Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Japan Part 5 - Kyoto

After a week in Tokyo, we hopped on the Shinkansen, the bullet train, down to Kyoto. And yes, everything you've ever heard about the Shinkansen is true: it runs frequently, it's an incredibly smooth ride and it travels so quickly it feels more like an airplane than a train.

Kyoto is a very different city than Tokyo, and it was nice to be able to experience such contrasting areas of the country. While Tokyo is a sprawling metropolis that feels very much like a big city, Kyoto is smaller, older and more touristy. Because it was spared so much of the bombing that destroyed large areas of Japan during WWII, Kyoto still boasts many of its original structures. Not only that, but it's a very low, flat city surrounded by mountains. We traveled around to the different sections of Tokyo almost entirely by train, but Kyoto was all about the buses. The above image is from the Philosopher's Walk, a pretty path in Northern Higashiyama, the mountainous area in the eastern part of Kyoto. The real time of year to take this tree-lined walk is in the spring, when the cherry trees along the canal are in bloom. Of course, instead of getting cherry blossoms, we had shady trees and the place pretty much to ourselves, which is nice as well.

The above area is the entrance to Ginkaku-ji, a lovely Zen Buddhist temple in Northern Higashiyama that we spent quite a bit of time exploring one sunny afternoon. The combination of stone, fence and hedge is one of the defensive strategies for the complex, as well as a very beautiful feature.

And once inside, one of the things that Ginkaku-ji is known for its sand garden, with the big mound off in the distance symbolizing Mount Fuji.

Admittedly, the rainy season is not the best time of year to visit Japan, but we were fairly lucky with the weather. Other than our last two days in Kyoto, when it rained fairly steadily, the weather was mainly overcast with just a few showers each day, usually in the afternoon. Some days we got lucky and had some nice moments like the one above, with sun shining through the trees, while other days required umbrellas and a lot of ducking in and out of stores and restaurants in an attempt to wait out a storm.

Here's a view of Ginkaku-ji, looking down on the complex. In addition to its main structures, this temple also boasts some lovely mossy gardens and walkways, including some great views looking out over the city.

Traveling down to the southern part of Higashiyama, we also visited the impressive Kiyomizu-dera. While it takes its name from a waterfall within the temple complex, it's really known for its main hall with its distinctive veranda jutting out over the hillside. Normally, this spot offers great views of the city, but since we were there in the rain, we had to settle for great views of the fog.
Oh hey! Here we are again, at Kiyomizu-dera.

Almost all statues and shrines in temple complexes have little boxes in front of them for people to offer tribute and pay their respects. As usual, we couldn't read the Japanese text associated with this beautiful little statue at Kiyomizu-dera, but that didn't stop us from liking it all the same.

One of the most interesting places to spend an evening is Kyoto is Pontocho, the long, narrow, cobbled street shown above, known both for its Geisha and dining along the Kamo-gawa river. Many of the buildings on this street - composed almost exclusively of restaurants, tea houses, bars and other entertainment venues - are very old and well-preserved. If you don't want to spend the money to eat on this famous street (and yes, river views can be quite pricey), its still an interesting enough experience just to walk around at night, taking in the neon and colored lights, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Geisha.

As usual, more on flickr.

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