Japan: Kyoto

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Kyoto always have been a special place for me.  It was the first city I visited in Japan when I came here over 6 years ago.  I was traveling on my own, didn't speak the language, didn't plan for anything other than the hostel I was staying in Gion district.

But out of pure coincidence, I met up with a few other travelers, an Australian who was teaching English, and a Canadian who had spent portion of his life here and was coming back to visit.  The experience was really cool to me, since I had never travelled by myself before then and I was able to see some really beautiful places. 

Coming back to Kyoto now, I got to revisit some of those places and some new spots I didn't get the chance to see last time, and even got to meet those same people from my last trip here.

If Tokyo was the modern and liberal extreme of Japan, Kyoto reflects more of the history and tradition of Japan, at least that's what it feels to me.  Between the dozens of temples and shrines, beautiful rural areas, and older architecture, you feel like you've got a glimpsed into Japan's history.

One place I've always wanted to come back was Fushimi Inari Taisha.  The main shrine to the Inari Kami, from here many other sister shrines are spread all around Japan.  It's mostly known for its endless red Tori gates that lines the complex's trail.  Each of the gates is donated by families or organizations as a tribute to the Kami. 

It was raining and cloudy when we got here, which makes taking any photos particularly hard.  I took this one just at the entrance of the Senbon Tori section of the shrine, just as a girl was coming in with her white umbrella.  Contrasting the deep crimson gates.

Another place I revisited was the river that runs along the east side of the city, dividing the downtown area to the Gion district.  Coming here in the late afternoon after dinner, you can see many teens and younger folks hanging around, lounging, right next to the flowing river.

As we sat there just chilling, I saw a crane standing still on the river.  I quickly took out my Fuji camera, put it on a gorillapod and hand held a long-exposure filter while taking a shot of the crane.  The crane was absolutely still, even as I was exposing a 60-second shot.  Somehow the picture came out just like a Japanese ink painting.  There was something serene about watching the bird just standing there, motionless.

Not long after, I noticed a performer was stretching and preparing for his show nearby.  I recognized the performer, as he was also here exactly on this spot 6 years ago when I visited.  I found out that his name is Kousuke, and I suppose he's been doing his art continuously for years now.  I asked to take his picture, and told him that I saw him right on this very spot 6 years ago.  He smiled, but I doubt he remembered me.

And once the sun comes down and it gets darker, he begins his Firedance  pyrotechnic performance.  Using various contraptions and torches, he skillfully paint the air with blazes of fire.

It was really cool.

West of Kyoto, about 45 minute train ride from the city, is the Arashiyama district.  A small town with several preserved old buildings, it's a popular place for visitors to enjoy the quietter country side and see the famous bamboo groves.  Within the bamboo trails are also several old poet houses, temples, and shrines too. 

Instead of coming directly to Arashiyama, we stayed on the train to stop at Kameoka.  From there we took a boat ride down the Hozugawa river.  Somehow we got put in the same boat as a group of elementary students on a school trip. 

The river ride was actually quite nice, as we get to see more of the countryside, and the hills and forest that lines the river.  And it some places there were pretty exciting rapids... made more exciting by the fact that we were on an old wooden boat.

We also met a nice young couple with a good sense of humor.  He asked me if I had gone to the Zen gardens, and if I understood what it means... coz he doesn't understand it himself, he says as he laughed.

As for food, there are plenty of options in and around Kyoto too.  Especially around the city center off Shijo-Dori street, and Nishiki market.  And plenty of small local shops serving just one thing and one thing only.  We found a very cute little coffee shop, called Elephant Factory Coffee.  It's in a small alley, up a narrow set of stairs, very rustic interiors and serving up some really nice drip-coffees.

Osaka is also just a short train ride away from Kyoto, about 30-minutes from Kyoto Station, if you're looking for even more options for food.  The Dotonbori district is kind of like Vegas, but for food.  Each shop competing for attention using big ridiculous flashy signs.   They say that you have to try the takoyaki here (piping hot fried wheat-flour balls with squid legs inside), and that the best one is right under the giant squid. It was easy enough to find.

4-days seems like it wasn't long enough to see everything I wanted to see in Kyoto.  There are still many places that I'd like to see, but I guess in the end it'll just be a reason for me to come back here again.