Kyoto, the Soul of Japan

Kyoto must be considered one of the world’s cultural and historic treasure troves. With 17 World Heritage Sites, more than 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto has been called the “soul of Japan”. The guidebooks are full of descriptions of Tokyo as the bustling hub and gleaming modern capital versus Kyoto as the traditional, ancient capital in the central hills.

So we might be forgiven if our first reaction as we stepped off the shinkansen into Kyoto Station was ‘Wow!’

Kyoto Station from the top of the 15 flight of stairs
Kyoto Station from the top of the 15 flight of stairs.

I guess since Kyoto station was first opened by decree of Emperor Meiji in 1877, we were expecting something more like this?

The first Kyoto Station, ordered by Emperor Meiji, circa 1880
The first Kyoto Station, ordered by Emperor Meiji, circa 1880.

And we also weren’t too sure about staying at a hotel at the train station. These can be a little dicey. But the Hotel Granvia Kyoto had come highly recommended as new, modern, reasonably-priced and very conveniently located for accessing the entire city. It didn’t disappoint. See our review of Hotel Granvia Kyoto if you’re headed to Kyoto.

View from Hotel Granvia Kyoto, an integral part of the architecturally striking JR Kyoto Station Building, which also includes a department store, museum, musical theater, and a vast underground shopping mall. Escalators and steps going up 15 floors.
View from Hotel Granvia Kyoto, an integral part of the architecturally striking JR Kyoto Station Building, which also includes a department store, museum, musical theater, and a vast underground shopping mall. Escalators and steps going up 15 floors.
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On the outside steps of the Hotel Granvia – 15 stories high!

When we asked our guide to describe the difference between Tokyo and Kyoto, he said that Kyoto was probably ‘snobby’; we think he meant ‘very proud’ of their heritage. He gave as an example his 97-year-old mother who still thinks the move of the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo is just temporary … Tokyo does mean, literally, “East Kyoto” after-all. (Technically, Kyoto means ‘capital’ and Tokyo means ‘east capital’, but Kyoto residents love the “East Kyoto” story…)

We took a walk our first afternoon in Kyoto, and started getting a feel for Kyoto’s charms.

Kimonos are generally worn as 'dress-up' and by older generations, but we saw more in Kyoto than elsewhere
Kimonos are generally worn as ‘dress-up’ and by older generations, but we saw more in Kyoto than elsewhere.
"EZY CAFE Dude"
“EZY CAFE Dude”
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Sun setting through some cherry trees near a Unesco temple.

We ended up at a small Mexican restaurant, La Jolla Californian Mexican Grill, that turned out to be FANTASTIC.  It had only 12 seats, but deservingly is rated 4th overall in restaurants in Kyoto.   Their motto is “only the freshest and natural ingredients are used in our cuisine”, and we can confirm that statement.  We liked it so much, we went back for a second time and were rewarded with an equally wonderful meal. The restaurant is soon moving to new quarters (with 32 seats) and will be at the top of our list the next time we are in Kyoto.

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Abraham, the waiter, is on the left and the owner (head chef) is on the right. The owner was a “surfing dude” for a number of years in southern California.

On our second morning , we met up with Ken Sakurai, who was our Kyoto guide for the next two days.  Ken spent 25 years working in the U.S (San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, etc.).  He was wonderful, flexible, interesting, and fluent in English. If you ever need a Kyoto guide, contact Ken – email: k39come@asint.jp or telephone: +81 (0)90-68-4882.

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At the beginning of our first full day in Kyoto, we walked to the Lake Biwa Canal, a waterway constructed during the 1890’s to transport water, freight, and passengers from Lake Biwa (which at 200+ square miles, is the largest lake in Japan) to the nearby city of Kyoto. The canal supplied Japan’s first public hydroelectric power, which served from 1895 to provide electricity for Kyoto’s trams.  The waterway is currently used for water supply to the city of Kyoto and for irrigation purposes.

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Lake Biwa Canal.

 

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The old railway tracks on which railcars carried specially designed boats from one canal to another.
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The other side of the old railway tracks on which railcars carried specially designed boats from one canal to another.
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The Biwa canal disappears through one of the many tunnels that exist between Lake Biwa and the city of Kyoto.
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Sometimes the Biwa Canal Aqueduct needs a little extra support.

We visited a number of very interesting temples, country villas and shrines that were used by the Shoguns during the “Edo” period – from about 1600 through 1868.  Here are some of our pictures from these historic sites.

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Ornate castle gate.
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A wave design made of sand. Re-formed daily!
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A Mt. Fuji design make of sand. Re-formed daily!
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A room where high level Samurai held summit meetings.

If you are interested in Japanese history, we highly recommend James Clavell’s historical novel Shogun.

 
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These are “nightingale nails” which ensure that the floor makes a creaking sound when walked upon. If you’ve read Across The Nightingale Floor, set in fictional feudal Japan, you’re familiar with the floors that sound like a Japanese Bush Warbler.
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According to legend, 15 generations of a ruling family are buried here.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, officially named Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple), is a Zen Buddhist temple.  It has over 100 lbs of gold in the gold leaf paint – about $2 million at today’s price levels.   It is one of the 17 Unesco World Heritage sites in Kyoto and, as we can verify, attracts a large number of visitors annually.

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The Golden Pavilion Temple.
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Black lacquer finish on the floor of the Golden Pavilion.
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The Golden Pavilion in winter. OK….this is a picture of a picture, but we couldn’t wait until next January to get this shot.
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Fallen cherry blossoms carpet the ground.

We thought the following gardening scenes were interesting with respect to the painstaking, careful and attentive process.  Our thinking is that a vacuum would be a bit more efficient?

Cherry blossoms are swept, and every tiny weed pulled, by hand, on the temple grounds
Cherry blossoms are swept, and every tiny weed pulled, by hand, on the temple grounds.
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Gardner sweeping up the cherry blossoms that have fallen from the trees.
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Gardner picking the weeds…..weed by weed.

We thought the following Kyoto scenes somewhat serendipitous.

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Reminded us of Lady Bird Lake in Austin.

 

Scene of a traditional geisha tea ceremony
Scene of a traditional geisha tea ceremony.

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A new form of saint.
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Shauna with the Kyoto Colonel.
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Japanese bicycle storage at an apartment.

We’ll close this blog entry with something we found during our last night in Kyoto.  This lovely canal and the street/sidewalk that ran along side of it reminded us of a Paris street scene.  So serene and livable.

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Takase-gawa Canal in eastern Kyoto.
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Reproduction of the syle of boat that used to operate on the Takase-gawa Canal in eastern Kyoto.

 

4 Comments

  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing, Shauna and Mark! Your commentary and photos really get to the nitty gritty of the beauty and culture.

    I had to gasp and chuckle when I saw the picture of the gardner weeding in Kyoto. That could have been me weeding my Mom’s lawn in the 70’s! I am sure the neighbors thought I was peculiar. Now I know I was just Japanese!

    1. haha, that’s funny Gina, thanks for sharing. I will always think of you now whenever I see someone weeding, however they are doing it. Hope your second week in Japan was wonderful and your travels home safe and uneventful. Until we meet again (and I’m sure we will), much affection and big hugs from both Mark and me.

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