Kyoto literally means capital city. From 764 until 1868 it was the capital city of Japan and much of the historical significance of this city is still on display. Kyoto was spared from the worst of the bombing during WW2 which is why tourists come en masse to see a slice of what Japan was like before the modern era. Our plans were little different, although we managed to squeeze in some elements of modernity amongst the temples, gardens and palaces.
You may not have heard of Arashiyama but almost everyone has seen it. The shrine is large and impressive but the park contains the most famous bamboo grove in all of Japan. It has appeared in numerous hollywood films and several motivational posters. On most of these occasions they somehow managed to clear all the people out and then employed judicious use of colour editing tools, but the forest is still a unique place to walk through. After 10 minutes walking through the forest there is a junction where most visitors turn back or take the path downhill, if you instead take the left turn uphill the crowds thin out – we went in the evening and actually managed to get a few photos of just the forest, no tourists. This path is definitely worth taking because it leads to a look out point where you can see down the valley, away from the park, where a small river glides between wooded hillsides. There are a few small sightseeing boats on the river but most are traditional paddle powered vessels so they add more than detract from the scenery in my view.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
This is the second site in Kyoto that just about everyone has seen, the shrine with over 10,000 torii gates. In a similar fashion to the bamboo grove there is a very impressive shrine at the start and then behind it lie the gates, lining winding paths all the way up Inari mountain. Halfway up the mountain there is a viewing point with ice creams, beer and souvenirs – again most people turn back here and the intrepid, energetic tourists who continue up are rewarded with the opportunity to take in the environment free from bustling crowds and selfie sticks. I find it really hard not to sink in to the hypocritical anti-tourist mindset in these situations. You have to laugh at yourself for standing with your camera to your face trying to line up the perfect shot whilst thinking “I wish all these bloody tourists with cameras would just get out of my way!”.
Here’s a short video of one of the many shrines on the way up Inari mountain – listen to the cicadas, an almost constant accompaniment to any outdoor japanese experience:
This was a real pleasant surprise. After 20 days of hectic travel around Japan and two days of sightseeing in the humid heat of Japan we were feeling burnt out in both ways. We wanted a day which required minimal effort so I looked what we could get to on the metro from our hostel without needing to make any changes. Around 4 stops north of where we were staying was a huge park and in the park was the old imperial palace. From the few reviews I read people seemed to like the place and it was free so we decided to go there the next day. I’m so glad we did.
The park itself is large but fairly uninspiring, painted in broad strokes with a large block of trees here, a wide and flat grassy area there and minimal detail. Not what I had come to expect from Japanese design. We walked up to the palace entrance and were pleased to find that the admission was free. Once inside the palace walls the design changed. Numerous intricately constructed buildings clustered together (with excellent information boards in english on them all), separated by well kept courtyards and paths. There was a set tour route which ensured you saw all the sites and it culminated in what I can now say (writing this on our second to last day) is the most beautiful garden I have seen in Japan. It wasn’t big, definitely nothing to compare to scale of the gardens in Kanazawa but it was perfect. What I love about Japanese design is the combination of attention to detail whilst not neglecting the overall impression. In the garden of the imperial palace my first glance took in multicoloured trees, the water that lay in the middle of it all and the stone bridge that crossed it. But looking closer you can appreciate the choice of different plants that make up each bed, the carved detailing on bridge and the shape of the paths that wind through it all. The pictures I took don’t do it justice I fear, when taking a photo you have to choose whether to focus on a detail or show the complete design but the beauty here is in the combination of the two.
Kyoto Railway Museum
It seemed fitting that in the last big city we visited using our JR pass we would visit a museum dedicated to the Japanese railway. At first a large factor in our wanting to go was because we thought it would have air conditioning (did I mention it’s incredibly hot and humid here?), and from the looks of me when I staggered into the building you would be forgiven for thinking it must be raining outside. The museum is very new, only open a few months and it is not cheap. There is minimal english information available but they have a lot of physical exhibits and I think it was designed with children in mind so most of the information is decipherable from the pictures. It was nice to discover that the first ever japanese locomotive was imported from the UK, although like most of the things we exported in those days Japan is now far better at railways than we are. There’s a funny plaque in the section about timetabling railways which reads “Unlike other nations railways, japanese trains always run on time”. I’d call it insulting and arrogant if it weren’t a completely fair assessment of the situation.
There’s lots to do at the museum; sit in the driving seat of a Shinkansen, attempt to operate a level crossing and even drive a simulated train if you can decipher the system to book a slot to use the simulator (seriously, after extended consultation in stilted english I think what you do is show your entrance ticket to the people at the simulator, who then give you another ticket which you take to fake station ticket office who give you a time slot when your ticket will be put into a raffle to decide what order the people at that time will get to use it, the results of which will be announced over the PA system. Maybe). But in the end my favourite part was the cafe. It has huge glass windows which look out over the train line just as it enters/exits Kyoto station. We could have sat there for hours watching the freight, commuter and shinkansen trains pass, sipping reasonably priced coffee and basking in the air conditioned breeze – it was very hot and humid outside, you see.
Full photos from our trip to Kyoto are here – there’s a lot of them!