Thursday, December 29, 2011

Japan: Day 4 - Kyoto East: Kiyomizu Temple and Gion area

We took it easy today, taking a long time for breakfast at a nearby french named bakery, and making some research of places to visit in Kyoto (I know, I should have done this weeks ago but I didn't have enough time...). As I mentioned, the hotel gave us some good walking tour plans, and we enhanced it after talking to another hotel guest from Chile, and doing some readers in the Fodor's Guide that we borrow from the public library (yep, we brought it to Japan :).
Bus is the best way of transportation in Tokyo. You can go almost everywhere with bus, and the tickets are inexpensive. A day pass can be purchased for Y500 (u$6.5) on the Travel Information Center at the second floor in Kyoto station. Also, at this location, we were able to get a map in English from Kyoto. Note that the maps in other languages are only available at the desk, we had to ask for them.... and this is something we're observing in Japan. We've to ask for maps, menus, brochures in English. They are available, but not on display that can be easily found and taken.
A single ride bus ticket costs Y220. Therefore, after 3 trips the day pass starts saving money. We made 4 trips on the first day.... something I didn't notice before: the buses have a rear camera.
Subway is also available, but there are only two lines with less coverage than the bus. Still, they are a good option and a day pass is available at the same place.
JR trains can be used in a limited sector of Kyoto (west side, south-north).
Taxis are to be seen everywhere, but as we know, they are expensive.

Kiyomizu-Dera  Temple - Kyoto
Kiyomizu-Dera  Temple - Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera is an amazing Buddhist temple dating back to year 778. I highly recommend making it mandatory part of a trip to Kyoto. Expect to spend an hour there, but we took more time to walk all the grounds. Entrance cost to the temple was Y300 (u$3.9). We didn't have to take shoes off to go up the stairs as the guide book stated. From Kyoto station, two buses get to the temple.
Two bus lines departing from Kyoto Station go to Kiyomizu. We used 206. The other stops very close by (just read under the stop number and look for the temple name). On the 206, we drove until a stop also called Kiyomiz-michi, and from there walked the Kiyomizuzaka road up to the temple. The bus ride takes about 15 minutes, and the walk about 20. The road to the temple is narrow and very attractive. After 10 minutes, we started seeing small shops , and after the other, selling foods, sweets, ceramics, green tea ice cream (Y300), and lots more. Prices seem to be good (relative to the costs in Japan). Also, there are several drink seller machines on each block. I would expect them to be very handy on summer time.
After the temple visit, we walked down on Gojozaka road until Higashioji dori (this is the road where the 206 stops). On the same road, perhaps 1 block away from Gojozaka, we found the entrance to Nishi-Otani Honbyo Mausoleum. This place is nice and can be visited in 30 minutes. Ask for a brochure in English and map on the reception desk.

Nishi-Otani Honbyo  - Kyoto
Nishi-Otani Honbyo  - Kyoto

In Japanese temples, you can buy a shuin-cho. This is an ink stamp and calligraphic signature that can be purchased at each temple. The shuin-cho makes a great souvenir.

Shuin-cho at Yasaka Shrine - Kyoto
Shuin-cho at Yasaka Shrine - Kyoto

The cost at Kiyomizu was Y300 (u$3.9). They also sell a small book for Y750 where all the shuin-cho can be collected, but we preferred to just get the art work on a single piece of paper that can late be framed and displayed at home. The book would get dusty and forgotten with time ;)
Afterwards we went to other temples, but they were already closed. Winter isn't the best time of the year for visiting Japan. Many places close earlier and the last week of the year, many places just don't open. On the positive side, some entrance fees are lower in Winter, and Tokyo is less crowded near New Year, when people go to their home towns.
Later we went to the Gion area. It was getting dark (at 5pm). We didn't expect to see such a big place, with so many people walking around, lots of shops and restaurants. Gion is the traditional area for Geisha. Unfortunately, we only were able to see a couple of young (trainee) ones. Gion is an excellent evening/night area. There are also large shopping malls, buildings and galleries.
Going back to the hotel was an easy ride on the 206.

Tips & Tricks
  • On the way to the temple, lots of food/sweet shops offer free samples. Also, green tea is offered. This is great. We could taste lots of excellent sweets for the first time.
  • Be careful, some buses stop running on the evening. The subway is still available on the west side of Gion, and taxis can be found every where.
  • Don't just walk on the main avenue. Get into the smaller and darker parallel streets which are very nice, and lots of small restaurants, bars, and other shops. Closer to the Yasaka shrine (on Higashioji Dori), there is a beautiful neighborhood with old Japanese buildings.... just make sure that you don't get lost and know how to get back to the main road. This was easy. Also, there are many people walking around, even tourists.
  • Free Wifi on Shijo Street: I spotted a sign (above the sidewalk) advertised by local business. It didn't work for my wifi phone but here it goes: SSID is shijo-0123456789 , Password: 0123456789.
  • Restaurant Warning (Lost in Translation) : For dinner, we stopped at a restaurant on top of one of the big shopping malls. We asked the host about the menu, and with very limited English, he described something that looked as an excellent deal so we took it. The food was outstanding, but the price was much more than expected. The host barely spoke some English, and trying to discuss about what he said earlier was futile and time consuming. The final price ended up being about the same that other places would have charged, and since the food was good, I didn't spend time trying to reason with him.
    My learning here is that we have to be smarter next time with Japanese who can't speak English. Need to find out the price beforehand, perhaps in written... or most likely, just go somewhere else that at least translated the menu to English... I still can't figure out why most shops make so little effort in making life easier to tourists by translating to English (and btw, my native language is Spanish). We're trying to have the real Japan experience, avoiding the international restaurant chains, but we're getting tired after 4 days. Trying to find a menu we like takes a long time. Restaurants here put some plastic food samples outdoors, but this is of limited help to people not related to Japanese cousin.

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