14 May 2014

Kyoto: What's the Story, Vermillion Torii?

This morning I caught the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and it was quite the experience. With a JR Pass, you get free seat reservations so I booked a seat last night just in case the train was busy. There weren't any window seats left in the reserved cars, so I arrived early and nabbed my window seat in an unreserved car instead. I was paranoid that they would find out and tell me off (this being the land of rules), but it was fine and there were some good views of the countryside, although the views of Mount Fuji were distinctly mediocre compared to yesterday.

Now that I know the system, arriving in Kyoto and taking the subway to my hotel was easy. I'm staying near the historic Gion district (also, only a ten-minute walk from my favourite Japanese store, Loft!), and close to the river for some morning running. I was too early to check in, so I dropped off my suitcase and headed out to explore the city. I decided to follow Lonely Planet's walking tour of the Southern Higashiyama district, which takes in a number of major shrines and temples, as well as the geisha district. As the tour ended near my hotel, I had to do it in reverse, which is always trickier but Kyoto's grid system is quite easy to navigate.

First, I visited Shōren-in, a peaceful temple that was almost devoid of western tourists. The simple design of the rooms with colourful paintings and elegant sliding screens has a quiet beauty and the garden is a lovely place to relax.

A few minutes south is Chion-in, a much bigger temple with lots to explore in its grounds. In what would become a running theme in Kyoto, you enter through the gate up a huge flight of stairs and there are several more sets of steps to climb as you walk around. Wear shoes that are both comfy and easy to take off!

The tour led me through Maruyama-kōen, a pretty park with lots of cherry trees. I met a nice Japanese man whose daughter is studying in Norwich. He practised his (very good) English and I did my best to speak a little Japanese. He also kindly took my photo. Hooray for not having to try to do a DSLR selfie!

I then wandered along through the very traditional area near Kōdai-ji; soon after that, the streets turn into tourist hell as you approach the popular Kiyomizu-dera, a very popular temple. I didn't venture far inside, but I did descend into the Tanai-meguri, which was an interesting experience. You pay your ¥100 and then feel your way through several pitch-black passages, holding onto a handrail, until you reach a rock, which you touch and then make a wish. It's supposed to represent entering the womb of a goddess or some such. Symbolism, innit.

Although it was a bit of a trek, I decided to walk down to the Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine complex, one of Kyoto's most famous sights. First, though, I stopped at what my research suggested was one of Kyoto's best espresso bars: a small, sleek cafe one block from the shrine called Vermillion, for reasons that will soon become clear. They also serve brownies and have wifi, so it's a good place to stop for a rest even if you aren't a coffee buff; if you are, the macchiato is very good.

When you enter Fushimi Inari-taisha, you pass through a red torii gate. No surprise. However, the walking route, which takes you around the grounds (I spent an hour there and I don't think I saw everything) allows you to pass under a million vermillion torii gates. OK, so it's probably thousands, not millions, but still; it's a very impressive sight. I'm glad I went towards the end of the day when it was relatively quiet but still quite tough to avoid unintentional photo bombers.

I had a few errands to run downtown (if you have a JR Pass, you can hop on the JR train to the central station for free) and then I wandered back along the river to my hotel, just as the rain began. To celebrate, I decided to treat myself to a tiny, turquoise umbrella from Loft. I hope I won't have to use it, but sadly the forecast isn't great tomorrow — a shame given that it will be Aoi Matsuri, the hollyhock festival, and there is going to be a big traditional procession.

For dinner, I just wanted something quick, so decided to go to Musashi Sushi to try some kaiten-sushi, where you pick your small dishes off a conveyor belt; like Yo Sushi, but here each plate was only ¥140 (about £1). The sushi wasn't as good as at Tsujiki market, of course, but it was pretty tasty, especially the prawn tempura and the bluefin tuna. Five plates and green tea cost me less than a fiver. Who said Japan has to be pricey?

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