Plan for the day
Today, we would finally be arriving at Kyoto! “The thousand-year capital”.
Before Kyoto, we had one optional item which was Todai-ji temple, but after reviewing our itinerary last evening we decided to drop Todai-ji temple visit. Todai-ji was constructed in 752 as head of temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. Its main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) was the world’s largest wooden building. Our decision to drop Todai-ji was because we did not felt that it was a must-visit destination especially after we had already visit Kinpusenji Temple of Mount Yoshina the day before.
I had planned to visit 10 Kyoto destinations that were famous for their autumn beauty. We had three days in Kyoto but I doubted we would be able to complete all of the 10 destinations so I put two on optional list.
Hotel Keihan Universal Tower
This morning from our hotel room we could see Universal Studios theme park, it was just 500 metres for from our hotel. Last evening when we checked into the hotel we were given two ¥1000 discount vouchers to be used at Universal Studios. Too bad we were not into theme park, we were too “grown up” to be thrilled by the theme park rides. So the discount vouchers went to waste.
For family that came with kids to enjoy Universal Studios, would find Hotel Keihan Universal Tower a very convenient and good value hotel.
Usually, when I visited a place, city or a country I would look out for World Heritage sites and made them parts of my must-visit list of destinations. But to visit all 17 World Heritage Sites of Kyoto would take up too much of my allocated three days in Kyoto. After going through the 17 world heritage sites, I only picked those that were also well known for their autumn beauty.
- Kiyomizu-dera temple
- Kinkaku-ji temple
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
The road that led to the shrine was a narrow one way road with low buildings on both sides of the road. It was packed with cars and people. Though there were walkways on both sides of the road, the humans kept overflowing onto the road so we had to be very careful when we navigated our car down the road. The nearer we were to the shrine the more crowded it got, just when we were about 150 metres from the shrine, the road was crossed by a train track and the train was coming! Down came the barricade.
While waiting for the train to pass I saw a small car park on our right. Since we were already very near to the shrine we decided to turn into the car park and parked our car. The car park charge was ¥200 an hour for week day parking. The car park was very small with only 10 parking lots, luckily there was one empty space just nice for our car. Looking at the crowded condition of the road we thought we should park the car when given the chance as we were not sure if the temple had an onsite car park.
From the car park we walked for about 120 metres to the entrance of the shrine. Just before shrine on its right side was a huge car park, the road that led into the car park was jammed with cars entering and leaving.
The entrance to the shrine was marked by a huge red torii gate along the road.
Fushimi Inari Taisha was one of Kyoto’s oldest (founded in 711 AD) and most revered Shinto shrines, it served as the headquarters for all the 40,000 shrines dedicated to Inari across Japan. Inari was the god of rice, sake and prosperity. Fushimi was the location and was added to the name to distinguish it from the other Inari shrines.
This shrine was famous for its thousands of red torii gates that arched over a long path up the hill behind its main building. The trail led into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari which stands at 233 metres.
From the road we turned right onto a tiled walking path that led us passed two huge red torri gates before we could reached the main building. On both sides of the walking path were “Koyo” colored trees. There was no entrance fee for this shrine.
Beside the main building on the ground of the shrine, there were several other smaller buildings, there was one with many gigantic bells tied to its beam. The bells looked like the type that were hung around the necks of cats except that they were huge.
Many people were ringing the bells so I decided to do likewise. I had no idea what was the significant of ringing the bell but considering that a Inari Shrine was dedicated to rice, sage and prosperity, ringing the bell should be for something good.
We were done with exploring the buildings and were ready to go to the back of the main building to explore its 10,000 small torii gates. These torii gates were build from the donations of individuals and companies. The cost started around 400,000 yen for a small sized gate and increased to over one million yen for a large gate.The torii gates covered the hiking trail of about 4 km to the top of the Mount Inari. Well, 4 km did not seem too long so we were going for to the top! It was amazing to see the endless column of torii gates, gates after gates it went on and on and on.
Walking under the torii gates gave the impression of walking inside a red tunnel, the gates were built so close to each other that their concrete footings almost touched. The sunlight that came through the gaps of the torii gates turned the red internal slightly golden, it was a amazing experience walking in the torii gate tunnel.
We walked for an hour and still had yet to reach the end of the trail and we had no idea how far more we had to go on. We came to a break where there was a small building selling some stuffs and a water basin nearby. I had no idea what was being sold and could not tell by looking at them but at least I could tell that the water basin was to provide water for thirsty visitors.
Though I had my water bottle with me, I decided to forgo bottled water and have a taste of natural mountain water. The water tasted cool. (I was wrong, the water was meant for washing hands!)
We continued our walk and reached a cross road, at the cross road we saw a worn out signboard which told us that we were only midway to the top. Oh dear, this meant we would need another hour to get to the top and two more hours to return to our car and that would leave us with no more daylight to explore the next destination. So we decided to exit Fushimi Inari Shrine as fast as possible. We did not return to the Main Hall by back tracking through the long windy torii gate trail we took some shortcuts.
For a while we thought we were lost as we passed some weird looking places. As we walked downslope, one side of the path was full of stone torii gates, stone tablets with inscription and tiny offerings. It reminded me of a cemetery.
Soon we reached the main building and left the shrine to pick up our car. It was already 1 pm in the afternoon so we had to quickly move to our next site.
Tofuku-ji Temple or Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Since we only had 3 more hours before sundown we could only visit one more temple. Near to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine there were Tofuku-ji Temple (about 1.5 m away) and Kiyomizu-dera Temple (about 6 km away). Both Tofuku-ji and Kiyomizu-dera were famous for their beautiful autumn colors but we only had time to visit one. In the end we chose to visit Kiyomizu-dera as it had the World Heritage Site award. We decided that if we had spare time in the next two days we would visit Tofuku-ji temple.
It took only 20 minutes to drive from Fushimi Inari Taisha to Kiyomizu-dera. Finding the place was very easy, I just had to enter the destination mapcode into the car GPS system and follow the GPS instruction. By now we were very confident of using mapcode to navigate to our destination and were not worried about turning into the wrong lane or road. Unfortunately the tough part was finding a place to park our car as the temple did not have an onsite car park. There were a few car parks near the temple and they were mostly full, the charges were ¥300 for half an hour on a weekday and double that on weekend. The roads around the temple were narrow and crowded with people so there was no way to just park the car by the roadside. After looping around, we managed to park our car in a car park just about 200 metres to the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera temple.
There were three street roads that led to the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera temple which was a flight of wide steps. These roads channeled the crowd from three directions to the base of the steps causing a huge human congestion.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple was a historic temple that was established in 778 even before Kyoto became the capital of Japan. It was located halfway up Otowa Mountain in the eastern park of Kyoto City.
The Main Hall (Hondo) of the temple was designated as a natural treasure. The temple had many other important cultural properties including Deva gate, west gate, three storied pagoda and a bell tower. In 1994 it was registered in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List.
Kiyomizu-dera temple was famous for its cherry blossom scenery in spring and koyo color in autumns. The temple operating hours in autumn was 6am to 5.30pm for the day and 6pm to 9pm for the night. Night opening was available in summer, spring and on special occasions.
The entrance fee was ¥400 per person for entering into the temple compound. To enter the Main Hall there was another ¥400 per person charge. To stay on for the night opening was another ¥500 per person.
From the street level we walked up several steps to a wide landing. From the landing there was a second set of stairs that lead through the a huge red gate structure flanked by stone lions. This red gate was the Deva Gate.
We bought the entrance tickets but decided against buying the additional tickets to visit the Main Hall. The crowd going into the Main Hall was too overwhelming, and the internal of the hall was sardine packed with visitors. I doubt we would be able to appreciate the Main Hall with such a huge crowd.
We stayed away from the Main Hall and slowly explored the other colorful halls and pagodas.
Wherever we went, we had this habit of taking a path less crowded, so as long as there was no “No entry” to stop us we would proceed. As long as the onward path looked safe we would explore.
This time our exploration on the route less traveled brought us to a quiet pond. We were the only visitors at the pond so it was nice to get the entire place to ourselves. Growing around the pond were many autumn colored trees with low hanging branches stretching out to the pond. The whole place was bursting with koyo colors. The calm water surface of the the pond mirrored the colorful foliage so we got a double dosage of autumn brilliance.
We strolled up a slope and then down a path that led us to a small opened metal gate. From the gate the path led slightly down slope to join another a walking path. There were many people on the walking path, these people were coming from the exit of the Main Hall and it led to a huge wooden bridge that was opposite the Main Hall and its attached Kiyomizu Stage. The view of the Main Hall and Kiyomizu Stage from the bridge was unbelievably stunning!!
The Main Hall and the Kiyomizu Stage were the two most famous places of this temple. The Main Hall housed the Eleven Headed and Thousand Armed Kannon Bodhisattva which was said to be famous for its power in making one’s prayer a reality. The Kiyomizu Stage was a veranda of the Main Hall and it extended over a precipice. Kiyomizu Stage was building using a special method, huge 12 meter high Keyaki pillars were assembled without using a single nail and the floor was installed using more than 410 cypress board.
The impressive scene of the Main Hall and Kiyomizu Stage floating above a forest of autumn foliage could only be seen on the bridge opposite the Main Hall. For the other visitors they got onto this bridge through the Main Hall as for us we took the route that passed the pond, went up a slope and down to a metal gate. A route that was most probably not the official route to the bridge.
After the bridge we came to a stairs that brought us down to the base of the Main Hall that was where we saw the Otowa Waterfall. The name Kiyomizu-dera actually meant “the temple of clear water” and the water probably referred to the water of the Otowa Waterfall that was in the temple ground. The word waterfall made me thought of a cliff, whether high or low, with water cascading down the face of the cliff. But in this case, Otowa Waterfall was nothing like that.
It was three streams of water flowing off three beams near the roof of a pavilion liked structure. Somehow the water from the waterfall was channeled into these three streams. Apparently drinking the water from these streams would bring success, love and longevity. Cups attached to long poles were provided to visitors to catch the water from these streams. It was said that one should only drink from one stream as drinking from more than one stream was considered greedy.
I was not sure which stream would bring success, which for love and which for longevity and what would be the consequence of being greedy. There was a long queue of people waiting for their turns to drink the water so I decided not to join them.
On the southern end of the temple ground we saw another three storied pagoda, this was the Koyasu Pagoda. I stood still staring at this three storied pagoda rising above a sea of brilliant red colored leaves with bright blue sky and pure white clouds as its backdrop. It was a mesmerizing sight. I wondered would I have enjoyed the same view as much if the leaves were just green in summer or the trees were just bare branches as in winter. I did not think so.
We had a wonderful time at Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The autumn foliage had enhance the beauty of the place many hundred times. Though the crowd could be overwhelming in autumn it was still a great period to visit the place.
We were glad we had the time to slowly explore the temple ground and to frequently looked back. We had seen Koyasu Pagoda when we were on the bridge, at that level it looked like an ordinary pagoda but when we viewed it from up near on the ground level, it looked so majestic so different from before.
Higashiyama district was just right outside Kiyoshima-dera temple. It was a place to experience traditional old Kyoto where the narrow lanes, wooden building and traditional merchants shop brought back the traditional feel of the district. The best part of the district was the 2 km stretch that led from Kiyoshima-dera temple to Yasaka Shirine.
As we strolled along the streets we saw shops, cafes and restaurants selling local specialties and souvenirs. The streets were very crowded and after a long tiring day we were not in the mood to get squashed in a crowd again so after a short walk we left to pick up our car. The car parking charges came up to ¥1200 for just two hours of parking.
Eizan Railway Momiji (Maple Tree) Tunnel
It was close to sunset so our next destination should be a place with a night view. We had three options. There were Kiyozimu-dera temple, Eizan Railway Maple tree tunnel and Hiyoshi-Taisha. We had enough of Kiyozimu-dera so we decided to go for the Eizan Railway Maple tree tunnel. The distance from Kiyomizu-dera temple to Ninose-cho station was about 14km. Using Ninose-cho station mapcode we drove up to our target destination. When we reached the place which looked like some kind of a village we could not find the station.
The road was narrow with residential houses on both sides, the sun had set and the place was rather dark and there was no resident on the street. There were street lamps but they were dim and far apart. Just when we were at lost we heard a train went by that was when we realised that the train was right up the hill behind the houses on one side of the road.
We had difficulties finding a suitable place to park our car. The road was narrow so it was not possible to leave the car at the side of the road. Finally we found a dark empty land where we saw a couple of cars already parked.
We walked toward the direction of Ninose-cho station and found a steep stairs going up the hill behind the house. I could only hope that the stairs would bring us up to the station as there was no signboard pointing to the station. When we reached the top of the stairs we saw the track and the station. Bingo! we got it! Beside the station was a beautifully lighted tree.
There was no station master at the station so we could not buy our train tickets even though we had figured from the signboard that our trip to Ichihara station would cost ¥410 one way per person. The train came and we boarded onto its last car. In the train there was no train conductor so we could not pay for our fare too.
Near the maple corridor the train slowed down, then all the internal lights of the train compartments were switched off. Several wall panels in our compartment were released revealing glass panels. We sat quietly in total darkness. Suddenly we approached a brightly lighted golden tunnel. The tunnel were made up of “autumn trees” on both sides of the track, they were beautifully lighted up, the view was absolutely magical as the train ran slowly down the 250 metre stretch of the maple corridor. Too soon the tunnel was over, then the lights in the train compartments were switched on and the train picked up speed. The train reached the next station Ichihara-cho station.
We got off the train thinking that we had a free ride, but to our surprise the train driver in the front compartment came down too and called out to us. I ran toward him and gave him the fare which he collected, he even took out changes from his coin belt to return to us our change.
At Ichihara-cho station we crossed to the next platform to wait for a train to go back to Ninose-cho station. At the station I saw an “English” explanation on how to make payment for our tickets on the train. In the last car there was a fare machine where I could make the payment, or make our payment to the driver. Soon the train came and we boarded it, paid our fare at the fare machine and enjoyed another magical trip back to Ninose-cho station.
I enjoyed the train ride though the tunnel, my only regrets was there we too many commuters on the train so it was hard to have a good view. Many commuters were taking photos of the maple corridor and their flash lights that went bursting around me spoil my enjoyment.
Reiah Hotel Otsu Ishiyama
I had booked a double room at Reiah Hotel Otsu Ishiyama for two nights for our three days Kyoto visit. Reiah Hotel was not exactly at the center of Kyoto, it was near the southern tip of Lake Biwa and about 15km from Kyoto center.
I had reserved the room some five months ahead of my stay and the room rates were at ¥8400 a night with breakfast and ensuite bathroom. Five months ago, most accommodations in Kyoto center were either fully booked, or did not have parking space or were outrageously expensive. Hotel Reiah was the best I could find, though its small double room was still expensive, it was still affordable and not too far away from Kyoto center. Parking was at ¥1200 a night.
The hotel was pretty decent and clean. But the room was very small only about half the size of the room that I had the night before at Osaka. It was a tight squeeze for two persons.
Hotels near Kyoto