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We knew things were off to a good start when we walked out of the doors of the Kyoto train station and were greeted by a group of about ten 9- to 10-year-olds with clipboards (clearly on a school assignment) and big smiles. “Excuse me,” they all said at once in English. They then asked us if we had a minute to answer a few questions. They took turns asking us questions like where we were coming from (Osaka), what we were excited to do in Kyoto (visit temples, eat local food), and what our names were. One of my favorite moments was when they asked us where we were from. First we said “the United States.” Confused stares. Then “America,” and they understood. Then we said “Seattle – Ichiro,” and they erupted in smiles and cheers. After that, they very officially shook our hands and gave each of us a calligraphy drawing. We walked away smiling and excited to experience more of this welcoming city.
Posing with our new friends at the Kyoto train station
After checking into our fabulous hostel and enjoying a great bowl of ramen from a local shop where we were the only westerners, we began our quest to explore as many of Kyoto’s myriad temples as we could in two and a half days. Our first visit was to Kinkaku-ji, which the school kids told us was their favorite sight-seeing stop in Kyoto. This spot is famous for its golden pavilion, reflecting pond, and strolling gardens — and was definitely a beautiful sight.
Kinkaku-ji’s golden pavilion
Next up was a visit to Ryoan-ji, which is most famous for its dry landscape rock garden, which is a very simple and abstract Zen garden that proved quite relaxing and thought-provoking even to a complete newbie like myself. In spite of the beauty of that garden, our favorite part of this temple visit was definitely a walk through one of the gardens behind a smaller temple on the grounds. We were just wandering and found a garden area that was completely deserted. We were the only people walking this path and the combination of colors and quiet was just stunning.
Our private peaceful path in Ryoan-ji
Now … on to Day Two. Get ready for some photos. And between Dan and myself, we have about 150 more from this day that didn’t make the blog. Today we would head to East Kyoto, where the temples are packed in and fairly easy to walk between. Our first stop was Fushimi-inari, which is the head shrine of the Inari cult and dedicated to their god of rice and sake. What makes this temple spectacular is its network of orange gates that snake up Inari-san mountain along various paths. It is truly a striking sight and there were stretches where it was just the two of us wandering this maze of bright orange gates on a mountain hillside in the fresh, cold air.
A view down one stretch of Fushimi-inari’s orange gates
Our next stop, Shoren-in, was not part of our original plan as it was barely even mentioned in our guidebook. We decided to pop in since we walked right by its gates and it looked promising from the outside. We ended up spending at least an hour in this peaceful spot that is a former residence of the imperial family. There were many tatami-floored rooms with open floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a pond and beautiful hillside garden. We sat and admired the view (again, completely by ourselves in the quiet) before exploring the entire maze of rooms. We then walked through the gardens and basked in the Zen of it all.
Tatami-floored rooms in Shoren-in’s main residence
View of bamboo trees at Shoren-in
We also spent some time wandering through old-town Kyoto’s side streets, where we ran into several geishas in full traditional garb. We’re pretty sure, however, that the woman in the photo below is not a real geisha. We read that many tourists pay to be dressed up in the full geisha costume and then walk the streets of old-town Kyoto. After we saw this woman pose for her boyfriend while pretending to push a button on a beer vending machine, we had our doubts.
“Geisha” in old-town Kyoto
Our final temple visit of the day was to Kiyomizu-dera, which is built on wooden stilts and spans the expanse of a valley. It was also quite beautiful, but very crowded with tourists and school groups, which detracted from the experience somewhat. Or perhaps it was my exhausted legs and feet … not sure. But we did see a beautiful sunset here before walking back down the hill to catch a train back to our hostel.
Wooden prayer tiles at Kiyomizu-dera
All in all, it was a very full two days. Full of walking, full of Zen, full of quiet, full of cold air, and full of total beauty. (It was also full of great food, but we’ll hold ourselves back on the food front for this post at least.)