Kyoto: Golden Temples, Monkey Mountains & Bamboo Groves

17 Apr 2017

Our very last destination on this wondrous journey through Japan is Kyoto.

We arrive on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo that same evening. We want to have a different experience in Kyoto, so we've booked this homestay in the suburban town of Nagaokakyo instead of a hotel.

Kiyumizudera Temple and the Old Town of Gion

The next morning we wake to an overcast (and quite forgiving) sky and set off to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist Temple that's a UNESCO heritage site.

It's jam-packed of tourist groups but that doesn't detract from its beauty.

I stop at several spots where I can take in the mild air of early Spring whilst curiously watching flocks of people admire the colours, sounds, sights... presently three people have stationed in front of me by the spring of water to cleanse themselves before entering the temple.

Even the youngsters are out in their finest Spring Yukata, sitting by the cherry blossoms.

We spend the rest of that day souvenir-shopping and trying food-kart snacks on the road directly outside the temple. As the daylight fades, we swiftly move along to Gion, the old cultural town.

Sakura-time (when cherry blossom trees are in bloom) is an incredibly busy time to go to Japan, and on this mild evening, the streets of Gion are decidedly packed.

We wander around between alleys and back on to main roads to see if we could spot a Geisha. I'm not feeling lucky - I know it's a rare thing to see as they know their way very well and avoid tourists at all costs. 

As we're ready to leave, I turn around a corner and almost drop my camera as I gasp sharply.

There's a Geisha walking right towards me.

All I can do is watch in amazement. I know that to raise my camera and point it at her would be rude. So I wait until she walks by and then take a shot after she's passed me.

As I've watched a few documentaries on Japan culture before, I know this is not a Geisha, but a Geiko.

Both Geishas and Geikos are highly trained women of traditional Japanese arts, proficient in playing instruments like the Shamisen or the Koto, singing, dancing and highly knowledgeable on numerous topics. Geisha is the name given to these women in Tokyo and Geikos are their name in Kyoto. Maikos are trainee Geikos. There's a brilliant article on the differences on a blog here.

Monkey Mountain and the Bamboo Forest

The next morning we decide to see two big attractions that are near each other, starting with Monkey Mountain.

I'm not a fan of the walk up. It's a hilly forest with a winding path that leads up to the top, where you can see the Monkeys. But the way there is a good 30 - 45 minutes walking up (faster if you're fit). I'm hot despite the shade that the canopy of trees provides.

Finally, we reach the top.

There's a flat area with lots of monkeys on the loose. 

Signs everywhere warn you not make eye contact with the monkeys, nor to get too close or make harsh movements all of a sudden.

There's an indoor area that sells food for humans and monkeys. They let you feed the monkeys only through the fence.

We buy some peanuts and I spend some time with this little one, feeding them to him one by one.

Later, we go out again and I sit down by the edge of the hill. You can see a great amount from here, both on top of the mountain and out into Kyoto.

Our tummies are now rumbly, so we make a slow descent and aimlessly walk in the direction of Arashiyama town to find a bite to eat.

I might be hungry, but you know me - I'm googling and looking at Tripadvisor reviews and comments before I walk into a space.

We find a spot that looks particularly good both online and offline, tucked in an alley behind the main road: Arashiyama Nomura.

They make incredible Okonomiyaki and sumptuous warabi mochi.

The Okonomikayi
The Warabi Mochi

When we're full and content we set off to the bamboo grove.

The place is enchanting. The bamboo grows high into the sky and the winding path seems but a narrow cut across this vast forest.

The tops of the bamboo sway with the wind and the gentle rustling produces a calming sound.

Sadly, it's impossible to find this place empty. It's recommended to go very early in the morning or very late as the light fades.

As the crowds rob us of the experience to connect with nature, I feel slightly disheartened.

There's a nearby temple, Tenryu-ji, which we don't attempt to go to for that very reason.

The Golden Pavilion & The Pontocho Area

In the afternoon I ponder. I've had such a great experience in Japan. I feel like I've reconnected with myself and that I've discovered a place like no other. But the last two cities - Tokyo and Kyoto - are draining me from all this amazing energy. It's just a really busy time to visit Japan.

So what can we do? I ask Chris to take me to the last few "must see" spots in Kyoto. Tomorrow, we will have a change of tack. I will make sure of that by spending the night planning what to do with our last day in Japan.

We head out to see Kinkakuji, the "Golden Temple". This Zen temple, whose top two floors are covered in gold leaf, used to be the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in the 15th Century. It has been burnt down several times since, and this latest version was rebuilt in the 1950s.

Somehow we've managed to arrive at closing time, but we still manage to get in.

This is a blessing in disguise, as there are very few people here now, and we can roam and walk at leisure.

The gardens surrounding the Pavillion are tranquil and expansive. They make for a great spot for quiet reflection.

We leave contented and make for the Pontocho area.

Pontocho is a narrow alley running from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori, by the Kamomgawa river. The alley comes alive at night, and tonight, with the cherry blossoms in full bloom and the tourists walking around checking out the various restaurants along the road, it's brimming with an amazing energy.

Everywhere we walk in is absolutely packed, so we decide to wait inside an Izakaya until a couple of people get up and leave. We quickly take our seats and start ordering as if we'd known all along what we were going to have.

We're sitting by the bar so we can see our food being prepared. The place is packed tightly and everyone feels like a friend.

Not before long, the food arrives.

Pickled cucumbers (I love these).

Squid Karaage.

Chicken tempura.

Rice with pork and veggies.

Some delicious meaty bits...

My favourite: giant dumplings. The size of my head (almost).

We wash these down with deliciously cold Umeshu (sweet plum wine) and when we can't eat anymore, we set off for home.

We arrive at Nagaoka station and decide to walk the food off. On the way, we cross Nagaoka park and walk into the now deserted Tenman-gu Shrine.

In the darkness, it's mesmerising. It's like stepping into a Hayao Miyazaji film. I almost expect ghouls like those from Spirited Away to float towards us any minute.

In our wonder and sheer delight to experience this with no soul around to be seen, we get a bit lost.

We further we walk, the more we realise we're walking into the park / forest rather than out (but it looks soooo close on google maps!).

Eventually, we start picking up pace as my imagination is getting away from me and I'm seeing and hearing things at every turn.

Finally, we see the main road and follow it back home.

A splendid couple of days in Kyoto that we're about to top. But that's a post for another time.

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