Two days in Kyoto (a.k.a Why are there so many goddam people here??)

The friend who I was travelling with is a teacher, so unfortunately she is stuck travelling during the peak times of school holidays. Osaka had been kind of busy, but nothing like what we encountered in Kyoto. Not only was it school holidays in Hong Kong, but it was a week of national holidays in mainland China, and it seemed like the entire population of Beijing was in Kyoto at the same time as us.

After the chilled out, laid back vibe of Osaka, in contrast Kyoto seemed stuffy, self important, and stand-offish. I suppose being Japan’s capital for over 1,000 years gives you some sense of entitlement, but we were not prepared for incredibly overpriced restaurants, bars that charge you a fee just to sit down and demand that you order X amount of drinks and X amount of dishes, and mostly a cold, slightly snobbish kind of attitude.

Being the second most popular city in Japan other than Tokyo (yay Tokyo!), but ten times smaller in terms of population, perhaps Kyoto is just a bit overwhelmed with all the attention, and hasn’t figured out exactly how to deal with this massive, never ending influx of tourists. Everywhere we went we saw foreigners. Every train was full of foreigners too, which would never happen in Tokyo, being such a huge city. There were signs in English everywhere, which was helpful, but weird. But also a sense of stress, that people were being forced to face the plague of locusts. Even the magazine in our hotel had a page warning people against chasing geisha through Gion to take pictures and harassing them.

We were therefore lucky, after taking the train from Osaka to Kyoto, to go to one of the most popular sights in Kyoto, and not be overrun with tourists. Looking back, it is likely that if we went in the morning, it would have been flooded with people. Anyway, we went to the Fushimi Inari Shrine that afternoon, and it was without a doubt the highlight of my experience in Kyoto.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha is famous for being a very unique attraction in Japan, in that it has hundreds and hundreds of orange torii winding up through the mountain on what is actually a two-hour hike (we only walked for perhaps an hour before getting tired and sitting down in a mountain retreat for a cold Sapporo). Torii are the gates that serve as the entrance to a Shinto shrine, and symbolically indicates the passing into a sacred area. The torii at Fushimi Inari were apparently donated by local merchants, and the columns carry their names, dates, and even prayers.

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It has become a real icon of Japan, and yes there were lots of people there taking pictures, and even girls (and guys) renting out kimono to pose for pictures in the orange gates. But it wasn’t completely overrun with people, and we were able to take our time and enjoy it.

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Quiet guest house about a third of the way up the mountain. Good place to sit and chill out.

This was the exact opposite of what we encountered on day two when we rented bicycles and went around the city on two wheels, only to be confronted by what seemed like millions of tourists coming off of millions of tour buses. It also didn’t help that it was raining, so the rent-a-bike was a bit of a bust, and not worth doing unless you have a clear day.

When we got to our first destination, the Kiyomizu Dera temple, we had to get off the bikes and squeeze our way between the buses just to get to the entrance, and then pay to park, and then go with the crowds through what I imagine are normally quite beautiful, peaceful, scenic little roads that lead into the temple. But all we saw were tour guide flags, yellow caps of school trips, and zillions of tourists, mostly from mainland China, many of them dressed up in fancy kimono for pictures. It took forever to walk through the throngs. But we did, and we got ‘The Picture’ that everyone takes of Kiyomizu Dera.

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Was it worth it? Perhaps in off-season it might have been. But after that experience of being so overrun by tour buses, we were completely turned off. Laura described it as being ‘underwhelmed’. Kyoto is touted as the ‘City of Temples’ and the map we’d gotten from the rent-a-bike company had routes to get to all of them. But being so soured by the rain and the crowds, we decided actually not to go to the other temples, and therefore did not see 99% of the famous sights of Kyoto.

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A claustrophobe’s worst nightmare

Instead, we got the hell away from Kiyomizu Dera, and biked it over to an indoor attraction suitable for a rainy day – the Teramachi and Shinkyogoku shopping arcades, which are covered, and good for wandering around for an hour or two. Right in the middle of the city, it was busy, but not overrun with tour buses. What was cool was that every block or so, you’d come across a tiny temple, and there were dozens of them.

Later that day when the weather cleared up a bit, we cycled to Gion, the famous ‘geisha district’. And did we see a geisha? Yes, we did! We did not, however, chase her like a papparazzi, respecting the wishes of the local community. In fact, it was such a fleeting moment we didn’t even have enough time to take our the cameras.

We were just wandering through the quiet streets, looking at the wooden merchant houses and the traditional architecture, when suddenly, through the light drizzle, a door slid open, and a geisha emerged, right in front of us. She quickly scurried up the road, and I took a good look at her kimono, the elaborate hairdo, the white paint on the back of her neck, and then, in an instant, she was gone, like an apparition. I think in a way it was better to just take in the moment rather than to be obsessed with snapping a shot of her. And hopefully she was grateful for a moment of peace, without long lenses and flash photography.

As previously mentioned, Kyoto was a little bit stuffy, at least in comparison to Osaka. We did not feel particularly welcome at the restaurants even though they immediately presented English menus to us. On the contrary, it felt more like, ‘Oh god, it’s another goddam gaijin coming inside.’ I almost prefer the fear that people in Tokyo tend to give off when confronted with a foreigner, or the blasé whatever shrug of easy-going Osaka people… at least you know it’s authentic! Perhaps I am not explaining it very well.

Anyway, Kyoto….. well….. seems like an awful thing to say about one of the most important cities in Japan and the home of so, so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites… but… meh. Perhaps it would have been better if we’d been during a quieter time. But still, I’d choose Osaka over Kyoto any day. 

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