Although our entire trip was planned at the last minute, our Kyoto trip was planned at the VERY last minute. Every night while I was planning, Patrick would come home with another story about how he’d mentioned our upcoming trip to someone and they’d exclaimed, “Oh, you HAVE to go to Kyoto while you’re there!” This made me very anxious and grumpy. For one thing, geographically speaking, this is like telling someone that if they’re going to Los Angeles, they have to see the Monterey Bay while they’re there. Granted, using the bullet train cuts the trip down to about 2 hours and 15 minutes. But mostly I felt like here I was planning my buns off and some random stranger was second-guessing my itinerary (which did not have time in it for a side trip to Kyoto).
So I explained to Patrick that if we did cram a trip to Kyoto in between our Fish Market/Odaiba day and our trip to Studio Ghibli, it was going to cost a bundle and we would not be having the kind of relaxing, well-paced vacation that he declared he wanted after our crazy-go-nuts Christmas in Walt Disney World.
Since he was OK with this and I was definitely curious about the bullet train, I started pricing out our options for seeing as much of Kyoto in one day as we could. Again, I am not one for organized tours, but it seemed the most efficient way to cover a lot of ground, so I went back to the web site of Viator, the company that organized our Studio Ghibli tour. The offered two half-day tours and one full-day tour, plus tours that included tickets on the bullet train (henceforth to be referred to here as the “Shinkansen” cuz it’s easier to type), but only for a half-day tour.
I thought about buying Japan Rail passes, but since this was the only place we were going outside of Tokyo, and they don’t work on the Nozomi (the Shinkansen with the shortest trip), and I didn’t want to feel obligated to mostly ride the JR line around Tokyo to save money on subway fare, I skipped them.
We decided to make up our own tour by buying tickets for the morning’s first train (6am) and taking the full-day tour, which picked up from a hotel across the street from Kyoto station at 8:40am. The Shinkansen was to arrive at 8:11am, which seems kinda tight, but these are Japanese train schedules we’re talking about here! (Tip: http://www.hyperdia.com/ is a fabulous site for Japanese train schedules—we couldn’t have planned this trip without it, especially since you can’t actually purchase your shinkansen tickets until you get to Japan.)
I’d expected this to be one of our more intense and hectic touring days, but it actually ran quite smoothly. We got up around 5am and went downstairs to the Shinkansen tracks to hop the first train to Kyoto. We brought the bento boxes we’d bought the night before, but we could have bought food from a mini mart on the platform too.
Riding the train was so much fun—it was crazy to see the scenery whip by at 185mph! I knew that we should sit on the right hand side (as you face toward the front of the train) so that we could see Mt. Fuji if it was visible that day. I guess some days the air isn’t clear enough. So we were very excited when we began to catch glimpses of it!
It was also nice just to be out of the city for a change of scenery.
As an extra-special treat, Mt. Fuji was covered in snow.
(Sorry, there are gonna be a lot of Mt. Fuji pix cuz Patrick let me have the camera…)
The train was moving so fast that every moment brought a new and different view of the mountain.
We got off the train at 8:11am, just like Hyperdia said we would, and made our way down the street to the Kyoto New Miyako Hotel, from which our tour—and all tours in Kyoto, it seems—departed. The lobby was bustling with tourists and tour guides, but our table was fairly easy to find.
We passed the 20 minutes til the start of the tour by taking this picture:
The weather in Kyoto that day was lovely—not too cool and not too hot—which was a bonus because the day before they’d had a freak snowstorm! Patrick’s brother and sister-in-law had been in Kyoto that day on their Copy Carriatrick But Do Everything First Tour and got a shot of it:
Our tour was operated by JTB Sunrise Tours, and it turned out to be HUGE—three whole buses full of people lumbering down city streets choked with other tour buses. Fortunately, we only had to worry about sticking with our bus and its guide.
The guide stood or sat at the front of the bus and spoke into a microphone as we went. Her English was fairly easy to understand, and she even got us engaged in a little friendly competition with the other buses to see if WE could all be present and accounted for after each stop so that ours was the first bus to leave for the next stop. She was also good about not doing too much drive-by sightseeing as we moved between stops on the tour. But there was a bit of the “If you look out to the right you’ll see the famous—quick, look to the LEFT! There’s another famous…”
Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for centuries (remember that marker on Nihombashi bridge measuring the distance from Tokyo to Kyoto?) and it’s a huge tourist destination today because it retains numerous original structures of historical significance due to the moratorium on bombing there during WWII. As a result, you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a temple or a shrine or a castle in Kyoto, and tourism has become a huge industry. (Dead-cat swinging, on the other hand, has seen a steep decline.) It also clogs the streets with buses and the sights with photo-snapping yokels like us.
There were three stops planned for the morning tour and three for the afternoon tour, with a catered lunch in between. Our first stop was Nijo Castle, the residence of the ruling shogun for about 250 years until power was restored to the Emperor. I confess to being childishly disappointed to discover it wasn’t a big stone castle like you think of—it was more of a low wooden house.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures or wear shoes inside. We left our shoes in cubbies and were led to the back of a mass of people shuffling along the bare corridors past empty, open rooms. We’d have to pause occasionally to wait for the group in front of us to finish and move on, and at one point some official got snippy with our poor guide about where we were allowed to go next.
None of the rooms had furniture, so the focus was on the paintings and tapestries on the walls. It was neat to see depictions of animals the artists had never seen before, like tigers, and see the difference in the rooms reserved for friends and those set aside for enemies and frenemies. But the part we loved were the squeaky floors! The place was a cacophony of chirps and squeaks as the crowd moved along what are called “nightingale floors.” The sub floors contain wooden bits and nails that scrape against each other as you walk on the floor above—the aim being to alert the shogun to intruders. The parts of the castle reserved for friends and confidantes didn’t have nightingale floors.
Maybe I don’t have a very good imagination, but I wished they’d at least scattered some reproduction furniture—or floor pillows or something!—in the rooms to give you more to look at. The best room had some faceless mannequins representing the shogun and his wives/assistant ladies.
After we got our shoes back, our guide took us to the garden for a few minutes.
All told, we had about 30 minutes at Nijo Castle before we were whisked off to the next sight, Kinkakuji Temple, better known as the Golden Pavilion.
I was kind of surprised – I expected Kyoto to be like Santa Barbara or Tuscany or something — a quaint old town full of historic sights. Instead it was a regular gray, industrialized, telephone wire-crossed city with picturesque sights crammed between the cinderblock buildings.
Our next stop was the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji Temple), and it was neat. I think it may have been my favorite. We all piled off the bus in a gravel parking lot and walked to a big gate, where we waited for our guide to come up to the front and pay our admission.
If I’d paid attention to that map I might not have been so surprised at what we eventually saw, but I was trying to decide if I wanted to spend ¥600 to ring the ginormous bell out front….
We started at this gate…
… and followed a winding path to suddenly come across this huge gold-leafed temple on a serene lake with mountains and forest all around. Gorgeous!
The story here is that this amazing gold-leafed temple was built in the 1300s and managed to withstand time and war for hundreds of years (including one war when all the other buildings on the site burned down) only to be torched by a disgruntled monk in 1950! It was rebuilt in 1955, though, and freshened up in 1987 and 2003. I don’t think our pictures quite do it justice, so here are a few from Wikipedia Commons:
After the fire…
Unfortunately, we only had something like 15 minutes of free time to see the whole rest of the area, which included a winding path up a hill clogged with tourists who shuffled from sight to sight snapping the obligatory pictures. Here are the obligatory pictures…
We were almost late back to the bus cuz I had to find a restroom (hello, pit toilets!) and they don’t include extra time for bathroom breaks on the tour. But the real reason our group was hurrying was that our third stop was the Imperial Palace, and they might not let us in if we were late. Gulp!
This was our first experience with an Imperial Palace tour. We were also scheduled to see the one in Tokyo on the last day of our trip, and we found they are a big deal—like touring the White House, maybe, since the Imperial Family actually lives in the various palaces part of the time.
Outside the palace wall, everyone from all three tour buses had to form a big line that was exactly four people deep.
Some official-looking guys stood around being official…
At last we were allowed inside the gates to gaze upon…. Wait a minute, are those portable toilets?
I’m afraid I don’t have much commentary for ya this time. My journal gives a one-sentence account of the Imperial Palace tour: “We got in and walked around more big empty buildings and saw another lake.”
How about some more pictures?
I dozed off for a minute there—are we still looking at pictures of the Imperial Palace? …Oh, yes, we are….
THERE! Now you never have to actually go to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto…