Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Mount Koya
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
After visiting Tokyo (read about it here), next on our crazy-busy itinerary were the charmingly traditional town of Kyoto and its charming geishas.
Arriving from Kanazawa (see my other post here) into the beautiful station at Kyoto, we left our luggage at the small hotel we had booked by the station, Garnett and got straight on the bus to the UNESCO site of Kiyomizu-dera, an independent Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto with breathtaking views of the city and a history dating back to the 700s.
After taking in the grandeur of our first Kyoto attraction, we walked to a few more temples in the vicinity, including Chionin, and the beautiful Shoren-in with its hand-painted walls and calming zen garden where you can rest over a cup of green tea whilst listening to monks talk.
After the restful incursion into the temples, we made our way over to one of the most famous attractions in Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari shrine. This Shinto shrine is extremely impressive for its thousands of vermilion torii gates running along the back of the main buildings and for the bravest hikers, they can take you to the top of the sacred mountain. When you walk through the gates, it really does feel like you are in a magical place. My tip for this place would be to go really early as we really struggled with lots and lots of people.
We didn't really have time to stop for food so ended up getting the famous inari-sushi from the station and got back to the hotel to properly check-in and get ready for our organised evening walk through the most famous geisha district in Kyoto, Gion. It was a really interesting experience where even though we were part of a bigger group, we got to learn a lot about geikos and maikos, their customs and usual abodes and even spotted some. I would say definitely try the tour if you want to find out more.
We went for dinner on Nijuikkencho Road at one of the many restaurants to try some delicious wagyu beef. We then decided to walk back part of the way and explore some of the streets until I got distracted by an arcade shop (of which there are many!) and we went in and lost track of time but came out with one of the cutest prizes, a magical white fluffy fox (I called her Foxy :)). I also enjoyed being complimented on the way back on the arcade win (even though it wasn't really me!); as I said, a truly magical place.
On the next day, since we cannot stay in the same place for long, we got on a train and went to Nara, a lovely small town not far from Kyoto famous for its deer park and (arguably!) the largest wooden building in the world (I do have to caveat it and say that it did catch fire a number of times and had to be reconstructed). We got into the station and met our guide for the day and so the adventure began.
We first went to the Todaiji, probably the largest wooden building in the world, home to one of the biggest Buddhas I have seen in all my travels. It really does give you a sense of calm being around the incense, hearing the soft rain in the background and spotting gentle deer from time to time.
We followed with a walk through a nearby zen garden and Kofukuji temple and followed on with lunch where we tried the delicious Nara noodles and herring sushi. We walked our lunch through the bustling Naramachi to visit the old town before making our way back to the station and back to Kyoto.
The next day we jumped on a train in the morning and spent the morning at the beautiful bamboo forests of Arashiyama. After a stroll through the green part of Kyoto, we were ready to take a train to Osaka, where we stayed at Hotel Cordia. Here, we did not have much time so after a quick stroll through the town, we went for one of the best tours we had organised on this trip, a night market tour with a local.
It was an amazing experience and we tried lots of weird and wonderful foods, including pufferfish, which can be toxic if not cooked properly. Do you wonder why I would choose to eat it? Well, the answer if, the guide asked us to pick a dish that was written on the walls and we would order it with her translating. As we were all up for it, we had to honour the deal. The pufferfish was actually really delicious...
Next day, having had my matcha latte and picked up a cherry blossom sake Kit Kat for the journey, we made a move to our next destination, the magical Koya mountain, a spiritual place of worship at the top of a mountain, reachable only by cable car. Here we stayed in the village of Koyasan and overnighted with the monks in a temple. We took part in the evening and morning rituals, enjoyed a 6 am (after the 5 am morning prayers) vegan breakfast and took some time to go on a night tour of the nearby Okunoin cemetery where the monks believe one of their elders had entered eternal meditation over 1000 years ago and is still resting; there's even flying squirrels around. A truly mystical, magical and eye-opening place.