Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, was our next destination and we were both glad to be a little further south and a little warmer. We arrived into the train station and it wasn’t at all like we were expecting. Kyoto’s train station is an ultra modern transport hub complete with exposed steel and glass facades. It completely lacks any connection to the historical city but despite this it’s still quite a nice building. Since we were couchsurfing and wouldn’t meet our hosts till later on, we went to sort out our onward travel and get a bite to eat. Unfortunately we ended up in a little trouble as the bus we had intended to leave Kyoto on was fully booked and it took us a while to find a solution. Luckily Tokyo (transport centre of the Japanese universe) saved us and we still had time to get a tasty bowl of ramen in the underground passage beneath the bus station. We arrived at our couchsurfing hosts apartment in better spirits and had a lovely evening getting to know one another in their lovely apartment.
The next day we decided to visit the Nijo castle and Imperial Palace and gardens. Both were not too far away from where we were staying but meant that we walked a fair distance. The Nijo castle was a very impressive modern castle which has an important place in Japanese history. One of it’s rooms was used by the last shogun to denounce power to the emperor, ending 618 years of samurai period. This isn’t the first place we have got a little frustrated by other tourists and we are sure it won’t be the last. We still can’t understand why people visit anywhere to walk around at speed, ignoring signs and not even really looking. We probably spent around four times longer in the castle admiring the painted paper screens and wood carvings and learning about each room. Wandering through and listening to the suspended floor making squeaking and chirping noises like a nightingale was quite immersive. We were really impressed by the wood carvings and painting throughout the building and once again surprised that it hadn’t all been burnt down. The surrounding gardens were very peaceful although not as impressive as Kenrokuen in Kanazawa. Following the castle we wandered around the imperial palace park and were beckoned in to see inside the palace walls. We didn’t think any part of the palace was open so we were happy to walk around the outside of the buildings and see a glimpse of the grandeur (for free!). Before we returned home for the night we had enough time to visit the downtown area and it’s bustling Nishiki market. The market was completely rammed with fresh produce and tourists. There were some locals buying fresh fish or pickled vegetables but mostly the stalls were selling street food snacks and souvenirs. It is by far the busiest and most crammed market we have visited on our travels so far and left us in need of a cuppa and a relaxing evening.
In true couchsurfing spirit we had agreed to cook one evening and our hosts would cook the next. We struggled a little to find cooking ingredients in a large Japanese supermarket were 3 full aisles were dedicated to sweets and crisps. In the end we found enough to make Allgäuer Schnitzel with Spätzle and vegetables, followed by a makeshift peach sponge and cream. Cooking was a little tricky but we managed and the food went down well. We chatted some more and discovered just how dependent Kyoto was on tourists. Thanks to our hosts background and time spent in other countries we had some interesting discussions about Japanese culture and life in comparison with other places.
Early the next morning, or not as our alarm didn’t go off, we opted to visit the famous bamboo forest. Our journey there was fairly simple but we hadn’t realised just how big Kyoto is and just how long the buses take to get places. 45 minutes later our bus pulled into a narrow street which was absolutely packed. Between the buses, bikes and hundred of pedestrians there was no wiggle room. At that moment we completely understood just how many tourists visit Kyoto and it is truly crazy. Resigned to being part of the crowd we found our way to the Bamboo forest full of selfie sticks and the odd bride and groom. It looked like all the photos you see in guide books just busier and not remotely peaceful. The bamboo itself was impressive, blocking out the sunlight to create an eerie bluish colour to the stems. If we could give one tip it would be to visit at dawn and cross your fingers that no one else has had the same idea
We walked around the area to the river and then decided to visit one temple. We chose the recommended one but regretted this once we entered the heaving garden. Now, we totally understand that the autumn leaves are stunning and peak only for a week to ten days, but it happens every year (surprise!). If it were a once in a lifetime event we would get it, but does anyone really need 400 photos of themself with leaves in a famous garden in Japan? It’s sad to say but the number of people completely ruined any atmosphere of the temple or gardens. Perhaps limiting numbers would be a good thing to do even if it means a higher entrance fee. Famous or not the gardens are beautiful but whatever you do don’t visit at peak times of year and if you must come super early.
Back in the city we had a date with a fire festival in Gion. The fire festival took place at one of the smaller lesser visited shrines called Ebisu shrine. We arrived a little early and were relieved to find very few tourists. Instead preparations were underway and local people were gathering to take part. The festival began with the congregation washing their hands and then the monks and nuns. They went into the small wooden shrine and began praying, singing and using ceremonial fans, swords, bells and drums. We only saw some of this but the sword dancing was quite impressive. Later the monks came out and started a fire in the yard outside, into which they threw prayers weitten on bits of paper, sake and satsumas. One of the women stood over a bowl of steaming water nearby and made offerings of salt, rice and sake. A Japanese man warned us that we were about to get wet as she promptly started flinging hot water from the cauldron with bamboo bushels. Once the water throwing was done the festival was over and on our way out we received a charred satsuma which was very yummy. We weren’t sure if they were meant to be eaten or taken to shrines at home and used as offerings but our later our host confirmed that the former was the case.
Since we were in Gion already, we took a walk through the streets famous for their teahouses and Geishas. We didn’t meet any Geishas but we did see plenty of young Japanese women in kimonos taking photo after photo of each other. Gion is full of wooden buildings which mostly hold souvenir shops and sweet shops. It’s a nice place to walk about and sample some local yatsuhashi sweets but it isn’t quite as charming as little Takayama. Still we found this to be the part of Kyoto which had the most charm (when there weren’t as many tourists). We did hike up to one of the temples just in time to see the sunset over Kyoto and then, as we walked back to catch the bus, the streets were lit by lanterns. Kyoto is definitely still clinging onto it’s past and desperately trying to retain it’s charm despite the mass tourism. It still looks very Japanese but for us the atmosphere was more akin to a theme park only without the adrenaline kicks.
Back with our lovely couchsurfing hosts we were treated to a lovely Japanese dinner and also met some other surfers who were staying too. It was a good evening of chatting about everything travel and we also played a great card game called Exploding Kittens. It was great fun and workign together we even managed to beat our host for what was only the second time in his time with this game.
The next morning we woke early to visit the Golden Pagoda which is probably THE most famous temple in town and also a UNESCO heritage. Unfortunately our trip was a little spoiled when standing at the ticket office Zoe discovered ¥13,000 were missing from her purse. We had no idea who had taken it but whoever did it had time to sort the money from the receipts. We were really gutted to think that it must have happened while we were couchsurfing since we had picked up the money on our way back and Zoë’s purse had been zipped inside her camera bag all the time. This unfortunately is one sad side of couchsurfing and we really regretted trusting the other surfers not to steal. It was too late to confront them as everyone had left around the same time. Despite this start to the day we still visited the Golden Pagoda and it is justifiably popular and magical. It is so popular that they had to put a one way system in place which means all the groups and thousends of tourist walk through the beautiful garden while trying to take photos of everything and (in groups) follow their guide. One note: toilets inside are only located at the end (before you exit). If in doubt try to find the ones outside before going in. Otherwise you might find yourself having to walk against a massive tide.
Admittedly it was hard to get over the theft but in the end it is only money and we were still safe and on our big adventure. Our day was improved by meeting one of Matthias’ university friends and having a few drinks and a catch up.
We were ready to leave Kyoto that night on the overnight bus to Tokyo before we made our way away from the masses of people to see the lonely mountain.