Kyoto – A Maze of Backstreets and Tradition

Hello

Last week I went to Kyoto. I’ve been to Kyoto before, but the wealth of the tradition available there couldn’t really be comprehended in one trip. To be honest, I could probably spend an entire week just wandering through the cornucopia of backstreets and side-alleys. There are some real rewards for the fervent explorer. Anything ranging from the quaint little shop that made lanterns, to the slightly seedy feeling Gion district (originally famous for its Geisha), right up to the amusingly named ‘Tits cafe’.

Highlights for me include a young girl in a Kimono at the aforementioned Gion district, chasing a business man down the road shouting Takai-sama (super-honourific) in a whiny voice, while he was trying to walk as quickly, yet subtly as possible. Also in this area was a little jazz cafe where I had to slam the door quite hard on entering to awaken the owner from some strange jazz-induced trance. You can’t beat that feeling that you are imposing when you are trying to enjoy a gin and tonic. Also amusing on this trip was the discovery that many Japanese women seem to struggle with even the slightest of high-heels. I find the spectacle of a drunken English woman on heels staggering through town and hugging walls funny enough, but some of the efforts here I can only describe as similar to a bow-legged giraffe with sore hooves and a desperate need for the toilet.

The time not spent wandering through town or visiting neighbouring cities was filled with visiting the various temples and shrines near-by. My favourite was probably Fushimi Inari Shrine, which was apparently founded in 711, making it nearly as old as Cliff Richard. The area’s main feature are the red gates which circle around the main temple. I can’t really say how many gates there were in all, but I can tell you that I was walking for at least an hour at a leisurely pace through one of the routes, and I didn’t find an area without one near-by. On some of the paths, the gates were so compactly constructed that sunlight struggled to get through the gaps. It’s quite an impressive feat, and one that I am sure has taken a long time and a lot of work to accomplish.

If I had a tip for people visiting Kyoto it would be to be selective with the temples you chose to visit. We found out to our cost (literally, actually) that many temples just aren’t worth the fee of entry. The Inari shrine was actually free and one of the best places we visited. for whatever reason, the price for entry in Kyoto also seemed to be more expensive than in Tokyo. Another tip that I would give is that, just because a temple is famous, doesn’t mean it deserves any more attention than the others. Quite the opposite actually. I was unimpressed with Kiyomizu-dera and Ginkaku-ji. I was also somewhat underwhelmed by the Toji Pagoda, especially given the 800yen each (£6-ish) entrance fee. I saw many Japanese people taking photos from the car park. I have the same sort of contempt for the Hachi-mangu shrine in Kamakura. It’s actually free, but I would struggle to explain any of its appeal to you. I also saw Tofukuji temple, which was very beautiful, but again cost me an arm and a leg. I think this would be a great one to visit during the changing leaves.

One temple which was actually worth its exorbitant price was Byōdō-in (featured in the next post), although charging extra to look at the Daibutsu housed inside the temple is slightly cheeky. The fact that it is actually featured on Japanese currency swayed me in the end. Another one that blew me away the last time I visited was Sanjūsangen-dō, which holds one thousand Kanon statues, each slightly unique from the last. That’s something to gawp at.

Also another bit of advice for you, after I fell foul of a little faux pas. Try not to discuss how you feel that the rule that Japanese school girls may not wear tights with their generally diminutive uniform skirts is because dirty old men dream of that strong wind that one day whips up from the floor, giving them a brief glance of a young girl’s pants, while a girl wearing said uniform and also for some reason Western and fluent in English, is stood next to you. If looks could kill.

Anyway, posts on Nara and Osaka are on the way. I’m also thinking of doing a post on what to expect from Japan, for those not yet versed. I think it’d be a nice way to vent and also put across some of the better aspects of the culture.

Have a better one!

Chris
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