We departed Hiroshima on the Shinkansen (Bullet train) at 14:52 bound for Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan from 794-1869 AD. One of the things that we LOVED about being on an organised tour was the level of organisation that went into ensuring the tour ran smoothly. For example, our tour manager, John, gave us all our seat reservations prior to getting on each train, then our local guide made a point of telling us which door to get onto the train, splitting the group into two and assigning a different door to each half. The reason for this wasn’t that he was being bossy… The bullet train literally stops for 2 minutes only, 35 Brits dawdling onto the train would definitely exceed this 2 minute window; by spitting us into the two groups, and trucking our luggage from hotel to hotel meant we could all get onto the train and be seated in time and no one got left behind.
We had 3 nights at the ANA Crowne Plaza Kyoto, which was right opposite Nijo Castle and a half an hour walk or 10 minute subway ride into the old part of town. On our first night we wandered up to Pontocho Alley, a traditional narrow lane crammed with old wooden tea houses that are now restaurants. The street was lit by lanterns and bustling with hungry tourists, ourselves included, so we quickly chose a restaurant, took our shoes off and had a wonderful meal overlooking the river. We had an assortment of Japanese dishes as an appetiser and then Udon noodles wrapped in Kyoto beef which was delicious.
Next morning and after another delicious Japanese breakfast, we met the tour group and walked across the road for our first visit of the day, to Nijo Castle. It was forecasted to be wet, and wet it was- my word, I have never experienced so much rainfall in a day. It was beyond torrential! In fact I’d say it more like a typhoon!
Nevertheless, it was very interesting to visit Nijo Castle, and also experience the squeaky floors- designed to detect intruders! No pictures were allowed inside, but I managed to get a couple of iPhone pics outside, it was too wet for any other camera! Sensing the mood and the weather, our local guide suggested we stopped at a Kimono fashion show next which we all enjoyed, and we had time to do some shopping too, including some delicious green tea chocolates.
Next stop was the Kinkaku-Ji temple (The Golden Pavillion). It was spectacular despite the relentless rain and the fact that we were all soaked through to the skin and freezing! After several requests to John our tour namager, including from us, he managed to wangle the coach to return to hotel for twenty minutes, allowing us to get dry clothes on, extra layers etc ready for our afternoons exploration. Sadly less than half the group returned, preferring to stay in the dry of the hotel. Not us, we grabbed extra layers and clothes and along with 15 others hit the road again.
Our first stop of the afternoon was Kiyomizu- dera, a temple on a hillside, which I’m sure in non typhoon type weather would have great views! We absolutely loved it here despite the rain, the steep slope up to the temple was packed with traditional houses turned souvenir shops, it was a great visit. The temple is incredible, built into the slope and not a single nail used!
At 3:30 we went for our traditional tea ceremony, something which I was really looking forward to it, and it didn’t disappoint. Since arriving in Japan we’d embraced the green tea and tried it in ice cream, cake, kit kats, as a drink, you name it! To watch it be prepared and served in the traditional fashion was fascinating. It involved whisking a paste with hot water and turning the cup several times in a ritual, and eating a sweet cake beforehand to counteract the bitterness of the tea. Best of all, I got to have a go myself and demonstrate to the group when the lady asked for volunteers!
After a dry out/ warm up at the hotel, our second evening was spent again at Pontocho Alley, this time with the rest of the group as we had an included group meal at a Japanese Tempura restaurant which was very tasty.
Next morning was an early start, we were off to Nara. We travelled by metro then local train, a journey which took about an hour an a half. We were really enjoying using all the different forms of transport, it really was giving us a great insight into Japanese day to day life, and the transport system was so incredibly well run!
Our first stop in Nara, and one of the things we were most looking forward to seeing whilst in Japan was Toda-Ji; a large wooden temple dating from 745, so large in fact, it’s the largest wooden building in the world. It is huge. When you are standing at the bottom the sense of its size is overwhelming. And what’s more- it’s current size is only 2/3rds its original size as it burnt down and was rebuilt in 1709. Inside the hall is home to Japan’s largest Budda. Which is also huge!
We enjoyed our time at Nara- another thing it’s famous for is its hundreds of tame deer wandering around the streets, desperate for you to feed them (there are lots of stalls selling deer biscuits) which we did. In Shinto religion, the deer were believed to messengers from God.
Before heading back to Kyoto, we had a fantastic sushi lunch. It was one of those conveyor belt systems and you picked what you wanted as it went by. The colour of the plate determines the price of each dish you eat and you settle up at the end. Brill!
When we arrived back at Kyoto we left the main group who were headed back to the hotel and went off to the Gion district in search of a real life Geisha! The Gion district is another area full of narrow lanes and traditional tea houses and we were lucky enough to see not one, but 4 Geishas!
Tomorrow we leave the city behind and head into the mountains.
Until next time.