Kanazawa to Kyoto was an easy 2 hour train ride, after a nice easy morning, and a short walk to the train station, yet I felt thoroughly put upon the whole day. Tired and cranky, not happy with anything. Clear signs that I needed some time off. I was meeting a friend in Kyoto but she was luckily busy that first evening so I could just do laundry, rest, and go to bed early. A few days later another friend showed up, and between the two I got around to a lot more than I perhaps would have on my own.
The first three days were all about shrines, Gion and kimonos. Kyoto is of course full of wonderful shrines and temples, grand parks, exciting historical areas and more restaurants than you could ever visit. It may feel overwhelming to try and visit them all, which you really shouldn’t even attempt to. Depending on how many days you spend in Kyoto, pick perhaps one shrine, one historical area or park and maybe one restaurant or bar to try per day. If you have time and energy for more, go for it, but don’t overdo it. My favorite activity was walking around the historical areas, especially Gion, watching people, taking photos of ladies in kimonos (discreetly from the behind so as not to be in their faces) and the lovely facades of the old houses.
Gion is the main geisha district and where we saw geishas every time we visited. I went there on several occasions, focusing on different parts of the area, with the Ninen-saka/Sannen-zaka preserved streets being some of my favorite parts of Kyoto. The area around Gion Square was geisha central with the lovely ladies hurrying to their entertainment engagements after dusk. Overheard in the throng, one excited tourist exclaiming “I got one!” after getting a photo of a geisha.
I must say that the throng of tourists trying to get photos of the ladies were being quite disrespectful and aggressive at times. There was even a sign on one wall with warning not to touch the geishas. What the hell people? These are people, no matter how gorgeous and photogenic, and deserve to be able to go about their business without harassment. I tried to stay a little further away, and as per my self imposed rules, only took photos from the back to respect their privacy. Besides, their kimonos and the exquisite hair showed to their advantage from the behind. The featured image shows two geishas who posed for photos briefly.
I also got a huge thrill every time I saw a lady wearing a kimono walking around, as you can see on Flickr and below. You may wonder if I took a photo of every woman in a kimono, and yes, I tried. Most of the ladies may have had rented their kimonos for the day from the many rental shops, but they were still fabulous. The effort it must take to don the gear, do the hair and make up to match (not geisha level, but still lovely), and walk around on the traditional geta shoes – well, the least I could do was to appreciate the outcome. Most of these women and couples were happy to pose for photos if you asked them nicely.
The most popular areas and shrines were of course very busy with tourists. The bamboo walk through ten meter high bamboos in Arashiyama would have been a peaceful walk but for the numbers of people who had come there. It was still wonderful, all that lush green and gently swaying bamboo.
The Arashiyama area itself was also delightful. Lost of interesting shops, stalls selling all kinds of food, and a small train station which had an exhibition of kimono fabrics in tall columns all around it. There was also a “bengal jungle” where you could go and cuddle with bengal kittens, except they were more interested in mock battles between each other, or with pieces of string helpfully provided to us in our efforts to entice them. It was a fun little interlude on a busy day.
My two favorite shrines were Inari Taisha with the walks through hundreds of orange torii-gates, set amongst a forest up a hill, and Sanjungsangendo shrine just south of the Gion area. The Inari shrine was of course very busy, but we walked further up the hill which had more quieter stretches of the gates and could sometimes briefly admire the view without people in front. We had a day bus ticket and took a bus there, even though the train from Tokyo station would be faster. We were in no hurry though and it was quick enough with the bus. We didn’t walk all the way up to the summit, but far enough to have those precious moments of solitude.
The Sanjungsangendo shrine has been called a “terracotta army of angels” and I must say it is apt. There was no photography inside, so the photo on the right is from here. It was quite spectacular. Row after row, column after column of these exquisite statues of Kannon, the goddess of compassion, covered in gold leaf and holding different implements in each of their many hands. The terracotta army may be more famous, but these are perhaps even more impressive, although they are almost a thousand years younger. The majority of the existing statues were crafted in the 14th century.
The statues are standing ten deep, and in two blocks of 50 columns each. There is one massive statue in the middle to make a total number of 1001 statues. The statues have guardian statues in front, representing different deities. The long walk along the side of the statues is mirrored on the other side of the long building with information about the statues, and a replica of the statue and a small scale version of the building itself for seeing impaired people to experience. There is also information about archery competitions that had been held on the long porch on the side of the building during the Edo period, and one exhibit in the long hall showed a section of a roof beam which had hundreds of wooden arrow shafts embedded into it.
After three days of touring the main shrines and historical areas with my two friends I was happy but knackered. I would still have about a week in Kyoto, and decided to take it easier the following days.