For the first time in my travel, I came to Kyoto without a plan. I decided to give myself some rooms for whatever opportunities that may come my way, and man, was I glad I did it.
It was July 2014 when I was there and in July every year, Kyoto celebrates the Gion Matsuri, one of the most famous festivals in Japan. The city is crowned with a parade on the 17th and 24th of July, and 2 nights leading to the parade, the streets of Gion district are reserved for pedestrians and street vendors. The streets are lined with night stalls selling all kinds of food and sweets.
I was there (without knowing) from 15th - 17th July and I was honored to be able to capture the whole festival with my camera. With that, and a few popular places (with my own twist) I went, let's enjoy the journey into this ancient city together.
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Where to Stay in Kyoto
From Tokyo, It was a 3 hours Shinkasen ride and as I arrived at the train station and struggled for a couple of minutes, I finally got on the right train to Gion district where the capsule hotel, 9 Hours, is located.
The 9 Hours capsule hotel is the best capsule hotel in Japan hands down. It was very well-designed, with a clean and minimal black and white theme that resembled a futuristic space pod.
The capsule (space pods as they are referred to) are very spacious and the bathrooms are equipped with a semi-private shower. The price is very cheap and very well located.
One issue with the hotel (and most capsule hotels) is that it doesn't accommodate well for people who are staying more than one night. You have to check out and check in again every day, at 10 am and at 2 pm respectively.
This doesn't work well for me because I had one bag and I stayed for 3 nights. It would be stupid for me to clean out my locker every day, carry all the shit I have and walk around the city, so I decided to get an extra locker on the first floor (ask the staff for it) for the duration of my stay and threw all my clothes in it. That way, I didn't have to clean out my locker every day.
1. Exploring the Old Town
After I sorted out my accommodation, I went out for a walk toward the Yasaka no To Pagoda (Hokan-ji). Surrounding the pagoda were traditional houses and shops.
I met these 2 beautiful ladies wearing a Kimono while walking along the lonely street in the evening. We had a fun small talk. As you may have guessed, they thought I was Japanese.
As it was the first night of the Gion Matsuri festival, a lot of people came out wearing Kimonos more than usual.
A lot of people were out on the street celebrating the festival.
Since the sun was about to set, these students were screaming and running from the temples. I assume they saw a ghost or something near the pagoda.
The Japanese pulled rickshaw.
And in no time, I was all alone on the street. As I realized early on, if you want a tourist-free attractions, go either in the evening or the early morning.
It was hot but calm. The lack of tall buildings around Kyoto may have helped to circulate the wind making the place more bearable to walk than Tokyo.
2. Watch the Sunset at Kiyomizu-Dera
Since the Kiyomizu-Dera, a good place to experience sunset over the city of Kyoto, was a few kilometers away from the Yasaka no To Pagoda (Hokan-Ji), I decided to walk. The spot was cool, but when I was there, some parts were being renovated so it was almost impossible to get a cool shot of the place.
A good way to really see how the locals live is to walk among them and observe with an open mind.
3. Visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha At Night
Now comes the creepy part of the trip. Since the Fushimi Inari Taisha is a no brainer when it comes to Kyoto attractions, I decided to create a little twist of my own for the trip. I decided to visit this place at night.
This was one of the best decision I made. The darkness added a very creepy atmospheric feel to what is supposed to be a boring place (as many people claimed).
I was there at around 7 pm and even though there were people walking around, I was alone most of the time as I walked up the stairs.
Although it was nice, there were times when it was creepy as hell. Like that one time when I realized I was walking in an old cemetery.
There were several times I heard footsteps coming toward me from the back and I had to gather all the courage I had to turn back and see where it was from. Turned out, it was an old janitor, but still... it was creepy as hell.
As I walked deeper into the shrine, I started to doubt my decision. There were no one around and I had no idea whether the trail would eventually lead me to an exit.
But I went on and on, for.. you know, the excitement. :)
I was there until 9 PM and it got way too creepy for my comfort, so I decided that it was a good time to end the day.. or so I thought.
4. Celebrate Gion Matsuri at Night (Mid July)
As I got off the train, I was surprised to see hundreds of people walking on the street. As a curious traveler, I followed the crowd.
The street was filled with vendors selling all kinds of delicious snacks and traditional food, performers entertaining the people who passed by with their art, and the locals laughing and enjoying their night out with friends.
The shrine at the end of the street was decorated with several beautiful lit up lamps.
The food wasn't cheap (500 Yens at least) but who could have passed up the opportunity to try the local foods? I spent so much money here, but it was not until later that I realized that it may have been too much.
There were beers and sushi bars in the middle of the street, served by Geishas. How crazy is that!?
After I bought all the food I could carry I found a quiet place and ate them with passion (!) while observing people.
I have no idea what this was but it was awesome!
It was almost 12 AM and people were still flocking the street nonstop.
I'm not sure how far into the night people hung out on the street but I was exhausted and went to bed at around 1 AM.
5. Visit the Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji Zen Garden
Woke up with a strength of a gorilla, I decided to walk from my hotel to the Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji. It was a mistake! The heat was unbearable and it took me almost 2 hours to walk to it.
How tired? Well, I was so exhausted, I took a long power nap at their sacred temple. In my defense, it was very peaceful! :)
Now that my power had been replenished it was time to explore the temple itself.
This unique mind-bending wooden stairs was wrapped on the side of a mountain.
There's not much to do in this temple so it was a perfect place for me to take shelter from the raging sun.
The transition of Autumn and Summer can be seen across Kyoto at this time of year.
6. Visit the Gold Pavillion
In the evening, I decided to take a 40 minutes bus ride (better option than walking!) from Eikan Do temple to the famous Gold Pavilion. I arrived right before the gate was about to close, so I was able to capture this stunning photo without people in the way.
7. Enjoy Another Night of Gion Matsuri Celebration (it's a 4 days celebration)
And in no time, I was back on the street enjoying live performances on the second night of Gion Matsuri.
As an ex-drummer, I was especially interested in this performance. The performance was perfectly synchronized with the sound and the way they moved around the traditional Japanese drum. It felt like dance more than a drum performance.
Remember when I said I would regret spending money on food later? Today was that day. I, again, couldn't resist trying all these food so I spent 500 Yens here and there and at the end of the day I realized, I didn't have the cash to continue my trip down the south.
I was panicking, and exercising all my options. I could get a cash advance on my credit card, but as I realized later, I didn't have my PIN code set before I came to Japan. I called my credit card company (via Skype) and they said it can only be done from an ATM owned by the bank, which was not possible. I was hopeless. I decided to sleep on it for a day and figure it out later.
8. Enjoy the Parade and the Bamboo Grove (Gion Matsuri Day Event)
As I walked out from the hotel, I stumbled upon a parade. This was on the 17th so the parade took over the streets of Gion district, paralyzing all road transportation. While watching the parade, my inner self realized that this was the first time I had ever traveled abroad cashless. It was not fun, but it could a good survival exercise.
Since it was almost impossible to walk on the pedestrian way, I decided to set up a workstation at the Duotor cafe nearby and start figuring out a way to get more money. Soon enough, I stumbled upon this article that illustrated ways travelers can get money in Kyoto. It was truly a life saver!
The article mentioned that without a PIN code, I have to go to the Sumamoto Bank and withdraw my money from the counter. I went to the bank, asked the staff to help me get cash in advanced from VISA, they confirmed it with VISA and 10 minutes later, I finally had money again. Phew!
The process took me half a day but it was all worth it. Now I know how to survive abroad when I run out of cash. That evening, I went to Arashiyama to see the Bamboo Grove.
From what I heard from other travelers, they said that this place wasn't worth the visit since it was way too crowded and not much to see, so I planned to arrive in the evening to avoid tourists, and guess what, by 5:30 PM, I was all alone in the grove.
At first I thought the trail was not very impressive since the bamboo wasn't that tall and packed compare to what I saw in the photos, but as I walked deeper and deeper, the grove started to look more like it supposed to be.
Being alone in the grove made it even more impressive. The cracking sounds from several bamboos colliding together by the wind was surprisingly peaceful.
Since the parade ended in the morning, all the streets went back to normal. I decided to end the trip early that day as I still was grateful for the fact that I was lucky enough to be able to experience such a vibrant tradition. It was the best-unplanned trip ever!
That ends my 3 days trip in Kyoto. In our next part, we will be meeting a friend I hadn't met for 10 years since school. We decided to go on a road trip together around Kumamoto prefecture so stay tuned for more.
Continue Reading the Next Part: 3 Days in Kumamoto, Japan.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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