It’s June, it’s HOT, AJ is waking me up at night slurping his water dish dry… so I am going to post about a snowy winter trip to the ancient city of Kyoto to cool off.  Our first trip to Kyoto was in July 2010, on a one day trip to see the Gion festival about warding off evil disease kamis… I think, and enjoyed the few sites we saw.  To save money and leave days (time off) we have utilized the base tours as much as possible, and while we want to spend much more time in Kyoto, we figured why not get a cheap tour to four famous spots in the city.  The bus ride from the Kanto plain takes anywhere from 6-10 hours depending on traffic, but Angela and I have always enjoyed bus trips (perhaps stemming from all the band trips we took in high school and college).  Leaving in the cold dark of morning, we were woken by a traffic jam on the freeway, caused by a blinding snowstorm.  The bus plowed through and we arrived in Kyoto on time.

 Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), an ancient Buddhist/shinto complex built along the side of a mountain stream/water fall that has some purification significance.  To get to the complex we had to walk through narrow streets full of street vendors selling shrine trinkets for pilgrims and tourists while in increasing snow flurries.

We walked past the pagoda and through an old building built in the 1600s, with a gigantic wooden stage. The stage was cordoned off as it was explained to us that it was constructed without a single nail… pretty incredible! 


Since we don’t really understand the language or cultural subtleties, we always come across something we think is completely random but must make perfect sense to the Japanese.  Located within the complex was a small Shinto shrine dedicated to finding your soul mate, we think.  There were two “lovers” stones with an associated legend we did not grasp, and were instructed that if a couple stands at each stone some indication of their love or compatibility would be manifested.  Again, I am not really sure what we saw, but took pictures of the sign in English!


Kiyomizu-dera is known for its pure water pouring out a rock waterfall into three distinct streams.  Each one symbolizes health, longevity, or success, respectfully, and as a visitor you would stand in line to use a long wooden cup to scoop up the water you desired.  Except we were freezing and did not want to get cold, but watched others in our tour group drink to health, longevity, or success!


We had some free time so wandered around the commercial district, accepting hot green tea and purchasing regionally flavored kit-kats (success!).  We also tempted fate on some cursed stairs.  According to our tour guide if you slipped down this particular set of stairs you would die within three years.  Angela and I walked carefully and made it without falling, so good for us!


After thawing out on the bus we drove quickly to our second stop, the Moon Bridge of Togetsukyo on the outskirts of town.  On an picturesque shallow river in the rolling mountains was a 20th Century reproduction of a 12th Century bridge emperors in the past would utilize to get to an important shrine across the river.  Around the bridge was a park and numerous stores and restaurants with rickshaw pullers waiting for tourists.  Except an exceptionally sharp windchill prevented anyone from wanting to spend much time outside, and we really didn’t understand what was so significant about the bridge (it had been rebuilt with concrete and did not seem so special to us, but it was very cold and we didn’t understand its history). 

The pour rickshaw pullers were jumping up and down for warmth.  Angela and I walked the main strip looking for a good place to eat, eventually settling on a noodle place overlooking the river.  We had hot tea, beer, and steaming udon noodles.  The meal hit the spot exactly and off we were to our next tour on the whirlwind day.


Our third stop was at one of Japan’s most iconic images, Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺, Temple of the Golden Pavilion).  An enormously wealthy samurai built a house with gold paint on a man-made pond in a beautifully sculptured garden.  Somewhere in history Buddhists turned it into a shrine, perhaps for meditation, I am fuzzy on the history as we got a fly by explanation due the shrines popularity. 

Despite the cold this was the busiest location we visited all day.  Snow piles made the golden building stand out even more, and it sort of glowed when the sun shone directly on it.  Apparently you are supposed to get there right at sunrise to get the days first full sunlight on the building for optimum viewing.  We only had a few minutes to gaze at the building as a long line sort of pushed us through and we had to make our next stop. Angela was playing with her new dlsr camera I had bought for her and was pushed along with the crowd, but managed to get some good pics. We would like to spend more time at the Golden Pavilion, but in a warmer season.


Our last stop was at a Nijo Castle (二条城), a Tokugawa built complex with a wealth of history.  We had actually visited hurriedly the gardens of the castle on our previous visit to Kyoto, but Angela and I had stumbled onto it and only had a few minutes.  This time we got a great tour and got to enter the actual castle building.  Nijo Castle was built by the Tokugawa shoguns in the early 1600s to give them a proper place to reside when visiting the emperor (they had moved the capital to Edo, or modern Tokyo which means “eastern capital”). 

When the emperor regained political power with the Meiji Restoration, the last Tokugawa Shogun in the 1800s relinquished power to the emperor at Nijo Castle, and it is well preserved today.  We had a great tour of the magnificent interior, resplendent with “nightingale” floors.  The wooden floors surrounding the palace had iron hooks underneath them so when you walked on them they “chirped” announcing the presence of would be assassins (ninjas).  While maintained, the floors still sang of our presence!

 Large tatami floored rooms for the shogun and his entourage were painted with beautiful tapestries on the ceilings.  We were shown hidden rooms where body guards would hide in case their samurai lord was in danger (apparently powerful people were marked men in the Edo period). And again we encountered samurai dressed manikins, as we have in virtually every historic place in Japan, which I find a little creepy.  But we had a great interior tour we did not get last time, and then set off on a winding garden tour.  It was neat, but frigid.  I wish we had time to buy tickets to the tea house on property, as we could have warmed up to some hot matcha, but we had to press. 


Soon our whirlwind day in Kyoto was over again and piled onto the bus. A great thing about Japan in winter is the vending machines found on every corner (even along hiking paths) that contain hot and cold drinks.  We bought several cans of hot chocolate or coffee drinks and used them to warm our hands and neck.  Soon I will have enough leave and some spending money and we intend on riding the shinkansen down to Kyoto to spend more than a few hours there, we welcome anyone interested in visiting one of the worlds most cultured cities!