People who know me well will know that my all time favourite film is Lost in Translation and ever since I saw Charlotte wandering contemplatively through the beautiful temples and gardens of Kyoto, I knew this was somewhere I would have to journey to someday. There are approximately 1600 temples and 400 shrines in Kyoto making it undoubtedly the cultural and spiritual heart of Japan. I also learnt that unlike other cities, Kyoto was spared from the majority of the bombing during WW2 which is how huge swathes of the city still embody what a lot of people imagine traditional Japan to look like today.
One of the first temples I headed to was Kinkaku-ji which roughly translates to Golden Pavilion. This couldn’t be more appropriately named as all of the outer walls are made from a gold foil covering. Despite the hordes of tourists, it was a stunning sight to behold and definitely stands head and shoulders above other temples in terms of uniqueness. Its also situated as such over a lake, that once you’ve wrestled your way to the front you can get some really good photos without people getting in the way.
That same day I also went to Daitoku-ji which is a series of Zen temples and raked gravel gardens. I had the good fortune of visiting when certain temples usually closed were open as part of the Autumn foliage season. By Kyoto standards, the zen gardens were not that crowded and after sitting on one of the overlooking platforms I suppose they did leave me feeling somewhat zen-like. One particular garden is famed for its two sacred mounds of sand, so sacred in fact that photos are forbidden. But I confess the photographer in me still sneaked a picture and I quite rightly got promptly told off by a monk!
Even though I had planned most of our days meticulously to make the most of what Kyoto has to offer, I had also left a bit of time to wander off the beaten path. During my wanderings through the charming backstreets I came across quite an impressive temple which apart from the vending machines (yes there are rumoured to be around 5,000 of them in Japan) I had to myself, and a scenic but bustling shrine which for once was mostly filled with locals worshipping rather than tourists snapping away, adding a layer of authenticity. It was here I was lucky enough to witness a just-wed couple having their photographs taken, looking much more focused and serious than back home.
Getting a bit tired of temple-hopping, Tom and I went to one of the few exalted sights in Kyoto which wasn’t a temple or shrine, Arashiyama bamboo grove. Being enveloped by a huge green canopy of trees swaying above you was quite an experience, however it was not quite as enchanting as pictures would lead you to believe as in addition to it being packed with pedestrians, cars are also allowed to pass through the narrow avenues which for us detracted a lot from our overall impression of the place.
Having been advised that the autumn foliage provided a stunning backdrop, Tom and I opted to spend our precious yen (temple admission fees can be quite pricey) to Kiyomizu-dera which as we were to discover also has a number of quirky sights connected to the main temple. Just before the entrance to the main complex, there is Tainai-meguri, where after taking off our shoes at the main entrance, Tom and I descended into complete darkness and stumbled along for 2 minutes until we reached a dimly lit large stone orb which you spin to make a wish, a bizarre but memorable experience to say the least. There is also the Jishu-jinja shrine which promises success in finding true love if you are able to walk with your eyes closed between a pair of stones 18m apart. Encouraged, there were quite a few giggling Japanese schoolgirls trying their luck while we were there! I wasn’t actually that impressed with Kiyomizu-dera itself as visually it was a bit dull and was in line with what I found with some other temples where after a while they all merge into one. My spirits were soon boosted however when we happened across the rare sight of a geisha mid photo shoot in one of the quiet side streets (I apologise for the poor photo quality). And not that I really needed it, but it was also further validation that sometimes it really does pay to get off the main tourist trail even if it doesn’t feel natural to walk away from the pull of the crowd or the attraction packed route neatly prescribed by your guidebook.
In complete contrast to Kiyomizu-dera, the Fushimi-Inari shrine definitely stands alone in terms of aesthetics. Devoted to the god Inari who in modern times is responsible for prosperity in business, this shrine complex is literally a series of hundreds bright orange torii gates set into the hillside along with dozens of stone foxes (foxes are seen as a messenger of Inari). One of the most memorable parts of the hike is going through 2 densely packed parallel series of gates which have all been donated by businesses for a small fee (the cheapest is £2,000) to have their names inscribed into them. As Tom and I discovered, you can huff and puff up the hills for hours following this tunnel of orange. Our reward however was a wide overlook over Kyoto city centre and the crowds thinning out significantly once we got right to the top.
On a final note, strolling through certain neighbourhoods such Gion and Higashiyama is just as valuable of getting a feel for Kyoto as is getting lost in a temple (quite literally as some of the grounds can be huge). We walked down an old alleyway called Ponto-Cho which shielded from the traffic with old wooden buildings on either side and hanging lanterns, created a very hushed and furtive atmosphere in the growing dusk, although sadly there were no geishas going about their business this time.
Before this trip, I felt with near certainty that Kyoto would epitomise Japan for me personally and I’m very glad to report that after spending just shy of 2 weeks here that it certainly lived up to the hype and did not come over as too touristy and contrived unlike other places, and yes Malaysia I’m looking at you.