Seeking happiness in Japan's tourism capital04 December, 2012 by Chad
This morning we would head to north to Kyoto proper, with the intention of visiting their most popular temple, Kiyomizudera and hopefully take a look at the famous shopping streets nearby. I had unfortunately missed the opportunity to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site last year, after wasting a trouble filled day at some other lack luster temples on the outskirts of town, so it was time to make things right.
We walked over to Shin-Osaka Station in the morning to grab a train over to Kyoto. Remembering that there was a Manneken shop, I took a few moments to look for it, before introducing the company to the franchise’s delectable waffles. It was a good idea that we had bought some, since it would be a while before the Limited Express train to Kyoto would arrive, so we enjoyed our morning snacks on the platform first.
The train sped by quickly to Kyoto skipping all but 1 stop along the way, so it was just 20 minutes and 2 stops to Kyoto.
Kiyomizudera is located slightly to the East of Kyoto station. Forgetting my own at advice at how inefficient Kyoto trains are, we took the local line a few stops down to Higashiyama Station. Learning that we were still no where near our destination, we took another bus, perhaps getting off too soon, since we were still more than a kilometer away.
Preparing for the uphill hike there, we grabbed more food and drinks from a nearby Famima before taking a leisurely walk through the Kyoto streets. Thinking that such a famous attraction would be pretty well marked, I had neglected to make any preparations beforehand. Thankfully, with the entire Kyoto being as touristy as it is, it was. But we ended up wasting a couple of dollars on the unnecessary train to Higashiyama.
Advice, just stick to the buses when in Kyoto. It’s hard to discern one street from another in Kyoto though when it’s mostly all low rise buildings, so be sure to do some research on bus routes ahead of time.
After about 15 minutes of walking, we finally met up with some discernible tourists and were reassured that we were headed in the right direction. We turned left at a junction, to another steeper incline. The road up to the temple was nearly empty, apart from a few other Japanese visitors so we thought that maybe it was still too early, or perhaps that there wouldn’t be that much of a crowd this Tuesday morning. We were wrong though.
Reaching the top, it turned out that we were just on a side street. The rest of the crowds had come from another, much busier shopping street that ran parallel to ours.
Most of the pictures taken this day didn’t turn out too well. Had a difficult, even frustrating time struggling with the lens that was damage last week. Both the focusing and metering seemed to be wonky, so everything had to be shot manually. Then came the issue of the massive crowds, which narrowed the window of time where one could actually take a photo.
Looking through the pictures taken today, it almost seems like many were actually making a conscious effort to obscure my shots. One usually doesn’t run into this problem in other places in Japan, since the locals are pretty aware of their surroundings and tend to avoid suddenly stopping to take their own photo in front of your camera after you have been there aiming for upwards of 10 seconds. But it becomes a real problem in popular tourists attractions like this.
Finally, the company wasn’t much help either since they too had a tendency to stop in front of me whenever I was taking any pictures too. In their defense though, it’s really rare to find people who subconsciously synchronize well with you in this aspect. And up till now, the only people I’ve traveled with who do, have been Wilson, Gage, and someone I would be introduced to much later this trip.
The lesson learned is that while a wide angle lens might seem like the lens to bring along to touristy spots to hopefully clinch those killer landscape shots. In practical use, being that wide, it’s also going to pick up a lot of unwanted bits.
Kiyomizudera in its entirety covers a pretty big area, probably the largest I’ve seen outside of Nara. And while it might lose to Todaiji in grandeur, it makes up for that with its dazzling good looks. The main buildings of Kiyomizudera are built into the mountain, with verandas sticking out of the side, truly quite a sight.
Unfortunately, many of the buildings here were undergoing restoration work this day and were covered up. Apart from major renovations, many of these hundred, sometimes thousand year old buildings have to go through regular maintenance to keep them in one piece. The money such places receive through entrance fees and donations go toward preserving them for future generations.
Entry into the main temple hall was 300 yen. Fair enough.
Despite the whole money going to a good cause thing, I sort of dislike temples that enforce an entry charge of more than 500 yen. Often these more popular, commercialized ones do. It gets quite painful since I often end up giving a lot to these temples through omamori anyways.
With the amount of money some of them make though, it’s no wonder that some have been known to be associated with the Japanese underworld. But it’s best not to think about that.
There were tons of people inside the main veranda at Kiyomizudera, More so than any temple or shrine I had visited, and I’ve been to my fair share. The reason for the crowds became apparent later, a number of tour groups were passing through.
One of the guides explained to one of his tourists that it was believed that those who survived jumping off the veranda here would have their wishes come true. Apparently hundreds of people had made the leap in the past, with very few fatalities. Though I’d expect that those who did survive the 13 meter drop would have had very little means of making any dreams come true after that.
The tourist asked the tour guide if he could jump then. Randy refers to these sort of things as “Level 1 Jokes”. For obvious reasons, you’re not allowed to jump off here anymore.
I waited inside the main hall for a while, as the tour group made their way through. Without the noise and having people constantly bumping into you, the main hall has a really likeable atmosphere.
From up here in Otowa-san, you get a nice, though distant view of Kyoto city. It was kind of cloudy this afternoon but we could still make out Kyoto Tower. It would definitely be quite the experience to visit Kiyomizudera at night. Like most temples, it closes early. But I would learn later that it remains open at night on certain weeks each year.
Just past the main hall, we found a small side path up a flight of stairs. Most people here missed it as they sped onward but we decided to take a look inside.
Here, we found a smaller shrine. Yes, a shrine inside a temple. Upon entry, there are brochures here in various languages. The Jishu Shrine is dedicated to Okuninushi and the White Hare of Inaba, for love related issues. It’s supposed to be a particularly potent shrine for matchmaking.
There are two stones set out in the shrine quite some distance apart from each other. Apparently, you’ll be able to find romance if you close your eyes and still manage to get from one to the other. A Caucasian woman was trying her hand at it, being urged on by her local friends.
The shrine has a pretty extensive collection of charms, most of which were for the purpose of love, romance and of course child-bearing. I ended up getting a square bell charm here as well for “happiness”. I tend to mostly get charms related to health and happiness, since one could always use more of that. Anything else is a bonus.
Another thing at the shrine that caught my attention were these paper dolls for one to write one’s troubles on. You then place them in a bucket of water, and watch them dissolve back into pulp. It’s a really interesting prayer mechanic, and given the method of delivery and intention of the shrine, you can imagine all the scorned lovers who had been melted here.
Continuing on, all of the other temple buildings were closed off, so we headed downstairs to where we saw some activity from above earlier. Here there was a nice but rather gimmicky rest stop come restaurant. Just beside it though was the Otowa waterfall, another point of interest.
Visitors are free to drink from the sacred water fall. Sterilized ladle cups are even provided for free. For those who want to go the extra step, there are inidividual gift cups bearing the temple’s name here on sale too.
The waterfall is split into 3 streams by the structure. Didn’t quite pay notice to the fine print until after everything was over. But apparently, each stream of water at the Otowa waterfall is said to grant a different property, be it longevity, wisdom or love. I’m not quite sure which one I drank out of, since there are conflicting information all over the internet about which is which but it was the one furthest away.
Randy was being rather annoyed by the other tourists here though, who seemed to had confused the waterfall with a tap, since they were washing their hands here.
Well, that was it for Kiyomizudera. So we returned back to the entrance to visit the shopping streets we saw on the way here. It was really crowded, but the traffic flew much more smoothly since there was really only two directions to it.
Passing by a pickled vegetables shop, Eri spotted some lemon kyuri on a stick and got one. Tried a little, it was actually really good. But was regrettably feeling kind of tight, after having spent so much on clothing yesterday already.
The traditional Japanese streets at here are filled with the type of shop houses you’d expect to find at popular travel spots, full of snacks, gift and crafts. The streets at Higashiyama run for much further than other such places too. Throughout, Randy tried looking for a shop selling the ice cream that he had missed out on yesterday but did not manage to find one.
I really do enjoy walking through such streets, if only for the ambiance since there’s rarely anything for me to purchase. At a certain point, the streets at Higashiyama splinter into a few paths. We probably didn’t walk the entirety of the area but were more concerned at this point to get something to eat. Sunset wasn’t far off, but we had yet to have a proper lunch today. It would be nice to walk these streets again at a more leisurely pace.
Without much forethought, we decided to head toward the direction of Gion since it’s another of those words that people throw about whenever mentioning Kyoto. Not too familiar with Kyoto myself, just that I knew that we had to head north. Double checking my compass to check that we were headed in the right direction.
One especially irritating thing about the built in compass for the iPhone (or at least my iPhone) is that half of the time, it is wrong. It gets all messed up by WiFi points and often points in the complete opposite direction when you first open the app. The solution is to close the compass program and double check, if it points to anything other than what it had originally pointed at, it’s best that you repeat for a third try and go with that.
Unknowingly, when exploring new areas, I had initially gone in the wrong direction quite a few times before thanks to this problem, thankfully today wasn’t one of those days. Halfway, we encountered a bunch of junior high school girls at a street map who were making their way toward another Yasaka Shrine near Gion, after having visited Kiyomizudera for a field trip. A sign that we were headed the right way.
Soon we found ourselves at Gionmachi and next Gion Shijo Station. The entire area was but an endless stretch of shops, restaurants and department stores, contemporary this time. Not quite sure where the touristy side of Gion was, we walk through the area for a while, eventually giving up and settling for the next dining place we could find.
The commercial area of Kyoto was actually really nice. And given the chance, I’d love to visit it again properly. The street between Gionmachi and Kawaramachi was kind of a mix between Asakusa and if Ginza was one long but more modest stretch. It would probably take days just to cover the entire area in detail.
One thing I did notice though was that the Kyoto women in the city were much better dressed than those in Osaka. They were also much better looking, or rather better groomed. Easily rivaling the levels of fashionability seen in Tokyo. Even the Miko’s in Kyoto were cuter than normal.
Eventually, we found ourselves in a french hybrid pub and restaurant on the second floor of one of the side streets called Paris 21. It was furnished quite nicely and the setting felt much more like a cafe than your usual pub. But since it was still too early for most, the place was empty if not for us and a Chinese couple at the other end of the cafe.
Eri ordered some stew, while Randy and I both had a sort of mixed set consisting of fritters, a hamburg, rice and salad. There was also some less than favorable soup in a cup but thankfully the dessert, some sort of bavarois (though tiny) was better.
Overall the food was fine, it kind of reminded me of the Astons franchise. It was nothing to be wowed about, but I could see how such a place would be immensely popular in Singapore. The prices are ridiculously cheap (between 700 to 1,200 yen or SGD$10 to $18) and the setting is one in which locals would love to sit in for hours at a time.
It probably served its purpose as a pub better than a restaurant. To prove this, Randy got something else to drink and a bit to smoke while we warmed ourselves inside for a while more before having to head back out to the cold.
We spent the rest of the evening walk around some of the shops at the side street here. There were various small local men and women’s fashion labels. Looking through a few shops, it became apparent from the similar materials, buttons and seams that all of them either got their clothing from the same sources, or had them all tailored in the same factories (in China).
It’s difficult to get clothing to wear immediately in Japan since the shops almost always sell clothes a season in advance. By the time a season hits, you’re supposed to be already prepared. Most of the jackets on sale here were more appropriate for winter weather.
I did find some duffel coats for sale, though with the weather still hovering between 16 to 20 degrees these past few days, my hopes of wearing one seemed pretty far off. Up to now, Randy and I had yet to wear more than a single layer of clothing each day so such a jacket would had been overkill. Decided to wait till Tokyo to see if it would be possible later on.
After that little bit of shopping, we were pulled into this Lipton Tea House by Randy. He has quite the sweet tooth it would seem. But it would be a good excuse, since I really enjoyed my desserts too. This was the first time noticing such an establishment and rightly so, since it turns out that the chain is unique to Kyoto only.
We were really attracted by the tart-cake hybrids that the shop specialized in. There are a good dozen or so on the regular menu, and a few more seasonal specials.
Randy ordered the Maccha one that he was eyeing from outside. It looked quite pretty. We all shared a bit of everything.The maccha taste was quite strong, so it might not to be most tastes but he enjoyed it very much.
The next most attractive looking one was perhaps the chocolate banana cake tart which I got. A little safe, but it was really good too. Especially liked the crust since it helped to balance the overall sweetness of the dessert.
Eri ended up getting the grapefruit tart, which was amusingly her third choice. After her initial order, the waitress here returned to regrettably tell her that it was sold out and some time later, came back embarrassingly to inform her that they were out of her second choice too. It was nice that she was colloquial about it, rather than being too apologetic. In the end the grapefruit came recommended by the waitress. It was probably the healthiest of our 3 choices but really quite nice too.
Surprisingly, that each cake cost only about 400 yen, explaining the steady stream of customers who had come to dine in or take home some of their cakes. The cafe also served full meals, which looked quite hearty.
Contented by our decision to try out the cakes and with yesterday’s anmitsu still in our memory , we were in agreement of getting more desserts at any opportunity this trip. With our bellies full, it was fortunate that we didn’t have to walk far to the nearest station, which also happened to have a direct train back to Shin-Osaka.
Being quite sleepy at this point already, we took an empty Semi-Express train instead of the Limited Express. The Semi-Express stopped at a good many local stations, extending the journey from 20 minutes, to 45 instead but at least we got to pass out for a while on the comfortable heated seats.
Back in Osaka, we made yet another stop at Family Mart for Randy to grab more spicy chicken cutlets before retiring for the night.