Friday, June 6, 2014

The beauty of Kyoto

Kyoto - the ancient imperial capital of Japan! Kyoto - city of ten thousand temples! Kyoto - known as the most beautiful city in Japan! I had been hearing so much about Kyoto - not only from our friends in Japan, but also random strangers we met in Japan - don't bother about Tokyo, Kyoto is where you should spend all your time! Although, in spite of all the recommendations, I still had only a day for Kyoto - just have to make the best of it, I guess!! In addition, we were at the tail end of our trip, and Manasi's patience was running thin - she could care less about how beautiful Kyoto was, she just wanted a break from all the walking!!!

The train took less than half hour - seriously, how awesome is this JR system??!! The Kyoto station is, of course, huge - it took us a little while to get our bearings. Almost by chance, we stumbled upon a Tourist Information Office - actually, this is should definitely be the first stop for any visitor to Kyoto - level 2F at the station, just follow the signs! Here, not only did we get a couple of excellent street maps of Kyoto, but we were also able to buy a daily bus pass - the attendant was very helpfully, and marked out bus routes to places she thought we might be interested in! There was also a whole lot of information about happenings in Kyoto - including ads for walking tours, tea ceremonies, hop-on hop-off bus tours - indeed, it would be possible to plan an entire visit to Kyoto just from this one room!!

So, duly armed with maps and bus passes - we headed out to explore the city! The first impression was not of any great beauty - Kyoto appears to be like any other bustling metro - in fact, maybe even a little grimier, if truth be told. The buildings, roads, everything is old - with none of the charm of other cities we had seen. Our map did tell us that the southern part of the city, where the bus station was located - was the more urban part of Kyoto. As we headed north, the view would (hopefully) get better!! With so many tourist spots and temples to choose from, and so little time - we had decided to stick to the tried-and-tested - first destination in Kyoto, Kinkakuji Temple or Golden Pavilion.

Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji Temple is a Zen Buddhist temple - the 3 storeyed pavilion has gold leaf coating on the 2 upper floors. Gold or kinkaku, a symbol of purity is used to reduce negative thoughts - and gives the shrine its name. The pavilion's setting in the middle of the pond adds to its tranquil, serene beauty. The grounds around the pavilion are landscaped - described as a Japanese strolling garden in the brochure. The pavilion itself was closed to visitors, which I found a little disappointing. Walking in the garden? Could take it or leave it!! Also, to accommodate the large number of tourists, a one-way path had been marked around the garden - a restricted walk is not really much fun!! Ajey did find some excellent wasabi covered peanuts - and bought a whole pack of them - I'm sure that alone was worth the whole walk for him!!

A few minutes walk away from Kinkakuji is the Ninnaji Pagoda - my daughter had reluctantly allowed me only 2 temples - so decided to skip Ninnaji, and chose to go to Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion! About halfway there, I changed my mind again - so we got off the bus to walk to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The procedure - yes, there was a procedure to visit the Palace - was to write a couple of months in advance and get an appointment to visit. The Tourist Information Office mentioned that there usually are cancellations, and if we got there in time, we still had a chance!! Just our luck - on that particular day, everyone showed up - and the outer wall was as close as we got to the Imperial Palace!!

Outside the Palace walls

The walk to the the Palace was quite interesting, though! We made our way down from the Kitaoji Bus Terminal and walked past a couple of universities - the Doshisha University and the Doshisha Women's University. A very campus town feel to the whole area - tons of students walking back and forth between classes, little pizzerias and sandwich places - glad to have seen this side of Kyoto!! There was also an excellent Thai restaurant - just a little place, perfect for lunch. And really tasty food! Didn't make Manasi too happy - not only is she not a big fan of Thai cuisine, the walls of this particular eatery were lined with aquariums teeming with fish which were all (apparently) staring at her!! Luckily, there was a fast food place right next door, and she was appeased with a veg burger and fries!!

As promised to Ajey and Manasi, last stop in Kyoto - the Arashiyama scenic area. Back to our JR passes to take the train to the Sagaarashiyama station! This is a picturesque little town - not very modernized - lots of shopping and local restaurants. Again, there are a number of shrines and temples in this vicinity, but what I was really interested in was the Sagano Romantic Train - a ride on a steam train along the river, into the mountain - known as the best place to view cherry blossoms! Again, fate intervened in the form of the large number of tourists - we wouldn't be able to get on that train without a long wait - and there was absolutely nothing romantic about that waiting room!! So settled for the next best thing - a walk to the Togetsukyo or 'Moon-crossing' bridge across the river Hozu.

 Personally, I thought the bridge a little underwhelming. Seriously, this is one of the most beautiful spots in Japan?? It could be that the cherry blossoms were not really in full bloom, and the cloudy weather didn't make things better - but still, I don't get it - I'm sure I'm missing something! Anyway, we walked back to our JR station - caught a glimpse of the Sagano train on the way back - I wonder how special that really was! Our day in Kyoto was done - I'm guessing you need more than a day to truly appreciate Kyoto's legendary beauty. For me, it didn't particularly stand out in any way - just another check mark on my itinerary, really! Oh well!! And if you had asked Manasi, she would have said that the best part of the day was getting back to our hotel in Kobe!!!

And yes, how can I forget - the Kyoto sakura!! Just a couple...

Last post in the Japan series coming up soon!! Stay tuned!!

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