Japan Diaries — Part 2 | Kyoto & Arashiyama

There are travel destinations in this world that I experience for a few first minutes and know instantly that I would come back again sometime in future. There is an acknowledgement that a single trip just won’t do justice to that place and I long to be more than just a tourist in that city. Kyoto is one of those destinations.

We arrived at Gran Ms Kyoto hotel by early afternoon. This was our day 3 in Japan. During the train ride from Shinjuku, I had come up with a pretty lofty list of destinations to cover during the 4-day stay in Kyoto (yes, last minute planning was a common theme during the entire Japan trip). Below is that list ; italicized items are places that we ended up covering successfully. Needless to say, we visited many more places that were beyond the planned list, some of which were the ones that made Kyoto absolutely memorable.

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Daitoku, Kinkaki ji, Shoren in, Nanzen ji, Honen in, Daigo ji, Path of philosophy, Nishiki market, Nara

As we had the entire evening at our disposal after checking in to the hotel, we ventured out to Nanzen-ji right after. Established in the late 13th century, it’s one of the most important Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto. It had apparently been destroyed by fire and rebuilt multiple times during the various civil wars in the nation.

I’ve been to many countries but somehow Japan stands out in its identity as a country with such violent past and yet one that offers so much peace. How does that work? Is peace a result of its violent past or an effort to avoid such a past in future?

We observed similar motif for a Buddhist temple in Nanzen-ji as was in Senso-ji —dark exterior, a rock garden with stones and sand, a big bell at the entrance.

The most striking difference for me was the surroundings. Forests of eastern Kyoto’s Higashiyama were an extension of Nanzen-ji. There were stairs that led you to a shrine in forest (oh how very apt). We spent a few minutes walking in those woods. Ever felt nostalgic at a place you have never been before? That was the feeling I left with. On a side note, Natsukashii is the Japanese word for nostalgia — one of those beautiful words that mean exactly like they sound.

There is a western-style aqueduct, Suirokaku, built in 1890 on the grounds of Nanzen-ji, which initially seems anachronistic until you walk and walk some more and begin to acknowledge that may be all beautiful structures from various cultures share a sense of belonging. And placing them next to each other does not require any explanation. Apparently the aqueduct is still in use today to bring water from lake Biwa to Kyoto.

Here’s another interesting fact — Nanzen-ji used to be an aristocratic retirement villa and it was turned into a temple after the death of its owner, emperor Kameyama. This pattern — villa turned into a temple — is true for many other Buddhist temples in Japan.

When you visit a place so tranquil, you crave to know how much more splendid it must have been before time took its toll. Or is it the wear and tear of a place that increases the intrigue for us?

On our way back from Nanzen-ji, we saw two women in traditional clothing walking next to old rail tracks. It became a sight to remember Kyoto by.
A stroll after dinner at the underground mall near train station, led us to a large bookstore. We spotted a puzzle book that P had apparently played with as a toddler. Of course, the book made it home back with us.

We spent the evening near our hotel. Dinner was yet another ‘nooolus and soups’, only instead of soba which is what we wanted for dinner, we were lured into a restaurant that we later discovered served pasta noodles. The discovery took place as P noticed Barilla pasta boxes under a counter behind M and me. More than disappointment, we felt relieved because it cleared a lot of confusion we felt while eating what we thought was soba.

Breakfast at Sizuya bakery

The next day (day 4) was earmarked for Arashiyama — our first planned day-trip from Kyoto. After a hearty breakfast at Sizuya, a bakery that would become our go-to breakfast place for the next three days, we took a train to Arashiyama.

We decided to rent a bike to explore Arashiyama. This was one of the best decisions of the trip. There is a lot of ground that you can cover on a bike, especially if you only have one day to spend here.

Garden at Tenryu-ji

The path to Tenryu-ji is a boulevard lined with green trees, houses that look like temples, and lily-pads. Tenryu-ji, an UNESCO world heritage site, is one of the most important temples in Arashiyama and similar to the Nanzen-ji, had been burned down multiple time. Except, its gardens have apparently survived in its original form. And what gardens! I’d think these are images that have inspired authors, poets, and painters. Were the artists who created these landscapes called architects? They must have been authors, poets, and painters themselves.

Rock garden in Arashiyama — the lines represent waves in water. Almost everything in a Zen garden is a symbolism for stillness of the mind (ahukan?).

It took us around a couple of hours to explore Tenryu-ji and its grounds. While every nook and cranny of this landscape has sights to behold, the crowning glory is the Sogen pond. It is not pictured here — a terrible habit I intend to keep, of not taking pictures of views that are beyond words.

After visiting Tenryu-ji, we biked down to the famous bamboo groves. While the groves were green to naked eye, it was interesting that they were rendered almost brown in every picture we took of them. Craning my neck to consider the heights of a bamboo tree, it felt odd to know that the same material is used by Ikea to make cutting boards.

In search of fun facts about bamboo, I discovered that a certain type of bamboo holds a Guinness book of world record for being the fastest growing plant (growing 35 inches in a single day).

There is a certain serenity in the walk (in our case, the ride) across the bamboo grove and yet there is also so much activity in the grove.There is a rail track that cuts across the grove. There is a small shrine — Nonomiya shrine — where one can make a wish (the shrine makes an appearance in The Tales of Genji, arguably world’s first novel). There are wedding couples eager to take pictures. All of this makes you want to be back, in a different season, and for a different sunset.

My favorite spot in all of Arashiyama became this place called Gio-ji. A thatch-roofed temple with thick moss-covered garden. I wanted to hear the stories behind this place — its richness and its mysteries. Unfortunately, all the guides and blogs will have you believe is that it is “Kyoto’s hidden gem”. And also that it is named after Gio, a dancer from Heian-era, who became a nun after her relationship ended with a clan leader. Heian era is approximately 10th century. A place this beautiful cannot not have stories from its past one thousand years. Unless, there are story tellers here, who have an annoying habit of not sharing the most interesting ones with the world.

For lunch, we found a little udon place on our ride back from Gio-ji to Arashiyama station. We finally ate the much-anticipated soba noodles that we had been craving for a long time. Sitting in this eatery, surrounded by red, orange and green colors, looking at the bamboo decor, and smelling something so familiar gave me a feeling of deja-vu.
Mitarashi-Dango. small rice dumplings on skewers covered with a sweet sauce. P says the sauce is made up of molasses and therefore is nutrient-heavy. The flavor was reminiscent of my childhood. Pethay?
Stopped to eat at Nishiki market. There was a tantrum in order — you wouldn’t know if I didn’t tell you.

We had promised M a visit to monkeys however the Monkey park in Arashiyama was closed due to the typhoon. We were lucky M was asleep by the time we rode down to the park entrance.

We took that opportunity to bike along the banks of Katsura river, with Togetsu-kyu (bridge) in the background. If in Arashiyama, it is an experience that one must not go home without.

We were back in our hotel by early evening and decided to head out to the Nishiki market that night. Luckily it was just a 10 minutes walk from our hotel.

To have fresh sea-food dinner while exploring the market was a perfect way to wrap up the first full day in Kyoto.

When we make a city a base-city to explore other destinations, it tends to become a home away from home. Although we remained excited for the rest of our trip to unfold, Kyoto became our home away from home for the next four days.