I’d planned that today we would do 2 walking tours. Northern Higashiyama and Southern Higashiyama. Both of these tours were meant to take 4 hours and are hard to squeeze in because of opening and closing times for the temples and shrines, but there’s so much to do in Kyoto that I wanted to try to be efficient. I figured that there would be a couple of big temples and then a lot of small ones. I was wrong.
We got up a little late and grabbed a pretty decent breakfast. The hotel provides an awful lot of variety though the bread was all tiny so I had to toast loads of little pieces. After the food we got out to a scorcher of a day and hopped on a bus up to the north-eastern hills. Our first stop was Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion. Except it isn’t silver, because the project ran out of money a long, long time ago. It’s still lovely though and it there were extensive gardens with views from the hillside out over Kyoto. They did a great job of taking the tourists near to the main building but in such a way that the best photos could still be taken without them getting in the way.
After this we headed to Honen-in temple. We actually missed the main entrance and made our way up to the beautiful old graveyard instead before finding the main body of buildings. This was all on a pretty small scale but very old. We were greeted by a little old lady here who insisted we see somewhere else (neither of us caught the name) and when she found out we were from England she explained that she loves Hugh Grant. Afterwards we deviated from the planned route to also take a glance at Anrakuji temple as we heard some chanting and it was a pretty little building. There are thousands of shrines and temples in Kyoto that aren’t flooded with tourists and you constantly pass them, forcing yourself not to take a look because if you did, you’d never get anywhere.
We then made our way to a canal and followed a path known as the Path of Philosophy. There was a lot of pretty flowers and trees around the canal and we had more good views out over the city. After the canal we got to Eikan-do temple. We hadn’t read much about it and it looked like a little temple (of many) on the route. We wondered if we’d really get value for money out of the £3 entrance fee each (We had this thought several times, always to be proven so very wrong). We found the main entrance and removed our shoes to tour the interior of what became many buildings lining the side of the hill and on multiple levels, with some lovely ponds and gardens too. After the inside we popped our shoes back on and roamed in between the buildings and toured the gardens themselves. We walked quickly but soon realised that if every “little” temple was like this then we’d be going all night too.
From here we walked down to Nanzen-ji. I knew of this from a scene in Lost in Translation where Charlotte day trips to Kyoto and sees a wedding taking place. There was a huge gate ahead of the main temple and then a bunch of sub-temples (we visited Nanzen-in and Kotoku-an. All of the above were lovely. The main temple buildings at the bigger sites are just magnificent and very large. The gardens at the smaller temples are equally captivating and look exactly as you’d imagine when you think of Japanese gardens featuring ponds, stepping stones and zen gardens. Our final stop of the morning was Konchi-in temple just around the corner, and this had a very pleasant zen garden.
To get a short break from the heat we hopped onto the subway to travel just down the road and get nearer to the start of the other walking tour. We picked up a quick bagel lunch in a cafe to help fuel all the walking too. Our first stop now was Shoren-in temple. More lovely buildings with some beautifully painted sliding screens and some of the best gardens of the day featured here too but our overriding memory was of a small Japanese girl pleasing with her mother (Kudasai! Kudasai!) to let her ring the temple bell in the garden. Mom didn’t seem to think this was a great idea but her dad picked her up and gave it a go. It made a very gentle sound for a large bell and was intended to be rung by visitors. This prompted us to have a go too!
Next on the trail not too far away was Chion-in temple. We were a little confused as to where the entrance was. Most of the temples so far had a single main entrance and some of them would charge a small fee at this point. Not so with Chion-in as it was so ridiculously large. The main hall was actually entirely encased in a modern shell to protect it whilst repairs were going on and yet the overall temple grounds were so big it hardly mattered and it was all free and a functional temple, we saw many monks cleaning and chanting. The highlight here was a giant bell elevated on the hill in one corner of the temple which was hanging from an incredibly solid looking wooden structure. The bell is so heavy that it takes around 16 monks to swing the giant wooden hammer into it. The bell is around 400 years old and the temple nearly 900. Some Japanese men suggested to us that it was Big Ben and they found this hilarious!
From here we entered Maruyama park which features the most famous cherry blossom tree in Kyoto. Unfortunately in September it really doesn’t look all too special. Still, there was an attractive pond and bridge and a little cafe drilling holes into grapefruit and selling them as drinks and a very talented young musician playing a guitar. We walked to the western end of the park expecting to find Yasaka Shrine, which we assumed to be small because of the location. Wrong, very wrong again. This was a large shrine at the end of the park and flooded with people. It sat at the end of the main street in Gion, a very old entertainment district in Kyoto and where you’d expect to find a Geisha walking about. Like so many of the shrines it was large and red and had a lot of people offering up a bit of change for a small prayer.
We carried on up a small hill out of the park to find Kodaiji temple sitting at the top of a long flight of very pretty steps. There was a shrine here and a lot of people with stalls nearby. The temple featured more wonderful landscaped gardens and a bamboo grove. From the bamboo we glimpsed a giant Buddha nearby too. In any other city it would have been a major attraction but here it was just something you could see from the gardens of Kodaiji. After the temple we walked down a few very pretty and traditional side streets. We found a man walking with a Geisha and positioning her outside the buildings for some photos. I asked if he minded if I also took pictures and was promptly ignored, so I did grab a few.
The final stop of the southern tour was the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera. It took a lot of walking up the hill through countless traditional lanes with souvenir shops. They did an excellent job of not looking tacky. We were especially surrounded here by young couples and women wearing traditional kimono and wooden sandals. We knew we might see some of this but it was incredibly common. In amongst the tourist shops there were also a lot of shops selling tasty little treats, each specializing in a different type of treat and so many of them look very interesting and tasty. At the top of all the streets we got to the temple, expecting a large building but we found a vast complex of them again.
We again paid the cheap token entry fee and walked more of the hills of Kyoto. The main building stood on a massive number of wooden stilts to allow it to sit on the hill and had paths along the hill to some of the other buildings. The views from the top of the path over Kyoto were wonderful and would have only been slightly better if we’d have been a little later for the actual sunset, but the temple closes a bit too early for that at this time of year. We made our way back down through the shops, trying a filled custard cream puff from one of the stalls for good measure. We then got back to the hotel via the subway.
It’s hard to recall exactly which temple had which garden feature and where we saw the most beautiful paintings and details because there were so many. Many times during the day we would see a magical red or black building on a huge scale, for it just to be the gate ahead of the main collection of temple buildings. This was easily the single best concentration of historical sites I’ve ever seen and even though it was temple after temple, garden after garden, they were all different enough to stand out and each feel like a great experience.
We took pity on our very tired bodies and our need for a big meal and grabbed Indian food at a nearby restaurant with excellent reviews. I think it’s fair to say that most people in England are probably enough of an expert in Indian food to be able to judge anywhere else (outside of India or similar) on how they do. This place was pretty good in general but you really shouldn’t blend the spinach in a chicken sag to make the whole sauce bright green! We dipped into a local food shop right by the hotel afterwards and found that it sold all sorts of global foods. I don’t know why it’s so exciting to see highland shortbread or Patak’s curry paste when we’re so far from home, but it was nice to see. It may also have involved buying some dairy milk ahead of the next busy day!