Cramming in Kyoto

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Rain slashed across the windows of the Shinkansen as it slid into Kyoto station. The seconds ticked past on the platform clock, 57, 58, 59, as it slowed and stopped and the minutes changed and the doors hissed open at the precise moment they were supposed to.

I got a bus to the ryokan, checked in and dropped off my bags. It was no weather for sightseeing, but I only had three days to spare in Kyoto if I were to fit in the rest of the things I had planned before I took the ferry to Korea. I scooped up my umbrella, or at least one of several 7-11 umbrellas in the holder, crossed over the road and soggily trudged round the Nishi Hongan-ji temple. I realised soon enough that I was just going through the motions.

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Nishiki Market was further up the street and had the considerable attraction of a roof. It is a long, narrow road which extends for five blocks and has about a hundred stores and stalls. There are bustling crowds and shouting vendors, banners and lanterns and signs.

Smoke issues from the yakitori stand, broth bubbles at the ramen stall and wagyu beef sizzles on the grill. Baby octopus is stuffed with quail’s eggs, skewered and candied. Tuna is cubed, sprinkled with sesame seeds and threaded on a stick like a lolly. Barrels are filled with pickled vegetables. Bottles of sake are arranged in ranks on tables.

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The sun had returned in the morning, the sky was blue, and I was out early on the bus to Arashiyama in the mountains at the edge of the city. The big draw there is the bamboo forest, whose stalks soar thirty feet in the air either side of the path, arch in on themselves and ration the sunlight. The bamboo crackles as it sways in the breeze, a sound like the first drops of heavy rain. Sunlight dazzles through gaps in the canopy.

Though it has big sights in abundance, Kyoto for me was not so much about them as the overall ambience. I idled along rural lanes, nosed into temples and could easily have made a day of it, hiking into the mountains, seeing the monkeys in the park, taking a boat out onto the river. But I was pushed for time and took the bus back into town and another to Southern Hagashiyama.

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I wandered up Chawan-zaka, or Teapot Lane, where some of the shops sell the kyō-ware pottery for which the city is known and from which the street took its name. At the end of it, the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex stretches up and straddles the hill. It is everything you imagine of a Japanese temple with Niōmon gates, halls, shrines, statues, bells, incense, a pagoda, and a view across the trees and the city to the mountains.

I headed down from the temple with half of Japan (the other half was walking uphill) into the picturesque streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, which are lined with old wooden shophouses. It is a tourist trap, ultimately, with its teahouses and gift shops but not spoiled by that. Even gift shops are fascinating in Japan. There are curiosities, too, like a shop which only sold maneki-neko cats and had them in every size, colour and material.

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The cherry blossom season was almost over. Petals were scattered like confetti after a wedding. They clogged streams; the wind made a blizzard of them and they piled up against the trunks of the trees. I found them in my hair and stuck to my clothes. But the gift shops were still selling cherry-blossom-themed parasols and fans. I had a cherry blossom ice cream in lieu of the lunch I skipped.

More narrow streets lined with wooden houses, more temples and gardens and the Maruymama-kōen park. Then, after a solid nine hours of charging about, back to the ryokan for green tea and a soak in the onsen bath in the basement.

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I started out next morning in the Gion geisha district when the sun was rising and the streets were all but deserted. Wooden merchants’ houses from the seventeenth century line the streets. Paper lanterns hang beside each door.  The neighbourhood slowly woke up. Tourists appeared, first in twos and threes then as a crowd. A black-suited salaryman hurried through on his way to work. Occasional geishas glided by on theirs.

I walked from Gion to Northern Higashiyama and along the Path of Philosophy which traces a canal at the foot of the mountains.  There are fine temples and gardens at either end and several along the way. Promenade gardens use the borrowed scenery technique which makes the surrounding countryside appear part of them. Koi carp swim under stone bridges in pond gardens. Zen gardens have raked gravel to represent the ocean and rocks to imitate mountains.

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There are craft shops and galleries and food carts, and signs with English words in no order which makes any sense. “Manner up” one demanded. “Please refrain from the entrance of the general one,” requested another. Though I say that while being unable to write a single character of Japanese.

In the evening, in search of dinner, I walked up Ponto-chō alley, and so did the crowds. It is just across the river from Gion and has the same wooden machiya houses. Many of them have been turned into izakayas* and red or white lanterns illuminate their facades.

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There was a British-themed bar called ‘the Sent James club,’ which I worked out after a moment was a mishearing of St James, as in the green space in London between the Mall and Birdcage Walk: Sent James a Spark. Elsewhere, there was British pub called the Pig & Whistle, which sold Belgian, Irish and Japanese beers, just like a real one might.

It was raining again when I left Kyoto but thankfully it did not follow me to Hiroshima.

© Richard Senior 2020

* Informal bar/restaurant

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