Thursday, May 9, 2013

Kyoto in One Day

Just one word - why?
But if you really have just 24 hours to stay in this incredibly beautiful place, this is how I think you can best spend your day. 

I believe the best way to start your Kyoto experience is with a visit to Fushimi Inari.
Nothing quite prepares you to be impressed by the Kyoto-ness of Kyoto than this uniquely iconic  Japanese shrine.  Very easy to go to, it's just two stops away from Kyoto Station on the JR Nara line.
I suggest an early morning start, so you get there ahead of the crowds.
A giant vermillion torii greets you as you step out of the train station but this is just for openers.
Prepare to be amazed and impressed.

Fushimi Inari  Shrine is built on the wooded expanse of Mount Inari.  It is a shrine to the God of Rice and Sake and is composed of thousands of giant red torii placed closely beside each other, all the way up to the top of the mountain.

You walk up and up through these vermillion gates, sometimes the torii are low, sometimes they tower above you.  A concrete path leads you up the mountain,  lined with thousands of these seemingly unending  red structures.  Made of wood, the torii are gifts and offerings to the gods and are donated by companies, families, individuals.

If you can make it to at least two thirds up Mount Inari, you'll be rewarded by this panoramic view of Kyoto, as you peek through the lush green foliage.

 It must have taken you two hours to trek through the mountain.  Now it's time to head back down.
 As you exit the shrine, there are many small souvenir shops and eateries where you can take an early lunch.

Quail yakitori is grilled right outside the small restaurants.  You can buy a couple of sticks, sit on the outdoor benches across and relax your feet.  It is hard work after all, to huff and puff up Mount Inari.
After you've caught your breath and had some sustenance,  take the JR Nara line back to Kyoto Station and head for my  favorite place in Kyoto.

Ryoanji must be the most famous Zen temple in Japan.  It's a place of utmost serenity, tranquility and beauty and definitely a place you should not miss, specially if you have just one day in Kyoto.  
Ryoanji was originally the residence of a Japanese noble.   Converted into a Zen temple in the 1400s,  today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I dearly love this place, from the moment I first saw it -- it brought me such contentment and joy.  The grounds are just too lovely -- from the still and tree lined pond to hidden corners such as this small bridge that leads to a red torii, peeping in between the pine trees and hedges.

But what Ryoanji Temple is most known for is its dry rock garden -- perhaps the most famous rock garden in Japan.  Perfectly raked gravel is broken only by stones and some moss, that seem to be randomly set around the rectangular shaped garden.  Right by this tranquil spot is a pavilion with a wooden viewing deck, where you sit, contemplate and let the garden speak to you.

There are fifteen stones set in the garden but here is the mystery - no matter where you sit or stand to view them, you will always see only fourteen stones.  You will never be able to see all fifteen stones at once.  That is the message of Ryoanji and something that really moved me.  
On my fist visit to Ryoanji, I sat on the viewing deck for a long while, meditating on what Buddha was trying to tell me through these stones.  I listened and Buddha spoke to me.
Ryoanji brought peace and serenity to my soul, but the next destination that I recommend you go to will jolt you with its sheer powerful beauty.  Kinkakuji is a ten minute bus ride from Ryoanji but seemingly worlds away in terms of its effect on the senses.

Aptly called the Golden Pavilion because it is completely covered with gold leaf, Kinkakuji was originally an aristocrat's villa which was later converted into a Buddhist temple.  This arresting and imposing temple is a photogenic marvel.  
There it sits, surrounded by blue sky and clouds, leafy green trees, the forests of Northern Kyoto in the background -- and all these caught and reflected in the waters of the large still pond.
You shouldn't miss Kinkakuji -- it's the poster child for Kyoto. And, for photography buffs and instagram addicts -- there is no bad photo for this place. Whatever photo you take will come out postcard pretty -- and worth sharing.
Time your visit  past mid afternoon when the light is softer and is perfect for capturing the sheer gorgeousness of the Golden Pavilion.

After your eyes have gotten tired of the jaw dropping sight of Kinkakuji, wind down with another   dose of beauty and serenity.  A local bus can take you on a slow ride to Gion district where cobblestone streets and traditional wooden buildings bring you back to another era.
The extremely pure and clean Shirokawa Canal runs through the Gion area and if you're lucky, you might see a crane or an egret standing very still in the flowing water.

If you're really really lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a maiko or a geisha in training.  Gion is where most of the ochayas or tea houses are -- this is where geishas entertain their clients.  Should you see a maiko, please remember that she is a regular person, like you and me. Please be polite and respect her dignity and her privacy.  

Gion has some of the loveliest streets in Kyoto.  Dusk is the magic hour when the street lights cast a golden glow and you seem to be in another place and time.

There are many streets in the Gion District -- wander around the small alleys which are less visited by tourists.  Since it's early evening and you've had a full day of sightseeing, you will probably be tired, thirsty and a bit hungry by now.

While you can find some of Kyoto's most exclusive and expensive restaurants in Gion's streets, there are also those that are welcoming and affordable, for us ordinary mortals.

I lucked into this small soba specialty restaurant just off the crowded and touristy Hanami-koji area.
The noren or curtain hung on the door was completely in keeping with the unmistakeable atmosphere and charm of the Gion area.

And what better way to cap off your one day in Kyoto with a refreshing glass of cold beer -- not just any beer but an artisanal one, Jinya Beer is brewed and bottled in Kyoto itself.
Now,  it's time to relax, unwind and start planning for your next visit  ... and I know that next time, you'll stay more than just one day in peaceful, beautiful Kyoto.

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