Sleeping on a futon over tatami is GLORIOUS. I don’t know what it is about it that hits my “off” switch and instantly puts me in a deep and dreamless slumber. The alarm had to wake me up to a bright, sunny morning!
Today’s Friday, so I thought it might be wise to go to Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto’s most popular temple, before the weekend crowds rush in. It’s a bit up on the eastern hills of the city, so wherever you’re staying it’s probably best to take a bus. Buying that Japanese SIM card was the best purchase I’ve done all trip, because now I can just look up on Google Maps where the bus stop is, which bus I need to go on, and how many stops I need to wait through. The closest to Kiyomizu-dera is Kiyomizu-michi, which is still about a 10-min uphill walk away from the actual temple.
As soon as we started ascending we started seeing more and more people joining the route, until we got to the temple itself, where all of Kyoto seemed to have gathered. There were lots of schoolkids, lots of Chinese and Korean tourists, comparatively few Westerners. Nevertheless, the crowds did not detract from the experience one bit.
Kiyomizu-dera, or the Temple of Pure Water, is the famous Kyoto sight of the wooden temple perched over the hills, with a view of the forest and the city beyond it. The current wooden structure dates back to the 17th century, and it’s notably put together without using a single nail. It felt solid enough to me!
The temple, and the views from it, are always stunning and worth the price of admission regardless of what time of day or year it is, but the forest’s autumn colours took my breath away. The maple trees here are further ahead than their colleagues in Tokyo, and although they’re still not all blood red, wherever you look there’s a beautiful palette of reds, oranges, yellows and greens. What great fortune, to witness these natural and historical wonders, and to capture a moment of ephemeral beauty!
We took a walk around the platform and then made our way back down. This time we did not queue for the healing spring waters that gave the temple their name (literally been there, done that). The slope down Kiyomizu-dera was still super crowded, with lots of couples and friends wearing rental kimonos for the day. The shops on both sides of the street are very touristy, so I recommend walking right past and making a hard right on Sannenzaka, or the Third Year Slope, which is very easy to miss if you don’t know exactly what to look for.
Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka are two old, stone-paved winding streets that go downhill from Kiyomizu-dera and still feature beautiful traditional houses. The stores here, while still catering to domestic and foreign tourists, are nicer and more tasteful than the souvenir shops right around the corner. The crowds kept walking past, so although the streets are very narrow they still feel less crowded.
We walked down both streets, enjoying the sunshine, window-shopping, taking pictures of everything, and then near the end of Ninenzaka we walked into Camellia for a tea ceremony lesson. At 2000 yen (€17.3) for a 45 min presentation, it’s rather pricey, but there were only four of us and it was a very pleasant experience. They gave us a short history lesson on matcha green tea and tea ceremony (the lady nodded to us and explained that a Spanish missionary was among the first people to try matcha tea in Kyoto), made a demonstration, and then had us make our own bowl of green tea, which we enjoyed with a curious yuzu sweet that looked and felt like a solid glass candy in the hand but was actually very soft once you bit into it. Matcha is actually crushed tea leaves made into a fine, green powder, which you dissolve in water and then whisk until forming a layer of foam. It’s not a bad experience to have when you’re in Japan, and it’s as good a excuse as any to sit down for an hour!
After the ceremony, it was already lunchtime and we liked sitting down so much that we walked 50 metres over to Omen, the udon restaurant. I ordered the house noodles, which are served separately: they bring you a plate with vegetables, another one with cooked udon noodles, and a bowl with broth, and you put them together according to your preference. It was very tasty, well priced, and extremely well located, because after you leave Ninenzaka and walk into the temple compounds there aren’t that many alternatives.
Once replenished with food and energy, we walked straight north for a quarter of an hour to reach Kodai-ji, one of Kyoto’s great Zen Buddhist temples. A ticket to Kodai-ji will set you back 600 yen (€5.2), twice as much as most other temples, because it includes entry to a museum elsewhere.
We weren’t here for the museum, though, or even for the temple hall, but for its gorgeous gardens. To begin with, Kodai-ji has a beautiful dry garden with impeccable, flawlessly raked white gravel.
The real treat, however, was the walking garden, which has everything you could ask from a Japanese garden. There’s a beautiful bean-shaped pond to reflect the trees, a bridge over another, smaller pond, a wooden pavillion to gaze at the water, artfully laid rocks, trees and bushes, and a walk uphill that yields new and different perspectives.
Even better, many of the trees were bright red in an otherwise green landscape, looking in the declining sunshine like they had burst into flames. Again, the garden would still be beautiful without the reds, but it made me feel that I was in the right place at the right time.
By the time we were done drinking in the garden, the shadows were growing longer. We walked through the massive Sanmon gate and climbed the steps to make a half-hearted attempt to see Chion-in temple, but part of it was under construction and part of it was overrun with schoolkids, so we parked ourselves on a very 1940s café right outside Shoren-in. We treated ourselves, of all things, to delicious pancakes with maple syrup.
We finished the day by taking a bus to Central Kyoto to kill the time before returning to the apartment. We discovered a lot of nice -and some outrageously expensive- stores along Sanjo, where modern buildings mingle with traditional Kyoto houses and 19th Western stone-and-brick architecture.
From there it was a short train ride back home. Disappointingly, it was a normal train; I forgot to write about this, but yesterday’s train was a double-decker bizarro-train called ELEGANT SALOON 8000. Not kidding -look it up! It was all faux dark wood and brass and faux velvety fabrics and I guess they were going for an Orient Express kind of old-timey vibe? To me the word “saloon” is closer to the OK Corral than to Phileas Fogg, and I’m pretty sure the Orient Express wasn’t a double-decker, but I suppose that’s why I don’t design trains!