June 2, 2017
We wake up bright and early to explore the city of temples and shrines. While Akshita is getting ready, I finish some deliverables for work, delaying us by few minutes from our planned departure. We quickly grab free breakfast at the hotel and head towards the Kyoto train station across the street. Stop 1: Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine – the head of shrine of the god Inari. The shrine sits at the base of mount Inari and includes trails of thousands of scarlet-colored shrine gates (torii) that lead 2.5 miles up the mountain to the main Inari shrine. Inari is the god of rice, but since merchants have traditionally worshiped Inari as the patron of business, each Torii has been donated by a Japanese business. By the time we reach the shrine, it is super crowded and impossible to take pictures without people in the background. Akshita isn’t too happy about it and obviously I am blamed for the late departure in the morning. So typical haha…After enjoying the shrine for a little bit, we both agree that it would be best to visit the shrine again early tomorrow morning to enjoy it in its prime without the crowds. We take the train back to the hotel to quickly change as Akshita needs to change her shoes (diva :)).
Next, we head across the street to the bus terminal to take a Raku bus to Nanzenji Temple. The Raku bus is aimed towards tourists visiting Kyoto and has three loops that cover various sightseeing spots throughout the city. Note: this is NOT the hop on hop off bus. The Nanzenji Temple is one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan. The temple comprises of many sub-temples and spans across a large area. The history of the temple dates back to the 13th century when Emperor Kameyama built his retirement villa at the temple’s current location and later converted it into a Zen temple. The temple has a lot to offer from impressive gates to gardens and expansive halls to walkways. The San-mon Gate in particular offers a great view of the temple complex and parts of the city from an elevated viewing area. After spending some time at the temple, we walk around the neighborhood and explore local shops and vendors. We stumble upon a little shop and buy a traditional sake set.
Next, we travel to the Ginkakuji-Mae Temple (Silver Pavilion), the brother temple to the famous Kinkaji-Temple (Golden Pavilion). The temple, situated in the Higashiyama’s mountain range was originally constructed as a mountain villa for military commanders. Despite the name, the temple is not actually decorated with silver. It is believed that the name arose as a nickname to contrast it with the Golden Pavilion. When visiting the temple, you are greeted by elegant gardens and come across many ponds, trees, sand sculptures, and ponds that truly display the essence of a Japanese garden. You can also enjoy views of the city from the elevated sections of the temple. The temple is truly majestic and serene to say the least.
By the time we have explored the temple, we are ready for some lunch and decide to try out one of the restaurants close to the temple. Akshita chooses the wild vegetable sansei ramen whereas I get the fried tofu ramen. The ramen was average for our liking but the lunch did make up for an interesting experience. Mid-way through the lunch, Akshita complains about a tingly sensation in her mouth and lips, something she has never experienced before. It was almost uneasy and she couldn’t eat her meal any more. I try her dish as well and experience the same sensation. After some research we find out that the sensation is a result of the sansho pepper that Akshita added to introduce flavor to her rather bland ramen. I guess that didn’t quite work out as expected but we did get to try a new type of pepper. To make up for the average lunch, we try some green tea and vanilla ice-cream right after.
After having enjoyed some ice cream, we take another Raku bus to the Heian Shrine, a shrine that was built to mark the 1100th anniversary of the capital’s foundation in Kyoto. A giant Torii gate marks the approach to the shrine and we make sure to take a lot of pictures with the giant structure. Having walked a lot today, we decide to head back to the hotel for a quick siesta.
Now recharged, we head back to the bus station and hop on to a bus heading towards Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district and home to a high concentration of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Geishas are traditionally entertainers who are trained in art, music, and dancing. The young maiko follows her mentor and “older sister” geiko to appointments, shadowing her movements and observing the skill of repartee and reserve with the clients. As a professional entertainer, the geiko’s role is not only to play music and dance, but also to make the customers feel at ease with witty conversation and even join in drinking games as the night progresses. As an amateur, the maiko is not expected to be as charming and amusing, and instead relies on ornate jewelry, rich kimono and young looks to speak for her (source: insidejapantours). We walk around the streets for more than 45 minutes in hopes of catching a glimpse of a geisha but in vain. To be honest, we weren’t expecting to see any based on what we had heard from our friends who had visited recently. Just as we decide to grab dinner at a nearby restaurant around 8:45 PM, we notice a geisha in a cab. At first, we are unsure but are soon convinced once the geisha steps out of the cab with her guest. Though we think of a geisha as an elegant figure with white make-up, red lips, an elaborate hairstyle and even more elaborate kimono, this popular image is actually more typical of a maiko, or trainee geisha. Fully qualified geisha are more likely to dress in subdued colors and wear natural make-up, relying on skill rather than appearance to entertain their clients. Suddenly, we see geishas all around the streets. Though hard to spot, we are lucky to see 8-10 geishas during our visit. Not sure what our fascination with geishas is but we were super excited to see them. Perhaps it was the feeling of acting like paparazzi and running around streets to catch a glimpse of them?
After taking several pictures of the geishas from a distance (to respect their privacy), we grab some amazing Indian food at the Maharaja restaurant in Gion, take the bus back to the hotel and call it a night.