For many expats in Shanghai, the Chinese new year holiday provides a perfect time for a getaway, to literally get away from the noise and pollution.
Our family went to Kyoto, the city of temples, shrines, gardens, geisha, …. basically everything that one would associate with traditional Japan. Being an admirer of Buddhism, the trip to Kyoto was more than amazing, just seeing the shrines and temples. I have to say that one week (with kids) in Kyoto is not enough time to go to even only the major attractions there. There are so many temples and shrines that it’s impossible to count them all.
We did manage to visit some of Japan’s most famous temples, including Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Kinkaku-ji (金阁寺), Ryoan-ji (龙安寺), Ninna-ji (仁和寺), Toji (东寺), Heian Shrine (平安神宫), and many others.
Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist Temple, is considered a national treasure and is known for the water that comes from the waterfall within its grounds. Kiyomizu means clear water, or pure water. In fact, a lot of people went there specifically to wash and sip in that water, which is considered to bring good luck. The main hall is supported by tall pillars, that juts out over the hillside, thus provides fantastic views of the city.
Kinkaku-ji is the famous Golden Pavilion.
Ryoan-ji is renowned for its rock garden. According to Wikipedia:
The garden is rectangle of 340 square meters. Placed within it are fifteen stones of different sizes, carefully composed in five groups; one group of five stones, two groups of three, and two groups of two stones. The stones are surrounded by white gravel, which is carefully raked each day by the monks. The only vegetation in the garden is some moss around the stones.
The garden is meant to be viewed from a seated position on the veranda of the hōjō, the residence of the abbott of the monastery.
The stones are placed so that the entire composition cannot be seen at once from the veranda. They are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder.
Toji-temple (东寺), literally the East Temple, has the most famous five-storied pagoda that reminds all Japanese of Toji, even Kyoto itself.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is the main shrine dedicated to the Shinto god of business. It stands out in Kyoto because the main temple sits at the base of a mountain and has trails lined with torii (red gates) leading up and around the mountain. Imagine you are going up a path of red gates and you just see red pole after red pole on both sides as you go up. Every torii at Fushimi Inari is donated by a Japanese business in Japan. All the red poles have names of the donors on it, with dates. This shrine is also special because of all the fox statues on its grounds, that’s because in the Shinto religion, foxes are considered to be messengers. Regardless, the statues were very beautiful.
Our family of four went through one of the main paths and the trip took us about an hour just going up. The trails up the mountain provides a good workout. You can literally hear people panting, out loud while climbing up. We saw quite a few Japanese elderly in their seventies climbing up with their walking stick, laboriously but steadily.
Heian Shrine is a Shinto shrine, built in 1895, to celebrate the Imperial family and commemorate the emperors to reside in Kyoto.
Visiting those temples was amazing, but there was one minor inconvenience. Almost all temples we’ve been, visitors are required to take the shoes off. Most temples have plastic bags for you to put shoes in and take them with.
In summer time, it would have been wonderful to slip in and out of sandals and walk on the cold temple floor. But in 30 degrees Fahrenheit temperature, it is quite different. No temples were heated. Plus, we walked in the outdoor common area that connects and leads to different halls. So our feet were freezing cold. Our shoes felt so ice cold that when we put our feet in, it’s really like it had been filled with ice while we were gone!
Despite the cold feet, the sightseeing was spectacular. The kids, once again lived up to their reputation of being wonderful travelers.
While our appetite of sightseeing was satisfied, our quest for food was a constant challenge. Don’t get me wrong, Kyoto offers abundance of Japanese food and cuisine. It’s just not for us, as we follow a meat free diet, which applies to all kinds of seafood. Japanese cuisine would not be Japanese without seafood in it.
So in a nutshell, not much was going on, on the food front. Our experience is that Japan is not a vegetarian friendly country, coupled by the fact that not many Japanese speak English. So even though I was ready to brave the humiliation of being a clueless and fussy traveler – clueless, because I don’t speak a word of Japanese; fussy, because I begged/gestured the waiter to take any piece/shreds of meat out of our dishes – not many waiters seem to understand what I was gibberishing.
The only place that we had a full stomach was a pizza restaurant in this nice food market area called Nishiki Food Market. We ate like there was no tomorrow!
The funny thing is we were told there is a vegetarian restaurant right by our hotel, which actually faces the Kyoto train station that houses two giant shopping malls, hotels, movie theater, department store, etc. This is all under one fifteen-story roof. The place is so huge, that even with the help of the Information center (its staff actually speak English), we still failed to locate the one vegetarian restaurant after many tries. It must be hidden really well in the mall – the names of restaurants, even the Directory is all in Japanese!
Writing about the train station reminds me of the Japanese rail system, which is excellent and can get you anywhere fast and punctual. That is for people who know the system. If you don’t, well, it’s not that excellent. We got on the wrong train TWICE on the way back to the airport. That was scary when you have a plane to catch.
The first time was due to lack of information, coupled with the most crucial miscommunication. The railway assistant thought we were going to Osaka, the city, not the airport. So she gestured us to a train to Osaka, which is 38km away from the airport itself. When we realized the ghastly mistake, and changed train, the direction was right, but who in the right mind would have thought that only the first half of the train is heading towards the airport, and the second half going to a who-knows-where city! And we of course, were on the second half of the train! After some rapid heart-pounding hormone-raging moments, we dragged our heavy luggage and our tired kids, got on the right half of the train before the cars were uncoupled/separated!
There you have it, my travel tale to an amazing city, with all the elements that form life itself: the good the bad and beautiful! We have seen a lot, learned so much history and tradition during our one week there!