Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The imperial and impressive Kyoto

Kyoto (京都市or Kyōto) is located in the central part of the Honshu island, south of Tokyo. This former imperial capital of Japan is a part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area and a very popular tourist destination, especially know for its traditional districts and temples.

I was staying in Osaka, just less than an hour away from Kyoto, and took one day to go for a visit. I got very helpful tips from my new friend Mio from Osaka who mapped me a great route through Kyoto! So around noon I arrived from Osaka to Kyoto's Kawaramachi train station, ready to explore the city!

Hills surround this beautiful city and on the hills there are big impressive temple areas. My plan was to go discover the eastern hill and first up was the Yasaka Shrine. It's easy to find the shrine as it's just at the end of the main road - you can't miss the big, red temple gate! I passed through the colourful temple where people were ringing the big bells and continued to a beautiful park called Maruyama Koen. I can just imagine how during spring it's covered with cherry trees blossoming. I heard that the park was also used in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha.

At the Yasaka Shrine

Maruyama park
Continuing to follow all the little maps I found in the parks, temples and street corners I was making my way up the hill towards the Kiyomizu-dera temple. There were numerous other temples on the way up, gardens, graveyards...And there were also several small and big buddha statues that you could touch to gain or strengthen various attributes such as prosperity, wits, positivity, happiness or love.

Temples, temples, temples...
A small buddha and a massive buddha
Further up the hill there's an area called Higashiyama that has lots of traditional small houses on these cute winding small streets with little restaurants and great souvenir & crafts shops. They weren't one of those shops that you tend to see around the world with silly knick-knacks branded with "Kyoto" or "Japan", no (of course some of those too). There were actually lots a really nice crafts of all sorts, especially clothing and pottery. Great place to get souvenirs!

Finally I arrived to the top of the hill, to Kiyomizu-dera. This Buddhist temple is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The site is pretty impressive, with numerous beautiful temples and other structures in different colours and detailed ornaments. It is said that not a single nail was used in constructing the entire temple.

A large part of the temple grounds is open to visitors. To get in to some of the main temples, like on most shrines around Kyoto, you'll have to pay an entrance fee, between 100-1000¥. But most of the places are yours to roam for free. From the top parts of the Kiyomizu-dera you'll also have a stunning view over Kyoto.

This map gives a rough idea of the route around the east hill but there are plenty of more detailed maps on the way there. In Kyoto they speak a certain Japanese dialect (Kyō-kotoba or Kyōto-ben), a form of of the Kansai dialect. Personally I wouldn't see any difference in the dialects but you'll see considerable less English in Kyoto than is Tokyo, though more than in Osaka in my opinion. In the tourist areas you will find English information so no need to worry.

Maps and signs everywhere (even a map of a toilet) - some less and some more helpful
On my way back to the city center I passed by the Gion area with its beautiful narrow traditional streets. It is also known for the geisha girls (note that you will mainly see them around 5-6pm when they are going to work). And I also made my last temple visit at the Kenninji Temple.

Geishas shopping at Higashiyama
The downtown Kyoto is very different to the hills, a typical modern city with shopping centers and tall buildings. In fact, in addition to tourism and traditional Japanese crafts, one of the key industries of Kyoto is IT and electronics. It was hard for me to enjoy the big shopping centers right after strolling in the temples and gardens. But it looked like a nice city to stay in - perhaps on my next visit I'll stay there longer!

Once I finished my about 8 hour loop on east hill & the downtown I was too tired to even think about the west hill - there's so much to see in Kyoto! I could have come for another visit on my trip but I was enjoying my stay in Osaka so I decided one day of  Kyoto temple-hopping was enough. There was also a zouk party in Kyoto but my feet were too tired to dance, can you believe it! But if you're in town on Monday you can go see the Rumbita zouk party. For more info regarding dancing in Japan go to my earlier post!

Getting there and around

Kyoto main station is the center for transportation as well as shopping. There is a subway and bus network in Kyoto but to reach the temple areas you are best to go about on foot (or taxi, if necessary).

To get to Kyoto (like pretty much anywhere in Japan) you may find it easiest to arrive by train. You can check the train schedules from Hyperdia; Kyoto about 500 km from Tokyo. Train travel is well worth the price in my opinion vs. flying as traveling between the airports and city centres takes at least the same amount of time than just the train ride between cities, 2h20min between Tokyo and Kyoto at shortest. On the cheap there are of course long-distance buses.

Osaka is very close Kyoto - about traveling between the two cities look at the end of my previous post!

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