We decided early on we would do at least one day in Kyoto, and instead of paying $150+ on a organised tour we would try and do it on our own.
Getting up early we got ourselves together and jumped into the swamp of Osaka peak hour and a hop, skip and a couple of trains later we arrived at Kyoto Station.
Kyoto Station is one of the biggest in Japan, it may not look that impressive from the outside, however this station has some of the most amazing modern architecture you will ever see. Starting with its mammoth Glass ceiling over the main entrance and the dining and shopping areas this contemporary structure stands out in this famously historic city.
Just outside the entrance we made our way to the bus depot, having done extensive research prior pays off! Kyoto has this bus system called the " Raku Bus" there are roughly four routes and between them they cover all the big tourist spots. In addition to this they also have large LCD displays at the front which announce the upcoming and arriving stops in both Japanese and English! Who needs an overpriced tour?
We had three big landmarks to cover today, Nijo Castle, The Golden Pavilion and Fushimi Inari Shrine. Two would get knocked out with the Raku.
A quick jaunt on the bus and we were staring at the entrance to Nijo Castle. On arrival you are met by impressive castle walls and the most beautiful moat circling the property filled with many Japanese fish, they are huge!
Nijo Castle was originally built in 1626, yeah they mean old here! The castle survived WW2 and has paintings inside that date back to 1700's. Once we entered the grounds and saw the main building in front of us, with a bunch of frenzied tour groups trying to organize themselves, we bypassed them and put our shoes away, and got started. If one wants, they have an audio guide in English, however I find the signs and pamphlet enough.
You follow a set tour path and the coolest thing has to be the floor. I know what you’re thinking, “The floor, there is hundreds of years around you and the floor is the best?” Let me finish and you will understand! The wooden floor was designed back in 1626 and as you walk on it, it makes the sound of a nightingale bird. This was on purpose to alert the Shogun of intruders in the night. The sound is beautiful, and Sam thought it was an audio trick, after several trials of moving on them at different speeds and suddenly stopping he believed the facts! I want these floors in my house.
Once you tour through the majestic building seeing all the amazing silk screen painted walls older than Australia, you end up outside and start the tour of the equally amazing Castle gardens. I'm sure everyone has a image of a Japanese garden from countless movies, well come here and see it for real. This is what I see when I picture a Japanese garden now. The maintenance is impeccable in fact we even saw a gardener sweeping up pine needles of the perfect lawns.
Once we made our way through all the gardens and filled memory cards with photos, we headed out to the Bus stop to only wait a few minutes for our Raku bus to our next stop.
Our next stop on our hit list, is probably one of the most famous sites in Japan, Kinkakuji, or more famously known to us the Golden Pavilion. It's one of the most visited historical sites in Japan, hell, Apple have made an amazing picture of it as one of their pre installed backgrounds on all macs, you know you've made it when Apple pick you up.
The bus ride was about 20 minutes from Nijo, and stopped right outside the grounds. It's location is beautifully woody, with you not being able to see the pavilion itself till your right up at it.
With a history dating back to the 1300′s it’s an amazing way to soak up hundreds of years of history spanning many different eras in Japan. And like most temples/pavilions in Japan they are a cheap way to see the culture and create memories you will keep for a lifetime. We wandered up to the main entrance and got right up to the main view point of the pavilion. This place is a photographers heaven. We took countless photos here with every imaginable angle and function on our DSLR's put to the test. This is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. Try and take a bad photo of it, it's just not possible. The way the gold leaf reflects of the lake in front it’s like a painting.
Once we realised we where hogging prime photo spots for way too long we kept following the stone path past the sides of the pavilion and other temple buildings, including a tree that is hundreds of years old. As you get around the building the gardens are a bit thicker and you get to see some amazing gardens, with many little shrines littered with shiny yen that people have tried to get into the bowl for good luck.
We skipped having a rest at the Tea House, and watched some Japanese women do their Shinto rituals at a small shrine at the end of the path, watching the process is fascinating with each bow, clap and bell ring having its own purpose.
We made our way back to the bus stop and waited for our Raku back to Kyoto Station so we could have some lunch and regroup to finish the day at our final Shrine.
With a quick stop at the mammoth Kyoto Station complex for some shopping and lunch, we headed down to platform 17 for our local JR Rail train to my favorite Shrine The Fushimi Inari Shrine. Located just a few stops from Kyoto station, right outside the Inari Station is the Shrine complex. Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of rice.
Just outside the station, opposite the entrance to the Shrine was a 7-11, Outside almost all stores in Japan you will find a stand to put your umbrella, so you don't get the store wet. Well I was sick of holding the umbrella I brought with me, just in case it rained (Naturally it didn't the day I brought one with me!!) So I decided to leave it here, and see if it would still be there when we returned.
What I love about this Shrine is it's Tori gates, The famous gates usually at the entrance of every Shinto Shrine is a Symbol of Japan recognised the world over and this has the be the largest amount of Tori gates in one area in the world. Fushimi has sprawling paths throughout the grounds that go on for kilometers through the woodlands, and the paths are covered in Tori gates making a tunnel over them, they are just beautiful.
The gates are donations from individuals and corporations to the Shrine and have their details engraved on the columns of the gates in Japanese. Many of the trails lead to smaller shrines and lakes, even to the top of the mountain where the Shrine sits, with amazing views of Kyoto.
Another cool feature of this Shrine is its use of statues of foxes throughout it. These mischievous looking foxes are at the gates, stairways to the shrine and scattered throughout the pathways too. The reason is the foxes are thought to be the messengers of the Inari Shrine so they are prominent throughout it.
We wandered around the grounds and hiked up many of the Tori paths for about 2 hours, watching the sun pierce through the leaves and changing the colour of the environment every few minutes, This could have been the hunger games except with civilized people and you know, the competitive murdering. The Shrine workers were all busy starting to close up for the day when we wandered through asking questions on what the foxes represented and about various little trinkets and tributes you could purchase for luck.
By the time we made it out the sun was getting lower quickly. I was amazed with how much time we passed at one shrine, however this is definitely a favorite that I don't tire of. The Tori gates and tunnels on them are like a maze to another time hundreds of years in Japans past.
Once Sam managed to drag me away from some stalls and after buying a few owl figures and Happy cats, we made our way back to Inari station, but not without going past the 7-11 from hours before, where I left my precious see-through umbrella. This is a true testament to the honesty and good nature of the Japanese people: it was still there! Two hours later! I really doubt if I did the same thing at home it would have lasted 10 minutes out there!
We made our way back to Kyoto station, and abused our glorious Rail passes and jumped on an Shinkansen back to Osaka.