A Walking Tour of Kyoto
It’s always hard to get your bearings when you arrive in a new place in darkness. By the time I arrived in Kyoto following my day hiking the Nakasendo, it was night time and with the early sunset, I had stepped out of Kyoto’s main train station into the dark of the night and almost immediately been faced with the bright glow of the Kyoto tower. As with Nagoya the night before, I had booked my accommodation at a place that on a map looked close enough, but in reality with my 10kg backpack on my back and tired legs, was further away than I’d wished for. Again I felt like I was disappearing into a non-descript part of the city but after 10 minutes I finally arrived at the cute little ryokan that was to be my home for the next few nights. After settling into my morgue-like hole in the wall where my mattress was, I headed out to get a much needed dinner. I was able to grab the last spot in a hip-looking bar-restaurant and asked for the chef’s recommendation. Out popped a plate of tasting skewers which I followed up with some Japanese style nachos. Satiated and tired, I headed back for a much-needed sleep ahead of a full day in the city.
I awoke to a bustling Kyoto and made my way to Kyoto station to jump on the JR line to Inari. The packed train should have given it away but when I reached my stop, there was a swarm of people on the platform making their way outside. I had read that it was best to get here early to beat the crowds but I had needed my sleep, so even although it was just after 9am, the place was mobbed. And with good reason. Fushimi Inari-Taisha is one of Kyoto’s most famous and most visited sights. I’d seen hundreds of photos of the famous vermillion torii gates that the place is famous for, but hadn’t really appreciated the extent of the place. Up an initial walkway, I was presented with a huge multi-story vermillion shrine beyond which were more similarly-styled traditional buildings. I was surprised on looking at a map just past there to find that the torii gates actually snaked all the way up a mountain and down again. I wasn’t completely sure that I had time to walk the entire route given everything else I wanted to see, especially as there was a queue just to get into the avenue of gates as so many people were already getting a head start on their Instagram photos by posing right at the entrance.
In the first avenue, walking was very much stop start as people kept abruptly stopping in front of you to pose for a photograph. The crowds here were a little irksome but thankfully the higher I went, the more the crowds dispersed. A decent proportion of the visitors were only walking the lower sections. In part this was because it had started to rain, and as I reached one of the level areas with one of the many shrines, the rain started bucketing down like a tropical storm and I was forced to wait under the tree foliage until it eased off a little. I still got quite wet climbing up to a lookout area where I could just make out the nearby suburbs of Kyoto through the mist. I’d already decided by this point that I was going to continue the whole loop, and as I continued to climb higher, eventually reaching the shrine at the summit, the gentle rain and the lack of people in this upper section meant it was a very peaceful place to be.
The trail plateaued for a little while, arcing round near the summit before starting a descent through another route. The drizzle continued as I walked but it was still a lovely place to walk through with the forest thicker and more natural on this side. There were also a few route options on the way down and I took a detour at one point to take a longer way down, eventually coming out at yet another shrine where I stopped for a matcha ice cream whilst watching some feral cats wander around. Finally the rain ceased and I was able to get out of my rain jacket which I was sweating in, and continue down the slope in a more comfortable fashion. Eventually circling back to the city view point I could see Kyoto a bit better now than I had on the way up so I paused a little to absorb the view.
I took an alternative route down, and at one of the lower shrines I bought a prayer cat, a small ceramic white cat that contained a prayer or fortune. There was a nice bonsai garden here, and after a brief look around, a short descent brought me to a side street with a cute little cafe where I stopped for a delicious lunch. Back through the main shrine at the bottom, I took a side street and found myself in a bustling market area where street vendors cooked fresh food and cute little shops sold all sorts of souvenirs. I was in heaven walking around shops full of Hello Kitty and Studio Ghibli souvenirs and the food looked and smelled delicious. Despite not being overly hungry, I bought a scrumptious sugary dough snack to indulge in as I walked around. By now a little after mid-day, it was time to head back to the city centre.
Kyoto station is a destination in itself. The building itself is grand but sticking only to the platforms misses the majority of its charms and nooks which are spread across the upper floors. From the main concourse I took the multi-leveled escalators up to the eastern end where there was a giant Lego version of the station and a few pieces of interactive artwork. The view out the window was straight across to the Kyoto Tower and nearby, a ‘floating’ walkway led all the way over to the western end of the station where the roof stopped and stairs led up to a rooftop garden and viewing area. It was still very overcast with the occasional drizzle stopping and starting but the architecture of the station building itself was the star of the show here with crazy arched roof sections and multiple levels leading down into the station proper.
North of the station and a relatively short walk past the Kyoto Tower was the Higashi-Honganji Temple. This huge brown temple was one of the biggest I’d seen so far in Japan and although a few coachloads appeared as I arrived, the concourse was so vast it didn’t feel crowded in the slightest. Unfortunately the rain came back heavy again and I had to stand under the shelter by the cleansing fountain until it passed. This fountain was stunningly ornate and as is often the case, was in the form of a dragon. I’d already seen several dragon fountains on my travels but this one was the most beautiful. The temple itself didn’t hold my attention for long so once the rain finally eased enough to move onwards, I left the grounds behind and followed the perimeter wall north and then west.
A few blocks over and across a main road was Ryukokuzan Hongan-Ji-Nishi-Hongan-Ji Temple, another huge and dark brown elongated building within another elaborate wall. I didn’t stay here for long, just enough to take in the buildings and the grounds before heading north. I should have caught a bus, but I stubbornly opted to walk what turned out to be a rather long way with tired legs. I followed the side of the main road heading for Nijo Castle, but I got sidetracked by an enclosed market that spread for several blocks away from where I was heading. I found a delicious donut stall that sold creme brulee donuts, and enjoyed having a nosy at the shops and their wares as well as the various food stalls.
As it transpired, by the time I limped my way to Nijo castle which was another couple of blocks to the north, there was only half an hour until its rather early closure of 4pm, and I had just made it to gain the last entry slot of the day. A giant gold-guilded entry gate greeted me into the complex where the large exterior of the palace building stood dramatically in front of me. Inside, I walked the halls around the palace rooms, so very different to any European palace I’d ever visited. The pictures on the walls were intricate and exquisite, the styles varying dependent on the intended use or occupant for the room. Outside, the gardens looped past a series of ponds before crossing a broad moat to the Honmaru Palace which was sadly under industrial wraps as it was being restored. Within the compound though it was possible to climb up the tall and thick stone wall to get a raised view over the area. The masonry was incredible, the stonework tightly packed to form imposing defensive structures. Once across the moat once more, the trail circled back around the northern aspect of the premises, following the moat past a series of gardens to reach the entrance in time for closure.
The sun was getting low as I stepped out the station and made my way into the Gion district. I had a recommended walking route on my phone to catch the highlights, and I passed the little blue post office and distinctive facade of a large theatre before joining the immense crowds that were squeezing their way along the busy sidewalks. The main street was a mass of eateries and souvenir shops, with geisha-themed objects on display everywhere and people littering the margins taking photographs of everything and anything. It was an assault on the senses. I, like so many others, turned onto the historic street of Hanamikoji which was lined with traditional buildings. I eyed up the menus as I went, sussing out my dinner spot for later. Near the bottom end of the street was another huge and ornate theatre, beyond which I cut up another road to Yasui Konpiragu shrine where there is a large wishing stone, before heading back down and into the larger Kenninji temple. It was really beginning to darken now as I wandered round the grounds here. The sun had set and the remaining light was turning the sky purple. Little twinkling lights lit up a myriad of lanterns and the bugs began to come out.
Night brought a desire to eat, and I’d found the perfect place to circle back to where I had an awesome platter of yakatori, tempura and miso soup, all washed down with an Asahi beer. I love tempura and hadn’t had much of it yet on my travels, so it was a nice change. Once full, it was time to brave the Gion crowds again as I headed back to the main street. I followed the canal for a while before sticking to the main street, popping into sweet shops to get some local delicacies for later. Finally I reached Yasaka shrine which even in the darkness was a very bright orange colour. The grounds were open to wander through even at night, and there were plenty of lanterns lighting up the place. I spotted the moon shining brightly above one of the buildings at the same time as a Japanese man did. I waited patiently as he got his wife to pose whilst he took some photographs of her standing next to the orange building below the moon. He approached me and asked if I could take a photo of both of them to which I agreed. He lined it up and asked me to replicate which I did and then I did my usual thing when I’m asked to take photos of people, which is to take a couple of extra ones framed differently so they have choice. But the minute I started to do this, the guy started yelling at me, complaining that it wasn’t the view he wanted and insisting that I only took the framing he’d requested. I was both bemused and dumbfounded. I’ve never been told off before when doing a favour of playing photographer, and I sheepishly handed the camera back and waited for them to leave before I could take my own photos.
Despite my aching feet, I walked all the way back down Gion’s main street and across the broad Kamo river to reach Poncho Alley. A back street filled with eateries, and more traditional buildings, it took only a few minutes to walk the length of it. As I had already eaten, there was little more to hold me here, so I decided it was time to head back to my ryokan. As I walked past the large shopping malls, I was tempted by a beautiful little patisserie, grabbing a delicious chocolate dessert to take back with me.
I was frustrated at how long it took for my bus to arrive. The transport system in Japan is generally faultless but my tired body just wanted to collapse in a heap. When finally it deposited me close to my accommodation and I dragged myself into the ryokan, it was over 12hrs since I’d left it that morning. Every single day of my time in Japan I’d walked so much. Even with exceptionally comfortable trainers, the heat and amount of walking was leaving me with swollen painful legs and feet that were barely better by the morning. As I lay my head on my mattress, the throbbing was intense, but yet again I had a full day of walking ahead of me the next day.