Exploring Kyoto, Japan

Japan fans in Tokyo
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I have been travelling to Asia since 1987, and have been to China something like 40 times. I have lost count.  Prior to this year, I had been to Japan once.  I always wanted to spend more time there, but other things kept coming up.  I finally decided to make it happen.
 
The first decision was whether to do it alone or with a group.  I figured that it would be more beneficial to my clients if I made a few mistakes on their behalf, so we went on our own.  And then where to go?  Tokyo and Kyoto were the obvious choices, but I wanted to go somewhere less frequently visited.  After staring at a map and researching hotels, I finally decided on a trip to the Japanese Alps.  More on that later.
 
There are many ways to get to Japan, several airlines fly out of Northern California nonstop. But we had personal reasons to use an airline connecting in China, so we settled on China Eastern.  I was somewhat hesitant; when I last flew them several years ago, it was less than pleasant.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that they have significantly improved. Leg room was decent, the in-flight entertainment system was up to date (the movie selection understandably featured a lot of Chinese movies), service was fine and the food was at least edible. 
 
As we were going to arrive in Osaka late in the day, we decided to overnight at the airport.  Osaka’s Kansai airport is on a man-made island in the harbor, and there is only one hotel out there, the Nikko.  It is a short walk from the terminal, nice lobby, decent rooms.  There is nothing there but the hotel/airport/rail station, so there is no reason to stay here more than one night.
 
One of the things about which much has been written in traveling around Japan by train.  We did our research and determined that, for the amount of travel we would be doing, a rail pass was not economical.  It was close, so I encourage anyone looking at this kind of trip to crunch some numbers.  Note: the websites about domestic train travel are a bit confusing, so some patience helps.
 
At first glance, the Japanese rail system is confusing.  There are numerous rail companies in Japan, and which train you take depends on where you are going.  When you read about it in advance, it sounds quite overwhelming.  On the ground, it is not.  There is a rail station right at the Osaka Airport, and there are signs in English stating which train goes directly to Kyoto (it is the Haruka Limited Express), and there are machines that sell tickets that have multiple languages including English on the screens.  You simply pull up the English Menu, it asks where you are going and how many people, and it displays the fare and takes payment. The entrance to the correct platform was clearly marked.  When we got to the platform there was a uniformed gentleman who spoke no English but looked at our tickets and pointed us to the right place to wait for our train.  It could not have been easier.  This was not a high-speed train, but it was very comfortable with room for luggage at the end of the car.  Announcements on the train were in Japanese and English.  
 
Kyoto was the official capital of Japan and residence of the emperor for over 1000 years.  Unlike many of the cities in Japan, it 

was largely spared from bombing in World War II.  There was some discussion it might have been targeted for a nuclear strike, but in the end Nagasaki was targeted instead.  Kyoto is simply awash in temples and shrines (over 1,600), and there are parts of the old city that have not been run over by the spread of modernization.  It is a thoroughly charming city.  Mind you, with a population well over 1 million, parts of it are just like any big city. But the eastern and northern edge, where the city runs up in the hills, are full of temples.  
 
We stayed at the newly opened Four Seasons, which is located at the base of the Eastern Foothills near Kyoto Women’s University.  All I really need to say about this hotel is that it is a Four Seasons.  Very, very nice.  They have done a great job with the architecture.  Service was of course top notch. Getting to the hotel was quite simple; we took a taxi, which cost around $9.  The Four Seasons is adjacent to a lovely, small shrine, which was open with no admission fee and essentially no one else there.  
 
Also nearby is the Kyoto National Museum, which was unfortunately closed as it is under renovations.  We went to the adjacent Sanjusan Temple, or Temple of 33 rooms, and listed as one of the top sites in Kyoto. The main hall hosts 1,000 statues of Kanom, the Japanese version of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.  Photography is strictly forbidden in the main hall. On the back side of this hall is a long walkway in which archery competitions were held; there are some ancient bows and arrows on display.  But the best thing about this and most of the temples we visited was just the peaceful and calm atmosphere.  
 
One of the best things about the Four Seasons was location. In the afternoon, we walked about 10 minutes to the Higayashima Neighborhood, which is a maze of well-preserved streets connecting several very important temples.  These are lined with shops and restaurants and were quite crowded. But one of the recurring themes of the trip was the crowds in Japan are just different.  There was no pushing or shoving, everyone was in a good mood, it was kind of like a big street party.  May is the month of school outings. And the streets were full of school groups, all well-supervised and well-behaved.  
 
We spent the afternoon here and in the adjacent Gion District, just wandering, snacking and enjoying.  That leads to another subject; food.  It is a common perception that Japan is a very expensive place to travel, and it can be.  But there are many, many options for food and you can certainly eat for a reasonable amount of money.  We found a small restaurant that specialized in seared beef cutlets, a very pleasant and filling dinner for two was about $25 USD. They did have an English Menu. The staff spoke next to no English, but they were very helpful and friendly.
 
The most well-known temple in Kyoto is the Golden Pavilion.  This is part of the Northern Temple Complex and was clear across town, so we took a taxi for about $30 USD.  It is certainly doable by bus, but as we only had two days in Kyoto, we decided on the quicker option.

 
The temple was packed.  There were hundreds of people crowded into the main viewing area.  But again, it was a jolly crowd.   We did manage to get the postcard shot.
 
The park surrounding the pavilion is very pretty, but again crowded enough that it was a bit difficult to enjoy.  Fortunately, this was not the only option.  There are two other UNESCO World Heritage temples nearby.  We walked about 20 minutes to the Ryon Ji Temple, which was much less crowded.  This is a beautiful and peaceful place built around a Zen Rock Garden.  
 
We spent the evening exploring the center of the city. There is a small river running through the center of the city and it is lined with older buildings. The streets paralleling this river are hidden gems.  Narrow streets with no cars lined with tiny restaurants.  
 
Kyoto has a rather laid back atmosphere, much to see and do, and some great food.  Given a bit more time, I wish we could have spent one more day here.  And I understand the trip from here to Nara is very nice.   For those who do not wish to navigate it by themselves, there are plenty of options for tours ranging from the large “seat in coach” tours to privately escorted walking tours.  And although the Four Seasons was lovely, there are options that are a bit less pricey.  Of course, virtually all of the escorted tours include Kyoto.  One note; for the ever-increasing cruise market out of Japan, Kyoto would make a very easy and very rewarding pre- or post- cruise stop.  In short, if it is not on your bucket list, it should be.