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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Trip to Kyoto, Japan 2017

I'm not big on travel and neither are my family but after my Mum expressed her wish to go to Kyoto and with my Dad not being keen having 'been there and done that' on business trips in the past I jumped at the chance of a mother-daughter week away. We booked the trip last year to co-inside with the famous Cherry Blossom season and all too soon it was time to take the cultural plunge into the unknown! (Although we did bring PG tips and prayed to the tea gods that they'd be a kettle in our room).

We took the 9:30am flight to Frankfurt, the 13:30 to Kansai Airport, Osaka and 11 hours of film binging, lack of leg room, several different time zones, a 2 hour taxi ride with a 'crouch on the floor into a hole in the ground' loo-stop to Kyoto ride later we arrived at Hotel Mystays, Shijo-Dori. We went for a Western style hotel rather than the more traditional Ryokan (futons on the floor, kimono dressed waiting staff) which was a good move and made the trip that little more comfortable! 

So close!!!

~DAY 1~
We dropped our cases at the hotel and while waiting to check in we 'just went down the road'. Lesson #1 don't listen to mum with a 20th Century paper map- an hour later we finally made it to Maruyama Park- a great cherry blossom spot for Hanami: the celebration and festivities of the cherry blossom (aka 'sakura) season. 

Next door is the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine which was our first temple/shrine stop. 

Here I found out about the Goshuinchou or the 'red seal book'. It is traditional to bring a notebook to each shrine or temple and for 300 Yen you can collect the stamp of the shrine's name in old-style kanji script. It was believed that the book could be used as a 'passport into the after life'-jinjameguri.wordpress and on pilgrimages back in the day priests would sign your red seal book. It is often handwritten by a monk at the temple/shrine and is really something very special to see and to keep as a record of each site I visited. I collected 11 seals in total on this trip but there is still space to collect more if I go to Japan again.

In the evening we walked down Shijo-Dori and went to Tiger Gyoza Hall- their dumplings were delish!! I can assure you my chopstick technique did improve from stabbing my food to actually picking it up!

~DAY 2~

We had pre-booked limited express tickets on a train to Nara, half an hour away. Our first priority was to go to the Deer Park. Here the deer were once believed to be sacred but now have become national treasures and are protected. For 150 Yen you can buy a pack of biscuits and freely feed the deer. They are not the most patient when they sniff out your biscuit pack but they do this charming head bow for food. You have to have your whits about you and they do kick, head-butt and bite so it wasn't always the idyllic picture I had in mind but it was still really fun! They roam all around the park so we met them on our way through the parks and to the temples. They took a shine to Mum especially!

We stopped off for lunch at the Nara National Museum Cafe which has some western style comfort food before heading to the Todai-ji Temple- a must see...

...where inside is a mahoosive Buddha statue!

Once back at Kyoto Station we ambled about the huge and inviting department store: Isetan is amazing, think Selfridges in London but with 11 floors and more niche departments.

A whole department for Tall clothing in Isetan!? ENGLAND take note!!!
On the 11th floor of Isetan is a food hall full of Japanese/Chinese cuisine. Restaurants are indicated by a little curtain/blind in the door way (see photo in Day 3). There were often cues at peak dinner/lunch time. The Japanese love to cue- but chairs are often provided and it's always worth the wait!

~Day 3~

We took the train to the famous Fushimi- Inari Shrine: thousands of red tori gates standing together in a trail through to a woodland and up an (optional) mountain. Before we went through this I lined up to get my red stamp for my Goshuinchou book and we followed some more tourists into a freely open Buddhist temple area where monks were chanting and people were in prayer. Not long after we'd sat down quietly in awe, a serious looking scary guard approached us and rudely shooed us out. Later on they'd put No Entry signs up- whoops!

After a bit of wandering around we went back to Kyoto Station and explored the grounds of the Higashi-Honganji temple which is nearby in a huge complex. Here, a Japanese man approached us trying to tell us about a huge bell in the complex but without speaking any English and visa versa, Japanese we communicated 'ding ding!' with him which seemed to satisfy him that we understood that we were in fact looking at a large bell...

We obviously looked like the epitome of the 'Lost British Tourist' as being approached by Japanese people wanting to help us or talk to us became a trend on our trip!

By then it was around lunch time having set off early that morning. I wanted some sushi so we headed back up to the 11th floor of Isetan to Tsukiji Sushisay. Sushi is prepared by trained chefs in front of you. We were looked after by a semi-english speaking chef who prepared some delicious sushi for us. This was Mum's first sushi-tasting so we stayed on the safe side with salmon and shrimp.

Tsukiji Sushisay in Isetan

That evening we had reservations for dinner with a Maiko at the Gion Hantanaka- a traditional Ryokan that holds this special event you must prebook for. This was a brilliant evening and something I'd highly reccommend! We were told to remove our shoes before being shown into a room lined with set tables. Our experience was shared with other tourists which livened up the evening, we were lucky to sit next to a friendly couple from Austrailia too.

The food was...interesting. Traditional Japanese Cuisine is very alien to a meat and two veg Brit but we gave it a go and washed it down with some delicious authentic Plum liqueur.

The Maiko (a Kyoto term meaning Geisha in training) and Geiko (a Kyoto term for fully fledged Geisha) were introduced and then performed for us a traditional dance accompanied by a Shamisen- a traditional instrument that the Geiko played.



After dinner we then played 'drinking games': a simple rhythmic game and 'Tora Tora Tora': Japanese equivalent to Rock Paper Scissors: Samuri, Old Woman and Tiger which I played and won! The Maiko and Geiko then came round to each of our tables and answered our questions. The whole evening was a success, comfortable, relaxing and with a free flow of alcohol! On our way back to the hotel in our taxi we saw a Geisha on her way back (probably) from an appointment- which was so special to see! 

~Day 4~

We took the tram to Arashyama. Wanting to conserve energy we decided to do the monkey park first. This is at the top of a steep 20 minute hike of uneven terrain. It had been raining all night so the ground was quite slippery too as well as on uneven terrain. Not gonna lie it was a killer but so worth it! 

You can't get too close to the monkeys but there is a hut where you can buy bagged fruit for 100 yen to feed the monkeys from a secure caged window. They come up and push their little furry arms through the gaps to grab food from your outstretched hand. The view is also stunning.

Once we were back on flat safe ground we ambled about and found a Bengal Cat Cafe and Owl forest!

Next stop, the Bamboo Forest!!!

Back to Gion we were hoping to stalk spot a Geisha so we wandered around and visited the Kiyomisu-dera temple which is at this time of year open in the evening (temples often close at 16:30) and lit up.

Kew Gardens Light Illuminations eat your heart out! 

All restaurants were full or closed by the time we gave up on the unsuccessful Geisha stalking so we went to the first open restaurant we found. This was eaten with the accompaniment of an orchestra of slurping and sniffing from the other customers. It's frowned upon to blow your nose in public but to sniff it up is fine as is slurping loudly. *shudders*. 

Despite not seeing a Geisha in situ I got a nice shot of Gion at night.

~Day 5~

We went to the Kyoto Handicraft Centre. This has expansive floors filled with high-quality souvenirs as well as a workshop but you need to pre-book to be able to join in on the making workshops- something we'd overlooked! The trip didn't go to waste though as we shopped a lot there and the staff were really friendly. We made use of the 'all you can eat buffet' too.

Next after seeing a few more temples in the area we walked down the Philosopher's Path, famous for it's plethora of cherry blossom trees. The path runs along side the Shirakawa river. It's a 40 minute walk end to end and is just so lovely with lots of great photo opportunities!

pheeling philosophical...

Oh and we came across a random wagon full of cats...

Nearby were two shrines that were worth a visit. The Heain shrine which had beautiful gardens to look around...

and the less crowded Eikando Temple, where we finally came across temple toilet shoes! 

What a momentous exciting moment that was.

You see, your not allowed to wear shoes in temples and generally in Japan it's common practice to remove your shoes and adorn slippers before you go to the toilet.

We did also see a monk chanting in prayer and hitting a gong and this time we weren't chucked out and were allowed to watch him.

~Day 6~

My mum really wanted to dress up as a Geisha (as you do) so we had pre-booked the Geisha Makeover at Gion AYA. You can choose between 'cute Maiko' or 'elegant Geisha' we chose 'cute'. There is also a samurai session for men. First off we chose the poses we wanted to do from a selection before being shown to a changing and locker room where we were asked to change out of our clothes and to wear a special Kimono underwear aka a wrap dress and special socks.

Next we went to the make-up room where our faces and hair were transformed! The wig was heavy and weighed 1 kilo, real Geisha's have their real hair styled in place to last for a week. We were able to choose a Kimono to wear and all the accessories too.  We took home 4 professional shots in a presentation frame and a CD of the other poses. There was also 10 mins in the studio where we could take our own pictures. It was great fun and something you wouldn't get to do anywhere else.

Makeup Artist: Yukiko
Photographer: Yuki Nagano

Lastly we went to see the 'Miyako Odori' annual Spring Dances at the theatre at Kyoto's university of Art & Design (a different venue as the usual Minamiza Kabuki Theatre is having Earthquake protection construction). A 45 minute dance performance where a cast of 60 Maikos and Geikos present traditional music, song and dance in an annual event which started in 1872 4 years after Tokyo became the capital. Miyako means 'capital city' (Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan) and Odori means 'dance'. This important event is held 3 times a day throughout April. You can buy a tea drinking ceremony pass with your ticket which wasn't particularly worth it as you are ushered in and at great speeds have to knock back a cup of green frothy matcha tea (which was vile) and eat a red bean paste sugary sweet thing before being herded back out to the auditorium. You do get to take home the plate your sweet came on though but it didn't really add anything to the experience.

The sets were magnificent in colour and the dancing was spectacular. They acted out old folk tales as well as performing group dances. There was a handy audio guide that translated the meanings of the performance throughout which I'd recommend if you go and see this.

Photographywas not permitted. Photo Credit: