The email chatter started even as we were a world away, adrift on the winter winds of Snæfellsnes, Þingvellir, and Reynisfjara. In the early months of 2016, Ashley’s parents brought up the idea of a family holiday in the spring, especially after Ashley’s sister, Joanne, got married and moved to Shanghai last year. We began throwing around possible holiday destinations, while working around the schedules and preferences of three different couples. After much deliberation, Kyoto and Osaka won out over Taiwan, and we began planning a trip to Japan for the last weekend of April.
Ashley and I had traveled to Japan three times last year (Niseko, Tokyo, and Okinawa), and we loved every minute of it. It’s probably a bit naive to gush over a country from the limited perspective of a tourist, but there’s just so much to take in, from afar and down to the granular level, that I don’t think I’d ever get tired of visiting. We wouldn’t have much time, though – just two days in Kyoto, and pretty much one day in Osaka. Our plan was to stay in the Swissotel Nankai Osaka at night, and then take day trips into the ancient capital. After a bit of research, we decided on the Hankyu Limited Express train into Kyoto from Osaka on both days – it was the cheapest at 400 yen, but it would take the longest out of all the train options. It stopped closer to the sites we had on our itinerary, though, with conveniently located stations at Kawaramachi and Arashiyama.
Kawaramachi station is the closest stop to the Higashiyama part of town, on the eastern edge of Kyoto, where we would be spending most of our first day. Our first destination was a temple and garden complex known as Ginkakuji, Temple of the Silver Pavilion, though the official name is Jishōji, Temple of Shining Mercy. It was built in the late 15th Century by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the Shogun, or military dictator, of Japan, as a retirement villa, making arrangements to have it converted to a zen temple after his death. We meandered through the temple grounds and the garden paths that morning, hiking up into the eastern hills to see the city fade into the forested hills beyond.
The Philosopher’s Walk and Udon Heaven
Stretching south from Ginkakuji to the zen temple of Nanzenji is the popular path known as the Philosopher’s Walk. The tree-lined walkway follows a quiet canal as it works its way down the eastern edge of the city, and it was where a prominent Japanese philosopher was known to have made his daily rounds in the first half of the 20th Century. It was a pleasant enough stroll, but our group began to lose interest about halfway through, and we wandered off onto a side street down the hill. At that point, alarm bells were ringing in our bellies, and we decided to seek out a lunch spot. One of the places we had marked down on our maps was an udon restaurant called Omen Kodaiji, and there just happened to be a branch in the vicinity of Kiyomizudera, our next destination. So, after figuring out where we needed to go, we hopped into a couple of cabs and, 10 minutes later, alighted onto the narrow lanes of medieval Japan. Omen Kodaiji was just around the corner, however, and, choosing to satisfy our hungry stomachs over our hungry eyes for the moment, we stepped inside the wooden door and entered into udon heaven.
The uphill streets leading up to Kiyomizudera were crowded with tourists and pilgrims alike, wandering from shop to shop as the masses slowly climbed towards the iconic temple complex. Men and women in robes and colourful yukatas posed for photos with one other, adding to the festive atmosphere that afternoon. As we approached the summit and the temple grounds, the massive, red niōmon gate loomed over and above the crowd, signifying the border between the sacred and the profane. Ashley’s parents, along with Joanne and Joe, declined to go much further past the gate, having had enough of the climb already, so we entered the temple complex on our own. It wasn’t long before we walked onto the wooden veranda of Kiyomizudera, though, made famous in countless Japanese movies, anime productions, and manga volumes. The place was absolutely jam-packed with people admiring the incredible view of the forest below, a sea of floral patterns and bright swashes of colour, from one end of the platform to the other. Just a little beyond the veranda, however, was a small path curving into the neighbouring ridge, providing an unforgettable view of Kiyomizudera, the great wooden stage set among the leafy hillsides of Kyoto.
The Torii Gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto shrine to the south of Kiyomizudera. Its main claim to fame, among tourists at least, are the thousands of red torii gates lining the trails that wind up Mt. Inari. The shrine has been at its present location since the early 9th Century and is dedicated to Inari, the Japanese god of foxes, fertility, rice, and business, among other things. The shrine’s association with business and the divine is especially evident in its famous torii gates, each one donated by a Japanese company. We spent a good hour or so walking underneath the red gates, admiring the colourful paths criss-crossing the mountain, and moving slowly up the slope with no real intention to reach the top. At a certain point, the collective decision was made to turn around and head back down to the temple complex at the base, and we began to think about dinner.
Dinner in Gion
The Gion district of Kyoto needs no introduction, though the name might not necessarily ring a bell. Its beautifully preserved streets and neighbourhoods, the rows of old tea houses and elegant kaiseki restaurants, the proliferation of lanterns hung up on doorways and street signs, and, perhaps most famous of all, the oft-misunderstood geisha are all defining images of how the world sees Japan. We walked down Hanamikoji Dori that night, joining the hushed dinnertime crowd, the sun setting at just the right hour. Off of one of the side streets, we found a small restaurant called OKU, its shelves and walls decorated with beautiful lacquerware. Opened by the chef of a popular ryokan in the nearby Miyama Mountains (Miyamasou), OKU allows guests to sample his dishes at a much lower price point, and each set comes with 7 to 8 plates of food.
The Hankyu Limited Express
After dinner, we walked back to the nearby train station and boarded the Hankyu Limited Express for the long return journey to Osaka. We’d sort of gone down the quick laundry list of things to see in Kyoto – temples, torii gates, and medieval street scenes – and, though we enjoyed the city’s unique sights and sounds, nodding heads on cab rides and train platforms, and eyes resting for minutes at a time, indicated that our pace might have been a little too high for our group as a whole. Our itinerary would take us back to Kyoto the next day, but we’d take a break from our frenzied schedule, spending most of our time in just one part of town, before shifting our attention to Osaka for good.