Category: Kyoto

Kyoto: The Most Famous Sights

I absolutely adore Kyoto, it’s like a second home to me. Not only is it where my mother was born and raised, but I also studied there during my exchange year abroad, which was hands down the best year of my life so far. I’ve been there so many times and yet I can never get enough of it!

Kyoto is known as the historical and cultural center of Japan and it was the imperial capital of the country for over a thousand years. The city is home to over 2,000 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and it is one of the best preserved cities in Japan. So without further ado, here are some of Kyoto’s most famous sights:

The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji is a famous temple in Kyoto and it is one of the most popular buildings in Japan. The temple is covered in gold leaf and the surrounding gardens are based on Muromachi Period garden design. You can’t actually enter the golden temple – you can only walk around it and through the gardens (I know, I was disappointed by that too).

Warning: The Golden Pavilion is extremely popular with tourists and Japanese school trips and it can get very crowded, so avoid going at peak hours!

Japanese wedding ceremony at Kamigamo Shrine

Kamigamo Shrine in northern Kyoto is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan and it is classed as an UNESCO World Heritage site. Kyoto’s Kamo River runs north-east through the city (this direction was believed to be inauspicious) so Kamigamo Shrine and Shimogamo Shrine further south, were both built to protect Kyoto from misfortune.

Kiyomizu Temple at night lit up in autumn

Kiyomizu-dera is another famous temple of Kyoto and it is also classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main building is supported by wooden pillars that are 13 metres high and not a single nail was used to build the whole structure. Every autumn, there is a light up event held there where visitors can go at night and see the temple and surrounding trees’ red leaves illuminated by lights.

Heian Shrine’s massive torii gate

Heian Shrine or Heian-jingu is a Shinto shrine in Kyoto with a huge torii gate at its entrance – one of the biggest in Japan.

Heian-jingu Shrine

 

Kyoto Tower

The Kyoto Tower was built in 1964 and it is the tallest structure in Kyoto, standing at 100 metres high. The shape and colour of the tower is supposed to represent a candle and the observation deck allows visitors to see a 360 degree view of the city.

Kyoto Maiko and Geiko

Maiko and Geiko are famous icons of Kyoto and are masters of traditional Japanese dance, song, calligraphy and musical instruments. The Maiko are young apprentices who are typically aged 15 to 20 years old. They train and master their skills until they are old enough to be a fully fledged Geiko.

The Gion district and Pontocho are famous Maiko and Geiko spotting areas, but be careful that they aren’t just tourists dressed up in their costumes! (I also got to dress up as a Maiko in Gion and I was mistaken as the real thing by people passing by!)

Ginkakuji – The Silver Pavilion

The Silver Pavilion or Ginkaku-ji is a famous Zen temple in Kyoto which was supposed to be layered in silver foil, but was never finished. The gardens around the temple are beautiful and I secretly liked them better than the Golden Pavilion’s garden. You could even get a nice view of the city from the Ginkaku-ji’s gardens.

Aoi Festival

The Aoi Matsuri or Hollyhock Festival is one of three big  festivals held in Kyoto every year. It is a festival of the two Kamo shrines I mentioned earlier – the Kamigamo Shrine and Shimogamo Shrine. Over six hundred people dressed in traditional Heian costume participate in the festival procession, which starts at the Kyoto Imperial Palace and makes its way to Shimogamo Shrine and then Kamigamo Shrine.

Gion Festival

Kyoto’s annual Gion Matsuri is the biggest festival of all and one of the three great festivals of Japan. The Gion matsuri is a month long and the parade at the end of July involves huge wooden floats draped in historic tapestries to be pulled through the main streets of Kyoto.

In the nights leading up to the parade, main roads in the city are only accessible by pedestrians and are full of food stalls and viewings of traditional Kyoto houses and family heirlooms. It was the most amazing festival I have ever been to!

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Shrine which I covered in an earlier post, is my favourite shrine in Kyoto. Thousands of red torii gates standing one after another wind their way up the Inari mountain and the result is just magical.

Cherry blossoms by the Kamo River

The Kamo River that runs through Kyoto is a popular place for locals to walk, bike or sit beside – especially in spring when the banks are lined with blooming cherry blossom flowers. In summer near Sanjo, restaurants open up their famous decks that overlook the river and the banks are full of couples sitting by the river enjoying each other’s company.


So, did you enjoy Kyoto? Would you like to go there?

You can’t go to Japan without visiting Kyoto!


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Japan: The Cat Café Experience

Cat Café Nekokaigi

Warning: This post contains a lot of cute cats.

While I was living in Kyoto, I got the chance to visit one of Japan’s most famous cat cafés called Cat Café Nekokaigi. The café is located in the heart of Kyoto and if you haven’t guessed already by the name, it is a place where you can play and relax with cats whilst sipping leisurely on your tea or coffee.

So basically, it’s the best café ever.

Lids for the drinks to keep the cats out

The admission fee was 900 Yen for an hour and an extra 400 Yen for every thirty minutes after that. You could order hot or cold drinks there which were 200 Yen each, but it wasn’t compulsory to buy drinks. After stowing away our bags in the lockers provided, we ordered one iced coffee and one iced chocolate, respectively.

And then it was time to play! There were about six or seven cats lounging about the room who you could play with using the cat toys provided – or you could just sit back and relax whilst observing their funny feline ways.

Surprisingly, cat cafés do not rank that high on the zany Japanese idea list compared to the likes of the prison-themed cafés, ninja restaurants and of course, the infamous maid cafés dotted around the country. A cat café seems pretty normal compared to that, I think!

A lot of apartments in Japan are either too small to have pets or don’t allow pets at all, so Japanese cat lovers flock to places like this to get their feline fix.

There have been a lot of experiments and studies done about the healing power of animals and being surrounded by cats seems like a pretty perfect way to unwind and de-stress!

Although it was really fun to play with the cats, I couldn’t help but wonder if this café was their only home. The room was big, but it didn’t have any access to outside (it was located on the second storey) and I hoped the cats weren’t cooped up in there all day, every day. Some of them did seem a little bored with all of the constant attention.

The café’s poster child

Other than that, it was a really fun experience that is perfect for any cat lover!

The very fitting Nekobus clock in the café

For more information about the café and their resident cats visit:

Cat Café Nekokaigi – Japanese Website

Cat Café Nekokaigi – English Website

So cute ♥

So, did you enjoy the Japanese cat café experience?

Would you like to go to one too? Do you know of any others?


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Kyoto: My All Time Favourite Shrine is Fushimi Inari Taisha

The Main Gate of Fushimi Inari Shrine

If you told me you only had time to go to one out of the hundreds of shrines in Kyoto, I would immediately try to convince you to go to Fushimi Inari Shrine. Fushimi Inari Shrine is located on Inari Mountain in the Fushimi Ward of Kyoto, which is a five minute train ride away on the JR Line from Kyoto Station.

Inari’s fox messengers guarding the gate, one with a key in its mouth

Fushimi Inari is the head shrine of the popular Inari kami/god, who is the patron of rice, business, agriculture, sake and fertility. More than a third of all Shinto shrines across Japan are dedicated to Inari and white foxes are said to act as Inari’s messengers. The fox can often be seen with a key in its mouth, which symbolises it guarding the key to the granery where the rice is stored.

The start of the path lined by huge torii gates

But the really spectacular thing that makes Fushimi Inari Shrine my favourite is the torii gates – the hundreds and thousands of gates that wind their way up the mountain, one after another. Every torii has been donated by a Japanese company as a wish for prosperity and good business and the name of the company is inscribed on each gate.

The gates make an illusion of a tunnel all the way up the mountain

It’s about a two hour walk to the summit through the gates, beautiful forest landscape and past the smaller shrines that dot the mountain. Although it looks like there’s not another soul to be seen – don’t be fooled by my photos.

Fushimi Inari is very popular and if you go there, you will be elbowing a lot of tourists and schoolkids on field trips out of the way. If you want total peace and quiet while you meander, I would suggest going earlier in the morning but if not, the further you go up the mountain, the less people you will encounter anyway.

Omokaru ishi, the heavy-light rocks

At Fushimi Inari, you will also come across the omokaru ishi or the heavy-light rocks. You’re supposed to think of what you wish/pray for and then hold up one of the rocks. If the rock feels light to you, it means that your endeavour will go well and if it feels heavy, then it may be a sign that it won’t.

Fushimi Inari’s fox fountain

I’ve always been a fan of foxes, so all of the fox imagery was right up my alley!

Fox statue with a red bib

Foxes or kitsune have always been a common subject in Japanese folklore and they were usually portrayed as cunning, manipulative and with shape shifting abilities. Sometimes they were depicted with more than one tail, even up to nine (think of Nine Tails from Pokemon) and the more they had, the more powerful they were said to be.

Fushimi Inari’s fox-shaped ema

At most shrines in Japan, you can buy a wooden plaque called an ema to write your wishes or prayers on and then hang it up at the shrine for the kami/god(s) to receive it. The ema usually has a design on it that matches the symbols of the shrine and Fushimi Inari had ones shaped as a fox face, where people took that as a free license to draw their own funny facial expressions on.

Fushimi Inari’s torii-shaped ema

Understandably, they also sold ones shaped like torii gates.

Natural cooling system

We went up Fushimi Inari mid-afternoon of a midsummer’s day, which was probably the worst possible time we could have gone in terms of crowds and unbearable heat. Halfway up the mountain we came across a little shop selling drinks that they’d kept chilled in a stone fountain – it was a very welcoming sight.

Beware of monkeys sign…that last line though

Watch out for wild monkeys!

Please

  • Do not take pictures
  • Do not feed the monkeys
  • Do not make eye contact
  • Do not show food

If they approach, pick up rocks and pretend to throw at them.

Kyoto City / Fushimi Inari Shrine

I didn’t see any wild monkeys that I had to pretend to throw rocks at, but I did spot this cute creature nestled in the leaves.

Fox souvenirs

All of the little gift shops leading up to the shrine had fox-themed gifts and these three were my favourite.

Oh Kyoto, how I miss you so!

 


So, did you like Fushimi Inari Shrine?

Did you learn something new about Japan?


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10 Things About Japan That May Surprise You

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A cute vending machine in Chinatown, Kobe

1. Cash Society

Although Japan is well known for being a world leader in new technology, the vast majority of people still use cash for almost all daily transactions. Coming from a place like New Zealand where all that I carry in my wallet are cards and I haven’t even possessed a $10 note in months, it takes some getting used to. You pay large sums of money like your monthly rent in cash and get paid your salary in cash too. It was so weird to get used to packing enough money I thought I needed for the day and sometimes my estimations were way off!

2. CD Sales

Like the cash thing, the concept of buying CDs is still very  much alive in Japan. When most of the world has moved on to buying digitally on iTunes and listening for free on Spotify, Japan’s CD sales are still pretty stable. Most Japanese music artists release their albums with bonus features like music videos and behind the scenes footage and the fans clamour to get their hands on it. However, what never fails to surprise me is how expensive these CDs and DVDs are!

3. Second Hand Shops

When you think about second hand shops, you immediately think dirty, ripped, manky old things that nobody would actually buy but when you get to Japan, prepare to think again. Japan has countless numbers of second hand shops that sell books, comics, CDs/DVDs, games etc. and all of these products are in pristine condition. Like, most of them look brand new but without the brand new price tag. Japanese people are well known for looking after their own property and this is the proof. If you buy these items and keep them in pristine condition too, you can even sell it back to these shops.

4. Vending Machines

This one may not be such a surprise but Japan has vending machines everywhere, literally on every street corner and they sell anything and everything. Of course you have your standard cold drinks but you also have hot drinks, hot soup, hot meals, ice creams, bento boxes, cigarettes and much more. There are actually more vending machines in Japan than there are people in New Zealand. Wait, what? Just let that fact sink in for a minute.

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Häagen-Dazs vending machine at Kinkakuji Temple, Kyoto

5. Common Courtesy

Social etiquette while on public transport is still prevalent in Japan, especially if you’re out of the major metropolitan cities. Most people will stand up to give their seat to older people or parents with small children, they will talk quietly with each other on trains and not talk on mobile phones in buses so as not to disturb the peace. They will also diligently stand in a line on the left side of escalators to keep the right side free for people in a hurry. It can be a delight to watch.

6. Lacking Common Courtesy

But just when you’re thinking Japanese people are all considerate and lovely in public, they can also shock you. I’d always thought that holding a door open for the person coming in behind you was something anyone does automatically, a common courtesy, yet I was very much mistaken. Every time I would hold the door for someone out of pure habit, they would act so surprised and bow their head and go straight past me and through the door, with me still holding it. Like I was a doorman or something. And bad luck if there was more people behind that first person – you will be holding the door for all of them until there’s a break in the crowd and you can escape.

7. Cheap Alcohol

Buying things like fruit, veges and dairy products in Japan was expensive but alcohol was CHEAP. Oh, so cheap! Of course I’m comparing this to New Zealand prices, but I was shocked at how cheap you could buy alcohol, especially imported stuff. I was so used to spending a small fortune on drinks on a night out, but was pleasantly surprised after landing in Japan. I was also chuffed at the fact that there was no liquor ban in Kyoto like there was back home; I could walk the streets slurping whatever alcoholic beverage I liked and no one gave a damn. It was great!

8. Clubbing 

I don’t know about Westernised cities like Tokyo, but if you say you want to go clubbing to Kyoto friends, they will look at you a little weirdly. Clubbing in Kyoto seems to be reserved only for the loose or ‘charai’ people and when I did go clubbing with some foreign friends, I could see what the Kyoto people meant. It actually put me off clubbing in a way.

9. Bike Culture

If you bike regularly in New Zealand, you are usually serious about it and do it in the right cycling gear with the right bike for your purpose (road/off road/mountain etc.) but in Japan, biking was what everyone did out of necessity. It was your main transport, it was what got you from point A to Point B and you wore whatever you were wearing that day to ride it (even if you were in a suit or kimono!). With no helmet in sight, might I add. It was a stark contrast.

10. Fashion

Attending university everyday, I was always struck by how well dressed the students were – especially the ladies. So much thought and care went into their outfit everyday, whereas there I was in the T-shirt and shorts I threw on so as not to be late for class. They also wore high heels, like really high heels for classes even though our uni was on a hill, which meant slopes and uneven ground = high heel nightmare. They wore the sort of shoes I’d only consider wearing on a night out on the town. I think standards of dressing nice in Kyoto are particularly high because of its reputation of good taste and refinement.

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Beautiful shoe heaven in Avanti, Kyoto

So, did you like my ten things?

What were you surprised about when you went to Japan?