One day in Kyoto last year WenYu and I decided to go on our own to visit two of the city’s most famous sites: Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) and Ryoanji, the Buddhist temple that’s home to the famous Zen dry landscape garden (both are UNESCO World Heritage sites). YaYu was feeling under the weather with a cold and wanted a day off from sightseeing, and Brett’s sister also wanted a day off to rest her feet. My son and daughter-in-law had a morning adventure planned for their son, so WenYu and I decided if we wanted to see these places we were going to have to step out of our comfort zone and manage the outing on our own. I’ve never been afraid of getting around in Tokyo, but although I’ve visited Kyoto several times, it’s mainly a huge unknown to me. To say I was more than a bit nervous about us going out on our own, with our limited Japanese, would be an understatement.
After studying some maps, and our son volunteering to get us to our bus stop starting point, WenYu and I were ready to set off on our adventure. Our son was staying at a well-known hotel near our AirBNB rental, and we figured if things went bad and we ended up getting totally lost we could at least catch a taxi and ask to go to the hotel, and then find our way back to our rental.
After arriving at the bus stop we watched lots and lots of buses come and go, but waited and waited and waited for ours to show, to the point that we began to wonder if we were perhaps waiting on the wrong side of the street or something. We tried to look lost and helpless, hoping that some kind Japanese person would approach us and ask if we needed help, or at least reassure us that we were in the right place, but that didn’t happen. And then, voilà! The bus to Kinkakuji arrived!
Let me say now that I have never enjoyed or felt comfortable riding buses in Japan. Unable to read the signs or maps, or understand the announcements, I am fine as long as the bus stays on a street I know, but one turn and I become horribly uneasy, feeling like the bus could be taking me anywhere and having absolutely no idea where I’m going or how to get back to my starting point.
WenYu and I got on the bus, paid our fare, and then realized we didn’t know where to get off! The announcements were unintelligible to us, so while the bus traveled down roads we didn’t recognize and made turns into strange neighborhoods, we prayed there would be some sort of sign letting us know when we had arrived at our destination.
Lo and behold, there was an actual sign! We had made it! Lots people got off the bus, and we joined the procession of visitors climbing up the hill to visit Kinkakuji.
The Golden Pavilion is maybe the only ancient site in Kyoto that’s not actually ancient. Everything else in the city is authentically old because the city was spared from destruction by Allied bombers during WWII. The original Kinkakuji was built as a villa in 1397 by a powerful Kyoto statesman, and was converted to a Zen temple upon his death. However, on July 2, 1950, a monk suffering from mental illness set it on fire, destroying it completely. It was rebuilt in 1955, although the gold leaf covering it today is thought to be far more extensive than what existed in the past.
I’m not a big fan of gold, but Kinkakuji was absolutely breathtaking. WenYu and I walked around it, and lingered on the grounds for over an hour taking it all in from several different angles and elevations.
We were feeling hungry when we left, and stopped at a snack shop just outside the entrance for something to tide us over until lunch. I ordered takoyaki (baked octopus meatballs) in broth and WenYu had some warm dango, grilled skewered mochi (pounded rice) in a green tea sauce. Both snacks were very tasty and comforting on the cold day.
Then it was on to catch the bus to our next destination, Ryoanji. This turned out to be fairly easy as the bus stop was just a few steps down the road from the snack shop and there was a sign in English that announced the “bus to Ryoanji.” We only had to wait a few minutes for our bus and we were soon at our destination.
The Ryoanji temple complex has been in existence since the 15th century; its age and history envelope you as you walk through the beautiful, serene grounds. I had hoped we could stay at the rock garden for awhile for some quiet contemplation, but there was a long line of visitors waiting to view it so we sat for just a few moments, then got up so the next group could come in.
WenYu and I were starting to feel a bit more confident at this point about our navigation skills, but decided to play it safe and catch a taxi to where we were supposed to meet up with our son: The Gion District. One of the oldest and most famous geisha districts in Kyoto, Gion is known for its shops, teahouses and expensive restaurants.
Our taxi driver was a kind man who spoke a few words of English, and who put up with my extremely limited and execrable Japanese. Somehow, between the two of us at one point we managed an actual short conversation about the weeping willow trees that line part of Shirakawa Dori, a famous street that runs alongside a river which borders the district. I was able to tell him that in English we say the trees appear to be crying, and he said in Japanese they resemble ghosts so are named for that. I followed up with a comment about how frightening Japanese ghosts are (they are!), and he agreed.
After being dropped off at Gion corner, WenYu and I set out to find something to eat because at this point we were extremely hungry. As we walked, all we kept finding were those expensive restaurants. Every place we looked at (menus were posted outside) was well out of our price range, and the further we walked, the more discouraged and hungrier we felt. We finally discovered a tiny little cafe that served soup and sandwiches, but when we went in we learned they were done with their lunch service and could only offer us some cream puffs and coffee, which we eagerly ordered. The cream puffs were huge; one had a green tea filling, and the other was filled with black sesame cream. We weren’t too sure about that flavor but it turned out to be our favorite (we looked for it again but never found it). After we had finished, we headed back to the corner and met up with our daughter-in-law, who took us back to our little Kyoto house so we could freshen up for our group dinner at a nearby okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) restaurant.
Although we had felt very nervous starting out, WenYu and I ended up having a wonderful day, and a terrific adventure. We didn’t get lost, and we didn’t even have to ask for help. We’ll never forget the kindness of our taxi driver. We were so impressed with how we had done that two days later we didn’t hesitate to head out on our own to visit the Fushimi Inari-Taisha!