Everyone knows how great teaching holidays are back in the UK with the six week summer breaks, half term and other random weeks here and there thrown in for good measure. Whilst working at a Japanese eikaiwa doesn’t quite offer the 11 weeks holiday (or whatever it is) that a UK school does, there are still a number of pretty good holidays to take advantage of.
Just a couple of weeks after arriving in Japan I was delighted to discover I’d have a week off work for ‘Obon’ – a holiday I had never heard of and still to this day don’t really understand. Can’t complain I suppose! There’s also the added bonus of a whopping three week holiday over the Christmas and New Year period, which allows many teachers to go home and see friends and loved ones or, in my case, get drunk for three weeks and discover a bit more of Japan.
The most recent holiday was ‘Golden Week’, where four national holidays fall in the space of seven days. Seemingly at some point in the past, the powers that be said “f*ck it” and declared the entire week a national holiday, much to the delight of everyone in the country. In keeping with my new year’s resolution to see five new cities in Japan, and with the arrival of a friend from home in Japan, we decided to make the most of my time off work and head on down to Kyoto for a few nights.
Seeing as Kyoto is perhaps the number one tourist destination in Japan it probably wasn’t the wisest decision to try and visit during one of the busiest times of the year, but I’ve never been a fan of thinking things through have I?
One concern however, was the availability of train tickets. As my friend India was arriving from the UK two days beforehand and needed to collect her JR rail pass upon arrival, we were unable to actually get train tickets until the day before. Any other time of the year this would be no problem but during Golden Week and Obon everyone has it in their heads that it’s practically impossible to get a seat on a train without booking well in advance. As it happens, we got tickets as easily as you would any other day so the panic was for nothing. If I had ¥100 for every time I heard that we’d be standing in the unreserved carriages or that we’d struggle to get a ticket then it’d probably cover the cost of the ticket itself!
Or maybe not. I’m a firm believer that living in Japan is nowhere near as expensive as people say, and one major reason for that is the fact that the public transport is mega cheap. I regularly travel in and around Tokyo for a small pittance compared to back home. The shinkansen (bullet train), however, is a different story. A Tokyo to Kyoto return cost me the best part of ¥28,000. I know that means little to most readers outside of Japan so let me put it into perspective; I’m flying to Bangkok and back in June for not much more! Madness.
With panic averted, Saturday morning rolled around and it was time to head to Kyoto to be all cultured and stuff!
After a bright and early start (10am is early for an eikaiwa teacher…) the first stop on our itinerary was Kinkaku-ji or – as you may know it – ‘that big gold temple thing in the middle of a lake that you sometimes see on pictures of Japan’. I guess Kinkaku-ji rolls off the tongue a little easier.
Before reaching Kinkaku-ji, however, I was faced with a problem. The weather during Golden Week was particularly hot – probably the hottest week of the year – and guess which clever slaphead forgot to wear suncream. Thankfully, the convenience store outside the temple stocked a factor 50 sunblock which came in particularly handy. It contained menthol too, which had a particularly nice, soothing effect on the scalp. Lovely stuff!
As with many popular tourist attractions, there was a mad scramble at the beginning as everybody dashed to the edge of the lake to get the perfect photo, and it was a case of spotting an opening in the crowds and making a dash for it.
The temple itself is really impressive and on a sunny day looks quite incredible with its surroundings. After admiring the initial view for some time it was just a case of following the very convenient ‘ROUTE’ signs in a procession until we reached the end of the grounds.
Kinkaku-ji is often referred to as ‘The Gold Temple’ which makes perfect sense as it’s a very gold building. Ginkaku-ji is known as – you guessed it – ‘The Silver Temple’! This one makes a little less sense, as there doesn’t appear to be a trace of silver anywhere near the bloody thing.
It was much more of the same here, as the temple was the first thing we saw (well, the crowds of photographers more so) so we did the obligatory photo taking which, as you can see below, included an uninvited guest.
The walk around the grounds here was perhaps a little less crowded than the previous one and a much nicer walk in general. Plus, we got to see some bloke raking gravel, so I feel like I’ve had a proper cultural experience now.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Despite doing a hell of a lot of walking in the blistering heat, we decided that we weren’t quite done for the day and saved the biggest walk ’til last. Fushimi Inari is a shrine that is perhaps most famous not for the building itself, but for its thousands of red tori gates winding up a hill through the forest. We arrived at around 4pm but the heat showed no signs of letting up, so we had to bite the bullet and tackle the walk in the heat.
The walk itself was nice, and at times it was hard to believe we were actually in a city. The thousands of big red gates really were a sight to behold, but you had to be on the ball to get a good picture because, as expected, there were plenty of people ready to be an unwanted extra!
Unlike the previous places we visited, there was no designated route here so there were a number of ways to reach the summit. It must be said though that after seeing the shrine at the bottom and walking through loads of the gates it does feel like a bit of an anti-climax when you reach the top and there really isn’t much there! The gates were quite something though and it was great to stop for a moment and just take stock of what’s around you.
After a few well earned beers the night before another early start was in order; I could maybe get used to this productivity lark.
Our Airbnb apartment was in Nijo which, rather unsurprisingly, was just a short walk away from Nijo Castle. This UNESCO heritage site is the former residence of the first shogun of the Edo period and a former Imperial Palace. I must admit I actually know bugger all about Japanese history but – admit it – that last sentence had you fooled for a second, didn’t it?
In what seems to be becoming a recurring theme when I visit these types of places (see ‘Kamakura’), there was a fair bit of construction going on at the entrance of the castle. Thankfully, there was a picture of what the castle entrance usually looked like for our references; a bit like when Jim Bowen tells the contestants on ‘Bullseye’ what they could have won.
The main attraction is the Ninomaru Palace and garden which, as you’ve now come to expect, had clearly designated routes. It’s a bit of a strange one, a palace inside a castle, but it was pretty cool to see where these former rulers used to live, entertain their guests and go about their daily business.
Thankfully the renovations were only on the entrance and the palace and gardens themselves were untouched. Despite the lovely surroundings, the highlight of Nijo Castle was undoubtedly the sign below.
On our first night, we decided to try and find the geisha district of Gion which, in hindsight, probably wasn’t the best idea in the dark in a brand new city for the pair of us. Thankfully, the restaurant we ate in had this gem on the menu, so all wasn’t lost:
With a bit of research however, we found the district a few days later and spent a few hours wandering around, even catching sight of a geisha! This was perhaps the busiest place we visited and I found myself getting increasingly infuriated with the slow procession and the amount of ‘sunbrellas’ almost taking my eye out.
That said, it was a small price to pay as the district itself was a great place to take in, with Hokan-ji – a big five storied pagoda near the Yasaka Shrine – being a particular highlight.
The streets of Gion are lined with souvenir shops, ever-so-slightly overpriced eateries and all the other things you’d expect from such a popular tourist destination. Despite this, it didn’t really seem to suffer from the over-commercialisation that one might imagine, as it managed to retain a lot of authenticity which was nice.
After a bit of a knackering walk (with suncream in tow this time), we finally reached Kiyomizu-dera Temple which, I must admit, I’ve only just discovered the name of as I type this. I’ve already told a number of people who asked if I visited that I’d never even heard of it but ‘will definitely visit it next time’. Oops.
The temple itself was good – and not quite as crowded as you may think – but the highlight here was the view of the city.
After a highly productive morning and early afternoon, we retired to the nearby Maruyama park for some beers in the sun. Job done!
Not a great deal to see here – only go if you’ve got time to kill.
So that’s Kyoto ticked off the list; I’m getting quite used to this travelling lark again. Roll on Bangkok in June!