What happened?! Yesterday was all sunny and warm and wonderful and today was all gray and rainy and cold and windy and marathonian (more on that in a bit). Can we go back?
I had a moment of choice paralysis this morning, when I sat down to draft my itinerary for the day and saw all these wonderful sights asking to be explored, spread out all over the city, and virtually no idea of how to better transport myself from one place to another. In the end, though, I thought it better to start from the top and go to Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion. I got myself a One Day Bus/Subway Pass as soon as I left the hotel. I’m sure it saves you money, but really what I wanted was to spare myself having to fish for exact change every time I took a bus. The JR Pass isn’t super useful in Kyoto!
So I got to Kinkakuji, eventually, and it was gorgeous. My guidebook said you have to visit really early on a weekday to avoid the constant crowd, but this early in the season there were actually very few people there (it was ten or eleven on a Sunday morning). At this point the weather was overcast, a bit chilly, and it rained every once in a while.
Kinkakuji, as many other historical buildings in Japan, is in fact a reconstruction; the original was destroyed, not by a tsunami or an earthquake, for once, but by arson. It is a beautiful, three-storey, gold-coated pavilion surrounded by a carefully landscaped garden. You see the structure as soon as you walk in, and then walking around the garden is also beautiful.
I could tell it must get SUPER busy in high season, though, as they make the public follow a linear route all through the precinct, instead of letting us roam freely as in the other temples. Touristy or not, however, I have noticed a sharp decrease in the amount of available English information when compared to Tokyo. There are many more tourist hotspots here that are exclusively in Japanese, which I find surprising.
By the time I left, it was beginning to rain properly, there was a freezing wind blowing, and also, the Kyoto Marathon was passing through that street, so all in all it was perhaps not the ideal day for sightseeing. My initial idea was to take the chance to go to Ryoenji, a temple famous for its rock garden that is just one bus stop away from Kinkakuji, but the street was blocked because of the marathon, no buses were coming, and I wasn’t about to risk pneumonia by walking.
I ended up going to the Kitano Tenmangu shrine, because it was the one name I recognised on the list of stops of the one bus I managed to catch. Like Tokeiji in Nara, this is one of those places that is worth visiting when the plums are blooming. Even under the terrible weather, it was beautiful to walk across the garden chock-full of plum trees of white, pink and burgundy varieties.
When I was leaving the lower part of the garden, a poor old woman was trying to haul her little cart up the stairs. I finally managed to put to use that invaluable expression that one learns when studying Japanese. “Tetsudaimashô ka?”. I took her bag up the stairs and in reward she gave me peppermint candy. How sweet!
By now it was positively hostile outside, so I hightailed it out of there, headed back to the centre, had a disappointing curry rice somewhere and went back to the hotel. I just wanted to sit down, put on my thickest sweater (I really thought I was only going to need it in Mt. Koya) and watch House of Cards on my computer.
When I was finally rested, entertained, and warmed up, I ventured out one last time just to put the subway pass to good use and visited the Nijo palace, the sumptuous residence of the Tokugawa shogun. The palace closes at five, with the last visit being accepted at four; I made it in with only about a minute’s margin, according to my watch. I had heard about the famous nightingale floors, which are constructed intentionally loose so a layer of nails creates a chirping noise when you step on it (it was supposed to be the ultimate anti-ninja defence), but I didn’t imagine that the majority of the outer gallery of the castle -where the public walks through- would be made of them. At such a late hour, there were very few of us there, but you could still hear a constant chirping as people advanced along the corridors.
After leaving Ninomaru (the main building), I still got to walk around the garden a little bit; it has more than one, in fact, and it’s surrounded by a moat. It was easier to be outside by that time.
To finish the day, I met with Liza in the hotel and we went out for dinner “somewhere nearby”. Somewhere nearby turned out to be right around the corner: a very nice Italian restaurant (I think we both really felt like having Western food for a break) that happened to have a Spaniard working in the kitchen and who came out to say hi. The food was good, although we seem to have a disagreement on what pesto is, but that’s minor (less minor: the two monstrous shrimp I hurriedly moved out of my plate). A very pleasant end to a very cold day!