Accommodation – bAKpAK Gion Hostel
Kyoto, the city of geishas, historic temples and old streets was a surprisingly expensive place to visit. Well, I guess it was understandable since it’s a ‘must visit’ destination for anyone visiting Japan for the first time. For me it was my second so it was somewhat less charming and a bit familar. As it was Yuye’s first, I thought we had to visit just as a matter of formality.
The expensive factor could clearly be seen just based on the accommodation available compared to its neighbour Osaka (just 20 minutes away by Shinkansen). I’m not sure whether it was because of the ‘Light Up’ festival that just happened to be in town but the cheapest accommodation I could find was a crappy, smelly and not so hygienic hostel called bAKpAK Gion Hostel. Even then it was $75 per night (my proper hotels in Osaka cost less than this). The better hotels were ridiculous in terms of price, especially in such a central location (Gion in pretty much the centre of all the hustle and bustle). The hostel was by far the worst I’ve been in (I’ve travelled quite a bit but I must say hostels were never really my thing). It was shared toilets and bathrooms and no elevators. Yuye and I had to carry very heavy luggage up 4.5 levels before we reached our dingy old room. The only slippers left by the front door were a pair of almost broken ones and 2 right foot slippers (which Yuye used). Although uncomfortable to say the least, I managed to get a bit of entertainment from watching Yuye clumsily walking around with his pair.
There were no receptions at this hostel, the reception is at their other location just about one block up the road so you can imagine that this place is probably a little bit neglected. Anyhow, the view out of the window was somewhat decent although the road just downstairs was quite busy and there were loud traffic all throughout the night.
Never again will I stay at a hostel like this, I’ve learnt my lesson that hostels are not my thing, especially not shared toilet/bathroom ones. I had this revelation not from the slippers or smelly room and corridors but rather the odd morning story of me sitting in the shared toilet when this toddler knocks on the door and asks ‘daddy, are you in there?’ and I answered in a tiny voice ‘umm….no….sorry.’ The dad yelled out ‘sorry, hope my kid didn’t disturb you!’. No, I don’t particularly like having a conversation with strangers when I’m in the toilet thank you. Then I head downstairs to the showers where the sink is because there were no sinks at the toilet to brush my teeth. Fantastic. I see a half naked white man walk out of the shower and he greeted me. Nice fellow but yet again not the kind of scenery I’m in Kyoto to enjoy. A better option would have been to stay in Osaka for the whole duration and shinkansen to Kyoto for day trips which only takes 20 minutes each way.
The temples and shrines & Higashiyama Hanatouro 2011 東山花灯路 (light up festival in Higashiyama, Kyoto)
The Hanatouro is meant to be an annual light up festival in two areas of Kyoto (Higashiyama and Arashiyama). Higashiyama is where Gion and the city is located and is where we were. About 2500 lanterns along the walkways connecting various temples were meant to be lit up at night along with the illumination of major temples and buildings. This year, although the temple grounds were illuminated, the lanterns were sadly not in order to conserve electricity after the big earthquake. Although I didn’t get to bathe in the glory of all those lanterns, I did manage to catch a glimpse of magnificent temples otherwise un-enterable in the dark.
Our itinerary for the day went something like this: walk around Gion and look at shops, lunch, walk to Yasaka Shrine during the day, walk to Kodaiji Temple and Ryozen Kannon (right next to Kodaiji Temple), walk through the preserved historic streets of Higashiyama, passing by beautiful food and souvenir shops and finally reaching Kiyomizu-dera. After dark, we returned inside Kiyomizu-dera for the light up show, walked outside along the path we came and went all the way back to Yasaka Shrine to end our day. Dinner came after of course.
Kiyomizu-dera is probably the most popular and famous tourist destination in Kyoto. The temple is set on top of a hill and overlooks the city with magnificent views especially at dusk. It’s a Buddhist temple that dates back to the year 798 and there no nails whatsoever were used during construction. Kiyomizu-dera is especially beautiful during Spring and Autumn when sakura trees and maple leaves are present, however, we had just missed the sakura season by around 2 weeks.
|Main gate of Kiyomizu-dera|
|I instantly fell in love with these dogs!! Even the owners look like they’re posing for photos 😀|
|The most famous shot of the temple. It’s built around 13 metres off the ground.|
There are many smaller shrines and halls within the grounds of Kiyomizu-dera. One of them being Jishu Shrine which is dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. There are two ‘love stones’ in the shrine that are 18 metres apart and if one can walk with their eyes closed from one stone to the other then they are said to have luck in love. I didn’t dare do the walking, partly because I’m very clumsy and would probably have fallen over before I’m anywhere near the other stone and well…perhaps I was a little afraid to find out in case I have bad luck.
|One of two ‘love stones’ in the temple, if you walk with your eyes closed from one to the other, it’s said you have good luck in love.|
At the foot of the main hall in Kiyomizu is Otowa Waterfall. It’s a very popular tourist spot where people stand at one of the three streams and drink the water using the ladle. It’s suppose to bring good fortune in health, school and love depending on which stream you drink from.
|Otowa Waterfall, there’s always a big line to drink from one of the streams to get good luck.|
|Girls dressed in kimonos, ready for the Hanatouro festival (which sadly was partly cancelled).|
Entrance into Kiyomizu-dera costs 300yen per person and is open from 6am to 6pm everyday of the year.
During the Hanatouro, Kiyomizu-dera is re-opened to the public at 6:30pm with an additional 400yen per person entrance fee where you can enjoy the night view of the city from the top of the temple as well as the illumination show inside. The light up is magnificent even if you don’t go inside and is highly recommended if you’re in the city during the festival. There is also another light up show in Autumn between mid November to early December.
Just as Yuye and I were about to leave Kiyomizu, a group of school kids wearing bright red uniforms marched up the stairs of the temple and started to sing and dance. I found out that this is an annual event performed by the Fire Watch and Ohayashi Music Group during the festival where local school kids sing about walking through the ‘Lanterns and Flower Lane’. This year, the children sang not only for the festival but were also fundraising for the earthquake. Many people donated money as they watched and listened.
|School kids singing and dancing at Kiyomizu-dera, fundraising for the earthquake|
The path that leads up to Kiyomizu-dera is also nothing short of stunning. If it wasn’t for all the tourists blocking my way, I’d have thought I had walked straight into the Edo period of Japan. Cute souvenir shops and teahouses lined the streets that are full of history and character. It made the uphill hike to Kiyomizu-dera easy and fun and we managed to pick up a few souvenirs and sweets along the way too.
|Mochi with green tea custard filling|
|A Studio Ghibli merchandise store on the way to Kiyomizu-dera|
|A pottery making studio|
|Sakura shaped and flavoured macarons|
|Green tea biscuits with white chocolate filling, so delicious! That’s me in the reflection 😀|
Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社)
Also one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto, it is located in Gion, the heart of the geisha district. The most distinguishing feature are the many lanterns that hang by the gate and middle stage which get lit up every evening. It was also part of the Hanatouro 2011 however, as I had never been to the festival before, I wasn’t sure if part or all of the festival had been cancelled at Yasaka Shrine. All I saw were the lit up lanterns which seemed to be a normal occurrence anyway. The only difference were the food and souvenir stalls inside the entrance to the shrine that only appear during festivals.
A popular tourist route is to start at Yasaka Shrine (or end here) and follow the path towards Kiyomizu-dera which will pass Kodaiji Temple and the old streets of Gion. Yasaka Shrine is free to enter and is open all year round.
|Main gate of Yasaka Shrine, it’s free to enter|
|Food and merchandise stalls set up for the Hanatouro festival|
The feel and look of the place sure changed quickly when day turned to night.
We were so hungry that we just had to grab a yakitori (chicken skewer) from one of the stalls outside before we got the chance to have proper dinner. It was totally delicious although at that stage anything would have tasted good.
|Yakitori (chicken skewers) from a food stall|
Kodaiji Temple and Ryozen Kannon
It was stupid but because I didn’t do my homework properly (I didn’t research about all the temples near Yasaka Shrine) Yuye and I didn’t actually go into Kodaiji Temple, not even for the light up festival. It apparently has a beautiful Japanese garden at the back. The only thing I could do was tell myself it wouldn’t have been pretty anyway because it was Winter.
|Kodaiji Temple, but we didn’t go in|
We did go into the Ryozen Kannon area though because the big Kannon stone statue could be seen from very far away. It was huge! Not as big at the Big Buddha in Nara of course. The Kannon statue was built to commemorate the people who died in World War II in the area of Eastern Kyoto where the Kannon is situated. Ryozen Kannon is open to the public between 8:30am and 4:30pm and costs 300yen to enter.
|Ryozen Kannon – WWII memorial|
|Inside of the Kannon – there’s a small door at the back of the statue where you can walk inside|
A great thing about being in Kyoto during a festival is the number of people dressed in kimonos walking around. The first time I was in Kyoto, I was lucky enough to be there during the time of “Seijin no hi”, a coming of age ceremony for all young adults turning 20 that year which is held at the beginning of January. Lots and lots of young Japanese people (both men and women) were dressed up and they looked stunning! This year it was the Hanatouro. Lots of people were dressed up but they were definitely not as fancy and there were no men at all. It was still a great sight though.
I know you’ve all been waiting for this but it really wasn’t as exciting as I’d have liked. Kyoto’s famous for its kaiseki ryori which are big banquets of lots and lots of small portions of colourful dishes put together using the freshest and best ingredients that’s in season. Such food is so expensive it’s hard to understand sometimes but I suppose a lot of intricate work goes into each and every one of those dishes. Some meals can go up to $400 per person. Instead of having one of those exciting meals, we opted for the cheaper option of having ramen and Japanese curry. A bit boring I know but it’s all in the name of budget traveling.
As expected we woke up everyday just before lunch time so naturally there was no space to fit in breakfast. For brunch on the first day in Kyoto, we ate at a place called Asanuma Cafe in Gion (珈琲家あさぬま祇園店). I can’t remember the prices anymore but it wasn’t expensive. We ordered two curry sets, mine came with 2 croquettes, a coffee, a salad and a blueberry yoghurt dessert and Yuye’s came with a crispy pork cutlet, a coffee and a blueberry yoghurt. The curries were great. They were very tasty, rich and just the right amount of hotness. Both the croquettes and pork cutlet were crispy and well made.
Only one set came with salad which was ok since it was just really lettuce with mayonnaise. They may have put a bit of paprika on top but I couldn’t taste it.
The yoghurt dessert was creamy and not too sweet. It was quite refreshing after eating all the filling and spicy curry and was a nice palate cleanser.
The coffees were strong which I enjoyed. I usually ask for double shots when I get coffees but this one was fine. Yuye’s coffee already had milk added to it so it wasn’t as strong as my one. I had the choice to add my own milk.
Gion was bustling with lights and people at night. As we were both so tired and hungry, we decided to just stay in Gion that night rather than crossing the river to the shopping part of town.
After we had that chicken skewer at Yasaka Shrine, we were feeling more and more hungry. Yuye suggested we find a place where we could have more skewers and I agreed. That skewer just wasn’t enough to satisfy our hunger and cravings! We walked and walked and couldn’t find a suitable place. At last, we settled with this Izakaya type restaurant called Gion Shimedokoro Ryu (祇園しめ処龍) where everyone sat at the counter and the skewers were cooked in front of us. Proper dishes such as noodles were still cooked in the kitchen though.
Yuye ordered a shoyu (soy sauce) based udon but we had no idea what the meat like thing was in the soup. Seriously. We were trying very hard to read off the Japanese menu and he just ended up picking some unfamiliar dish because he was intrigued by what it might be. The bits of meat looking floating things tasted a bit like pork fat or skin but we were not sure. All I remember was that they were a bit chewy. Only after we ordered everything that we were told there was an English menu.
I clearly didn’t have enough curry at lunch because I ended up ordering curry udon with chicken for myself. Both udon dishes were quite average, tasty but not as generous as I’d have liked. I only got a few small piece of chicken in my dish.
We also ordered a few skewers as that was what we went there for, they averaged around 200yen each skewer. First were two fried skewers. I can’t quite remember what was in them though. But in truth, after dipping the skewers in tonkatsu sauce, everything starts to taste the same.
The chicken back meat called seseri (セセリ）was quite nice. It was so juicy and tender, I think it was Yuye’s favourite throughout the whole trip. So much so that he ordered 3 in total at Ryu and a huge plate of it at another izakaya in Osaka.
The 200yen wagyu skewers were also fantastic. I personally liked it more than the chicken. It was so soft it almost melted in my mouth. For 200yen, I’d happily eat it all day!
Then we ordered a negi (leek) and another meat one. I can’t remember what type of meat this one was though but was obviously not as memorable as the chicken back and wagyu.
The waitstaff were very friendly and the place was surprisingly good for foreigners. The girl behind the counter started asking us all kinds of questions like ‘are you on your honeymoon?’ to which the answer was no of course and then they asked whether they could take a polaroid photo of us and we write a message on it so they can stick it up on their wall along with all the other foreigners who ate at this restaurant. How interesting! We gladly agreed although I didn’t have the heart to check how ugly I really looked in the photo
Although the udon dishes were average, the skewers were quite nice. I would go back to this store though just to check out that photo. 😛
That’s it for this post about Kyoto, but it’s only part 1. My next Japan post will be part 2 of Kyoto where we visited the all so famous Kinkakuji, the temple made of old and Fushimi Inari Shrine with its never-ending torii gates that wind up the mountain slope and of course, more food. Stay tuned my readers!