Temples and shrines of Kyoto

Kyoto has about 2000 shrines and temples, many of them hundreds of years old. On our second day here we had a full day tour visiting some of them, but we first started with a castle – Nijo Castle.

This was built by the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose mausoleum we visited in Nikko.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

The entrance gate displays a tiger, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s zodiac, as well as a dragon, his son’s zodiac. Later on when the Emperor reclaimed authority from the shogunate, the triple hollyhock crests of the Tokugawa clan were removed and replaced with the imperial chrysanthemum crest.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

This castle is famous for its ‘nightingale floor’ in the inner section, which was intentionally constructed with floorboards that squeak, meaning an attacker couldn’t ever sneak in unheard. Inside there were many beautifully decorated screens, and plenty of gleaming gold leaf. Our guide, Akie-san, explained that many of the feudal lords were ‘frenemies’, and were allowed only into the outer rooms – accordingly, the decorations in these rooms used imagery of fierce animals and mighty trees. Family and trusted friends were seen in the inner rooms, which were decorated with more pastoral images of flowers and little birds.

It has a beautifully landscaped moat, and lovely gardens full of cherry blossoms.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

2016-04-19 Kyoto

We then headed over to Kinkakuji – the Golden Pavillion, which is a beautiful Zen Buddhist temple. The temple has three different styles of design for each level, covered in gold leaf on the highest levels, and topped with a golden phoenix.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

Next we visited Ryoan-ji, another Zen Buddhist temple, with a splendid rock garden. The white gravel is raked into the same pattern every day by the monks.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

2016-04-19 Kyoto

There are 15 rocks in this rock garden, but they are laid out such that all 15 can never be seen at the same time from any point (except directly above). No one knows the original meaning of the pattern, but Akie-san considered it a metaphor for the Zen approach to life, in that you can never have everything, and must be content with what you can realistically achieve. We sat on the verandah for some time, gazing upon the rocks and contemplating this.

After a hearty ramen lunch, we headed on to Kiyomizu-dera, also a Buddhist temple. It’s located up in the hills, and was built in the 1600s with no nails at all, just interlocking joints.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

This natural spring is said to grant wishes if you drink from it, and is what gives the temple its name – kiyo mizu means pure water.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

There are also several other shrines and buildings in the temple complex, and further below is the Higashiyama district, full of little shops in the preserved wooden buildings. We made our way down the street, stopping at many shops and acquiring more souvenirs and gifts.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

2016-04-19 Kyoto

Akie-san led us on through the streets of Kyoto, and along the way we saw two more interesting little shrines. One was a shrine for cutting off bad things – illnesses, bad business dealings, bad relationships, whatever it may be. Part of the worship at this shrine is crawling through a hole in a monument, ‘leaving’ your unwanted thing behind. It seemed to be very popular, going by the thousands of papers with prayers and supplications attached to the monument.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

The other was a shrine to a monkey deity (where, of course, we got an omamori). There were interesting little offering ‘garlands’ with little fabric ornaments which look like monkeys attached. Often families will leave an offering with the right number of monkey ornaments to represent each family member.
Collage Kyoto 02

In the following days we also visited some other places of worship. One of these was the Higashi-Honganji temple, just minutes from our hotel. This Buddhist temple had a huge, beautiful entrance gateway, and a large main hall. It was also very different from the other temples we’d been to, in that it was not ‘touristy’ at all. From the information displays they also seem quite politically conscious, in conveying their strong pacifist beliefs and desire for people to question government actions that support or may lead to war.
2016-04-21 Kyoto

2016-04-21 Kyoto

There was a prayer session going on in the main hall, but the attendants there waved us in, so we sat at the back for some time, listening to the chanting. It was really very serene and peaceful, and we very glad to have been welcomed to experience it.

Another very different shrine we visited was the Fushimi Inari shrine, dedicated to the god of rice. Inari’s messenger is a fox, so there are many depictions of foxes here.
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This shrine is over 1300 years old, set at the base of Mount Inari, and has thousands of little sub-shrines in the path that goes up the mountain. What makes it really special is that the path is lined with thousands of stone and wooden torii gates (estimates range from 5000 to 10,000 gates). These have all been donated over the years, mainly by businesses – Inari, being the deity of a precious crop, has become the patron deity of business and industry. Whatever the number is, there are very many torii gates, each inscribed with the names of the donors, and it’s so very impressive seeing this line of orange gates winding up the trail. We were there in the early evening, as the sun was starting to set, which made it even more atmospheric.
2016-04-20 Kyoto

2016-04-20 Kyoto

2016-04-20 Kyoto

The temples and shrines of Kyoto truly are captivating.

Cultural Kyoto

From Hakone we got the train to Kyoto, and were reunited with our luggage. We’d taken a small bag for our two nights in Hakone, and sent our luggage ahead from Tokyo by takkyubin.┬áThis is a brilliant courier service for luggage, and for travellers most hotels help with the process, arranging for the service to collect your luggage and transport it to your next destination, so that you don’t have to be lugging around big suitcases while travelling on subways and trains.

We had a cultural session arranged for that afternoon, at a centre called WAK Japan, based in a traditional wooden machiya (townhouse). To begin with, we were dressed up in kimono, which I really enjoyed. It reminded me a lot of wearing a sari – very fiddly to put on, but once it’s on feels beautiful and elegant.
2016-04-18 Kyoto

We then went down to the room set up as a traditional tearoom, and experienced the tea ceremony. Our guide was a lovely lady, Yukiko-san, who very patiently explained all about chado – the way of tea. This practice uses matcha, powdered green tea, which is whisked with water to make a thick, strong, tea. Matcha is also used for flavouring food and sweets. As part of the ceremony we also learnt a little about bowing, where there is formal, semi-formal, and casual bowing, for different occasions and relationships.
2016-04-18 Kyoto

It is such an elaborate and precise process, and there are certain phrases that you say as the host offering the tea, and as each guest accepting the tea. There was another couple with us during the cultural session, so there was more interaction and phrases to be said between guests as well. As Yukiko-san explained, the drinking of matcha tea and the ceremony originated with Zen Buddhism, and the whole experience really is very meditative in the conscious and careful execution of each process, and in the appreciation of fine details, and to me felt very refined and peaceful.
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And finally we were taken a short walk away to a former traditional sake brewery, where we briefly learnt about the brewing process, and then got to try some sake – we’ve developed a taste for it now!
2016-04-18 Kyoto

Kyoto is Japan’s capital of culture, and there is even a building height restriction to preserve its historic setting – the mountains surrounding Kyoto are always visible in the distance. The city is laid out in a grid system, and there is a lovely intermingling of wooden buildings, historic temples and shrines, and modern architecture. Although it is a busy city, there is a far more relaxed feel compared to Tokyo.
2016-04-18 Kyoto

After the cultural session we continued to explore, finding the Teramachi shopping street. This very long street is partly covered, with a mix of traditional and modern shops, as well as temples along and just off it.
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We also saw many symbols and statues of this little mythical creature, Tanuki. It is a Japanese racoon-dog (real animal, related to the wider dog family), and in Japanese folklore is a playful trickster, good luck symbol, and affectionately known as the ‘deity’ of drinking and bars – he’s usually portrayed with a sake flask. In Kyoto he’s particularly beloved, as a bad fire in the ’70s broke out in the Pontocho district, causing much destruction and one death, but before getting any further down the narrow street it mysteriously stopped, leaving only a shattered ceramic Tanuki statue. It is said that he sacrificed himself to stop the fire, and a little shrine to him was built at that spot.
2016-04-18 Kyoto

We eventually made our way to Gion, the popular geisha district. In Kyoto the local term geiko is used. We had a wander through Hanamachi-dori, a street lined with ochaya, exclusive teahouses where geiko entertain clients. They look unassuming, but you know fine well you can’t just go in. The older and more exclusive ones require not just a lot of money but an introduction from an existing regular client.
2016-04-18 Kyoto

2016-04-18 Kyoto

I wasn’t sure how I felt about geiko at first. In the past they were recruited at a very young age, but modern legislation means that children must be schooled up to age 15, and only after this or later do girls join geiko houses to train as maiko (apprentice geiko), which takes around five years, before becoming independent geiko. They are highly trained in the classical arts, and there are strictly no sexual services in their line of work, but they are still entertainers and performers primarily for men. But from doing some reading, and speaking to our guides in Kyoto, it seems that increasingly women also are able to visit ochaya and experience geiko entertainment.

The geiko industry, although still a secretive world even to our Japanese guides, seems to be run almost solely by women, from the geiko schools and boarding houses, to the ochaya, and to the vast supply chain involved in training, costumes, hair and makeup, and public performances. The Western view of geiko is broadly perceived in Japan as exoticised, especially by the book Memoirs of a Geisha, which received much criticism for misrepresentation. The geiko who was revealed as the main source, Mineko Iwasaki, opposed the negative portrayal of her life and later published her own autobiography, Geisha of Gion. So as an outsider, but having learnt a little more, I’m happy to defer to the local view of geiko – a cultural icon, exponents and preservers of the classical arts, and a group of financially independent women.

On the following day, we got to see the Miyako Odori, a performance in the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo, the Gion geiko theatre.
2016-04-19 Kyoto

All five geiko districts in Kyoto put on an annual show, and this one is held throughout the month of April. All the dancers and musicians are maiko and geiko. Our tour guide managed to arrange for tickets to the main show that day, and we also got the English audio guide, which made such a difference. The sets, costumes, dances, and music were beautiful, but having the meaning behind the scenes and steps explained enabled us to truly appreciate the performance. This has been going for over a hundred years and is a highlight even for locals, so we were very glad to have been able to experience it.

There were no photos allowed in the theatre, but there is an official clip on Youtube.


We said goodbye to Tokyo and headed off to Hakone, a little mountain tourist town, famed for its onsen (hot springs). We got the shinkansen (bullet train) to Odawara, and then a lovely little old school train up to Gora, with beautiful views as we ascended.
2016-04-16 Hakone

We dropped off our bags at our hotel, and headed out for some lunch at a little place called the Gyoza Centre – delicious. Although much cooler up here, it was such a lovely, sunny day, so we visited the Open-Air Museum. This is a beautifully landscaped park, full of sculptures by Japanese and international artists, which also features a really nice Picasso gallery.

2016-04-16 Hakone

Collage Hakone 01

Collage Hakone 02

There were various types of cherry blossom to be enjoyed too.
2016-04-16 Hakone

Later that afternoon we headed back, by which time our room was ready for us. We were staying at the Gora Kadan, a ryokan. These are traditional Japanese inns, which was a completely different experience. Rooms at a ryokan are laid out in the traditional Japanese style, there are usually onsen facilities (so there are usually many ryokan in hot spring areas), staff are extremely attentive, and top quality food is served, usually in your room. Our attendant, Sho, looked after us during our stay, and was really very warm, helpful, and diligent.

Just inside the front door of our room was a small entryway where we left our shoes, and then there were tatami reed mats covering the floor from the hallway onward. Paper screen doors divided each section. The main area featured a low table and floor chairs, where meals were served. This also doubled up as the bedroom – after the evening meal the table was moved aside and our attendant laid out futon bedding on the floor, and in the morning he tidied it away into the big wardrobes down the side of the room.
Next to the main area was a small sitting area, and outside we had a patio with a fabulous stone tub, which was filled by hot spring water piped in. It was all very classically Japanese; minimalist, neat, efficient, but with top quality in the small details. We really felt like VIPs – this was definitely the luxurious honeymoon part of the trip!
2016-04-16 Hakone

2016-04-16 Hakone

We were given yukata (a light, kimono style robe) to wear around the hotel, and our attendant showed us how to wear these, ensuring we wrapped them with the left over the right (as it is only ever worn the other way for funerals).
2016-04-16 Hakone

Dinner was a wonderfully lavish affair, in kaiseki style – multiple courses of small, finely prepared dishes.
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The next day we had grand plans of visiting Lake Ashi, taking a cable car to get there and boat ride across it, and also perhaps seeing Mount Fuji if it was clear both here in Hakone and around Fuji. However, it was very much raining, so we decided to wait it out and have a wander round the nearby Gora Park first. We headed to the covered greenhouses, where we spotted some old favourites, and some rather more unusual blooms, as well as delightful bonsai displays.
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Collage Hakone 05

2016-04-17 Hakone

We also found the Craft House within the park, which offered taster sessions in pottery, glass blowing, glass etching, and flower arranging, so we ended up going for a glass-blowing session. It was all very well organised – you pick what item you want to make, what type of design, and colours, and then you go in for your session at the allotted time. The staff were very friendly, and while they did most of the skilled work, they got participants involved in just enough of the ‘easy’ bits and made us feel very clever indeed. Gareth and I both chose glasses, one with pink and blue swirls, and one with green spots (choosing the colours and design almost took longer than the actual session!).
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Collage Hakone 08

It was very exciting, but since it took a few days to cool and be ready for collection, we got ours shipped. When we got back from our travels our honeymoon glasses had been delivered already!
2016-07-09 Blown glass

After that it was still raining heavily, but we decided to brave it to Lake Ashi anyway. To get there, first we took a funicular further up the mountain. Then, we were supposed to have taken a cable car, however part of it was closed due to volcanic activity in the area, and the remaining part was closed due to the high winds. So we got the replacement bus service instead.
2016-04-17 Hakone

When we got to the lake, we certainly felt the gale!
2016-04-17 Hakone

From here we would’ve seen Mount Fuji, had it been a clear day, but after this quick snap, we went into the bus and boat terminal building before we got blown away!
2016-04-17 Hakone

After that little adventure we headed back to chill out, and then our second evening of kaiseki dinner featured a different menu, which was just as fantastic.
Collage Hakone 09

The following day we left Hakone, heading down to Kyoto on the shinkansen. We were a little sad to leave the ryokan, which had been simply wonderful, not least in the level of care we had from every member of staff we came across. It had just the right mix of rustic and luxurious, in a beautiful mountain setting. The Gora area itself was quaint and lovely, and very relaxing to be in.

And on the train to Kyoto, by pure luck we happened to look up at just the right moment, and caught sight of Mount Fuji after all, for around 5 minutes. That was something really very special.
2016-04-18 Passing Fuji

See more photos from Hakone in my Flickr set
Japan: Hakone

Meanwhile, back in the UK…

So things happened, and have been happening, and the UK is a fragile place at the moment. I was very much for remaining in the EU, and even after a few days the Brexit outcome is no less sad, painful, and worrying. Mostly because of the circumstances leading up to the vote – lies, nastiness, xenophobia and outright racism. What’s really sad is the people who voted against the EU were really voting against a UK government who has marginalised them for years. Meanwhile, just hours after the result was announced, key figures in the Leave camp were dismissing their major promises, one by one. I can’t help but feel they never really wanted to leave the EU, it was all about manipulating people in desperate situations to advance their own careers. Isn’t it astounding that product advertising is held to more accountability than election campaigning?

So now we have a new buzzword – Regrexit. We have a Prime Minister who’s washed his hands of this mess, government leaders focused on vying for power, an opposition party doing nothing but tear itself apart, cracks across the UK nations getting wider, and EU leaders calling for us to hurry up and get out already. Meanwhile, the council in Cornwall, an area that voted strongly to leave, has made statements about their funding fears, asking for assurance that the EU subsidies they receive will be matched by the UK government in the brave, new future. Irony really is a sick joke.

So what happens now? Keep Calm And Carry On? The next few weeks and months will certainly bring a lot to consider; technically the referendum result is not legally binding, so if there is any way the government can wriggle out of this and keep a few shreds of dignity they probably will. And if not, well, the one good thing about being out of the EU is that there is absolutely no one else to blame this country’s problems on, so how’s that for accountability?! All we can do for now is hope for the best, and when the time comes, engage with the whole process as much as possible. And then, que sera, sera.

I’ll end with a happy look at the garden, which has been coming along slowly but surely, now that the battering rains have given way to sunshine. Back to Japan next time!

Pink lupins

Purple lupins

Pink and yellow aquilegia

2016-06-26 Cut flowers
First garden bouquet of the year – lupins, daisies, and day lilies

Tokyo Food Roundup

A big part of our trip to Japan was of course the food. I’ve already mentioned kushiyaki and yakitori at the izakaya we found on our first day, and on day two, during our guided tour of Tokyo, we had tonkatsu. This has its roots in Western pork chops, and is usually a pork cutlet, breaded and deep fried, then served with rice, a refreshing Japanese cabbage salad, and the special tonkatsu sauce, said to be derived originally from Worcestershire sauce – so yummy I drowned everything in it. As well as pork there are chicken, beef, and prawn versions as well.

Collage Tokyo 11
Super realistic plastic displays outside the tonkatsu restaurant

We had wonderful sushi and sashimi. Tuna remained the top favourite, but there was also a particular ‘white fish’ which we couldn’t identify but tasted wonderful. There were some ‘try anything once’ items as well, like sea urchin – once was certainly enough. In some places we were served fresh wasabi root with a little grater. This is the ‘real’ wasabi, as opposed to green coloured horseradish, which is what we would normally get in the UK or even in smaller restaurants and takeaway sushi meals in Japan. This is because fresh wasabi is expensive to grow, and the flavour lasts for a very short time, so you have to grate it as you eat. It tasted fantastic – the hit is even stronger than typical wasabi paste, but there isn’t the unpleasant feeling of it going through your nose.
Collage Tokyo 17

We also visited the Tsukiji fish market, the largest wholesale fish market in the world – this was an early morning start! There is an outer retail section selling groceries and kitchenware, and limited access to the inner wholesale market (visitors are allowed only after 9am, when the main wholesale trading has finished). Fish markets are always interesting, and this was no exception. One of the lasting impressions I have is of realising just how big tuna fish really are. Outside there are also many little restaurants serving the freshest fish for breakfast – we didn’t try this though, we were too hungry to face the huge queues.
2016-04-14 Tokyo

We also got acquainted with fresh bamboo shoot, a delicacy in Japan. We saw it growing in gardens and being sold in markets, and enjoyed it in meals.
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This is grilled bamboo shoot served with myoga bud, which was another amazing ingredient we came across in Japanese food. It’s commonly used as a garnish, and has such a lovely sweet-sourish, zingy, gingery, taste – it is a member of the wider ginger family, and reminded me of galangal and torch ginger.
2016-04-12 Tokyo

One evening we happened to end up in a restaurant specialising in Okinawa cuisine. We had tofu topped with sukugaras, an Okinawan seasonal delicacy of salted baby rabbitfish. There was also pork coated in black sesame paste – to die for, as well as Okinawa style tempura, which has a thicker batter. All washed down with awamori based cocktails (awamori being an Okinawan spirit distilled from rice).
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Less attractive, but no less interesting I think, is the breakfast I had in the hotel in Tokyo. I enjoyed the Japanese section of the buffet – it wasn’t fancy, but it tasted good.
2016-04-16 Tokyo
Rice and pickles, Japanese cabbage salad, miso soup, and good old orange juice.

Although we didn’t try them, we did come across vending machine restaurants. These two were in Tokyo Central train station, while beer vending machines were everywhere!
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And of course, I was on a mission to ‘collect’ seasonal cherry blossom, or sakura, flavoured food.
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Sakura ice cream, sakura mojito, and McDonald’s Sakura McFizz.

Back in Aberdeen, we got to eat one of our souvenirs, a beautifully packaged set of little cakes from Nikko – featuring a gate from the Toshogu shrine, and the ‘triple hollyhock’ crest of the Tokugawa family. These had two different fillings, red bean, and lotus seed or something that tastes a lot like it.
Collage Nikko 06

Next up we move on to Hakone, and in the meantime there are more photos from Tokyo and Nikko in my Flickr set.

Japan: Tokyo and Nikko
Japan: Tokyo and Nikko