The bullet train stops in Kyoto after 30 minutes journey from Nagoya and all the passengers are dissembarking in rush from the early morning ride, walking robotic through the exits.
*The ticket can be bought from Nagoya station, the price is around 5000- 6000 yeni (aprox 50 Us dollar) if you wish to book a seat . I would recommend you to save some money as the train offers designated compartments where most likely you will find an empty seat. The speed train covers the 130 km between Nagoya and Kyoto in less than 30 minutes time in which you can stare at the beautiful landscape from your seat.
On the other side, me and my colleague Alex we look disoriented, trying unsuccessfully to find an English map in the multitude of Japanese brochures available in the Shinkansen station.
We decide to approach one of the cashiers from the JR ticket counter being well aware that English is not a popular language among Japanese. Surprisingly the young man behind the desk displays not only a polite attitude but also patience in dealing with a situation which is not listed in his job description, providing us a map and marking the “must see” touristic objectives of the city.
Kyoto, the thousand year capital
Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan for over a millennia, a city with a great history which survived destruction, samurai battles and was one step away of being eraised from the map by the US atomic bomb. Not surprisngly, the man who saved the ancient capital in the last moment, directing the bomb towards Nagasaki was the US secretary for war, Henry Stimson deeply in love with the beautiful Kyoto after spending his honymoon in there.
Everytime Kyoto reborned more beautiful, more magical, preserving its countless temples, gardens and shrines until today but most important, Kyoto never lost its cultural value.
Attracted by the mystically stories of elegant Geishas, powerful Samurais and modern japanese ettiquette I marked Japan as one of my dream destination and I was not dissapointed at all.
Arashiyama, the bamboo grove
We reached Arashiyama train station early in the morning (7 am) and an unexpected travel companion involuntary reminds us that Kyoto is the land where the tradition lives in perfect harmony with the modern. Wearing a beautiful Yukata (national japanese garment, similar with the Kimono but more casual, made out of cotton and wore during summer festivals), the young single lady (judging by the long large sleeves of the dress) is heading towards the ticket machine, removing from her small bamboo purse the train pass which allows her exit.
We follow into her footsteps, attracted like a magnet by the elegant moves of her dress and the rythm dictated by her zori (traditional footwear with tongs wore with the kimono and made out of wood, probably the first flip flops ever designed).
Outside, the crowded city is magically replaced by a small mountainous town with narrow streets and modest people, greeting the unfamiliar faces with a bow of the head or the well known Konnichiwa (Good day).
The bow is very important in the japanese culture and it is used to show appreciation, respect and even apology by bending at the wist. Depending of the bow (15, 30 or 45 degree) the japanese can express more deeply their feelings towards the interlocutor and displays modesty when greeting someone with a higher social status.
Trying to save some time, we stop a local lady asking for directions towards the bamboo grove. Instead of giving us the answer, she start walking in the opposite side of the road and using her body language makes us understand immediately that we must follow her.
Here it is…just in front of us…with an open palm gesture the girl is indicating the entrance of the bamboo grove.
Passing through the dark tunnel of tall bamboo trees I am pulled into another world, a fairy tale which opens its secrets for me. A couple of foreigners occupying the main alley are taking hundred pictures in different situations and the flash of their photo camera brings me back to present in a world led by technology and noise.
We are waiting for them to finish their photoshoot, trying to put in practice the art of patience learned from the japanese. In order to polish my new aptitude, earlier in the morning I stalked some stones in a small garden that we found next by the road. Known as Cairns, the art of balancing stones has many meanings and it was used mainly for the grave yards but it can also offer a beautiful and relaxing atmosphere to the gardens.
The temples in Arasiyama are currently closed and we decide to leave the bamboo grove behind heading to our new destination on the touristic map of Kyoto. “Forced” by the beautiful surroundings, we make one more pleasant stop at the “Romantic train” station which advertise to offer an unforgettable journey through Paradise.
The Sagano scenic railway runs along the Hozugawa river at relatively low speed, offering the guests an amazing experience covering 7 km of forests and rivers in about 20 minutes time. Beside that, my outfit is matching perfectly the old fashioned train which makes me laugh loud.
Tipping in Japan
We stoped at Nijo station decided to have some food before we continue our visit. Alex brought snacks with him but I would really appreciate a proper breakfast accompanied by the famous Matcha latte.
We are about to leave the caffetteria when I notice the cashier running towards us, appologizing and bowing repetevely. I look surprised at her without understanding what is happening while she is handing me few coins that I left on the table.
*Tipping in Japan is not accepted and it might be consider a little bit insulting. The price is fix and the service is included in your check. Instead, the regular tips can be easly replaced with a bow of gratitude…
Not far from the station is Nijo castel which was built in 1603 as residence for the first shogun of Edo period. It consists of multiple separate buildings that are connected through corridors fited with nightingale floors designed to make a chirping sound when are walked upon, as a security measure against intruders. Alex seems to be the noisiest trespasser as the floor is moaning under his heavy steps, intending to annoy the guardian who forbidded us to take pictures inside the castel.
*You can reach the palace by walking (if you are not in rush) or you can choose a faster and more comfortable way of transportation: taxi. The price for taxi in Japan is quite high, and don’t expect to pay less than 500-700 yeni for this short ride. Inside the castle, photography are strictly prohibited .
The castel’s rooms are almost empty, the only piece of art covering the walls are the replica of high value paintings carefully preserved away from the visitors view. Few shoguns (statues) are performing a sacred ritual inside of the Great hall while outside the tourists are contemplating the extended green gardens.
Fushimi Inari, the temple dedicated to the God of rice
It’s afternoon and our short visit is approaching to the end. We are determined not to leave the beautiful Kyoto without visiting one of the most popular Shinto shrine (temple), Fushimi Inari.
*The famous temple is just outside the Inari train station, very easy to access and has no fee for the entrance.
Known among the tourists for its thousands torii, the gates are beautifully inscribed with the name of their donators, being often mistaken as sacred mantras. But eighter understanding or not the meaning of the insciption, every visitor agrees that the simetry and color of the two paralle gates named Senbon torii (thoushand of torii gates) are truly mesmerizing.
Numerous Japanese wearing traditional colorful clothes are visiting the Inari temple, raising prayers of prosperity to God of rice or making vows of eternal love offering in exchange rice, sake or fried tofu.
*To not confuse the young ladies wearing Kimonos with the fascinating Geishas as it might be considered rude and bad intended. Geishas are in fact skilled performers, paied to entertain men and women on both sides, very rare offering sexual favors. In fact, becoming a Geisha is not an easy job, it requires talent, dedication and an intensive training of five years, time in which the future Geishas are not allowed to marry or enter in a romantic relationship. They can be found in Gion district, usually in the late evenings, on their way to meet a client. If you are interested in a private, memorable encounter with a Geisha be advised that the price are quite high (at least 1000 $).
Back to the temple, this is surrounded by few statues of “holly” foxes, regarded as the messengers of the God and holding the key of the rice granary in their mouth or other objects which is believed to have sacred powers.
Close to the entrance, the believers are ringing the holly bells of the shrine and trow money in the offertory box for the less fortunate people. For foreigners is just another excentric tradition but are still trying their luck eighter out of curiosity or attempting to capture an inedite picture.
*After the Inari temple we were planning to visit Nara deer park but unsuccessfully due to the limited time for our departure. Nara station is 20-30 minutes away from Kyoto main station and it hosts a famous park where gentle deers can be fed and carred for. A must see for the next visit in Kyoto. For more info check the link bellow.
Arigato gozaimasu Kyoto