The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

Arigato Kyoto

on July 3, 2014

Kyoto is located in the south of Japan, about two and a half hours from Tokyo station on the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, through towns scattered amongst paddy fields and passing factories with recognisable brand names. It’s been a long while since I travelled by train and I think it can be a more relaxing, more interesting way to get places (providing you get a seat).

#1 being a longstanding fan of all forms of transport was hugely excited at travelling on the Shinkansen. As was Husband. Once we got ourselves and two large suitcases, hand luggage case, rucksacks, buggy and extra bag of stuff onto the platform was I then able to get excited too. The front of a Shinkansen train looks like a slightly squashed goose head.

Once inside though, oh my word. More leg room than the one and only time I’ve flown Business Class on an A380. For a fraction of the price too. Reclining seats that aren’t sticky, window shutters. This is nothing like being crammed into the London King’s Cross to Newcastle GNER. And if like me, you are rendered immobile on most forms of transport through motion sickness then you’ll be pleased to know that the train seats in Japan can be flipped around so that you’re always facing the direction of travel.

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Even better for #1, was the fact we stayed at the Hotel Granvia at Kyoto station overlooking the Shinkansen and local train platforms. This may not sound like a great view to you but for a 1, 3 and 5 year old, it provided great entertainment for pointing out all the trains arriving and departing the station. It’s a lot and all needed to be acknowledged. Thankfully our hotel room was BIG!

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Prior to arriving in Kyoto, I had heard it was full of the old charm of Japan with magnificent temples and geishas still practising an ancient art in such modern times. But when you arrive at Kyoto station this is not quite apparent as the station itself is a structure of modern interest. On one side you see steps that seem to climb up into infinity. We always had to catch the lift though.

We spent six days in Kyoto because as tourists you can buy a special price Japan Rail travel pass (before you get to Japan) that you can use for unlimited journeys in a seven day period. (Passes with longer durations are also available) So although we could have easily occupied all our time in Kyoto, to make better use of the JR pass we also took day trips to Osaka and Nara but those I’ll leave for another post.

I suppose what truly lures you to revisit a place you’ve already been to is the way it captures your heart and leaves you feeling like you really want to get to know this place better. Like that person you meet and get on really well with and you look forward to seeing again.

Kyoto has many, many hidden treasures of peace, beauty, opulence and magnificent architecture. On our first day we took the train out to Saga-Arashiyama station, from the station it was a short walk to the start of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Before we headed into the Bamboo Grove we had a really yum lunch at a beancurd in a pot place that also had an ice cream and mochi shop right beside it.

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It’s impossible to show you in a photograph the exceptional beauty of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I’m a big fan of trees as it is and entering this magical display of greenery was simply quite breathtaking. Being surrounded by all this lush greenery seemed to envelope us all in a world of calm. Green is a soothing colour after all. Unlike big bushy tree forests which obscures the light from above, the elegantly tall and slender bamboo trees let in light all around you.

There are recommended walks you can do that take you all the way up a hill which I’m sure would have provided amazing views but with #1, 2 and 3 we did half a route and took in the Tenryu-ji temple, past the Okochi-sanso Villa and Jojakka-ji temple before heading back to where we started for the ice cream we promised #1, 2 and 3. Perhaps Tenryu-ji gets the most visitors with it being the first temple you pass on the route and there are so many temples scattered around that you simple can’t visit them all at one time.

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One temple that you definitely can’t miss going to see is the Kiyomizu-dera. It’s described as the spiritual heart of Kyoto set atop a hill that overlooks all of Kyoto and built around a holy spring. We caught the bus from Kyoto station directly to the base of the hill but if you catch a taxi you can save yourself part of the walk up the hill. This is where #1 really showed us the difference going on holiday with a five year old makes. He being the oldest, was asked to walk the same number of steps as us. #2 mostly occupied the buggy and #3 the baby carrier, I slept well every night from the lugging around of small child I can tell you.

But up this stretch of hill you see other tourists getting into the spirit of their stay and wandering around the streets of compact houses in brightly coloured kimonos and men in traditional dress too. Half way to the temple, lining both sides of the street are shops selling their wares of special Kyoto sweet treats, cucumber on sticks, ice cream, delicate fans and bold, eye catching souvenirs.

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It’s heaving with visitors travelling to and from the temple until you reach some stone steps that open up to the entrance gateway and you stand and marvel at the ancient architecture. But time and again, you can be fooled into thinking this first appearance is the extent of what you’ve come to see. It’s just the beginning as you enter through the gates and walk further in to find the main attraction inside. Kiyomizu-dera appears to have been built into the hill.

This temple is also famous for those looking for luck in love too. If you successfully walk with your eyes closed from one stone to another then you will soon find an honest and true love. If you don’t then you won’t but I’m not sure how long you won’t for. I don’t think you’re forever going to be on your own though. There’s also a secret passage you can walk through that is meant to resemble walking into the womb of Bodhisattva and symbolise a spiritual rebirth but we didn’t do that.

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By the time we made our way around the grounds and washed our hands in the holy spring, it was getting on for tea time and as Kiyomizu-dera is a short bus ride to the Gion district, we headed over to take a look. As it wasn’t yet 6pm, not much was happening in the area but it was interesting all the same to wander through the streets of small buildings with their bamboo awnings and easily imagine a time from years past with it thriving with tradition. It’s a shame we didn’t see Gion in all it’s night time glory and catch a glimpse of the fascinating world of Geishas.

It’s quite amazing that a few streets away from Gion by Pontocho resides a whole host of modern bars and restaurants and further along to a densely packed area of shops and department stores.

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On our last full day in Kyoto, it was a choice of either the Imperial Palace or the famous ‘Golden Pavillion’, Kinkaku-ji. You could definitely do both in one day as both are quite near to each other. But again with #1, 2 and 3, we were just a bit restricted to make a full day of it as the tours around the Imperial Palace are at 10am and 2pm. We weren’t able to book our visit on line and it said it was fully booked anyway but I read in the guide book that you can go to the Imperial Household Agency at least half an hour before the tour starts to register. So we thought we may as well try our chances and it actually paid off.

I can’t really tell you much about what I learnt on the tour except that in the wintertime with no heating the women would have to wear 12 layers of clothing to keep warm. And that every time the Imperial Palace was burnt down then they would just rebuild it. And that there’s a special gate that only the Emperor and quite possibly the Empress, can use. It was stunning though, the buildings and the grounds that we passed. The gardens they had were just amazing and so pretty. Not many places to lounge around and the pond definitely wasn’t one for swimming in.

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One final temple we went to see that was a short walk from our hotel was the Higashi Hongan-ji. The main Founder’s Hall was huge which only tempted 1, 2 and 3 to run circles within it, which of course is not appropriate behaviour within a Buddhist temple. The adjacent Amida-do Hall was under preservation so we couldn’t see everything in all it’s glory and I had read that within this temple you can find the longest coil of rope of human hair on display. It was donated by women in the 1880s to the wood logs needed to rebuild the destroyed building. Imagine that. The other thing I was really impressed with were the facilities. Multi function room encompassing disabled toilets, sick bay and baby change plus a separate Nursing Room. In a temple hundreds of years old! You may wonder why I keep marvelling at such things but having worked for a disability charity and being a parent, these things matter and make you feel welcome.

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So that was Kyoto for us. I love Kyoto. Reading about these amazing sights in a guide book just didn’t prepare me for how exceptional the real thing would be. I would love to go back again on another visit but then again, I’ve heard that Hokkaido is pretty amazing too.

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