When I found out that we were going to be returning to Japan for another trip (yeah, we liked Japan that much we wanted to go twice in 6 months), I knew we needed to add a city other than Tokyo to our trip. Tokyo is this big, modern city, always lit up and overflowing with food, fashion, and energy. I wanted something that would take me out of that night life a bit and show me a glimpse at the unique history of Japan, and Kyoto did just that.
Kyoto is a city that manages to bridge the modern world with the grounded history and traditions that are in Japan. It’s oldest shrine, Shimogamo, is close to 1,500 years old and stands as proud and beautiful as ever. But we will get into more of the later. We will start with how we got there…
There is no direct airport into Kyoto so it is easiest to fly into Osaka and take a high-speed train from there. The Japanese airports are very tourist friendly and you can always ask for directions. Their patience while trying to overcome a language barrier is something that everyone should strive for. Just tell them where you are trying to go and they will not desert you until they have figured it out.
We got of the train and took a 15 minute walk through Kyoto to our AirBnb. We were able to stay in a traditional Machiya that was over a 100 years old. It was exactly as I hoped it would be. Sleeping on the floor, a tiny private garden, slippers to put on the moment you opened the door, and even a Tanuki outside as a sign of good luck!
We dropped off our bags, put on some of our warmest layers (because Kyoto is freezing in the middle of February) and made for one of the iconic sights in Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
For anyone who knows the movie 'Memoirs of a Geisha', remember that scene where she is running through a tunnel of orange? This is it. This Shinto shrine holds over 10,000 orange tori gates donated by businesses and tradesmen offering prayers for good fortune in their future endeavors. All of the characters you see on the gates are the names of people or businesses that have made these donations and prayers. If you follow all of the gates, the entire walk up the mountain will take you about two hours. People also tie up their bad fortunes and give them up to the dieties and draw foxes (who act as messengers for the gods) to send their prayers to them.
How did I learn about all this? I know I have spoken about how genuine and friendly the Japanese people are. We were so lucky that good fortune shined upon us that for some reason, two young Japanese men thought it would be a good idea to walk up to us 4 Americans and ask if they could practice their English by giving us a tour through the shrine.
If we were back in the states, people would probably just ignore them and walk away because that is just how our culture is. But this is Japan, and what a better way to get an authentic experience than to spend time with the Japanese themselves! Not only did they walk us around the entire shrine, teach us how to properly say a prayer, and share its history and importance with us, they even took us out to a proper okonomiyaki dinner! After stuffing our faces and filling our stomachs with sake and high balls, it was time to rest up before our early meet up to vising Arashiyama.
Arashiyama is another scenic village on the outskirts of the city. It is home to many temples and shrines that are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, boutiques, food markets, Iwatayama Monkey Park (my favorite part) and its most well known attraction, the Bamboo Forest. Taking the JR line from Kyoto station, it was about a 30 minute train ride to meet up with one of our friends from the night before. He took us through the bamboo grove, showed us the best ice cream, mochi, bath house turned cafe and the highlights of the day for me…takoyaki and monkeys.
Thank goodness I decided to put my tennis shoes on rather than wearing my heeled boots because the climb up to the top of Iwatayama (which I affectionally nicknamed Monkey Mountain) was a strenuous one. But when we got to the top, it was worth it.
These monkeys are truly just living in their natural environment. Don’t look at them in the eyes, don’t get too close. You are visiting their space and you just have to respect that! Now, I can’t begin to explain it but there I was just sitting on a bench, on the top of a mountain in Kyoto, looking out over a city surrounded by mountains while there is a monkey with his red butt sitting on the bench next to me, munching on a banana. No, I don’t have a picture of it. It was one of those moments where I was happy enough to just be living it rather than trying to document it.
Four friends, sitting on a bench by the riverside with their amazing new local friend and tour guide, relaxing after just hiking a mountain with monkeys on top of it. Warm takoyaki in one hand, a cold chu-hi in the other. That is Kyoto to me.