Japan 2014: Day 3 (Kyoto)

Our third day in Japan was a little bittersweet for me because we were moving from Kyoto to Osaka. We had been really enjoying Kyoto, and there were still so many places to see. Already, I knew I was going to miss that convenience store where we bought cinnamon cookie-flavored KitKat. I was going to miss the McDonald’s where I first had McGriddles. The Yoshinoya where we had dinner! (Why is everything related to food?) I remember feeling a little sad because I wanted to stay for a few more days. In hindsight, we should have just made Kyoto our base and gone on an Osaka day trip instead of moving there completely. But I think the move made me appreciate Kyoto more that day, and I promised myself that I would come back to get to know the city more intimately. Coming back for ya, Kyoto.

Even though our time in Kyoto was so brief, I think I was able to save the best for last. We were headed to three locations: the Fushimi Inari Shrine, Nishiki Market, and the bamboo grove at Arashiyama. This post won’t be as informative as the previous ones since we weren’t part of a tour group, but just standing and looking around at the places we went to already spoke volumes. The sights and sounds of these places fed us all we needed to sincerely appreciate them.

Tour of the torii

Our first stop early in the morning was the Fushimi Inari Shrine. It’s a very famous landmark because of the thousands of vermillion torii gates that go all the way up through the forest of the sacred Mount Inari. The site was made more popular by the film Memoirs of a Geisha, in that scene where we see Chiyo running through the gates, the violin in the background, her little geta clacking on the pavement. A lot of people recreate that scene, but you gotta have the geta. Gotta have the geta.

It’s hard to miss the shrine. You’ll see this huge torii gate once you step out of Inari Station. If you’re planning to go early in the morning like we did, you don’t have to buy breakfast from a convenience store nearby and eat at the nearest parking lot…like we did. Haha. This old man passed by and tried to tell us in gestures that there was free tea (and tables and chairs) at the mouth of the shrine, but we were so deep into our bread and orange juice already. But thank you, sir, whoever you are, for being nice to these silly tourists.

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A little later in the morning, a line of food stalls will fire up their stoves and prep good food near the large torii gate. We bought takoyaki and ice cream there on our way back.

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Pro tip: Seriously, go early in the morning. Schedule this first in your itinerary to get shots like this. We practically had the shrine all to ourselves. The priests (or monks) were saying their morning prayers. The staff had just switched their walkie talkies on. A couple of joggers zoomed past us. And that was it. Unless you count the mosquitoes. It was very serene, very peaceful.

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We went down two or three hours later, and the place was teeming with people. The only way to get a shot of the gates without strangers disrupting the view was to physically block the crowd from both sides of the path, annoy a lot of people for a couple of photos, and endure that when other people want to get the same shots.

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The torii gates aren’t just for decoration. They’re donations from individuals and companies for good luck or good fortune, I think. As you can see, their names and the dates of their donations are inscribed on the gates. The cost to donate a gate is hefty. It can range between Y400,000 for a small gate and go up to Y1,000,000 or more for a large gate.

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These are fox face votive plaques. We saw them as we went higher up the torii gate path. People write their wishes on the plaques, draw a face on them, and say a prayer after they hang the plaque on the fence in front of a smaller shrine. Fox statues can be found all around Fushimi Inari Shrine because foxes are said to be the messengers of Inari, the god of rice, the deity the shrine is dedicated to.

Personally, foxes have freaked me out ever since I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. In the film, there was a story about a naughty little boy, you see. His mother told him not to go play outside when it’s raining while the sun was out. Like, a sunshower. Because that means a fox wedding is taking place, and the foxes hate being seen while that’s happening. But the little boy didn’t listen, of course, because no good story ends with “And the boy listened to his mother. They lived happily ever after.” So, he was just roaming around the forest until—surprise, surprise—he stumbled upon a fox wedding. He was trying to hide behind trees to get a good view, but he was spotted eventually. The wedding procession stopped and whipped their foxy faces towards him. CREEPY. The boy ran home, but once he got there, his mother told him a fox came by and left a knife for him, basically telling him to kill himself unless he asks for forgiveness from the foxes. WTF.

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Recovering, recovering from that terrible story.

And my wide mug makes an appearance. But what I really want to show is the map behind me. As you can see, the path of torii gates winds all the way up Mount Inari. The map looked really innocuous the first time we saw it…because we had no idea we were going up a mountain! Being the smug idiots we are sometimes, my brothers and I thought we could finish the course and just meet our parents in an hour or so. Off we went.

Half an hour later, slowly and painfully ascending, out of breath, we chanced upon another map at a fork in the path and realized we only covered an inch of it. An inch. Maybe not even an inch. Half an inch. Because it’s a friggin’ mountain path. Fushimi Inari Mountain Path: 1. Gemzons: 0. So, we decided to give up and go down.

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Sharing this photo to remind myself and others that sometimes you just have to take the long way, not the shortcut. We could have gone down the same way we came up, but my brother was so sure (based on his understanding of the map above) a path that branched out from the fork we were at was a shortcut that would take us back to where we started. He’s the better map reader among us, so we trusted him. And kept on trusting him…until we found a convenience store with a couple of chubby cat sunbathing outside. Until the number of torii gates started to dwindle. Until there were no more torii gates in sight! Until we found ourselves IN A NEIGHBORHOOD. And a weird shrine dedicated to frog gods.

Long story short, we turned back even though it took another hour and met our parents for free tea and takoyaki. Despite getting lost, we had a lot of fun. Fushimi Inari is a fantastic place to visit if you find yourself in Kyoto.

Kyoto’s kitchen

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Next! We headed to Nishiki Market for lunch and shopping. On the way there, we got lost and another “angel” helped us out by leading us to the market personally. Bless you, girl. Japanese people are the best. The photo up there is of the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine along Teramachi shopping street, facing Nishiki Market. And Ate Girl High Socks by the side, hello.

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Nishiki Market is known as “Kyoto’s kitchen.” It’s a five-block shopping street lined with hundreds of shops selling all sorts of goods—from fresh seafood, produce, candy, kitchenware, Kyoto specialties, street food, and seasonal delicacies. You go here for the food. It’s a small slice of paradise for foodies looking to find the culinary and gastronomic wonders Kyoto has to offer. Nishiki Market, which started as a wholesale fish district, has been around for centuries, and some of the shops have been passed down from generation to generation. While I’m sure it has changed over the years, I still felt the sense that it managed to retain some of its old-world character and charm.

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This is also where I found matcha-flavored soft Oreo cookies. I can’t remember where, but they’re there. And they are delicious.

Another pro tip: Shopping is inevitable and unavoidable here. Bring a big bag where you can store all your purchases.

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Left Nishiki Market with a tummy full of tempura udon and set off for the Arashiyama bamboo grove.

The real Camp Kawayan

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At this point, we were tired. Our feet were throbbing. We had been walking around for hours. It was a little unpleasant to discover that unlike most destinations in Japan where the place you’re going to is right outside the station, the Arashiyama bamboo grove was a few blocks away from Sagaarashiyama Station. From the train station, we had to endure a 10- or 15-minute walk through a neighborhood before we saw bamboo. A 15-minute walk sounds like nothing, but we were EXHAUSTED.

But seeing the grove was worth it.

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I wish I had the words to describe the sound of all that bamboo swaying with the wind. The smell of the earth and wood was incredible. The Arashiyama bamboo grove isn’t just a tourist spot; it’s an experience.

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I wanted to go further up the path until I reached Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, but I didn’t want to force my family to keep walking for another hour or two. I’ll just save that temple for another visit.

Additional notes: At the mouth of the grove, you can ride carriages pulled by men up the bamboo path. Older people might want to take this option because the path goes uphill. Some areas are quite steep. Hard on the knees. Taking a taxi is also an option. We saw a few zip by.

With that, our time in Kyoto came to a warm, slow end. We went back to the hotel for our bags, boarded the bullet train to Osaka, and said goodbye to the city that first made us fall in love with Japan. Even today, we’re still talking about Kyoto.

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