Kyoto gets my vote(o)… Can I get away with that?

Apologies firstly for the groan-worthy title. Mad compulsion to make it rhyme. Down to lack of sleep/over-stimulation from the past few days no doubt. Let’s hope the rest of the post makes up for this terrible start I seem to be making. Bear with me people, bear with me!

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KYOTO. WHERE TO BEGIN.

I have spent the best part of the past 12 hours drifting in and out of fitful sleep on my Tokyo-bound night bus, my semi-conscious mind whirring and clanging with ideas of how on earth to condense my Kyoto expedition into a single post. As I flick frantically through the album of newly-made memories, attempting to arrange them into some kind of comprehensible order, my mind’s eye is buffeted with images of cobbled alleyways adorned with lanterns, flaming autumn foliage cascading over temple walls or clambering down hillsides, kimono-clad ladies blushing behind hand-painted fans, endless market stalls offering sweet delights… Japan’s second city is a singularly bonkers compilation of history, natural beauty and hedonism.

To visit Kyoto is to wake up every morning and ask yourself, “Hmm, which stunning world heritage site do I fancy seeing today?” I cannot stress enough how bewildering an amount there is to see within the city boundaries, all sites made accessible by myriad transport options, frequent information boards and rest stops providing free green/oolong tea. Tough gig or what.

 It all started on Thursday. At risk of becoming paralysed by choice, I hopped off my night bus from Tokyo, downed a coffee at the station and headed straight onto another bus to Daigoji in the south of the city. I alighted outside the Shingon temple at about 7am, the air still yet invigorating and the morning sunlight causing everything it touched to twinkle with promise and possibility. Realising smugly that I had the place almost entirely to myself, I proceeded into the temple complex and feasted my eyes on towering pagodas, shrines and tea houses, their bold colours and immaculate designs set off by the flaming foliage and reflected in a motionless lake below. Heart-stoppingly tranquil and beautiful. I think if I believed in heaven, at least a corner of it would look like Daigoji, alight with autumn colours on a crisp November morning.

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Daigoji. Stole my heart.

After heading back northwards and paying a visit to Ginkakuji, a sublime 500-year-old silver pavilion out to the east, I wandered down the leaf-strewn Philosopher’s Walk, so-named due to the meditation spot it afforded Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro in the 19th Century. I very much understand what he liked so much about the area, which has a wonderful stillness about it despite the tourist hubbub within the surrounding temples. I ended up at Nanzenji, where I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon a world food fair in full swing (one of the many things I love about Japan is its perpetual food festivals – I find one almost everywhere I go!) I was tucking into a honkingly hot thai curry when an American voice behind me asked if the seat next to me was taken. I subsequently found out that said voice belonged to Josh, an aikido instructor originally from Iowa whom, on hearing about my fascination with the discipline, invited me to his dojo to learn the ropes the following morning! After weeks of reading and wondering about this lesser-known martial art, I could not believe my luck. How’s THAT for providential??!

Friday. The day began down at the dojo, where I was left in the capable hands of Peter, an affable Dane who walked me through the basics of stance, footwork and sword grip, acting as my opponent so that I could try out the moves. I found my yoga practice gave me a good basis for introducing my body to these new concepts – all hugely about core balance, strength derived from control and poise rather than force… which worked out just marvellously for me as Danish Peter was a strapping bloke of at least 6″4 and I am… not.

The session was broken up by sporadic movement demonstrations from Alex-sensei, all met with a resounding “OSU!” from the class. The explanations in Japanese were slightly opaque to me, but I was able to follow the general ideas, and Peter kindly elucidated when I was unsure. After thanking the sensei, Josh and Peter, I emerged feeling slightly achy but strong and strangely grounded, and with a burning desire for more knowledge and practice. Not sure where this is going to fit into my schedule back here in Tokyo… TBC. Gambarimasu! (“I’ll get there!”)

The rest of the day was spent with fellow teacher Luke in Nara, Japan’s ancient capital, which lies about an hour to the south of Kyoto. The city is most famous for its colossal Todaiji temple, which is about 1300 years old and the central hall of which is the world’s largest wooden building. The site is also home to a host of rather over-friendly deer, who are considered to be messengers from the gods in Shinto tradition and therefore sacred… the shy, skittish variety residing in the woodland of England they are most certainly not – I foolishly bit into an apple as we walked through the park and was subsequently accosted by several peckish four-legged friends. Cheeky sods.

We finished the day in Gion district, parking up for whisky and sake (not at the same time) in a tiny low-ceiling-ed bar which was essentially the proprietress’ living room, striking up booze-infused broken conversation with a few Japanese regulars and later a pleasant Australian couple… as per, two was my limit and I tottered home wrapped in an exhausted, tipsy daze.

Saturday. Alaina joined me fresh off the night bus (hoorah!) and we wasted no time in busting out to Fushimi Inari, where we caught up on the week’s happenings while strolling along walkways flanked by countless striking red and black torii gates, each of which has been donated as an offering to Inari, the goddess of rice, over many years. The weekend had brought with it a tidal wave of tourists, so we were relieved to find a few adjacent paths that drew us away from the crowds… I reckon the place could win an entry in the Guinness book of records for most selfies being taken simultaneously, seriously. MENTAL. A fab walk nonetheless.

Next on the agenda was Kiyomizu-dera, a photo of which I will pop in instead of going into a ton of detail… to be honest, the crowds had reached such a density by the time we arrived here that I was quite willing to cut and run before too long! Set into the mountainside with excellent views over the city, however, the spot is a cracking one. Plus I drank some water from a waterfall which I later found out is supposed to bring me luck in love. HAHAHA.

We pressed on and spent the best part of the afternoon wandering through the streets of Gion, where we massively messed up our taste-buds with samplings of yatsuhashi (a typical Kyoto treat made of rice flour and various gooey fillings)  shogoin (a curved cinnamon biscuit with different flavoured coatings), pickled veg of every description and yuba (soya milk skin in a kind of broth – tastes waaay nicer than it sounds). As the sun set on another day of mental marauding, we took a chance on a budget restaurant offering traditional Okinawan cuisine and found ourselves squeezed into a dingy but characterful little room, striking up conversation with a Polish photographer who showed us her recent snaps of a  Japanese model with a penchant for crow taxidermy. Def couldn’t have made that one up.

Sunday. Our final day in Kyoto got off to a shining start down at Kinkakuji; the views of the golden pavilion, which sits on a gorgeous lake, were incredible. Bloody hell I really am running out of superlatives with which to do all these places justice – apologies for naff descriptions at this point! Photos will fill the gaps appearing in my vocabulary, I hope… The crowds were quite overwhelming though, so I was unable to really drink the place in as I had been able to do back in Daigoji when I arrived… no way around that though unfortunately! We cracked on to the bamboo forest at Arashiyama, where we enjoyed an enchanting stroll through the towering giant shoots, bathed in a muted, green-y darkness which I know would have been considerably eerier but for the amount of people wandering through alongside us. The temperature really fell that morning too, and the leafless hush of some areas of the forest recalled winter much more than the autumn increasingly in evidence in other parts of the city. What a place – striking in such a different way.

I left Kyoto later that evening following a final meal scraped together at the hostel and a mooch about Kyoto’s cavernous station building (which in itself is quite a spectacle). That more or less brings us to my current situation back in my matchbox apartment in Koshigaya, weirdly less sleepy than I should be and beginning to mentally cobble together the week ahead…

I leave you with more photos of the sensational experience that Kyoto was kind enough to bestow on me, as well as a new dictionary entry developed together with Luke and Alaina:

Shrine. Verb. To visit an unprecedented quantity of holy sites within a given time period. Irreg: I shrone; I have shrone.

See also out-shrine, over-shrine, to be shrone out.

… And perhaps we were a bit shrone out by the end, to tell the truth! Once the beauty and glory of these incredible landmarks have becoming normalised by your brain and you catch yourself saying things like “Let’s not bother with that one, I mean there are are a few more temples and stuff round there, but whatevs…”, you know it’s wise to take a break and investigate other things… Good job Kyoto is oh so much more than a collection of old buildings. It is a meeting place for people on countless different journeys, from touristic breaks to martial art callings. I like to think I got a bit of all sides 😉

Love, luck, light – allll the good stuff – being sent your way as ever!

Trina x x x x x

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