Sunny Sunday in Kyoto!
Today I finally got to cross the one item on my 2013 Kyoto trip list that I never got to visit: Fushimi Inari, the famous shinto shrine in the south of Kyoto with thousands of bright red torii gates. Last time I left Fushimi Inari for the last day, but then I was too late and I missed it. Not this time!
We took the JR Nara line to the Inari stop, and from there it’s a 10 min walk to the shrine, which is clearly signalled along the way (although, as always, Google Maps helps). As with many shinto shrines, this one is free to visit, and has several bright red buildings containing omiyage shops(souvenirs), omikuji counters (where people buy a random paper slip with their fortune on it, and then tie it to a tree or a rack nearby), water fountains where people can wash their hands as a ritual of purification, different altars for praying, and of course the main hall. Ceremonies take place inside, and on the outside people queue to pray; they throw a coin into a big wooden box, then pull a big cord to ring a bell, clap twice, then lower their heads while they pray.
(I’m sorry if I sound distracted, the TV’s on and there are three guys in cowboy hats and Kiss-style facepaint answering trivia questions about dinosaurs…)
I had fully expected Fushimi Inari to be crowded today: it’s Sunday, it was a gloriously sunny and warm morning (20°C in the sun!), and this is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Kyoto. What caught me by surprise is that shichi-go-san celebrations were ongoing today as well, so it turned out that everyone in Kyoto and their mother were all packed together in Inari! They were carrying out a solemn ceremony in the main hall when we arrived, and all around them temple staff herded the crowds in different directions, families brought their kids dressed in kimonos, street vendors offered literally dozens of various foods… It was very hard to take any pictures without throngs of people in it, but to be honest it was so lively and everyone was in such a good mood that I didn’t really mind!
The iconic red torii gates are at the end of the shrine, heading up towards the mountain. There are stone foxes guarding the entrance, because the fox is believed to be the messenger of the harvest god Inari. There’s a short section where the road splits in two, and people go into one torii-gated road and then come back through the other one. After this short section, the gates actually continue for 4 km (!!!) up the mountain; it must be a very scenic hike for those who have the disposition and the time to undertake it, although I imagine you should do it either very early in the evening or at last light in order to enjoy the mountain with as few other people as possible.
We were more than happy to stick to the shrine gates only, though, so we went back down to the main area, where people continued to walk in with their kids. Some boys wore colourful kimonos, while others looked really formal and serious with navy blue hakama, a fan on their sash, and a crested jacket over their kimono. Little girls wore mostly red-themed furisode, although I crossed a tiny little girl sporting a full beehive -did they take her to a baby stylist for this?!
After this, we walked over to the Keihan line and took the train over to the next stop to visit Tofukuji, but not before having a pit stop at a café nearby. We asked for toast and were served the thickest piece of sliced bread I’ve ever seen; it’s almost like they had a loaf of bread and just cut it in two for us. Maybe we looked really hungry!
Since we’re on the topic of cafes -you know what drives me up the wall? At every cafe and restaurant, the moment you walk in they give you a wet hand towel, but either don’t give any napkins, or if they do they’re tiny scraps of translucent paper. I say cut the waste of chemicals and plastic wrappers of the hand towels, and give more paper napkins!
So anyway!! We then went over to nearby Tofukuji. It’s a terrain with several Buddhist temples, but what we (and everybody in Kyoto who wasn’t still at Inari) wanted to see were the gardens, which have their own 400 yen entrance fee (€3.5).
Viewed on a map the garden is tiny, really, but it has a creek down the middle that creates a small but beautiful valley with two wooden bridges over it. The key is that all or nearly all of the trees in this garden are Japanese maple trees, which makes this temple the premier destination for people like me who want to see autumn colours in all their glory.
The place was packed, of course, to the point where the walk sometimes turned into a queue, but it’s all worth it. All the different shades between green and red were represented wherever you looked, and the valley looked so photogenic that people will think I just lifted the pictures from Google Images. There was also a smaller section of the garden with rocks and shrubbery, and a small dry garden, although these were just icing on the cake.
After feasting our eyes, we made our way back to Kyoto station for literal feasting, and then back to the apartment to rest. The last week of continuous walking is catching up to us, and if we want to be able to move at all when we go to Kanazawa we need to rest!
We only emerged from our den when it was already dark and we were hungry, like vampires. We took the Keihan line to Gion and walked along Pontocho. There are a million restaurants there but it’s not easy to pick one, because many are very expensive and most have queues to get in. Sidenote: I overheard a restaurant owner saying goodbye to customers with “Ooki ni”, the Kyoto-dialect version of “arigato”; I learned that from a movie on the plane last time I came here!
We ended up dining at a big, stately restaurant with views of the river. They put us in a room with a tour group of well-off American retirees; just as we were sitting down, they were explaining to their kimono-clad guide that they had got her a present, and then read her aloud a poem that they had composed for her. Then the guide went over hugging each one and giving them a personalized note about the meaning of friendship. Everything was so cringeworthy you guys, if I had been in that group I’d long have slid open one of the windows and dived into the Kamo river. I’m sure there was context for everything but jeez.
After dinner, we took the long way back to the train station in order to see Gion by night. We didn’t spot any geisha -they’re elusive creatures- but Shinbashi-dori was beautiful at night, with the trees lit up and being able to see into the restaurants across the canal. Oh, and as a bonus, on the way back I managed to snag a dorayaki from a bakery (which was open, at 20:30, on a Sunday)! It was on my list of Japanese sweets to have, right after melon pan!
Tomorrow: it’s our last day in Kyoto, and we think we might make it a day trip to Hiroshima. Stay tuned!