Kyoto's temples, both mainstream and not...Hoshinoya Kyoto hotel a wonder
KYOTO, Japan - It's funny. You go into a place with a certain idea about a place and have it turned on its ear. But you still like it. I don't know why, but I always pictured this city as fairly small and quaint, dotted with temples and fairly tranquil. Then I took the bullet train in from Tokyo on Friday and was greeted by...a big city. Not Tokyo big, but big, with large high-rises and a furiously busy train station (they all are, I bet, in this country).
I didn't quite know what to make of it, but over dinner - with a geisha, no less - I was told not to worry, I'd find everything I was looking for. I did. And a bit less. But also a lot more. I quite liked some of the neighborhoods, where I found a cool-looking cafe called the Pied de Chat, not far from the wonderful smells of the Quatre Saisons Boulangerie.
It was fun strolling the sidewalks and checking out the local shops, although I had to constantly watch for cyclists. Bikes are big in Kyoto, but most cyclists use the sidewalk and not the street, and they're not shy about taking up space. Also interesting was I was in town on a school day and walked past a schoolyard littered with hundreds of bikes. They sat there row upon row, about 15 feet from the sidewalk, and as far as I could tell not a single one was locked. Amazing.
The temples were beautiful, but more crowded than I expected. By the time we got to the last of six on my full-day tour, it was like a huge wave of tourists from around the world had all descended on Kyoto this one day. Still, it was pretty spectacular stuff. I'll do more later in the pages of Star Travel, but here a couple highlights:
- Sanjusangen-do: There are 1001 Buddha statues in a single hall; an overpowering experience. There are about 10 rows rising from the ground level up the side of some steps, as in an arena, and about 100 Buddhas in a row in a temple that's about as long as a football field. Tremendously impressive. They also have Hindu deities, such as gods of thunder and rain, and a single, 3.56 meter-tall Buddha in the middle. I'd never heard of the place, but it's a must-see, and the current building dates back to 1266.
- Nijo Castle. This former shogun's palace has lovely gardens and cool architecture, but the best part I thought was the floors. They were built in such a way that a careless walker makes a loud squeaking noise, which in the old days would've alerted guards to an intruder. A teen's worst nightmare, too. They call them Nightingale floors as the sound is like a bird.
- Kiyumizu-dera is, I think, pretty insane. How touristy is this place? When we got out of our bus and started walking up the hill, past the teeming throngs of visitors, our tour guide told us it would be easy to get lost coming back down. "Just look up and turn left at the giant coffee cup, and when you see the
large, inflatable Spiderman, turn right for the parking lot." Hilarious. There were girls in kimonos, Aussie and Canadians and Euros all basking in the warm sun and listening to the touts calling out for restaurants or green bean pastry and green ice cream, which I forgot to try.
- My personal favourite was a small shrine at the top of a hill near the Hoshinoya Kyoto hotel/ryokan. It's probably not on any organized tours due to its
somewhat remote location, and it's a terribly
ramshackle affair, but I absolutely loved it. It's called the Daihikaku Senkoji Temple, and you can only reach it by walking up the hill about ten minutes
from the luscious Hoshinoya Kyoto hotel/ryokan, or by walking about 20 minutes from the edge of the village of Arashiyama and then taking the hike.
It was built by Suminokura Ryoi in the early 17th century and it's clearly in need of some TLC. A wonderful sign at the bottom of the hill, in fact, warns visitors that there's a "great view" but that the "temple is broken."
When you reach the top of the hill, there's a large bell you can ring for free, and a small building that looks like the Swiss Family Robinson Japan, perched out over the forest with tremendous views of Kyoto and of the Hozugawa or Oigawa River below. The view alone is worth the hike and the $5 admission charge, but equally pleasing is the small shrine to Ryoi, a wealthy merchant who traded with the Vietnamese and helped open the rivers below to navigation. There's a small shrine on one wall, while the other is littered with various missives and political statements, including some of the teachings of Gandhi. There are several pairs of binoculars provided, although a wonderfully kind Japanese man kept insisting I use his modern, expensive ones even though I couldn't adjust
them to my eyes. Outside, there's a bunch of beat-up looking lean-to's and sheds with an old abacus, stacks of incense sticks and a shirne to Ryoi, who looks stern and very much a task-master.
It's a lovely hike and the place has more atmosphere than some of the polished, highly visited spots in town.
Best part of Kyoto to me was the Hoshinoya. I'd never stayed in anything resembling a ryokan so it was a huge treat. Mind you, this ain't your mama-san's ryokan but a reinvention that's right on the river, with the feel of European/North American modern hotel grafted onto the look of a traditional Japanese Inn. You can take a small car on a tiny road at night, but most guests arrive on a small, covered boat that motors slowly up the river. Romantic as hell.
The rooms feel very Japanese, with use of tatami mats and occasional rice paper screens or even a rectangular, wooden bathtub, but they also have Internet, CD's (no Tv's, thankfully), comfortable beds and a wonderful restaurant, as well as 24-hour room service. No forcing you out of bed at 7 a.m. to roll up the futon here, folks.
They teach Japanese cultural classes, including music and the incense ceremony, where I was kind of pathetic in building my ash cone but managed to get the job done. On weekends they add to the atmosphere by having a fellow in traditional costume play the shamisen, like a Japanese violin. Wonderful. Look for more later in Star Travel, but suffice to say it's a magical property and one of the top places I've stayed anywhere in the world.