Sofies on tour: Last day in Kyoto

It was our last full day in Kyoto, so we started off by writing a wish list of all the things that we still wanted to do. The aim was to try and achieve as many as possible before we left for Tokyo. We knew it would probably mean yet another long day, but given the following day was going to be mostly filled with sitting at stations or on trains we knew that we had plenty of recovery time up our sleeves.

Unfortunately Mario had come down with the early symptoms of a cold and had an extremely sore throat. Japan is fairly well known for their cultural protocol to wear masks, meaning that if you’re not well that you wear a face mask to prevent the spread of germs. Thus, first stop was to the local Family Mart to pick up a bag of them. He was worried about what people would think (especially since it’s not something that’s done in Australia, and probably should be) but all I could think was “photo opportunity”. I started teasing him and making him crack up, which resulted in the below photo. In all, no one seemed to even notice or treat him any differently! Except me of course, I stirred him up when I took this photo so he’s cracking up laughing:

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Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine

As we were up early, we decided to head over to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine straight away. It had no opening/closing hours (it’s 24/7), so we figured why not get an early start while we could. We checked the directions on how to get there and found we could jump on the JR trains (meaning that our Japan Rail passes would cover it and we didn’t have to pay any extra for the train) and we would get off at the station directly in front of it – perfect!

When we got there, we weren’t surprised to find a fair few other people had arrived early as well. We were starting to get used to the fact that in Japan you are never alone, and you’re forever dodging people on the street. It’s definitely not like the Sunshine Coast! We took the mandatory photos of the entry of the shrine and started on our way in. This shrine was one of the places that I had read about when we first started planning a trip to Japan – it’s one of the most popular places people report as a “must do” in Kyoto. In comparison, Mario wasn’t overly excited by the thought of “another shrine” (he hadn’t seen pictures or read about it so didn’t understand the fuss) but once we arrived he became completely enamoured with the place.

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Behind the gate were the main buildings, and to the side a small “cleansing” area (we later saw these at other shrines too). I decided to give the ritual a go, and followed the instructions displayed above the bamboo pipes. First you had to grab the dipper, scoop up some water and pour a bit on your left hand (cleaning it), then transfer the dipper and do the same to your right hand. You then pour water into your left hand again, and suck the water into your mouth (you don’t drink from the dipper), swish it around and spit it out. The water was super cold but it was really fun to give it a go!

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After I was “cleansed” we wandered in and had a look around at the buildings before starting off on the main attraction – the Tori gate trail. It’s a path that leads up into the mountains lined by thousands of Tori Gates (the orange things in the photo below). These gates have been paid for by individuals and businesses, and start from 40,000 yen. The prices can go up to the vicinity of a million yen for a gate (roughly just over $12,200 with the current exchange rate). The quality ranged for all of the gates – some were brand new, some were in the process of getting put in that day, and some were badly deteriorated and needed some TLC. They were all absolutely incredible though, and we couldn’t stop taking photos.

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We had read that after about 30 – 40mins of hiking you hit the cross roads, where you get a beautiful view overlooking Kyoto. From there, the frequency of the Tori gates reduces and so most tourists don’t bother to go on any further. We looked at the map and despite the fact that we were a little breathless and I was conscious of aggravating my hip, we decided to head up for the next one. When we reached that only a few minutes later, we continued to the next one. And so on, and so on, until before we knew it we’d reached the top!

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I was incredibly glad that we had packed the gloves I’d bought earlier in the week, because on the trail it was so cold – my hands had gone numb. However the higher we went the warmer it got, and eventually we even got a bit of sunshine! By this stage we had both taken easily 40+ photos, and so we challenged ourselves to put our cameras away and just enjoy the walk. I’m really glad we did – it was everything that we enjoy doing together: hiking together in the outdoors, being active and having a chat. After all, we are on our honeymoon right? It was such a beautiful walk, and that moment was easily one of my favourite memories from the whole trip. Along the way we saw different smaller shrines and gates, little restaurants and tourist shops, and lots of different statues.

As we headed downhill we had the option of sticking to the main path or taking a detour. On the map it showed on the detour was a small waterfall so we figured we’d take that route. The waterfall appeared to just be part of another smaller shrine on the hill so we continued down and before we knew it we had actually come across a small town! In the town was a small Chinese zodiac garden with different statues representing the different animals. We’re both the year of the rat, so after a bit of hunting I was able to locate him tucked into a corner with some pink ribbon around his neck.

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We continued on, and soon entered some more markets which I dubbed “stick alley”, everything was on a stick! We’ve really embraced the idea of “try all the foods you can when travelling” so we tried some miso rice pops (it’s rice on a paddle pop stick like an ice-cream, but it’s a savoury treat) and a pork belly skewer. They were also making some octopus balls, so we watched that process and Mario bought some more of those. I tried a mouthful but it was way too strong with the seafood taste for me, so the rest of it was his. Instead I helped myself to a coffee from a vending machine, and I was happy.

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We reached the front of the shrine, and were stunned by how busy it had become. Clearly we’d timed it well, because by mid-morning it was absolutely bonkers. We were grateful that we’d been able to get there early and enjoy a lot of the higher trails while it was quiet, so for anyone looking to visit there during a trip to Japan, my hot tip is to get there nice and early!

Kinkakuji (the Golden Temple)

Next up on the to do list was another temple, another quite popular one. We jumped on the train outside of the shrine and made our way across town, amazingly during peak traffic period because it was shoulder-to-shoulder inside. Once we arrived, I bought into the tourist hype and we purchased some ice cream from a stall out the front. Mario had gone for the plain chocolate, but mine was decorated with golden flakes to celebrate the golden temple. Essentially it was just a plain vanilla ice cream, apart from the visuals it certainly wasn’t anything different. I wouldn’t recommend anyone spends their money on that in the future – it was a novelty and a bit of a waste of money.

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Inside the grounds was absolutely beautiful. The trees were all changing colour, and the floor of the gardens was covered in green moss. It was so unlike anything from home, and I wandered around in awe.

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The temple itself is beautiful, and overlooks a nice pond. The temple has a bit of a tormented history from what I had read – it had burned down once during a war, and then again when one of the monks had set it on fire (I think he tried to commit suicide soon after). So even though the current building isn’t the original from centuries past, it’s still built to reflect the styles from different eras and is stunning to look at. Each floor reflects a different era.

The main viewpoint is from across the pond where you have to wait patiently for people to take their photos and move so that you get your turn; don’t expect to be able to spend a long time here just looking around. After that the path winds around behind the building so that you can see it close up, before continuing through the gardens. We did have to pay to visit this temple (Fushimi Inari-taisha was free), but I enjoyed the walk and would rate it to anyone thinking of taking a look. The season with all the trees changing their colours was just beautiful, and after some seriously cold days earlier in the week the sun was a welcome change.

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Compared to the shrine earlier, this one had a lot less people so it was much easier to wander around. Apart from the main view point, you can walk through easily without having to dodge people, so it means you can take your time. To my excitement it was also the first time I had spotted a vending machine for something other than drinks; there was noodles and ice cream!

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By this time I was starting to get quite hungry, as we hadn’t had any proper breakfast. The only thing I had consumed to this point was an ice cream and a couple of bites of Mario’s stick purchases, definitely not anything substantial!. We wandered the street heading towards the bus stop for our next destination, with the plan that we would find something to eat along the way. Unfortunately for me, everything we came across was largely seafood based and so my choices were limited.

Then we came across McDonald’s.

McDonald’s and knives

Now I know that travelling overseas I probably shouldn’t be having fast food, and especially McDonald’s at that. Yet I get quite a kick out of seeing their menu, and it’s always interesting to see if the tastes are similar, so I decided to have lunch from there. Go ahead and judge me, I don’t mind 🙂 I ended up having a pork fillet with cheese burger meal (so that we could share the fries and drink), and honestly it turned out to be crispier than anything I’d ever had in Australia (not that I eat it much).

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I also award McDonald’s with the best toilet award. It had the seat warmer, the bidet facilities, but most importantly, the sound that plays to cover the sound of your peeing! I’m known for my toilet phobia back home, where I’m not comfortable using public toilets because people can hear (not that I make any strange sounds, the phobia is just something that I can’t explain). I think the sound idea is genius, and so of course I tested it out. It was hilarious, and you’re certainly not fooling anyone by using it, but it definitely made me feel less self conscious!

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Following lunch, we headed out to the bus station which was conveniently outside. I was really impressed with their bus timetable system. It was a display in a glass unit, and when the bus was a station away it would put in a little green disc against that route in the second column. When it was on its way to the current station, the disc would change to a yellow disc in the first area. I didn’t see what the third column was for, and some of them had two smaller ones next to the number that I didn’t also see used. I guess perhaps if one of them had broken down perhaps, or wasn’t coming they could flag that? Either way it was still impressive to me. On the Sunshine Coast we’re lucky if the bus shows up at all, let alone get valid information on how far away it is!

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Despite all of the information at hand, we still managed to jump on the wrong bus! In our defence the bus didn’t have the information written in English on it, and it had arrived at the exact moment our bus was scheduled to arrive. Our actual bus mustn’t have been too far behind. Luckily the wrong one still took us on the same route for the majority of the way, and when it started to turn down a different street we got off at the next stop. It had dropped us directly at the entrance to a locals market, so we wandered the street taking a look. When we emerged from the other end, we were thrilled to discover it had lead us directly to where we had wanted to go – yet another knife store for Mario!

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This store we had found online before leaving for Japan. It was in Shigeharu, and can be dated back to the Kamakura period (1190-1329) – very impressive! They don’t have a website and they don’t advertise so it’s not a high tourist destination. The site we had found it on was specifically an article discussing where to buy real knives in Kyoto. The owners only spoke enough English to explain they don’t speak English; it was a very detailed conversation:

Mario: English?

Owner: No *shakes head*

From there, it was all hand signals and single words to figure out which knife he wanted. I was madly chatting back to Mario’s sister back in Australia, who had been tossing up whether she wanted us to pick up a knife for her. In the end she realised that she won’t be travelling over to Tokyo herself any time soon so we picked up one of the Sashimi knives for her as well (Tokyo remains on the bucket list for her though). Mario picked out two, then they gestured for us to write down the names so they could engrave them into the knife. We wrote them in English, which stumped the owner a little. Thinking quickly, I used the Google Translate app on my phone to change the words into the Japanese symbols. The owner read my phone, and promptly said both names aloud perfectly for confirmation! We then used the app a bit further to tell him that we had travelled from Australia, had heard about his store and was very excited to have found it. He stepped back and seemed to actually blush, smiled so widely and bowed saying something in Japanese which unfortunately we had no idea what it was. It’s times like this that you really have to appreciate technology and its ability to bridge the gap between cultures.

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With knives in hand, we looked around to see what else we could do on this side of town. It turned out there was a castle in the vicinity, so we decided to take a walk over for a look.

Nijo Castle

Up until this point, all the shrines and temples that we had visited we had only been able to walk around the outside, or peek through a window to the inside. Nijo Castle was the first one that we were able to actually walk around the inside and get a feel for the true history and culture. I can’t recommend this place enough, it was beautiful and informative, and I really enjoyed it!

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Unfortunately photos aren’t allowed on the inside of the buildings, but essentially it was a series of rooms recreated to look how they would have at the time. Each room had beautiful murals on the wall with deeper meanings, some reflecting strength, some to encourage peace and calmness. The murals were recreations as the originals are in the museum but they were still incredibly beautiful. The floors of the rooms still had traditional tatami mat floors, and the main walkways were out of wood. What I found most impressive was the wooden floors that we walked on; as you took a step it would let out a melodic squeak noise from the chains underneath. It was designed as a defence mechanism, so that any intruders walking around would make sounds to alert the guards. With the number of people walking around it had a quite unique sound to it (not grating on the ears at all).

Each room had a series of signs with various different languages on there so you could learn about the history, and I really enjoyed walking from room to room reading about the different purposes. There were sitting rooms, sleeping quarters etc. There was also an audio tour unit that you could hire, but given the amount of information freely available I didn’t worry about it. I do wish they went into more detail on the role of a Shogun, who lived in the castle at the time. I researched later and found that the Shogun was the head of the military, which explained why there were some incredibly important historical meetings that had taken place in that very castle. The place itself is one of the Unesco World Heritage sites.

We also took a walk around the extensive grounds and around the moat. It was the first place that we had been that really had a lot of stones around as part of the features of the garden, and that combined with the red trees really made it hit home that we were exploring a foreign country. During cherry blossom season the gardens are meant to be stunning, but I think regardless of the time of year people visiting Kyoto should make the effort to see it.

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Dinner and home

With our wish list complete, it was time to head home. We looked at the trains and bus schedule, and then a fateful decision was made. Being a newlywed, I think it’s in my rule book that I am now allowed to blame all bad decisions on my husband. In all honesty I don’t recall who made it, but at some point the following words were uttered:

Let’s just walk home, it’s only 2.5km.

It was the longest walk of my life, and for Mario it was even worse. He had been carrying the backpack the majority of the day; it was heavy, and a complete dead weight. I forced him to let me carry it for some of the way and tried to pretend that it didn’t hurt, but I swear I could feel my spine compressing. I felt so bad that he’d carried it for so long, but he’d never said a word so I hadn’t realised just how heavy it was!

Walking home, I swear that 2.5km in Kyoto is not the same as walking 2.5km at home. On the Sunshine Coast it’s not busy and we have a straight run on a footpath. In Kyoto you’re stopping for lights, dodging people and sometimes having to go up stairs to walk the pedestrian overpass on the main roads. 2.5km feels like a marathon. By the end of the day we had clocked up another 30,000 steps and my feet were feeling every single one of them.

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We finally got home, dumped the bag and headed up to Kyoto Tower to look at the view and dine at the restaurant.

In a nutshell: it’s pretty to look out, and the restaurant was OK. It was roughly $45 aud each for a buffet, and if you were a seafood eater you would get a lot more out of it than I did (you’re given a lobster entree for example). The main thing that stood out for me was the salad – after eating tons of ramen and traditional Japanese food, having a quinoa salad was just divine. The restaurant had a canadian theme going at the time so they had things on offer like poutine and various themed desserts and cocktails. I ended up just having a wine – I’d asked for white, got a cold red so go figure but it was still nice’ish. The garlic and herb beef they served up was quite nice though. I think had we been not so utterly exhausted it would have been a different experience, but as it was we were yawning and our conversation lacked – we were sleeping standing up. I didn’t even think to take any pictures, we simply ate and got out of there.

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We finally packed up, headed home and I had the most amazing hot bath while reading a book – the perfect way to end a long and exhausting day. The following day we would be travelling to Tokyo to begin the second half of the honeymoon. In all, we agreed that we were definitely in love with Kyoto, and it had been a brilliant start to our honeymoon.