From Tokyo to Kyoto: The Emperor’s birthday and the Land of 1,000 Temples

On December 23 it was Emperor Akihito’s birthday so I decided to go to the imperial palace since it would be open on this day. I had visited the palace before but only wandered around outside with friends since it is only opened twice a year to the public.I was seemingly one of the few foreigners that went to the palace but that’s okay, I like doing weird things. This was one of the few times where I saw a lot of Japanese flags, a rare sight given that most people in Japan aren’t flag waving patriots in the same way that exists in the U.S.

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Entering the palace
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Emperor Akihito and flag waving crowds

Afterwards I ate breakfast at Meiji Gakuin with my Japanese buddies (Yurina, Moeka, Azumi and Memi). After talking together and enjoying some food, we parted ways as I went back to prepare my luggage to travel to Kyoto. On that same night I went to Kanagawa in order to take the night bus to Kyoto from there. The Christmas decorations illuminated the entire shopping mall that was styled after European architecture. After several hours of waiting, I was able to take the bus and ended up arriving to Kyoto at 5am.

The first day in Kyoto was a long one, especially since I had a good amount of things with me to carry. Since it was really early there were very few things open, but I was able to ask two people at Kyoto station as to where I could get the all-day bus pass. Surprisingly I was able to understand given my limited Japanese though the bus station was closed until around 7am. I decided to walk to my first stop, Toji Temple the tallest pagoda in Japan which dates back to the year 796. I knew it was relatively close to the station though since I was not familiar with the area, it felt a lot longer than it actually was. I arrived at the temple just as the sun began to dawn and it cast a mystical feeling over the whole area.

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Toji just before sunrise

Afterwards I back-tracked to Kyoto station and bought the bus-pass. From there I took a bus to Kinkakuji because it is one of the most iconic places in Kyoto and one of the farthest from the center. After some confusion I was able to finally find the temple and walk around the grounds. Admittedly I was expecting it to be bigger, nevertheless the sun made the golden temple to shine much more brilliantly. As part of Kyoto’s 17 locations denoted as World Heritage Sights, Kinkakuji  offers a glimpse at different architectural styles in Japan with each of its three floors having a different design (Shinden, samurai and zen). In addition to Kinkakuji, I also went to the old imperial palace in Kyoto. The grounds of the palace were massive and it actually was pretty tiring to try to walk around, in particular due to the path being made out of tiny pebbles. There I could also observe lots of monks just walking around.

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Kinkakuji and the reflection on the pond

Following the imperial palace, I walked for a bit towards my next temple objective. I started to get hungry from all the walking and I had yet to actually eat breakfast anywhere. On the path towards Kiyomizu-dera (where emperors were crowned) there were many shops that had the iconic mochi sweets of Kyoto. Many of these shops offered free samples that clients could sample for themselves. I of course took advantage of this and ate quite a substantial amount of sweets and drank a good amount of tea. I also bought some mochi to take back as omiyage (souvenir given to friends and family). At Kiyomizu-dera, the battery in my camera started to get drained. Fortunately I was able to take many good pictures before it was drained. The temple’s impressive architecture uses the same techniques of Japanese buildings at the time,  such as buildings in Nara and Kamakura, which rely on friction to maintain the building in place rather than relying on nails to fasten wooden beams. After the temple, I took the advice of my Japanese buddies and went to get a parfait. It combined several of Kyoto’s iconic food ( matcha ice cream, taro, red beans, mochi, and sponge cake.

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This is basically mochi and matcha street
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Kiyomizu-dera’s all-wood structure
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The famous Kyoto parfait

My final stop for the day was Fushimi-Inari Shrine and it’s 10,000 or more torii gates. It was here that unfortunately the battery in my camera was completely drained, leaving me without the possibility of taking more pictures aside from the ones that I had already taken. Still, I was able to take a few really good pictures of the torii gates but none with me in them. Each torii was donated by a different business  since Inari is said to be the patron god of business and rice. The entire 2.5 kilometers uphill takes about 2 hours with the seemingly endless gates encasing the path the entire way, it’s almost surreal to walk along it.  That night at the hostel there was a party presented by the staff since it was Christmas Eve. We were able to mingle with other travelers and talk about our experiences. Also they had an all-you-can eat taco bar so obviously I took advantage of that, especially since I had not had the healthiest food during the day. The next day would be Christmas and I had to get some sleep for another long day ahead.

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