18 May 2015

Japan 2014, Day 8, Kyoto on the Bullet Train

Flying across Japan on the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto...travelling over 510km (315 miles) in little over 2.5 hours...watching the countryside speeding by.

Day 8 saw us taking an early morning shinkansen so we could spend the day in Kyoto where we hoped that the autumn colours were on show.

The trains always seem to run to time, they always leave from the same platform and the carriages always stop at the same place on the platform...UK train providers take note!

We were taking the Hikari 505 at 8.33am.

We arrived in Kyoto about 11am and had decided that our first stop would be the Tofuku-ji Temple. We had been looking to see where we could see the autumn colours and this was one of the recommended places. From Kyoto Station we took a local train two stops to Tofukuji. From there it was a 10 minute walk to the temple...we soon realised that all we had to do was follow the crowds if we were to find the temple.

Tofuku-ji is one of the most important Zen temples in Kyoto, founded in 1236 and apparently its name is a combination of 2 of the great temples of Nara, the Todaji Temple and the Kofukuji Temple.  It is the oldest and largest temple in Kyoto. 

In the autumn people come from all over Japan to see the spectacular autumn colours. They have planted a valley full of maples which slowly turn from green to yellow, orange and red. One of the most famous views is from the Tsutenkyo Bridge. We were there perhaps a week to 10 days before the peak colours but it was still beautiful. 

Some of the buildings in the temple complex date back to the Muromachi period (from 1333 to 1573) and are rare examples of architecture dating back to that period. 

The gardens of Tofuku-ji are not only about the maples. In the Kaisendo Hall, a mausoleum to the temple's first priest there are contrasting gardens - a dry rock/sand garden in a checker-board pattern on the left and a green pond garden on the right.

Whilst we didn't see the colours at their peak we were still enthralled by the leaves, wandering for age just looking at the colours.

We left Tofuku-ji to head to the next stop on our autumn colour hunt. We took the train back to Kyoto Station and then caught another train to Arashiyama in the west of the city. We were heading for Tenryu-ji Temple, another of the five great Zen Temples (Tenryu-ji, Shokoku-ju, Kennin-ji, Tofuku-ji and Manju-ji) of Kyoto. The temple is about a 15 minute walk from the JR Rail Station in Arashiyama. 

The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was first built in 1339. The buildings have been lost to fire many times over the years and the majority of the current buildings were built during the Meiji period (1868-1912). The Sogenchi Garden however survived in its original form making the layout over 700 years old. The gardens were designed by Muso Soseki and feature a central pond surrounded rocks, pine, maples and the Arashiyama Mountains. The garden is designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty in Japan. 

Sitting on the tatami mats in the main hall looking out through the shoji doors at the beautiful colours in the garden was spell-binding. There were many people doing just that, enjoying the moment.

It was truly a beautiful place to sit and contemplate the wonders of nature. 

We exited the temple grounds by the north gate so that we could walk through Arashiyama's bamboo forest, another truly magical experience. The giant bamboo stems soaring high above our heads, gently swaying in the wind creating a otherworldly feel, unlike anything I have experienced before.

Our walk through the bamboo took us to the entrance to Okochi-Sanso Villa and Gardens. A privately owned gardens, that costs 1000 yen to enter (about £8) which seems quite expensive but the gardens are stunningly beautiful and the price includes a cup of green tea and a Japanese sweet in a cute little tearoom where you can rest after your wanders.

The gardens were established by a Japanese actor, Okochi Denjiro who spent 30 years creating the gardens we can visit today. 

Following the signed footpath around the garden you get amazing views over the Arashiyama Mountains and Kyoto and get to enjoy the glorious moss, maples and pine trees.

The tea garden with its mossy carpet that looked soft enough to sleep on.

Layers of colour beginning to appear in the garden. There was almost an ombre effect with shades from red, to orange, to peach, to yellow, to green...

The Jibutsudo (Buddhist Shrine) in the garden is an original shrine from the Meiji Era which was moved to the gardens in the 1930s. 

This is the view from the gardens, staring out over Kyoto.....

And the view over the mountains behind the gardens...

After a slight adventure (very few street signs/names, reading maps Japanese style seemed beyond me on occasion) trying to find the station we headed back to downtown Kyoto to visit Nishiki Alley, the "kitchen of Kyoto". A walk through the alleys of the market provides the opportunity to see many of the city's delicacies on sale. 

The shrine in Nishiki Alley.

This sushi is made of sugar, not fish!


From Nishiki we headed towards the river and the district of Gion. Gion was (and remains) one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. If you are lucky enough, in the early evening you can often see Geisha or Maiko walking to the tea houses of the area. If you are not lucky enough you can generally visit the theatre in Gion to see a number of Japanese cultural traditions, including geisha dances and music.

We were lucky enough to see 2 Maiko (apprentice geisha - or perhaps they were geisha or just girls dressed as geisha but they looked beautiful whatever), who kindly stopped to let us take a photo.

Maiko use traditional hair accessories (kanzashi) in their hair, usually representing the seasons. Maiko ask wear a red collar and long obi. 

Shirakawa Canal, Gion and the rear of some of the area's tea houses and some upmarket restaurants. 

Hanami-koji Street and a traditional machiya (townhouse). There are many preserved tea houses on Hanam-koji and the surrounding streets and indeed some machiya which are still home to tea houses and practising geiko, these are called ochaya. 

The tea house signs, to show which geiko (Gion geisha are called geiko) are in. 

Yasaki Shrine in Gion.

From Yasaki Shrine....

From here we headed back to Kyoto Station so we could catch our Shinkansen back to Tokyo...the station is massive....up to 15 stories high and contains not only the second largest station in Japan but department stores, restaurants, shops and government offices. 

The Kyoto Station Christmas tree....

In the tourist information centre in the station you could find out where the autumn colours were at their best around Kyoto...I remember this from my last trip to Kyoto but that time it was cherry blossom we were searching. 

The shinkansen...the most futuristic looking trains I have ever seen....and they are here now, not in the future.


likeschocolate said...

What an amazing adventure! Perfect time of year to go! So beautiful!

Thimbleanna said...

Wow Di! Well, first of all, I'm waving at your cute self in the picture! Your photos are fantastic and now I want to go visit. I'm afraid I'd need you to be my tour guide though! That bamboo forest is amazing. It's also amazing to me that there are so many old ... really old ... temples and buildings. It's wonderful to see that they survived WWII.

Bethany said...

I didn't know that there were still Geisha there! I have always wanted to go to Kyoto since my good friend from college lived there right after our graduation. I always think of the cherry blossoms, but I think I would love autumn just as much. Have you been able to pick up some Japanese at all or read some of the signs? I absolutely love kimonos too... I have a short one from there that Caroline used to dress up in when she was little. So ... when are you going back? :D