Zenned out in Kyoto

After charging it full speed in Tokyo for four nights we were off to Kyoto via bullet train.  The bullet train travels at 200 mph and gets into Kyoto in just over two hours making it a fast and convenient way to get around Japan.  And it’s the coolest looking train out there. Look at those bullet-speed splatter marks!

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Kyoto is the yin to Tokyo’s yang (similar to Peter being the yin to my yang).  It isn’t the bustling, sprawling , skyscraper metropolis that Tokyo is.  There is a zen, and calming energy that permeates throughout the city.  Instead of skyscrapers— it’s temples, shrines, and gardens.  There is an ease and lightness to Kyoto that I could feel instantaneously.

We arrived in Kyoto and checked into the Ritz Carlton.  We had decided to do one hotel “splurge” while we were in Japan and this was it.

Upon check-out Peter began to speak with the concierge about the peaceful energy and vibe that Kyoto emits.  It’s also so incredibly quiet which makes it very relaxing.  The concierge explained that the Japanese believe that since we as humans are mostly water, we should treat ourselves as such. Have you ever put a glass of water next to a load speaker? The vibration and sounds rattles the water nervously. The same happens to humans, 78% water, in big loud places— we’re rattled. Whether it’s in the street, restaurant, subway or airport, the courtesy of quiet is something we really loved and appreciated about Kyoto.

As we were getting settled in our room the hotel staffer relayed to us that our room overlooked a cemetery.  I’m an intrigued by the thought of ghosts so out of curiosity I asked her, “How many ghosts sightings?”  She relayed that none that she was aware of, but the Chinese are very superstitious and usually ask for a different room or go to a different hotel all together.  I slept with one eye open.

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Our first night in Kyoto we were cross-eyed tired.  Our time in Tokyo was non-stop without much shut eye.  We took the night to relax, order room service, and catch up on our sleep.  I ain’t afraid of no ghost.

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The next couple days were mapped out for temple hopping.  I had done all kinds of research on which ones to visit and what order so off we went.

We started our morning with a taxi ride to the Silver Pavilion.

The Silver Pavilion was built in 1492 as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimasa.  In 1490 is was converted to a zen temple following Yoshimasa’s death.  Contrary to the name it was never covered in silver.  The explanations for the name is that because it was modeled after the Golden Temple it needed a contrasting name and because at night when the moon reflects off the temple it gives off a silvery appearance.  The features include a sand garden, reflective pond, mossy hill side, and manicured trees.  All this make for a serene, peaceful, and certainly zen aura.  The oxygen there felt better and healthier to breath.  Peter and I took long, deep breaths—taking advantage of the spiritual air that filled our lungs.

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Our next temple was reached by the inquisitively named “Philosopher’s Path.”  This is a stone path along a canal that is surrounded by cherry blossoms.  Unfortunately the cherry blossoms weren’t in bloom while we were there.  It is named Philosopher’s path because one the the greatest Japanese philosophers, Nishida Kitaro, use to meditate while walking this path on his daily commute to Kyoto University.  Peter and I attempted our best thinker/philosophical poses.  In my opinion Peter nailed it.

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The path led us to Eikando or formally known as Zenrinji Temple, which turned out to be one of our favorites.  It’s not as popular or well known as some of the others which made for very few other tourists. With that came quietness which amplified the already dominating feeling of relaxation and peace.  Apparently during the leave changing months (October-Decmeber) this temple offers some of the best and colorful views making is really packed.  Outside of those months the temple offers a quiet oasis highlighted by the Hojo Pond. It was just about this time that Peter said he wanted our future home to have some Japanese design influences.

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  From there we taxied over to the most popular temple in Kyoto—Kiyomizu-dera Temple. 

But, before exploring the temple we stopped for a green tea ice cream break and people watching.

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Those people are obviously not real life geishas.  There are companies that will outfit people in geisha costumes and you can walk around Kyoto for a day dressed up as one.  Men can dress up as Samurais.  Obviously I was all for this idea.  Just for the pictures alone.  But the yin (Peter) to my yang admittedly shut it down. “Only guys who are in trouble with their girlfriends would so something like this,” he said.

This could have been Peter.

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At the base of the temple I noticed a group of Japanese youth having a grand ole time taking pictures together so I imposed myself by asking if I could jump in a picture.  They graciously accepted with head nods and enthusiastic smiles.

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See what I mean? How fun does that look?  Peter also took a picture on their camera.  When they looked at the result there was an eruption of laugher and cheer.  Those kids put a real solid pep in my step that day.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple which literally means “pure water temple” was not our favorite.  Being the most famous and popular comes with an obvious crowdedness that was almost unbearable.  It was built in 780 where the Otawa waterfall is located.  In 1994 it became an UNESCO world heritage site.

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The Otowa waterfall offers 3 streams to drink from offering longevity, success in school, and a good love life.  It is frowned upon to drink from all three because this is perceived as being greedy.  Peter and I didn’t drink from any which means we are generous…I think.  Actually I don’t know.  I couldn’t find anything on that. We just didn’t want to wait in the massive line that wrapped around as far as the eye could see.

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There is also a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking —Jishu Shrine.  There is an area where two stones are located about 20 feet from each other.  If you can walk the distance with your eyes closed this will bring luck in finding love.  Lucky for us, we are all set in that area.

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Afterwords we refueled with coffee at % Arabica which turned out to serve excellent coffee in a chilled out, hipster vibe atmosphere.

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Our last shrine/temple for the day brought us to Fushimi Inari Shrine.  I loved this one!  This is an iconic location for its thousands of vermilion tori gates.  The gates straddle a number of trails that go through a forest and end at the sacred Mount Inari.  The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the God of rice.  Inari’s messengers are foxes which can be seen throughout the shrine.

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The entrance to the trails are marked by thousands of tori gates that have all been donated.  On the backside is an inscription denoting who the donor is.  The cost is anywhere from 400,000 yen to a million.

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How beautiful is this shrine? The further back the larger the dori gates become.

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To make it all the way to the the summit of Mount Inari it takes anywhere from 2-3 hours.  We had already had a pretty packed day so decided to pass on the long trek.

We headed back to town and got dropped of in the Gion neighborhood which is the Geisha district.  My goal was to find a teahouse for a traditional tea ceremony. I had a place picked out that I had researched, but upon entering we were shooed away.  We decided to walk around and take in the vibe and sightsee.  I didn’t hold out any hope for seeing a Geisha in real life.  As we walked around Hanami-koji street, which is the most popular area we observed a number of people gathered together all holding large and impressive cameras.  It was like paparazzi style.  All of them waiting to catch a glimpse of the elusive geisha.

As we walked away from the scene we found ourselves alone on the street,  I said to Peter, “Oh the elusive geisha.”  Just as the words were uttered out of my mouth…there she was.  She magically appeared in a doorway and then proceeded to glide right in front of us in exactly the manner I would have imagined.  Geisha’s are walking pieces of art with their appearance, dress, demeanor, and movement.  It was though she was almost floating.  As I witnessed her perfection, a series of chills surged through my body.  This was the second time that Japan had inspired this type of reaction in me.  We had a brief moment of concern that if we walked too fast we would almost bump into her.  We slowed our pace and were able to watch her movements of sophistication combined with sheer elegance and beauty as she made her way into a car which then drove off.  The one minute it took for all of that to unfold left me thunderstruck.

Shortly after this occurred we walked past Gion corner which is where tourists can pay to watch a performance that includes a maiko dance.  It was another perfect timing moment as two geishas were walking into the building.  You can see in the picture below how they are treated like celebrities.  Look how excited the guy in the picture is after capturing a photo.  This moment was of course great, but it didn’t hold the weight and magnitude of when it was just Peter and I almost running into our geisha friend.

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The only way to close out a day like that is with a bowl full of ramen or maybe just head for bed.  How do you top that?

We opted to try the burnt ramen at Gogyo.  Burnt ramen is made by scorching the miso or soy base in 300 degree lard.  Sounds un-appetizing right? Well contrary to how it sounds, it is delicious if a little rich and filling.

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This is how they served sake which I kind of loved.

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End of day 1.  We kept the same pace in Kyoto that we did in Tokyo.

Our next morning started with a trip to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.  I was really excited for this because of all the pictures I had scene on Instagram.

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We did realize fairly quickly that if you want that kind of shot you have to come early or be really good at photoshop.  This is the best we got.

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Being there really is a treat with it’s stunning beauty and zen-energy that is exuded from those gift from nature — trees.

Located adjacent to the forest is Tenryuj Temple.  The temple is another Unesco Heritage Site and is highlighted by it’s Japanese koi pond.  It was designed by the lead monk of the temple who used the mountain scenery combined with elements of a Chinese legend of a koa that swam up a waterfall to become a dragon.  It has inspired gardens throughout Japan.  It was here that I said to Peter, “the Japanese really have it figured out when it comes to using the elements of natural beauty.”  This place is stunning.

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After getting our fill of zen we strolled over to kochi-Sanso Villa for a tea break in the garden.  It was once the estate of the film actor Okochi Denjiro.

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The break was nice, but what really got us going was the beautiful gardens that surround the property.  Thick, lush greenery that blanketed everything as far as the eyes could see.  Combine that with an all encompassing serene energy, this was a place I could have spent hours at.  Peter and I marveled that someone had lived here.  How would you ever feel stressed in a place like that?

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During our walk we stumbled across a couple lookouts, one where we caught views of the the mountain side, valley and a little shrine across the way.

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The other with charming city views.

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Again this would be an ultra zen place to live.

We left the estate and were ready for some lunch, but were faced with the same problem in Tokyo—we couldn’t find a place to get money.  This left us with a pretty big problem because there was no ATM’s around the area we were in and we didn’t have enough cash to have a cab aimlessly drive us around while we tried to find one.  We considered hitching a ride from this guy.

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Eventually after a good amount of hassle and another mini-mart lunch we finally found our way to money and our next stop – Kinkakuji or the Golden Pavilion.

This temple is breathtaking with it’s top two tiers dazzled in gold leaf.  The temple overlooks a large pond and is tucked in by vibrant green leafy trees.  The entire look is quite idyllic.  The architecture was modeled after Kitayama culture which was aristocratic and extravagant.  It had been destroyed many times with the last time in 1950 when a fanatic monk set fire to it.  It was rebuilt in 1955 and is the version that is seen today.

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Our last stop of the day would bring us to Ryoanji Temple which holds Japan’s most famous rock garden.  The temple was originally an aristocrat’s villa that was converted to a zen temple in 1450.  The meaning behind the rock garden is unclear.  It is comprised of 15 rocks laid out in 5 small clusters on top of moss patches.  It is encouraged to go here and contemplate the meaning of the rock formation and therein life.

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On the property is also a nice walking trail and lily pond where we spotted a couple of pure white ducks.  I’m not quite sure I even knew those existed.  The ducks are in so much zen that their feathers turn white.

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For our last night in Kyoto we decided to indulge in another sushi dinner.  We took the recommendation of the hotel and booked a reservation at Ikkan.  We even decided to get a little gussied up for date night.

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Ikkan was a wonderful choice.  It’s a small family run restaurant with a father/son team of sushi chefs.  We opted again for Omakase and left it in the hands of the chefs.  We had a similar experience as we did in Tokyo where we were given one at time mouth watering pieces of perfection from the sea.  It was pretty incredible how happy really good sushi made me.  We actually did discover that there is something with eating that much quality fish that can give you a feeling of being buzzed.  It’s referred to as sushi high.  There is a phrase in the urban dictionary, sushi drunk, which by definition is the happiest form of being drunk.  There is no doubt I felt it.  I was giddy afterwords and maybe explained why I got teary-eyed in Tokyo—I was sushi drunk.

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With bellies full of sushi we headed back to the hotel where we decided to grab a nightcap.  We celebrated such a successful adventure with some fun drinks.  Peter went with single malt Japanese whiskey (when in Rome) and I ordered up a dirty vodka martini.  We toasted and felt gratitude in our hearts for a trip of a lifetime.

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Our time in Japan was winding down.  In the morning we were heading to Osaka for the night and then off to South Korea.

Kyoto is one of those places that you can see a million pictures of and you can gather how beautiful it is, but there is an energy that compliments that beauty that I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the world.  The positive energy and zen waves that pump through the air in Kyoto is magical.  The use of natures magnificence coupled with tranquility will bring the most anxious to a peaceful state.  And if you’re lucky… a Geisha will level you with her charm and grace.

Thanks to our lovely family and friends that continue to stay with us on this journey.

XOXO

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  • It looks like there is no shortage of beauty in Kyoto. So lovely.