Kyoto, Japan

 

We had a wonderful 7 weeks in Japan and are looking back to going back sometime. Right now we are on the island of Koh Lanta, Thailand, for one month, but I will write about that later. I will be making three final posts about Japan including this one – Kyoto. The other two will be about Hiroshima and Mt. Fuji – where we spent our last two weeks in Japan. I was going to originally make one post about all three places but I figured that was way too overwhelming (for both me and the reader probably) so I’m splitting it into three smaller posts (which are probably still going to be long-winded).

Kyoto is in central japan and was one of the places i was most looking forward to visiting. It is only 30 minutes from Osaka by train, and we stayed in Osaka for 1 month, so we went a few times.

Kyoto was completely spared from the WWII destruction so it is one of the best preserved cities in Japan with 1,600 buddhist temples and 400 shinto shrines, as well as many beautiful palaces and gardens. The mostly wooden architecture of the city is all original as well and very beautiful and interesting to walk around.

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one of the streets of the Gion neighborhood of Kyoto

One of the places I most wanted to visit in Kyoto was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Unfortunately we went on a weekend afternoon and there were SO many people there. I knew it would be crowded but there were even more people than I’d imagined. It was still very nice though and we were glad we went. We had planned on getting a hotel in Kyoto at some point so that we could get up and go to the bamboo grove at sunrise, but it was peak season with the cherry blossoms and whatnot, that all the hotels were booked, so that did not happen. On my next trip to Japan I will definitely be staying in Kyoto for at least a few days to get this shot without any people in it! Haha

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the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove on a Saturday afternoon

Another place that was on my must see list was the Fushimi Inari Shrine which is one of the most important shinto shrines in Kyoto. Inari is the shinto god of rice, and foxes are thought to be the messengers of Inari, so there are hundreds, maybe thousands of fox statues all around the grounds of the shrine.

 

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one of the hundreds of small shrines with fox statues

The main draw to the shrine are the thousands of red torii gates of various sizes that cover the walkways that go all the way to the top of a mountain. Each gate has Japanese writing on it on one side, which is the name of the donor and the date of donation. The smallest gates (around 10 feet tall) cost 400,000 yen donation (around $3,500 USD) and the larger ones that are up to around 20 feet tall, are obviously much much more expensive.

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I believe these are some of the largest torii gates at Inari Shrine

The most photographed and iconic gates at this shrine however, are the smallest ones, which there are two rows of, side by side, one for each direction. They come after these very large ones, and are what you pass through before you start the hike up the mountain. The first time we visited this shrine, there were SO MANY PEOPLE walking through the small gates, that they were shuffling and hardly moving, so we actually walked on the outside and at that point decided to come back another day on the first train in the morning from Osaka to arrive around sunrise before anyone else was there. So that’s what we did, and thats when I took the above and below photos with no people. You can see photos with all the crowds in the slideshow at the end of this post for comparison.

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This is one of my favorite photos of my entire trip to Japan

For people who can’t afford the 400 thousand yen for one of the smallest walkway torii gates, there are many much smaller options as you can see in the photo below, that can be purchased for a small amount of money and placed at one of the hundreds of smaller shrine areas within the massive Inari shrine grounds.

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Another mini shrine of mini gates at Inari 

 

We work online late at night so the night before we took the first train to the Inari shrine, we didn’t sleep at all. We normally would work late and go to bed around 5am, but this morning we were walking to the train station at 5am and ended up not getting back home and to sleep until around 11am. Even though we were extremely tired, it was worth the trip to this beautiful place to get some amazing photos and have a peaceful and enjoyable time in an otherwise overcrowded place at any other time during normal daytime hours. I would highly recommend to anyone visiting here to do the same – stay in Kyoto and get up and go as early as possible as the shrine is open to the public 24 hours a day.

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bamboo grove at Inari shrine

One more thing I forgot to mention was that we wandered off the path and discovered another beautiful (and empty!) bamboo grove beside the Inari shrine. Smaller than the Arashiyama grove, but still really nice so we spent a while in there taking photos.

 

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Tourists in geisha costumes in the Gion neighborhood of Kyoto

Another thing people go to to Kyoto to (try to) see are geishas.  We quickly realized that many many young girls (a few older ones too) like go to Kyoto and dress up as geishas, in the traditional kimonos and wooden flipflops with socks, and walk around and take photos of each other. They were literally everywhere, especially at the bamboo forest and the Inari shrine areas. Basically anywhere with something interesting to take a photo standing in front of. Kimono rentals are a good business to be in in Kyoto!

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the only real geisha we saw while in Japan

Here however, you see an actual geisha! We spotted her up in a window while strolling around the small streets of Gion. A small crowd eventually gathered and then she and a man inside the room rolled down the blinds. I whipped out my paparazzi lens before they put the blinds down though, and a closeup photo I got of her confirmed that she was a real geisha (very elaborate makeup and wig, etc.).  You can see that photo in the slideshow at the end of this post.

Geishas have been around for a long time and their roles have changed over time. From what I understand, long ago they used to be prostitutes but nowadays they hold a very high social status and are entertainers and hostesses for the very rich and elite. They are pretty rare to see (so we got lucky!) and you can only be introduced to one by an existing client. They are trained sometimes from a very young age in the arts, like dancing and playing musical instruments, as well as conversation and games.

Kyoto has so many amazing things and I wish we had more time to explore it, but now I’ll still have a lot more things to see there when I go back! And unfortunately we were in Kyoto just a little bit too early for the cherry blossoms, so I hope to go back there during that time next time. We saw plenty of blooming cherry blossoms in other parts of Japan though, especially Mt. Fuji!

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