. It was very good though. We moved on to dessert rather than more savory dishes.
Day three started at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which became our favorite spot. The shrine is famous for its thousands of orange torii gates across many trails throughout a beautiful forest. There is also a bamboo forest, so if you miss the one in Arashuyama, you can see one here. My advice to potential visitors: Wear some kind of hiking shoe or hiking sandal, pack some food and beverages, and hike to the top of Mt. Inari, which is easily accessible from this beautiful shrine. We didn’t dress properly so missed out. A visit to this shrine demonstrates that this is another incredibly popular place. We were there on a Saturday, and the crowds at the entrance could dissuade the most perseverant. Push through anyway because it is large enough that one can get away from the crowds throughout the grounds. And, as mentioned, one can also get in a pretty good hike. We really took our time here because it was so beautiful and shaded.
We then walked a distance to lunch at Dragon Burger for a Japanese burger and some of the best French fries I’ve ever had (the tempura batter might have had something to do with that). We went to the Imperial Palace, which is noted for its beautiful grounds. Going inside is not really worth it because visitors are not allowed into any of the buildings. While free, the inner grounds are a vast wasteland of gravel along with buildings and placards regarding what is inside the buildings. Outside the palace grounds, however, is a huge greenspace with amazing trees, flowers, benches, paths, shade, and relaxation. It’s a wonderful spot for a picnic and the opportunity to interact despite language barriers with families, couples, and various dog-owners (I can’t pass up interactions with pups when I’m away from mine).
We ended our day with Gion, which was overwhelmingly crowded. It is an old district with many wood buildings, but it seems to be more of a shopping destination. Perhaps it would be different at night as there are many restaurants and some drinking establishments. We didn’t stay long and then were not creative for dinner, carrying out a local pizza from a place by the hotel.
After all of that fun, we had to head home. We took the train to the Osaka airport and then had the short flight back to Busan.
On the plane, I loaned a young Japanese man a pen, and he gave me a present! He gave me a bag of some kind of Japanese snack, which is very good. There is so much kindness despite language barriers. It warms my heart. It also warms my heart to return to our Korean home – especially our pups (and our bed). We loved Kyoto, but there really is no place like home.
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