Second stop – The past – Kyoto
A time travel of about twenty minutes with a train as a spaceship takes you from Osaka to Kyoto. Here the past fills the streets and smells of ancient wood. The kimono girls (as I liked to call them) dot the alleys like flowers in spring and their bright colours blind my camera. I abandon myself to this city and I let myself be carried away by the curiosity of discovering such an ancient culture so different from the one that raised me.
Kyoto, symbol of the Japanese empire and samurai, has been the capital of Japan for more than 1000 years. A labyrinth of ancient Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and manicured gardens make this city magical and unique.
Many stories float between the streets of this city and the leaves of its forests: stories of warriors, stories of power, stories of spirituality and above all stories that will never be told. One, set in the Edo period (1603-1868), said that if a person manages to survive the jump from the Kiyomizu-dera temple terrace, a wish would come true. During that time around 230 jumps were recorded, 85% of which had their dreams came true.
While I was fantasizing about these legends, I came across a pair of dog/lion statues sitting at the entrance of a shrine. These animals, called “komainu”, are the guardians of the Shrine and they are supposed to keep the evil spirits away. If you stop and watch carefully, you will notice that one of the dogs/lions always has an open mouth while the other always closed, representing the beginning and the end of all things. This concept, in Japanese tradition, takes the name of “a-un“: the dog/lion with an open mouth pronounces the first letter of the alphabet, “a“, while the one with the closed mouth pronounces the last, “un“. Pay attention that sometimes the shire’s guardians are represented with different animals, as for Fushimi inari-taisha Shrine where they take the form of foxes.
Every corner of the city is full of symbolism, fragrance and curiosity.
You should try to ask for information to local people. I warn you, it will not be easy if you don’t speak Japanese, but give it a try; it will also be a special experience that will carry you through this journey through time.
Only advice: lose yourself!
Kyoto, Japan. Practical info
Shrine or Temple?
Most likely, at some point, you will be confused in identifying which kind of building you are standing in front … Temple or Shrine? Shrine or Temple?
To reveal the mystery, take a twirl and look for the building’s main entrance. If you see an immense red wooden gate (Torii) you are in a Shrine, if, instead, there is a wooden pagoda style entrance with Japanese characters on the top (Sanmon) it is a temple. Remember to also check for the guardians!
Walk until you can’t and then take a bus…
There are only a few subway lines in Kyoto, so the best way to get around, when your legs are on strike, is to take the buses. You can buy a day pass in the main shops or directly at your accommodation’s reception. There are many lines so just be careful to get on the right one…
Sleep in a traditional Japanese house without going bankrupt…
Gojo Guesthouse – This amazing guesthouse is located in the central part of Kyoto in a strategic position to get around the city by day and to experience the nightlife. The house is very similar to the traditional “ryokan” and is equipped with dormitories and double rooms. The best part … you’ll sleep on the “gaijin”, commonly known as futons to foreigners! Super comfortable!!!
Food madness. What to try in Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto is also famous for its superb food.
Yatsuhashi – rice flour cake made with cinnamon and sugar. The name comes from a player of “so”, a typical Japanese instrument which they mimic the shape.
Nama-Yatsuhashi – rice flour cakes, stuffed with red beans and with a slightly chewy consistency.
Matcha – you will immediately recognize when something is made with matcha because of the unique green colour. Matcha is a powder obtained from green tea leaves and is commonly used to make infusions or drinks. But you can also find it in other versions such as ice cream, soba, sweets and so on and so forth. Be careful though, as there is a risk of becoming like Shrek if you eat too much… I actually got quite close!!
Day trip to Kurama, Japan
Are you familiar with Miyazaki animation? In this case instead of the Catbus, a colourful train takes you to a magical world in the middle of the forest.
Kyoto, unfortunately, has only one problem: it’s full, full, and full of tourists. In case you are demophobic like me, less than an hour away from the city centre you can find the solution to this problem: Kurama.
As soon as you arrive in this tiny village, you will breathe the blissful tranquillity that is always associated with Japanese sacred places. The Buddhist temple that characterizes this place is located on the slopes of Mount Kurama and it’s actually the geographical location that gives the temple its name: Kurama-dera. To reach it you will have to hike a fascinating path in the shade of the green trees and under the eyes of several smaller temples. Silence and peace reign at every step.
Luckily, this little paradise is not on the usual tourist routes, allowing you to enjoy all the mysticism that this place emanates. During my ascent (don’t worry it is not the Everest … it is just a half -hour hike) I was alone most of the time so much so that that the intertwining between my thoughts and the whispers of nature ended up being an amazing soundtrack.
Once at the top, the forest opens up to reveal the beautiful landscape. A variety of shades of green fill eyes and lungs while the temple acts as a protective guardian.
Give yourself a moment to relax…
Kurama hosts a beautiful “onsen”. The onsen are the traditional Japanese baths. Their thermal water pools can be indoors or outdoors. The Kurama Onsen has an external basin into the forest. For sure an experience that I suggest you do. Very relaxing and regenerating.