Japan #02 - Kyoto-Day-1

May 08, 2023  •  3 Comments

Mar-Apr 2023

Japan Apr 2023 - #02 Kyoto (Day 1)

This travel-blog is for a 3 week trip we took to Japan at the beginning of April 2023.  We started out staying in Hachioji (edge of Tokyo) with our son and his family but then spent 10 days on a National Geographic Expeditions tour covering an area on the southern side of Japan to the west of Tokyo more or less between Kyoto and Hiroshima.

This installment is the first part for the Kyoto area and incluides discussions of the bullet train, the Sanurai, Tenryuji Temple Gradens, Arashiyama
Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama front precincts, Kiyomizu Temple, Nishi Market and the Geiko (Geisha).

Entire Trip map
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Bullet Train to Kyoto

Most of our tour group flew into Osaka from the US and then took a train from there to Kyoto to meet up with the group.  In our case we were starting in Hachioji next to Tokyo so needed to make our own way to Kyoto.  So, with the help of our son we got train tickets from Hachioji to the Shin-Yokohama station where we picked up the bullet train from there to Kyoto. 

Navigating transportation systems in foreign countries can be challenging and even more so in non English speaking places and where the alphabet doesn’t use familiar letters.  And Japan is no different.  On our 2010 trip to Japan it was rare to see English anywhere in the public transit system but I must say they have done a marvelous job adding English to their signage in such places.  In fact in the train system almost every sign was in both English and Japanese as were all audio announcements.

But, even so, when traveling by train in Japan, a few words should be committed to memory.  One is the word “shin” used as a prefix to the name of a place.  Shin has many meanings, but in this context it means “new” and refers to the new trains which are the bullet trains.  So, for example, Shin-Yokohama refers to the bullet train station in Yokohama.  In most cases the “Shin” stations are merged into the older non bullet train stations so they don’t add the “Shin” prefix to the name of the station.  But even if the station does have the “Shin” prefix it does not necessarily mean that it isn’t also the station for the older trains. 

The bullet trains themselves are called “Shinkansen” (there’s that “shin” prefix again) and link most major cities in Japan with Tokyo being more or less the central hub.  So if you need to buy a ticket, say at a kiosk in the station or online, or need to find the part of the station servicing the bullet trains, look for the word “Shinkansen”.

The Shinkansen train system was first put in place to service the 1964 Olympics and has been expanding ever since.  The trains run on dedicated tracks, separate from all the other trains in Japan and these tracks have no grade crossing (places where cars have to stop to let the train go by).  They run very frequently – every 10 to 15 minutes on the more popular routes, are quite sleek and aerodynamic and even though they run at up to 200 MPH they are remarkably quiet. 

But even within the Shinkansen system there are express trains (called “Nozomi”) which only stop at the largest cities.  And, they are incredibly punctual.  Their punctuality is measured in seconds.  A train that is a minute late is considered a major failure and someone will have to answer for it.  On our prior trip to Japan we were on a train that arrived about a minute late and we must have received a dozen apologies from staff and crew.

The Shinkansen trains are quite comfortable with enough leg room to put a full size suitcase in front of your knees.  Of course if you do so you can’t stretch out your legs or lower your tray table but it’s better than nothing.  Carry on size luggage and backpacks can go on the overhead shelf.  The so called “green cars” (first class) have luggage storage areas at the end of the cars but you’re paying for first class.  In the regular cars, the last row of seats in each car have room behind the seats in which you can stand up a full size suitcase and put a carry on size  suitcase on top of it.  If you have some serious luggage, this option is quite a lot better than having your luggage at your knees or paying for first class.  You do pay a little extra for these seats and they go fast so reserve early.

Route from Hachioji (Tokyo) to Kyoto
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Shinkansen train pulling into Shin-Yokohama station
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For more than 1,000 years (794-1868), Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan, the home town of the emperor and the seat of government.  As it was the center of Japanese culture during this time many temples and shrines were constructed (today numbering over 2,000 if you include other monuments).  And, many of them were commissioned by the imperial court itself. 

Kyoto can also claim a number of firsts.  It was where the whole notion of Geisha was invented and got its start, it was where the Samurai Class came into being and it is where tofu was invented.  We’ll talk about the Geisha (or Geiko as they are called in Kyoto) later in this article and we won’t talk much about tofu at all, but the Samurai is worth a few paragraphs.

It was during the heyday of Kyoto, in the late 12th century, that the Samurai class gained power and influence.  The Samurai class was held in very high regard.  They were the only caste in Japan that was allowed to carry two swords and unlike the rest of society; Samurai had both first and last names.  The shoguns and daimyo lords were members of the samurai caste.  They were sort of like the “Jedi” of period – spiritual leaders, thought to have almost supernatural powers, and fierce, almost unbeatable, in battle.

Speaking of the Jedi, the term itself comes from the Japanese word “jidai-geki” meaning period drama about the Samurai, and Darth Vader's costume and helmet may have been inspired by Japanese warlords' uniform and headwear.

Darth Vadar vs. Samurai Warrior (Japantoday.com)
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Another theory is that the term “Jedi” was inspired by the words Jed (Leader) and Jeddak (King) as used in the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  This was a series set mostly on Mars that Lucas considered adapting to film.

The centuries following the rise of the Samurai, were quite chaotic with civil wars and power struggles between different feudal lords as well as other factions.  These wars and battles cemented the prowess of the Samurai warriors in history.  The turmoil persisted into the 16th century when Kyoto became the center of power for the Oda and Yoyotomi clans.  Their idea was to unify Japan under a single rule – theirs.  It was during this time that many of Kyoto’s most famous landmarks were built, including the Golden and the Silver Pavilions.

Then in the early 17th century Kyoto came under the control of the Tokugawa clan and they moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo which is now known as Tokyo.  But, Kyoto remained an important cultural center and a Mecca (not to conjoin religions) for the cultural elite including artists, writers, and scholars which it still is today.

Our journey in and around Kyoto
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Tenryuji Temple and Gardens

Tenryuji Temple
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The day after we arrived from Hachioji we started our formal tour with National Geographic Expeditions (now a Disney company).  Unfortunately, this day would feature pretty much non stop hard rain which greatly altered the experience.  It did keep the crowds thinned out a bit but even so we’d have preferred that it not be pouring raining.  But, we did make an important discovery.  The brand new “waterproof” rain coat my wife bought on the internet for this trip was not “waterproof”.  It wasn’t even “water repellant”.  More like a sponge than a protective garment.  They joys of internet shopping.

After a short bus ride across town we arrived at our first temple of the trip.  This was the Tenryuji Temple.  We didn’t go inside the building but it is a 14th century Buddhist temple which has been renovated several times and (like almost everything we’d be seeing on this trip) is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  In fact as almost every place we visited is a UNESCO World Heritage site, I’m going to stop mentioning it every time.

We were here to see the gardens, not the building.  The gardens were designed in the 14th century by a famous Zen Buddhist monk and garden designer, Muso Soseki.  It was designed to represent the natural beauty of the local Arashiyama mountains and the gardens are considered to be one of the best examples of Japanese landscape garden design. 

The pouring rain certainly did not help our appreciation of these gardens and we did not have time to fully explore the entire extent of the grounds but what we did see was lovely.  Actually, I think I saw more of the gardens than the rest of our group.  We had been given listening devices commonly called “whisperers” so we could hear the commentary from our guide as we went along.  Our tour started by the temple building and the small lake called the Sogen Pond.  As I was photographing the pond, trying to keep my camera dry and to frame shots with few or no tourists, I noticed that our group had moved on up a small hill.  No matter, I’d catch up in a minute.  But then our guide went out of audio range so I figured I’d better catch up.  So, up the hill I went but there were all sorts of pathways leading off to the left and to the right with no clear indication of which one was a main path.  I then saw a group of people off to the left so I took that path and after a bit got back into audio range.  But, the group I saw was not our group which became obvious as they were speaking French.  So, as the audio was pretty strong I figured I was getting closer and continued going the same way,  But soon I lost the audio again and not only that I was just about to wind up where I had started after essentially circumnavigating the lake.  Oops, must have taken a wrong path.  So, I back tracked, got back in audio range and tried another path till the audio faded out.  I must have tried 3 or 4 different paths that went off into different sections of the gardens till I finally hit on the right one and caught up with our group. 

Buddha by the entrance of Tenryuji Temple
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Sogen Pond, Tenryuji Temple Garden
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Sogen Pond, Tenryuji Temple Garden
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Rhododendrons, Tenryuji Temple Garden
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Finally caught up with our group
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The Tenryuji Temple is in the portion of Kyoto called Arashiyama and is right next to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.  This patch of dense bamboo is roughly 6.2 square miles – and that’s a lot of Bamboo.  Again the rain didn’t help the experience but it certainly did create an aura about the place that was quite unique.  Sort of a cross between a “peaceful easy feeling” (not to quote song lyrics) and a sense of insignificance standing under bamboo stalks over 60 feet high.  Very reminiscent of standing in an old growth Redwood forest in Northern California.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
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Sorry, felt Zen like the day I was writing this article
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From the bamboo forest we walked down a hill and into the town itself where we were given well over an hour to shop and buy snacks.  Why they decided to provide this much shopping time on the first day of a 10 day tour is a mystery as you’d then have to carry what you bought around Japan for 10 days. As we were not interested in either souvenir’s or gifts this early in the trip, we wandered back to where the bus was parked in front of the temple. 

What we found was interesting.  The area directly in front of the Tenryuji Temple is a parking lot which looks to be about 1 block wide and extends from the temple down to the main street of town.  But on either side of this parking area are a whole series of gated entrances to small walled compounds.  I counted nine of them but there may have been more hidden behind those I counted.  At first we thought they were just opulent houses for upper class officials of the town as each one had its own entrance gate, with a garden out front and then a house like structure behind.  Some had a bamboo pole across the entrance signifying that it was private but some didn’t.  Even those that were not blocked off looked very much like private residences. 

But that is not what they were at all.  It seems that each one is a small temple in its own right.  Collectively they are known as the temple's "front garden" or "front precincts."  And, thanks to Google, each one seems to have its own history and story.  Some have famous statues, others have intricate wood carvings but all seem to have their own cemetery out back, a building for services and some dwelling buildings for the monks.  Here are photos of a few of them.

Juni-in temple – doesn’this look like someon’s house?
Juni-in templeJuni-in temple

Tokan-in Temple
Tokan-in TempleTokan-in Temple

Hiun Kann Temple
Hiun Kann TempleHiun Kann Temple

Kiyomizu Temple

Our next stop after a lunch that I simple have no recollection of was the Kiyomizu Temple back across town.  It is one of the most visited temples in Japan and for good reason.  It is actually more like a complex of unique buildings built on a hillside overlooking a valley more so than a single temple building.  It is also one of the oldest temples in Kyoto dating from 778 AD (early Ehian period). 

There are many buildings one can see in this complex but to get to them one must ascend a fairly large number of stairs.  Near the bottom is a kind of entrance building called the West Gate which is guarded by two stone lion dogs. 

We were here in 2010 when it wasn’t raining and also wasn’t the middle of the Cherry Blossom Tourist season.  But today it was pouring rain with a large number of stairs to climb.  What with the rain these stairs were somewhat slippery so some folks (including my wife Ellen) thought better of the whole idea and decided to remain at the bottom. 

What we didn’t know, and what our trip leader either also didn’t know or neglected to tell us, was that there was a paved service road with no stairs that one could use to walk up to the top.  A pretty significant omission for a class A tour leader.  It was also observed that earlier in the day we drove right past the 22 acre Imperial Palace and she made no mention of it.  This did not bode well for the rest of the trip.

But, I went ahead and climbed the stairs.  The first building is the West Gate.  You don’t actually use the stairs leading to the West Gate as shown in the photo but use a wider set of steps off to the side.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple - West Gate
Kiyomizu Temple - West GateKiyomizu Temple - West Gate

As you go up the stairs you pass the West Gate, the bell tower, a three story pagoda and various other buildings before you get to one of the main attractions which is “The Stage”.

Three story Pagoda in the pouring rain
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The Stage is the main temple building in the complex.  This building was constructed without the use of nails or screws.  Rather, the entire structure is held together by a complex system of interlocking joints and wooden dowels.  As it turns out, this sort of construction actually works better in earthquakes than much of our modern construction methods, but you’re not going to build a 20 story building this way. 

The reason for the nickname is that one whole side of this temple is open to a large patio or platform hanging over the edge of a cliff with a view of the city (if it’s not rainy).  It is said that if you fling yourself off the platform and survive your landing several stories below, that your wish will be granted.  I suspect that the “wish” for people who have tried this is, “I wish I hadn’t done that”.  We didn’t try it.

In the photo below, even though it was pouring rain, you can see how popular this site is by the number of tourists present.

 “The Stage”, in the pouring rain
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Another well known, and popular place, just behind this main temple building, is the Jishu Shrine (or “Love Fortune Stone”) which is dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking. Visitors can take part in a traditional ritual called "love fortune-telling," where they walk between two stones with their eyes closed.  If they successfully reach the other stone, it is said that their wish for love will come true.  I wonder if this related to the old “love is blind” saying?

The name of the temple complex, “Kiyomizu”, means “clear water”.  This refers to a waterfall called the Otowa Waterfall that never runs dry and is said to have very pure water.  So, the name translates to “Temple of Pure Water”.  This sacred water is said to have healing properties and good fortune.  At the bottom of the waterfall some of the water is divided into three thin streams that fall into a pool of water and (for a small fee) visitors may take a drink from those streams using a long handled metal ladle. Due to COVID, the ladles are now sterilized by UV light between each use.  Each of the three streams has a different virtue. One brings academic success, another brings longevity and the third is for success in love. 

Prior to COVID drinking from these streams was immensely popular with long lines waiting to go onto the platform where the ladles are kept.  However during the pandemic its popularity waned (it may even have been put off limits).  But now that the pandemic is winding down (or at least concern about is lessening), the lines are starting to form again.  Even on the very rainy day when we visited there were 10 to 15 people in line.

Three sacred streams
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I can’t find the name of this monument, but I lijke it
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Entrance Streets

As one visits the numerous temples and shrines in Japan, it seems that the street leading up to the main entrance is always lined with loads of stores.  One would think it was to tap into the tourist traffic but this tradition goes back a thousand years, well before affluent tourists descended on these religious compounds.

Well, as it turns out the original basis of the profusion of stores was really a practical matter.  With walking being the predominant mode of transportation, worshipers would have to take a full day or at least a full morning to go to the temples.  To minimize the need for extra trips they would combine the temple trip with their shopping for food and supplies.  So, stores started lining the road in front of temples and shrines offering mostly food items, many times prepackaged in “to go” containers, intermingled with a few establishments providing take away prepared food.  Only later when tourists started flocking to these temples did the grocery and food stores give way to souvenir and gift shops. 

Entrance street leading up to Kiyomizu Temple
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Same street from 2010 trip (when it was not raining)
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Nishi Market

The Nishi market is in downtown Kyoto as it has been for over 400 years.  It was originally just a street in town with a variety of shops, mostly selling freshly caught seafood.  But now they have put a roof over the street and most of the fish stalls have given way to other “tourist friendly” types of fare but still mostly food stalls of various types.  The market itself runs about 5 city blocks and over time, other markets have sort of attached themselves to the Nishi on perpendicular side streets to take advantage of the foot traffic attracted to the Nishi.  After touring the Kiyomizu Temple, the bus let off most of the group at our hotel but for those with energy left, they took us on the bus over to the far end of the market.

The narrow street which is the market was packed shoulder to shoulder with people going in both directions.  As advertised, it featured all sorts of traditional foods, snacks, and souvenir stands.  Some were walk in stores or sit down restaurants and others were just street side counters where you could pick up freshly cooked take-a-way food.  Many of the shops and stalls are family-owned and have been operating for generations. 

Nishi Market, Kyoto
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Since I’m not really into shopping (or fish for that matter), I find that the venders tending their stall or store are quite interesting to watch, and quite interesting to photograph.

Not sure what she’s making but she’s searing it with a blow torch
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Deep Fried shrimp (Ebi Fry)
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Pork perhaps?
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Looks like rice or shredded cheese in some sort of pastry – but I could be totally wrong
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I know this one – it’s a book seller
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Nestled in the Nishi Market we came across the Nishiki-Tenmangu-Shrine.  The juxtaposition of a modest shrine plunked down in the middle of the Nishi Market chaos was quite striking.  I’m pretty sure the shrine was there first and the market grew up around it, but even so it was quite a different and unexpected thing to come by.

Nishiki Tenmangu ShrineNishiki Tenmangu Shrine

Nishiki Tenmangu ShrineNishiki Tenmangu Shrine

Nishiki Tenmangu ShrineNishiki Tenmangu Shrine

Geiko (Geisha) and Maiko

In Kyoto, where the whole concept originated, a geisha is called a "geiko."  The word "geiko" is an older term than "geisha" but is exclusively used in Kyoto area.  In fact, geiko from Kyoto are considered to be among the most skilled and prestigious in Japan.  Geiko (and geisha for that matter) are trained in many Japanese arts such as dance, music, tea ceremonies and social etiquette among others.  It usually takes 3 to 5 years of training to become a geiko.  During that time the trainees, or apprentices, are called maiko.  These women and girls are highly respected in Japanese culture.  There is a common misconception, especially in western countries, that geiko/geisha provide sexual services as part of their profession.  This actually isn’t the case.  The role of geiko/geisha is centered on elegance, grace, and hospitality, and their training and education emphasize traditional values such as respect, discipline, and refinement.

Young girls who wish to pursue this profession typically start training when they are between 15 and 16 years old.  Historically, young girls who showed promise were recruited by those already in the trade but in more recent years young women now apply for the opportunity to train.  The training is done in a geiko house where the girls live with a house mother who looks after their training.  On the flip side, the girls in the house have to work to earn their keep.  They are expected to not only do their training but also tend to domestic shores such as cooking and cleaning associated with running of what is in many respects a boarding house, not the least of which is tending to the needs and desires of the geiko.  In return, the house mother takes a cut of the income generated by the geiko and maiko when they are commissioned to perform or entertain. 

When performing or entertaining, the girls wear elaborate kimonos and a very distinctive form of makeup that starts with a very white base layer and is finished with ruby red lipstick.  The idea behind the white base layer is that in the olden days, most of the places they worked were dimly lit by kerosene lanterns or candles and the white makeup made it easier to see the performers. 

It is interesting to note that the apprentice maiko tend to wear more elaborate and colorful kimonos and more makeup than the senior geiko.  There are several reasons for this.  First is that the maiko are still in training and the more ornate presentation showcases their youth, appearance and potential.  A second reason is that more elaborate, and expensive, kimonos signify the prestige and success of the maiko.  In contrast the geiko have already made it to the big time, so to speak, so rely more on their honed skills than flash and bling to express their status and reputation.

Our tour brought us to a restaurant for an authentic Japanese dinner and geiko/maiko performance including dancing and singing followed by a Q&A session and meet and greet.

Geiko (left) and Meiko (right)
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Our next installment of this series will continue our visit in Kyoto.



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Thanks for reading – Dan


(Images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, ChatGPT, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the local guides)






Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Thanks, Dan. Great info and lovely photos - so sorry for all the rain and low contrast lighting. Ellen sure got the short end of that jacket deal - it is hard to find one that actually works. Great history and culture lesson! Fun to see you using ChatGPT....can't tell what parts are from it.
Bob Richter(non-registered)
Dan, I'm blown away with your article. Glad to learn more about what we saw and visited. Wish our NG Expedition leaders shared more of this info with us ahead of visiting, during the visit and or after seeing it. Also holds true for Karen our Storyteller.
Great job!! Well done!!! Anxious the read more from you on this trip.

Since Pat and I have visited other places you have written about I plan on reading those articles as well.
Thanks again and keep up the great work.
It was fun reading this Blog. It brings back memories. Merrill and I were in Kyoto in 2019. We spent 2 weeks in different locations around Osaka. One of our highlights was a tour of Suntory distillery. We are now big fans of Suntory whiskey. Just like you, We bought 'water repellant' coat with the same result - water sponge. We bought ours in Hong Kong. We also visited the Bamboo forest, but did not visit the Tenryuji Temple and several you did. We did our own walking tours in Kyoto. I guess we'll just have to go back.
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