This past weekend was a 3 day weekend (thanks to Respect for the Aged Day)! Since we had a wonderful National Holiday, I decided to use it to my advantage and take a long weekend in the wonderful historic city of Kyoto! On Saturday morning I left Godo Station (my little train station) and 65 minutes later met up with my co-traveler for the weekend in Nagoya. We hopped on a bullet train (aka the Shinkansen Nozomi…the fastest one, approximately 300km/hour, about 180mph I think). It took us 35 minutes to travel 91 miles and in no time, we were walking out of the Kyoto Station. So yes, it is a very convenient way to travel. I heard that Arnold Schwarzenegger was just in Japan/Asia looking at the fast train systems they have here because he wants to put them in California. I would love for the US to have a better rail system, but who knows, it could be too late for that technology, since the Shinkansen was introduced in 1965 in Japan.
Once we arrived in Kyoto, we made a quick trip to the visitors information center and got some handy English maps and bought the greatest 2-day bus/subway pass for about $25.
After checking into our hostel, we went to Nijo-jo Castle. It is commonly referred to as the Nightingale Castle (at least that’s what my lovely mother calls it). Built in 1603 as the official residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the General of the Military (basically). To protect against invasion, the interior of the castle was fitted with ‘nightingale’ floors that squeak when pressure is applied. We couldn’t take pictures inside the residence, but it had 5 buildings with numerous chambers. Outside of the buildings was the Ninomaru Garden/Palace. I did get some pictures of this and it was breathtaking in September, so I can’t imagine what Cherry Blossom season or autumn season would look like.
Here are two pictures from Ni-jo Castle
After Nijo-jo Castle, we walked to Nishi Hongan-ji and Higashi Hongan-ji. As you can tell, they have the same name and they actually looked fairly similar. Nishi means West and Higashi means East. The daughter of the founder of the Buddhist Jodo sect founded the Nishi temple in 1272. The temple we saw was actually built in 1591. Tokugawa Ieyasu wanted to weaken the Jodo sect and therefore, broke off from the faction and formed Higashi Hongan-ji in 1602. After this, the original temple became known as Nishi Hongan and the headquarter of the Hongan branch of Jodo. Now days, this branch has 12 million followers.
Here are some photos from Nishi and Higashi Hongan.
Three historical locations later, we were hungry, so what better place to go than Kyoto Station’s underground shopping mall. There must have been 20-30 different sit down restaurants to choose from, and we settled on an “okonomiyaki” restaurant. They are called Japanese pancakes, but they are not something you would eat for breakfast, it was made of batter, veggies, mochi, cheese, and corn. Very yummy and very filling.
After dinner we decided to head up to the top of the Kyoto Tower (it reminded me of the Seattle Space needle). It is said to resemble a forever-burning candle. It was quite the view from the top, as we went up right at dusk. With one more stop one our list for the day, we headed to To-ji Temple (this is when I really appreciated my cell phone and its GPS device, I can’t tell you how many times GPS has saved me here). So 20 minutes later, we wound up at To-ji. The temple itself was established in 794 to protect the city.Most of it was destroyed by fire in the 15th century (a VERY common occurrence to historical places in Japan). We just wanted to see the 5-story Goju-no-to Pagoda, as it is the tallest one in Japan. The pagoda is 57 meters high and it has burned down 5 times since it was originally built, but the one we saw has been standing since 1643 (so maybe it’s on a better streak).
After our historical lessons we returned back to the hostel and met some people from Sweden, Germany, and actually went to the river bank with our new German friend Niko. I definitely saw the most foreigners I’ve seen since Tokyo Orientation back in August, there must have been over 100 foreigners on the river bank!
On Sunday, we got up and went to find a place with morning service/sets. Morning service is a breakfast special at coffee shops where you can get toast, coffee, salad, fruit, eggs, hot dogs, sandwiches, etc for $3-$10. You get to pick what you want and it is usually quick. With some food in us, we headed to Ginkaku-ji or the Silver Pavilion in NE Kyoto. This temple was originally constructed in 1482, which Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasu used as a retreat. It was supposed to be covered in silver but it never was. The gardens are definitely the highlight, and they were incredible to look at, it was quite peaceful and very beautiful.
Next, we went to Heian-jingu, which was built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. The buildings are replicas, and are actually 2/3’s the size of the original buildings. One day a year they open up the gardens to the public for free, otherwise we would’ve paid $8 to see the gardens. Somehow we picked the right day! Not only were the gardens free, but also there was free green tea and we met 4 college students who were part of an English club giving free tours in English to foreigners. It was our lucky day! As we walked throughout the gardens, we passed Japan’s first electric train, only the second in the world to Boston (at least that’s what I thought they said). To be honest, I have no idea why it is planted in the garden because it doesn't fit the theme. The highlight of this stop was the entrance, very gaudy but an incredible sight. The big orange gate is called a “torii” and its purpose is to serve as the official entrance to the Shinto Shrine.
The final stop on our Kyoto checklist was Kiyomizu-dera. I went here in college and it is one of the few temples/shrines that I can actually remember. To be honest, it is quite hard to forget. It is built on the mountainside and from it, you have a great view of Kyoto. It was first built in 798 and what we saw was built in 1633. A main attraction is the Otowa-no-taki waterfall. Visitors line up to drink this sacred water. There are three types to choose from: wisdom, health, and longevity. The common belief is that you can only drink one, and if you drink from two, you are greedy, and oh man, if you drink all three, you are asking for evil. When I went 4 years ago, I remember lining up and drinking the water, the only problem, is I don’t remember which water I drank. This time, the line was very long (it was a holiday weekend, so everyone was traveling) so we decided to skip the lucky water.
Sunday night we met up with 4 other ALTs (and one husband) for the Kyoto Tower Beer Garden. It was on the 10th floor of the Kyoto Tower Hotel, and it provided great views of the tower itself and Kyoto Station. A beer garden is something special to Japan; it is only during the summer and usually on the roof of a building. For about $30-$35, you get a beer glass and a plate, and for 3 hours, it’s all you can eat and drink. After dinner, we went back to the river bank (same one from the previous night) and met up with 2 German girls from the hostel. As a group, we headed out to find karaoke, a must-do while in Japan.
By Monday, I was tired! Getting up and out of the hostel was definitely a slow process! We went to the same coffee shop for breakfast, as we did on Sunday. After breakfast we decided to do some retail therapy instead of temple hunting. We eventually made our way to the Nishiki Market; it is filled with loads of fresh fish, fruit, veggies, and food in general (it smelled like a nice slice and dice selection of critters from the sea!) After the market we went back to Kyoto Station and called it a weekend and headed home!
So there you have it, my first excursion out of the area, and I would definitely call it a success. There are so many historical sights to see, and you cannot see them all in a three-day weekend! I’m looking forward to seeing Osaka, Kobe, and Nara soon (which are all in the same area).