Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Japan Journals: Kyoto

Good Day Everyone,
Today I am finally getting back to my Japan Journals. I started this series last year after our trip to Japan but only got half way through. Then with all my health issues, moving to Japan and a couple of trips back home to England, they just got pushed further and further back. To the point where I almost felt intimidated by the sheer amount of work it was going to take me to do the remaining ones. I finally took the bull by the horn and spent a couple of days this week revisiting the brochures, ticket stubs and notes from the trip to bring you this post. If you’d like to refresh your memories then you can read about the previous post here and the one before that here.

The Oi River in Arashiyama, Western Kyoto
We left Osaka on a Monday morning and caught the bullet train (shinkansen) to Kyoto. The journey took just 15 minutes.  Luckily Kyoto only has one central station. Often cities in Japan served by the bullet train will have a separate station for the bullet train, and they’re not always as close to the main station as you might expect. For example, in Yokohama we live by the main Yokohama train station, but the bullet train goes from a separate train station called Shin-Yokohama, which is over 10 minutes away on the train from the main Yokohama station.

At Kyoto station we made our way down into the subway as we needed to go up two stops to get to the station closest to our hotel. Trying to buy subway tickets from the automated ticket machines was a challenge in itself. Once we’d selected our destination we were expecting the machine to tell us how much to pay but it wouldn’t. Without payment obviously there’s no ticket. With my hubby close to tearing his hair out from sheer frustration, we asked a young Japanese girl for some help. It transpired that we actually needed to put some money into the machine first, before selecting our destination. The machine then alerts you as to whether you need to top up the payment for a ticket to your chosen destination… Go figure?!

We stayed at the Mitsui Garden Hotel in Shijo, Kyoto and I have to say it was a bit of a shock after the spacious twin room we had in Osaka. There wasn’t even enough room to swing a cat, never mind open a couple of suitcases. You can see the whole room from the two iPhone photos below. It was tiny and the bathroom felt crowded when I was in it by myself ;o) I guess this is what people mean when they say rooms are small in Japan. Whilst the reception area was modern and breezy, the hotel rooms themselves were definitely in need of a refurbishment and a bit of TLC. Again, like the hotel in Osaka robes and night clothes were provided. 

This hotel also had a Japanese public bath (communal steam bath) that guests could use. There was one for men and a separate one for women. I was a bit too shy to try it given that you’re completely naked with strangers but my hubby tried the mens and really enjoyed it. That was until the second night when another male guest got in without washing himself clean first! A big no no here in Japan when it comes to bath etiquette. Needless to say my hubby made for a quick exit ;o)
Once we’d checked into the hotel, we headed out for the remainder of the day. First stop was Nishiki Market which was walking distance from our hotel. Historically, Nishiki Market used to be a fish wholesale area but is now a retail market that spans five blocks and is a long narrow street. The market, often referred to as ‘Kyoto’s kitchen’ specialises in all things food related from fresh seafood to dried fish, vegetable, sushi, knives, chopsticks and cookware. There are food stalls selling snacks as well as a few small sit down affairs. It is incredibly crowded and enjoyed by both locals and tourists alike. 
Fried snack stall
Chopstick holders

Coming off one end of the market is a more modern mall area with coffee shops, and stores selling clothes, footwear and accessories.  Hubby and I did try a potato and pumpkin based snack from one of the food stalls, but it tasted and smelt sooo fishy as it had been fried in the same oil as all of the fish based snacks, that we just couldn’t stomach it. As I’ve said in one of my previous Japan Journal blog posts, the one area that I won’t be able to give you much insight on is Japanese food (sorry). 
Cute cookies

After stopping of at a coffee shop where we had some pancakes, we headed off to the Kyoto Imperial Park. The Kyoto Imperial Palace is based inside the park and used to be the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until the emperor and the capital were moved to Tokyo in 1868. Unfortunately, the palace grounds can only be entered on guided tours which have to be booked in advance, although sometimes it is possible to book on the day, provided spots are available. However, the tour only runs until 5pm and it was late afternoon by the time we got there so it was too late for us to book one. As it was getting cold and dark, we settled for a quick walk around the park, admiring the cherry blossoms. 
One of the entrance gates to the Kyoto Imperial Park
Whilst walking around we saw a wedding couple having their professional photos taken amongst the cherry blossoms. It was quite funny to see the bride lift up her wedding gown to reveal the jeans and trainers she was wearing under her dress to stop her from freezing. It really was very cold. We didn’t spend too long at the park as we had an early start the next day and so headed back to our hotel, stopping off for some supper at a little tapas place.
Tuesday was our one full day in Kyoto and for this I had done lots of research in advance and planned a day out to Arashiyama in the outskirts of Western Kyoto. It is an area famous for its natural beauty particularly during the cherry blossom season and autumn when the leaves change colour. We caught the local Japan Rail line from Kyoto station as that was covered by our JR pass to Saga Arashiyama station. It was nice to travel on the train without any suitcases in tow for a change.

Once we arrived, we headed straight to the Torokko Saga Station which is right next to the Saga Arashiyama station as I wanted to book tickets for us to go on the Sagano Scenic Railway. It is a sightseeing train that runs along the Hozugawa River, winding its way along the mountains at a leisurely pace and it gets booked up early in the day. Luckily, we managed to get seated tickets for the 4pm train and booked a return journey. Once that was booked we were free to explore the area. We picked up a local map from the Tourist Information centre next to the station, which surprisingly was in English, unlike most touristy things to date and started walking. It was a beautiful warm sunny day. We followed the crowds and headed towards the Togetsukyo Bridge, which literally means ‘moon crossing bridge’ and crosses the River Oi.

On the walk to the Togetsukyo Bridge we came across many little shops selling souvenirs, crafts and restaurants and coffee shops. We also saw a number of traditional rickshaws, pulled by young men that you could hire. The Togetsukyo Bridge looked particularly beautiful against the forested mountain backdrop. We could see pockets of pale pink in the mountainside where the cherry blossoms had come through. 

It was busy day along the riverside with people having picnics in the parks and admiring the cherry blossom trees. On the way to the bridge we also stopped off at Arashiyama Station to admire the Kimono Forest. This is a path at the Arashiyama Station lined with numerous poles displaying a variety of kimono fabric designs. The fabric colours and patterns were simply stunning and I can imagine the Kimono Forest looking particularly beautiful at night, when the poles are illuminated.
Kimono Forest at Arashiyama Station
As we made our way back from the Togetsukyo Bridge for the Sagano Scenic Railway, we stopped off at the Tenryu-ji Temple. If you’re ever going to visit a temple in Arashiyama then I would highly recommend this one as it is the most important one in the area, ranked first amongst the cities top 5 Zen temples, as is now a UNESCO registered world heritage site
Main Hall entrance

Interestingly, the temple serves traditional Zen vegetarian cuisine, which we had sadly missed the time for. The temple buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries and so most of the current buildings date only as far back as 1868-1912, the Meiji Period. Whilst the original temple buildings may not have survived, the garden did and remains in its original form. 
The garden features a central pond containing many brightly coloured koi carp surrounded by rocks, pine trees and the forested Arashiyama Mountains. The garden epitomises Japanese gardening with its use of water, fish, bamboo, rocks and gravel to create beautiful landscapes
We could easily have spent twice as long as we did exploring the garden with its brightly coloured moss, cherry blossoms and a variety of flowers. It was a real treat to see some Japanese women enjoying the garden in traditional dress
After the Tenryu-Ji temple we walked back to the Torokko Saga station. As we waited to board the old fashioned train with its wooden benches, there was a member of staff directing passengers into various queues, however, as he only spoke in Japanese we kind of just went out on a limb and joined a queue. We were lucky in that it just happened to be the right one for where we were sat on the train. 

After all the walking, this little train ride was a welcomed treat and rest for our feet. The train travelled a slow speed taking 25minutes to do the 7 kilometre journey each way, giving us ample time to relax and enjoy the stunning views. Capturing the views on camera was very difficult from within the moving train and so the photos don’t really do them any justice. 

There is a small train museum next to the Torokko Saga station, which we didn’t go into but we did go and have a look at the 3D full size train in front of it, before heading back to Kyoto. 
From Kyoto station we caught a glimpse of Kyoto Tower all lit up and headed into a large shopping mall for our evening meal. We found a lovely, albeit very busy, Italian restaurant. After our meal we walked to the roof of the mall where we took in some amazing views of Kyoto before stopping of to do a little bit of shopping in the department store. 
Kyoto Tower
The next morning we packed up our bags and caught the bullet train to Tokyo, our final destination. In hindsight, I feel that we didn’t really have enough time to explore Kyoto as much as we had liked but then I feel like that about all of the cities we visited in Japan. In fact, I feel like that about almost every place I’ve ever visited ;o) I hope you enjoyed this little insight into Kyoto and I plan bring you Tokyo next week :o)

Love Sheen xxx
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