After our amazing introduction to Japan, we took the opportunity to venture outside the mega-metropolis of Tokyo to Japan’s former imperial capital, the culturally and historically rich prefecture of Kyoto. Erin previously described Tokyo as a city of contrasts, but we were beginning to see that perhaps Tokyo was a microcosm of Japan itself as a whole. After boarding one of Japan’s famous high-speed bullet trains (Shinkansen) and whizzing by Japan’s countryside at 300 km/hr (186 mph), we found ourselves at the doorstep to historic cobblestone streets, serene gardens, and ancient enchanting temples. We’ll start by sharing one of our favourite photography-subjects in Kyoto, the aptly named Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji):
The upper two floors of this shimmering Zen Buddhist Temple are covered in pure gold leaf, giving the temple a brilliant luminescence when touched by the golden rays of the late-afternoon sun.
The meticulously landscaped gardens surrounding the lake were so classic Japan. When a slight breeze passed, the water ripples throughout the pond reminded me of Japanese Zen rock gardens. I wouldn’t be surprised if the patterns in the rock gardens were actually inspired by meditations around such ponds.
At night, Kyoto felt like a charming village compared to the bustling streets of Tokyo. The small laneways were dotted with tiny restaurants and izakayas, most announcing their presence with the warm and welcoming glow of paper lanterns in place of bright attention-grabbing neon signs. It wasn’t just the people in Japan who made you feel welcome; it felt like every doorway was beckoning you to discover what awaited inside. Below is the famous alleyway known as Pontochō, where we spent most of our nights in Kyoto.
The charming ambiance outside was just the beginning. Inside, every establishment felt cozy and just as atmospheric. It was always a treat to escape the cold spring air and step into a warm hole-in-the-wall to be greeted with a chorus of “Irasshaimase!”
Here we are at a Japanese grill where we got to try a specialty of the region, Okonomiyaki (above left). We had tried this savoury grilled pancake-like dish before in Sydney, but weren’t overly impressed. In Japan, however, it was a different story. We couldn’t get enough of it! It’s a bit of a hodgepodge of ingredients, mixed with a special batter, grilled, and then drizzled with some yummy sauces and toppings. Yum!
Kyoto was such a fun place to wander around and get lost! We managed to stumble upon this cool little underground music venue amidst the Japanese izakayas.
After wandering around the laneways of Kyoto by night, we wandered around Kyoto’s temples and gardens by day. As you’ll see, it rained a lot during our trip to Japan. But at least we had the rain to thank for all the lush green gardens that the Japanese love so much! Here we are at Ginkakuji, or the Silver Pavilion, the more modest sibling of the previous temple.
Ginkakuji is also home to a unique dry sand garden (above) and a beautiful moss garden (below).
All the sight-seeing made us hungry, but luckily, there was no shortage of cool little ramen joints to try!
After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, it was nice to find places of such tranquility in the temples of Kyoto. Here is Erin enjoying a peaceful moment overlooking the Hojo Rock Garden at the Nanzenji Temple. In Kyoto, you could easily close your eyes and travel back in time to experience what Japan must have been like hundreds of years ago.
Despite all the amazing temples and gardens, I’d have to say my favourite sight in Kyoto was here, an endless tunnel made up of literally thousands of vermilion torii gates, known as the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Something about meandering along this maze-like pathway of gates, toward the summit of the mountain, was absolutely mesmerizing. Every torii gate along the entire trail was donated to the shrine, which has been around since the year 794, predating Kyoto’s time as the capital of Japan. There are so many of them! We stayed for hours… it was quite magical.
In Kyoto, we also took the opportunity to stay at a Ryokan, or a traditional Japanese inn. The sliding interior doors were literally paper-thin and the floors were lined with rice straw “tatami” mats. We sat on the floor, slept on futon mattresses on the floor, and bathed in very hot communal baths.
But of course, the big treat of the stay was to enjoy a traditional Japanese meal of Kaiseki, served to us in our rooms as we relaxed in our robe-like yukatas and toe-socks.
As you can see, there was plenty of food! The meal was quite delicious and soporific. Afterwards, we were both suffering from severe symptoms of post-prandial somnolence.
How cool is this cobblestone street in the historic district of Higashiyama?
More rain meant perfect weather for wandering the various shopping areas in Kyoto and frequently ducking into various tea rooms to dry off. Erin got a kick out of the umbrella lockers that you could find in front of many an establishment. There seemed to be a limited number of umbrella styles being carried around in Japan, with a huge number of people opting for the popular clear plastic ones. These clever little lockable stands ensured that you’d always know which one was yours, and you’d never be the victim of umbrella theft!
Once when the rain got particularly heavy, we couldn’t resist this little ice-cream-and-cake shop that served up Japanese style ice cream sundaes, this one appropriately “sakura” (cherry blossom) flavoured—or at least, coloured. Mmmm.
We had to visit the Kiyomizudera (literally “Pure Water”) Buddhist Temple, a massive wooden structure built without using a single nail! Impressive. Even with all the tourists, you could almost imagine what it was like back in the quiet days with no electricity, as the sounds of the giant gongs resonated around the hall and clouds of incense billowed through the damp air.
At night, the wet cobblestone walkways reflected the glow of the paper lanterns, enhancing the ambiance.
After learning about the rich culture and history of Geishas from our guidebook, and the rarity of real Geishas in modern Japan (there are estimated to be only 1,000-2,000 left compared to 80,000 a century ago), we were delighted to spot a rare glimpse of a Geisha making a quick dash from one of the nearby establishments to another.
For dinner, more okonomiyaki was on the menu at this steamy little restaurant with an open kitchen.
Kyoto was just so darn cool we wished we could have stayed longer, but our time was up and we hopped on the train to the nearby town of Nara, Kyoto’s predecessor as capital of Japan.
Nara also has some beautiful gardens and we spent a very rainy morning wandering the quiet paths of this one, the Yoshikien Garden.
After we realised the buildings that looked like old tea rooms were actually real functioning tea rooms,
we couldn’t resist yet another snack we decided to escape the rain for a bit! How relaxing sitting on the mats with a hot cup of tea watching the rain outside through old hand-made glass windows.
Nara is famous for its population of deer that wander everywhere around the town. One day, Erin was tempted by yet another street vendor selling biscuits of some kind. She very nearly bought one to eat, but was very glad of her momentary bit of willpower when we later realised said vendors were selling biscuits to feed to the deer! Haha.
One of Nara’s most famous attractions is the incredibly massive Tōdaiji, The Great Eastern Temple, the world’s largest wooden building. Tōdaiji was an incredible sight, and it was difficult to capture the true scale of the building in photos. The beginnings of the structure have been dated to the year 728, back when Nara was the capital of Japan. Naturally it has endured numerous earthquakes and fires over the centuries requiring it to be reconstructed. The current building was completed in 1709, and incredibly, is 30% smaller than the original!
The cavernous Big Buddha Hall features a huge bronze Buddha and requires a lot of neck straining! It is really hard to imagine how people in the 6th century managed to construct any of this without modern scaffolding or tools. Amazing!
After a pleasant walk through Nara Park, we finished out the day at another cozy izakaya restaurant. The wooden walls looked stained from absorbing decades of steam and smoke. We must have stumbled into a joint for the locals, because we got a few curious looks from other patrons, but the usual friendliness and welcoming nature of the Japanese was there again.
Our trip was nearly over, but we got to take one last ride on the bullet train to Osaka, where we’d board our flight back to Sydney.
Kyoto and Nara weren’t the only places I escaped to during my visit to Japan. With the extensive network of super-fast bullet trains connecting distant parts of Japan, it was too tempting to take a short trip to the ski resort of Kagura during my first free weekend in Tokyo, before Erin arrived. Having only snowboarded in California and Australia, I was excited to see so much snow and such beautiful snowscapes!
I lucked out with some really clear weather. Despite being late March, there was still more snow and powder than I’ve ever set foot on before. It was amazing!
That concludes our short adventures in Japan, a land that we may be, now, mildly obsessed with. We hope it’s not long before we can return to the land of the rising sun and explore more distant areas.
If you enjoyed the photos of Kyoto or Tokyo, please leave us a comment below and let us know. And if you’ve traveled to Japan before, let us know where we should venture next time!