16 May 2014

Kyoto: Golden Pavilions and Red-Bottomed Monkeys

Last night, I decided to go for a stroll around Gion and was surprised to find that the Chion-in temple I visited on Wednesday was all lit up, giving the black, white and red exteriors a glowing, golden effect. It was very pretty, especially given that the moon was full (or almost) and that the heaving daytime crowds had long since departed.

Once I had a taste for gold, I decided to venture out to Kinkaku-ji — Kyoto's 'golden pavilion' — this morning and as the walk was both long and dull, I decided to get a bus. Kyoto has a good bus network but the frequent stops and the traffic made the journey very slow. If you're on bus 59 or 12, get off one stop early (Kinkakuji-michi instead of Kinkakuji-mae), because the traffic lights and the endless coaches mean it takes forever to get round the final corner. Inside, the pavilion is indeed very stunning — King Midas would definitely be very happy there, and the lakeside setting is lovely, especially with the irises. You can't go inside but on such a beautiful day, I was happy to wander around and enjoy the view.

Next on my list was the Arashiyama district to the west of the city centre. Instead of taking several more slow buses, I walked 15 minutes south from Kinkaku-ji to Kitano Hakubaichō station instead. From there, I got a couple of small tram-like trains to Arashiyama. My guidebook recommended a soba restaurant called Arashiyama Yoshimura for lunch, and it was a good choice. I had a big bowl of delicious hand-made soba noodles with two huge shrimp tempura, and the view over the Katsura river and into the forested mountains west of Kyoto was impressive. My lunch — and the view — was good value at about ¥1200 (£7).

Then it was time for some monkey business. The Arashiyama Monkey Park is just across the river from the restaurant and for ¥550, you will soon be getting up, close and personal with dozens of tame macaques. Well, not too close: no touching! It's a bit of a steep climb from the park entrance but once you reach the summit, you are rewarded with an amazing view of Kyoto as well as plenty of simian friends. In an interesting twist, when you feed the monkeys, you are the one who goes into the cage, holding pieces of apple towards the bars, while the happy monkeys laugh at their, er, captive audience. Of course, everyone wants to feed the cute babies, but the bad-ass alpha males beg to differ.

If you believe the Lonely Planet, the main draw of Arashiyama is the bamboo grove, back on the other side of the river. It was lovely to walk along the trail surrounded on both sides by giant bamboo stalks, especially when you hear them knocking against one another in the breeze, but I suspect it is probably more magical on a quieter day. There was a particularly disruptive group of kids just in front of me, who were more interested in their phones than in the bamboo.

On the subject of Lonely Planet, the guidebook is usually quite laissez-faire when it comes to recommendations: here's what we think, but you know your own taste. On several occasions in the latest Japan guide, however, they explained that if you are in Kyoto while one of the geisha dances is being held, it is pretty much your duty to try to go. I hadn't planned to go to a geisha show but the Ponto-chō Kaburen-chō Theatre does indeed hold such dances for most of the month of May. By the time I got back from Arashiyama, it was after 3.30 and the final performance of the day was at 4.10 so I was pretty sure that I wouldn't be able to get a ticket, but LP will be pleased to know that I did. Most seats are ¥2000 (£12) and mine was in the gods but it was a small theatre and I was sitting behind a short Japanese couple so my view was good.

I couldn't take photos during the performance, of course, but even the curtains were stunning! As for the dance, I have know idea what the plot was, if any — you could buy a programme in English with an explanation for ¥1000 — but it was all very beautiful. The costumes were intricate and colourful and the dance was impressive. It's not something I would want to do every week (or again!) but I'm glad I did it, so thanks for the many nudges, Lonely Planet!

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