It’s almost guaranteed that Kyoto will feature on an itinerary when planning a trip to Japan.
The former capital and largest concentration of Japan’s most significant temples and buildings, visitors come seeking culture. What this means is that the meditative ambience of a temple’s zen garden is shattered by the hordes of tourists that flock to it.
In all honesty, I was slightly disappointed by Kyoto. Google the city and you see a plethora of green temples, green landscape views and well, green. You’ll find this in the pagodas, but that’s after navigating a very lived in, grey city centre. I’m writing this to manage your expectations. Let’s take Kyoto station for example:
This divisive, modern architectural design was controversially chosen over a celebratory proposal that venerated Japan’s first train stations.
The crowds don’t help either. We were forced to move from hostel, to smoke-scarred business hotel, to Airbnb in just five days simply because everything was booked up.
Quick Tip! Visiting Kyoto
Whatever you visit, be it temple, imperial palace or even your room booking for the night, get there early.
Quite literally cutting our losses from the overpriced hotel we were forced to stay in, we found a delightful Airbnb in nearby Fushimi, 10 minutes from Kyoto itself. I would highly recommend this area when staying in Kyoto, but also this means of accommodation when travelling Japan. I got to live like a local, for a very affordable price, in a prime location. Man, travel options have changed since my last backpacking trip.
Fushimi-ku is home to Kyoto’s arguably most impressive shrine, Fushimi Inari. Dedicated to the Shinto deity of rice or harvest, pilgrims trek up Mt. Inari under the intermittent shade of red tori gates that number in the thousands. Along the way, mossy fox statues play sentry, these creatures said to be Inari’s messengers that have a fondness for tofu. We did just this and were rewarded with a fantastic view of Kyoto, the occasional hidden water feature and really sweaty clothes.
It was in Fushimi-ku that we discovered our love of ramen. At night, the streets would be quiet but for the murmur of distant chatter and chopsticks tickling bowls. Tempted into the glow of a black shopfront, we discovered Shoryu Ramen family restaurant. For a very affordable sum we were treated with freshly grilled gyozas to dip into steaming bowls of broth and noodles, tender slices of pork floating on the surface. My god, you must go there. Best of all, everything is prepared right in front of your eyes, and the different characters that appeared from the staircase behind the counter reinforced that it truly is a family restaurant.
However, we didn’t just come to Kyoto for red gates and noodles. We wanted to meet the deer of Nara for no other reason than I’d heard they freely wander the city park, and that you can feed them.
45 minutes from Kyoto by train, our short visit to Nara showed promising signs of a very pleasant local city that would be worth a night’s stay at least. Think a non-dense city that merges with tall pagodas and greenery. It didn’t take long before we had our first glimpse of deer roaming along a road, oblivious of or arrogant towards the oncoming traffic. Indeed, the locals treated them with much reverence, which made sense considering the Shinto belief that the deer are messengers of the gods.
The golden haze in the city indicated that the sun was setting. We had to hurry. Not only this but I had an antsy companion who bursts with enthusiasm at the sight of any sentient life form.
As we approached the park, past the Five-story Pagoda, we heard ominous groans and squeaks echoing in the distance. It was deer but sounded more like velociraptors. We passed an older woman keeping two deer at bay with a broom, and she asked if we wanted to buy cookies for the deer. I wasn’t aware that deer had a liking for cookies, and I’m absolutely certain she wanted to use some naïve gaijin as a decoy, for as soon as the transaction was complete, the chaos started.
Bait-like cracker discs in hand, it was mere seconds before deer descended upon us, and I dealt with it like any man would, squealing and running deeper into the forest, crumbs flying in my wake in a desperate attempt at distraction. My retreat was doomed, for the deer grew more numerous and relentless, some even hissing as they surrounded.
Elise then made the rational decision to buy more crackers. Her calm demeanour worked wonders with the fauna but did little to temper my own, and so it went that I would grab a cracker, be homed upon by twenty deer, and run straight for the nearest clearing.
It was wonderful to find that the Japanese still treated these creatures with an ancestral respect, but the experience for me was at times terrifying. Within ten minutes I’d heard the yelp of a man as a fawn nipped him on the arse, his girlfriend laughing hysterically next to him.. Supposedly the deer give visitors a bow in a bid for food. Yeah right… Next time I won’t buy the crackers and will watch the hapless tourists instead.
After my traumatic experience, the next day it was agreed that I could drag Elise to the battlefield of Sekigahara to indulge in a little military history.
Along the way, but still in Fushimi-ku, our eyes were drawn to the endearing smile of a cat. The sign indicated a Neko Café, or cat café, and it was without question that we had to go inside, according to Elise.
I’m confident that my girlfriend would cuddle a mutant sheep from Chernobyl so there was no point arguing.
Paws for Espresso, A Guide to Animal Cafes
Animal cafes are a phenomenon in Japan whereby customers buy a slot of time to sip a beverage whilst interacting with their preferred cat, snake or owl. According to a leaflet I read, such cafes are ‘a harmonious way for businessmen to relieve stress away from the office’.
The experience was fantastic, if only for my role as the sceptical boyfriend. Sat on a futon I shared solidarity with a sleeping Chinese man, half a text message blinking in his hand, who’d no doubt been dragged in by his female companions. Sipping my coke, I watched my dejected girlfriend wave one of those fluffy-dangly-things cats supposedly love in a futile attempt to rouse the lethargic felines. Looking back, I think I had solidarity with the cats themselves, disillusioned with their lives within the confines of their fluffy prison, tormented by doting fans who Just. Want. To. Play.
NB: In reality the cats were very content and well looked after, with strict rules regulating interaction administered by a loving host. Their lack of playful behaviour is undoubtedly because… they are cats.
With reluctant girlfriend in tow, it was onwards to Sekigahara, the site of the Battle of Sekigahara, Japan’s Waterloo or Gettysburg. In the feudal era, this battle determined the eventual unification of Japan with Ieyasu Tokugawa as the victor. It was an exceptionally violent event, with around 30,000 soldiers and samurai losing their lives within just 6 hours and it would have been a close-contest if not for the fact that lords changed sides mid-battle thanks to some Game of Thrones-esque diplomacy and intrigue from the Tokugawa clan.
This countryside town is not on the beaten track whatsoever, a fact reinforced by the curious locals who wondered what on earth a young foreign couple were doing there. But the commemoration is extremely well done. Among the rice fields, houses and roads are marked sites such as the various camps and burial grounds. Vertical banners of the clans who participated flap dramatically as you leave the station and you can even hire samurai costume if that’s your thing. This was definitely my thing but of course we visited on a Tuesday when this offer’s off the table.
If not for it’s historical significance, it’s a beautiful town situated at the bottom of a green valley that gives authentic insight into normal inaka life in Japan. As a historian and student of Japanese language, I’d dreamed of coming here and loved it so much that I made a video about it:
VIDEO COMING SOON
Did I mention you can dress up as a samurai?!