When I arrived in Kyoto the sky was already gray and everything felt damp. My mood was in a similar state, as small things had piled up and were cluttering my mind.
I had missed my Shinkansen at Osaka, as I had again underestimated the travel distances within the metro and train stations. Missing the train was not a big deal, as there were plenty of others. However, I needed help with the new seat reservation. When I pressed the help button at the ticket machine, I was waiting for somebody to come from behind or the side and had a minor heart-attack when suddenly a hidden window next to the ticket machine opened and a Japanese lady pocked her head out. It is a very efficient way to directly help clients, I was just a bit startled by it as I had never seen something like this before.
At that point my mind was already filled with open decisions for what to do in Kyoto. Additionally, a few reservations and bookings for China did not work out, which gave me a bit of a headache as I needed to look into this matter as well.
Figuring out what to do in the next couple of days already felt like to be more than enough for my mind to handle. The change in environment also requires quite some bit of energy. Japan is definitely of a bigger magnitude than South Korea, which is also visible in the amount of people living here (125m in Japan in 2022; 52m in South Korea). In Japan roughly 90% live in urban areas, in South Korea around 80% and for Switzerland it’s around 75%, with 8.7m people living there in 2022. You get a good feeling for this when you walk through the metro and train stations in major cities. Whereas in South Korea I always had a good feeling of where I was and how to get from A to B within the station, in Japan it can be a challenge. Japanese stations can feel like an underground maze, with an indefinite number of stairs, escalators, turns and passages, which made me wonder multiple times where and how far below ground I am. While there are signs and arrows to help you finding your way around, they can also be overwhelming and at the same time missing. On top of all of that, there are massive amounts of people walking through those stations. They always seem to be full.
Along the past couple of weeks, I’ve asked myself many times, if people from South Korea or Japan get some sort of claustrophobia when they visit Switzerland. Not because it is too narrow, but because it is so small in comparison to what they are probably used to or have grown up with. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a judgement on what is good or bad, it’s simply a striking observation once you have seen all of these places.
But what about Kyoto, you might wonder? Even though it rained on most days, I did get to see a lot. I was based in Kyoto and made a day trip to Nara and an evening trip to Kobe for dinner. I’m a bit lazy this time and only give a short summary on what I did on which day, with a bit of more information in the captions of the photos.
Day 1: Fushimi Inari Shrine, Tōfuku-ji Temple, Kinkaku-ji and Bamboo grooves
Kyoto is famous as it was the capital for almost 1100 years (from 794 to 1868). Thus, there is the imperial palace and many shrines and temples to visit. A very famous shrine is the Fushimi Inari shrine, with thousands of torri gates. Even though I was here at 7.15 am, it was already a bit crowded and would have only been worse if I had arrived later. I walked through the gates and followed the path to Mount Inari, which also belongs to the shrine grounds. Luckily, on this path there were not so many people. After visiting the shrine, I went to the nearby Tōfuku-ji Temple, which is a large Zen temple with a wonderful Zen garden. It must be especially worthwhile to visit this temple in autumn once the leaves have turned orange. After this, I headed all the way to the other of Kyoto to see Kinkaku-ji, which is also known as golden pavilion. Unfortunately, you cannot go inside the pavilion and there were a lot of people. Additionally, it was raining so everybody was walking around with umbrellas which were obscuring the view. Last but least, I headed over to the bamboo grooves which were relatively close by (at least when you look at the map). Again, too many people and not so much fun to see in the rain. Also, by then my legs felt heavy and tired from all of the walking. It is still worthwhile to visit, but in Kyoto it really makes sense so plan what to see early in the morning and late at night to avoid the crowds.
Day 2: Todai-ji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara, Kyoto train station and Gion district in Kyoto
If in Kyoto a day-trip to Nara is a must unless you stay there. Nara was Japan’s first capital starting in 710 before it was moved to Kyoto in 794. Even before that Buddhism was flourishing and therefore many Buddhist temples can still be found there. Many of the top sights are located in the same park, where again wild deers wander around (much more than on Miyajima island). Todai-ji is a Buddhist temple and its main hall is one of the world’s largest wooden halls. It contains one of Japan’s largest bronze Buddhas, which is 15m tall and very impressive when you stand below it. Besides Todai-ji, I visited Kasuga Taisha shrine which is famous for its beautiful lanterns. This shrine was built at the same time as the capital and dedicated towards the cities protection. It furthermore served as the protecting shrine for the Fujiwara clan, which was Japan’s most powerful family clan during Nara and Heian Periods (710 – 1185). As the day before was so packed, I decided that two sights are enough and headed back to Kyoto. I remember from my visit to the Umeda Sky building that the same architect had built Kyoto station. So before heading back to my accommodation for a break, I made a tour through Kyoto station. In the evening I went to nearby Gion district, which is Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district. I did not see a Geisha, but I enjoyed the traditional wooden machiya merchant houses there very much.
Day 3: Imperial Palace in Kyoto, port visit and dinner in Kobe
Today was a bit of a lazy day. I joined a public tour to visit the imperial palace in Kyoto in the late morning and wandered a bit through the city before going for a nap. In the evening I headed to Kobe, as I wanted to try Kobe beef in Kobe. As I was a bit early in Kobe, I went to the port and enjoyed the view and salty air there. The Kobe beef was fantastic and it was really cool to see how they prepared everything in front of you.
Day 4: Ginkaku-ji Temple, Nanzen-ji Temple, Suirokaku Aqueduct, Chion-in Daishoro and Kiyomizu-dera Temple
You can visit many of the sights by yourself and there are QR-codes which take you to explanations in English on a website. However, I was not really satisfied with them. For me the main issue was that between the individual descriptions there was no strong link, so I was always wondering what is the story behind all of it. The same applied to some of the public tours I had joined. Besides this, I also had many questions on the history and architecture. That is why I started to look at different tours and ended up booking a private tour to see a Ginkaku-ji temple and Kyomizu-dera temple which I still wanted to visit. I had an amazing tour guide and she put in a few additional stops along the way. I loved to hear the monks chanting at Chion-in temple and learned that if it is a buddhist religious sight it is always called a temple and for Shinto (Japan’s native belief system) it’s called a shrine.
On the last day in Kyoto it was really hot. The sun was shining again and it was very humid. Additionally I finished reading 1984 by George Orwell. It is an interesting novel but at times also depressing. So I’m looking forward to reading something lighter and sunnier days in Tokyo – as this will be my next stop in Japan.