10- 11 June 2017
I’ve been in Japan for a total of 7 months now, and while I visited Kyoto back in December, I’ve been needing to go back. Kyoto is one of the grand dames of Japan, a sprawling, beautiful city with countless things to see and do. You could spend a week there and still might not feel long enough. I was also keen to visit during a different season, and see the effect of the this on the city. One of the joys of living in Japan is reveling in it’s 4 very distinct seasons, a new concept for this LA native. I managed to convince 3 of my fellow teachers, some of my best friends in our little Kanazawa community, to get away with me for a weekend, and on a Saturday night after work we took the 2 hour ride on the Thunderbird Limited Express bound for Kyoto.
Our home for the weekend was K’s House Kyoto, a massive hostel that felt closer to a hotel but had friendly and helpful staff. If I had been traveling by myself, I probably wouldn’t have liked this hostel very much, it was a too large and too generic for my taste. But I had managed to find a 4-bed dorm for the four of us, so for only $20 per person per night we had a room all to ourselves to hang out, play cards and blast our music. The hostel was also an easy walk from Kyoto station, and the attached hostel cafe had a filling breakfast for only ¥500, a rarity for Japanese hostels. So for this particular getaway, this hostel was the perfect choice.
It was pretty late when we arrived on Saturday night, but after working all day and spending a few hours on the train we needed to stretch our legs, so took a walkabout through Kawaramachi, a bustling area with shops, bars and restaurants, and Gion, the traditional geisha district. After living in a small city for a few months, I was really taken aback by the size and liveliness of Kyoto. It was near midnight on a Saturday, and there were so many people out and about. We were also clearly the most sober ones on the street, and a drink was in order. I guided my companions up 4 flights of stairs to AF Jam, a dive bar I’d been introduced to during my previous visit to Kyoto. AF Jam is my kind of bar: every surface is covered in coasters and sports pennants, the patrons are made up of an international cast of local characters, and the kindly bartender plays awesome music and pours the stiffest drinks I’ve found in Japan for only ¥600. We ended up here on both of our nights in Kyoto!
Sunday began with a light hangover, which was easily cured by breakfast at the cafe, then we set off for a full day of exploration. We spent most of the day in Arashiyama, a district on the outskirts of Kyoto that is famous for the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The bamboo grove is pretty much what it sounds like: a stroll through towering bamboo stalks. It was a pleasant place to stroll, very lush and green, with a gorgeous quality to the light flitting through the stalks, but being surrounded by so many tourists after living in a pretty untouristy place was a shock to my system. We did however, meet a lovely old Japanese man selling beautiful prints and postcards of his art, and all bought a few to take home.
We strolled through the touristy main street of Arashiyama (with a necessary detour for matcha and soybean swirl soft-serve ice cream), continuing over a bridge that crossed a lovely river with traditional boats, and up a steep, densely wooded forest to my favorite site of that day: Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. In this small park on top of the hill, macaque monkeys come out of the forest and roam freely. I originally had worries about possible animal exploitation, but it was clear that these are wild animals who have figured out that if they come to this spot every day, they will easily get food. Ever since taking a physical anthropology class in college, I have been fascinated with monkeys. Their intelligence, social structures, and resemblances to us are uncanny, so for me to get the chance to observe these creatures up-close was a dream. For a nice change, the people at this site hang out in a cage, where you can purchase food to feed the monkeys that climb and frolic on the outside. A kind family shared some nuts with me and my companions, and we marveled in wonder as we got up close and personal with a few monkey friends.
From Arashiyama, we took two buses back through Kyoto to try to make it to Kinkaku-ji, another top site. Unfortunately, we got a bit confused, and accidentally boarded the bus for Ginkaku-Ji instead, which is not located in the same area at all! We realized our mistake and got off, and ended up taking a pretty lovely walk through an older residential area.
Kinkaku-ji is also known as the Golden Pavilion, and that’s exactly what it is, a retirement villa-turned-temple that is covered in gold leaf and situated by a lovely pond. True, it’s very lovely, especially in the late afternoon when we visited it, but I must admit, this was my least favorite sight in Kyoto. In comparison to the natural things we had seen that day, I found it’s beauty to be materialistic and off-putting. If it were famous for, say, intricate paintings or delicate woodwork, then I could praise the artistry of the place, but a building covered in gold just seemed shallow and ostentatious. And the masses of obnoxious tourists didn’t help!
Luckily, the next day would redeem itself and my merry band of travelers would find ourselves surrounded by incomparable beauty and serenity. . . after another crazy night at AF Jam bar, of course!