We left the Tokyo station around 10 am on a high speed Shinkasen and 320 miles and a little less than 3 hours we arrived in Kyoto. When we arrived at our hotel our room wasn’t ready yet so headed to lunch across the street at what can only be described as a legit American diner with a slight Japanese twist. I ordered a cobb salad which had an egg, a strip of bacon, some fried chicken, shrimp and avocado on it and it was delicious! After we checked in and freshened up we walked down the street to the Nishi Hongan-Ji Temple.
The Nishi Hongan-Ji Temple was first established as a place to teach people about the Pure Land sect of Buddhism which is the enabling of all to live lives to the fullest. The temple is now the largest wooden structure in Japan and is quite beautiful. While walking around the grounds two sets of school children came up to Andrew and I separately to practice their English – it was kinda fun! The temple also had a really beautiful water purification area.
Then we hopped in a cab and headed to Yasaka Shrine, which is in the heart of the Gion region of Kyoto. Yasaka is a Shinto Shrine like the others we’ve seen in Japan however it was incredibly unique in that tons of people dress in tradition garb (kimonos – both women and men) and attend the shrine to pray and visit with friends and family. It was a unique experience especially seeing people ringing bells and I had to pry Andrew away from taking photos. We headed up the hill from the shrine and found an absolutely beautiful garden and a man playing a traditional Japanese flute in tradition garb and a dog with matching outfit.
Next we headed to the official Gion district and specifically Shirakawa-minami Street, which is so incredibly picturesque with traditional style Japanese houses (ryokan) and a cute stream and absolutely lovely bridges. Andrew had a field day taking pictures especially because this is another spot people who are in kimonos enjoy visiting.
As Andrew took pictures I wandered around the area and I actually saw a Geisha hurrying to her next location – unfortunately she was too quick for me to show Drew. Then we headed to Hanamikoji Street which is so known for Geishas that there were even signs in the neighborhood reminding you NOT to touch the Geishas! We were really lucky and saw another Geisha walking fast with a purpose. Gion Corner is located on this street and fairly famous for an hour long show of Geishas performing musical instruments and singing. We didn’t go to one of these performances but our next stop definitely more than made up for it.
We headed to Gion Hatanaka for a private Geisha (both Maiko and Geiko) dinner. We learned there that Maikos are Geisha in training and can be from 16 to 22 years of age and are required to have real hair as in their hairdo (which are done once a week). Also that Geikos are full Geishas that are allowed to wear wigs. The night included a beautiful performance of traditional Japanese music and dance, a traditional Japanese dinner and traditional Japanese drinking games. Drew and I both won the drinking games against the Geishas so that was exciting!
After the dinner and performance we walked back through the Yasaka Shrine and got some great night photos then we walked back through Gion Tatsumi Bridge area where again we saw a Geisha hurrying into a Ryokan with several businessmen. It was a neat experience but it was late so we headed back to the hotel.
The next day we slept in because you know traditional Japanese drinking games. Then we headed to the Fushimi Inari Shrine which has more torii gates than any other Shinto shrines (almost 10,000). The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and sake and in addition to all the gates has a fairly a beautiful lake and cemetery where locals pay respect to their ancestors. On the way down we also got to see a traditional Japanese wedding.
Next we headed to Arashiyama and on the way we got to see the Hollywood of Japan from the train where tons of movie studios were. The neighborhood is really cute with lots of ryokans and a beautiful bridge overlooking a gorgeous river. There were also lots of great shops and since this was our last country we decided to get some souvenirs – personalized chopsticks and a kimono. After crossing the river we made it to the monkey forest, paid our fee and started the climb up to see the monkeys. As long as we were in the shade it was a nice climb and once we reached the top we saw TONS of monkeys. They have a building where you can feed the monkeys and I went inside and bought some food and I even got the chance to feed a little baby monkey!
Andrew continued to take photos of all the monkeys – including a video of a monkey hanging off the roof and doing its business. Finally we decided to descend the mountain. On the way down we saw one of the more aggressive monkeys that the park employees had chased away from the top but we passed it closely and it seemed ok at least until we got below it and Drew decided it was a good idea to take some photos of it. I had already started further down the mountain but all of a sudden I heard Drew screaming and saw him running FAST down the path and soon he quickly grabbed me. As it turns out the monkey freaked out on him and jumped towards him.
After heading back across the river we walked along the river until we headed into a beautiful park and eventually made our way into the bamboo forest. Although it was quite a bit more packed than we had hoped for it was still beautiful and more Zen than I was expecting. That evening we decided to try some famous Kobe beef – we tried 3 different cuts that were all specialties of the evening and each one of them was incredibly delicious! It was worth every penny and we were able to walk home to burn off some of massive meal we had!
The next morning we were up early to head to Hiroshima but instead of getting off the train we took another to Miyajima where we were able to catch a ferry over to the island. The ferry maneuvers so that passengers can get quite an amazing view of the famous Itsukushima Shrine which was great because it was raining pretty hard so we got a great view without getting wet. We decided to brave the rain and head toward the shrine. On the way we saw lots of deer trying to escape from the rain and that was also kind of a cool experience.
While visiting the shrine the tide came in and it looked like the entire shrine including the gate was floating on water. We also got to see a family doing traditional Japanese wedding photos within the shrine. On the way back to the ferry terminal we walked through the town and sampled some delicious fares including the traditional maple cakes – we tried both chocolate and custard and a Hiroshima steamed beef bun.
When we got back to the train we headed to Hiroshima and at this point I was soaked from head to toe despite having a ‘rain coat’ on the entire day. There was still quite a bit we wanted to see in Hiroshima so after exiting the train station we found the tourist bus and we were able to use our JR pass to board. While traveling on the bus I was amazed at how large of a city Hiroshima is considering it was bombed only around 70 years ago. We got off the bus when we stopped at the Atomic Bomb Dome – although it is a sobering sight and a reminder of some of the darkest times in our history I’m glad it remains. I’m glad it remains because it is a stark reminder of what we are capable of as a race and hopefully what we will never again repeat. If it weren’t for the dome it would be hard to believe that on August 6th 1945 in one bombing over 80,000 people died – sometimes we need those reminders.
After viewing the dome we headed to the memorial park. First we saw the Children’s Peace memorial, in memory of all the children that passed as a result of the atomic bomb and full of thousands of paper cranes from all over Japan. Then we headed down the Peace Memorial Park walkway until we reached National Peace Memorial Hall. The hall memorializes all that passed during the bombing and shows some absolutely unbelievable photos of Hiroshima before and after the bombing.
Afterwards we continued to walk around the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and viewed the Flame of Peace and then to the Memorial Cenotaph which has the official record of all victims buried beneath it. There were lots of school children visiting and it was a little weird being an American visiting there. However Japan did a really great job memorializing the victims but also taking part of the blame for antagonizing the start of the war – I was impressed with the honesty especially when so many countries (including ours) view history only through their lens without respecting the other side.
Although I wouldn’t characterize our last day on our trip as ‘fun’ it was definitely an eye opener and I’m so glad we did it. On our actual final day we took A LOT of trains. We took a train from Kyoto to Tokyo for 4 hours and then we transferred to an airport train for an hour and finally we checked into our flight. It was hard to say goodbye to traveling but it was also exciting to head back to family, friends and of course Mexican food!