1. Tanabata Festival at Shiramine Jingu
On a normal day, a visit to Shiramine Jingu is a must for all football fans and players since it’s the home of Seidai Myojin, the Shinto deity of sports (especially ball sports). Maybe the god was snoozing when the Japanese football team made a trip there before flying out for the 2014 World Cup because they did as well as England! But on Kyoto’s Tanabata Festival on July 7, it provides a unique experience: the chance to see Kemari. Kemari is a 1400 year-old game resembling football’s keepy-uppy that is still played in the robes from that period. For more information on the game please watch Bleach episode 205 to see Ichigo participating in Kamakura Town’s Kemari tournament.
Watching the dressed up players wearing their black lacquered silk eboshi hats and colourful robes, it strikes you that even by Japanese standards this is a particularly peculiar way to honour the gods. So what was then even more surprising was to be invited up to have a go myself!
How often to you get to hoof a deerskin ball filled with barley at a Shinto priest from 600AD in the middle of a shrine forecourt? After distinguishing myself in the game and buying a lucky charm, we were also treated to a show of the 400 hundred-year-old Komachi odori, ‘Young Ladies’ dance’, by a very cute troupe.
It was fun to look back on the day when we saw an illustration of Kemari on a screen at the Imperial palace and now, when I’ve just found out that the longest anyone’s continuously kept a football up for is 26 hours and the furthest someone has walked while juggling a ball is 36 miles!
2. Sipping green tea at Shoren-in
Nanzen-ji and other bigger temples are very impressive and you are unlikely to be able to travel to Kyoto without your guidebook, or other tourist literature pointing you in their direction. In the case in Nanzen-ji, I do indeed highly recommend that it is one of the two Temples (cf 16 in Part 2 for the second) you visit if you are short on time since you will find there many features of Kyoto’s other temples.
For me though, fortunate that we had a month in Kyoto, my favourite experience was sipping green tea at the smaller Shoren-in’s Kacho-den (drawing room) looking out onto its beautiful garden. It may not be on the Philosopher’s Path but I could certainly sit there for hours in contemplation or reading a book.
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3. Walking everywhere
You can do Kyoto on foot but you’d be crazy to. We loved walking everywhere, even in humid July in Kyoto (cf 8). If you’re here for only a short time then definitely get a daily bus pass to get to all the Unesco sites, but there are some places which have to be done on foot or you’ll miss out.
Why use the bridge across the river when you can walk down the river bank and use the stepping stones? Take the time to wander down the Philosopher’s Path and check out the massive Koi in the canal. Roam Kyoto at different times of day as you explore the preserved historic streets of Pontocho, Gion and Higashiyama. Leave the new city behind and you rise up the stairs to the Yasaka Pagoda. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll spot a Geisha or Maiko since they now travel by taxi to avoid the tourist-mob that inevitably appears whenever they venture out (even if you do come across one, you’ll just feel awful for these poor hounded women).
4. Daimaru discount sushi
One of the best things about our time in Kyoto was undoubtedly the 18:30 visit to Daimaru’s depachika for end of the day discount sushi, sashimi and massive fruit. After a long day of exploring the city on foot, to be able to count on a delicious dinner (no matter what selection there was left) and not having to cook made this affordable luxury a must whenever we could.
5. Traditional arts at the Yasaka Shrine
As part of its Gion Matsuri celebrations, an amazing performance of traditional arts took place at the Yasaka Shrine. For 3 hours, kabuki, biwa lute, harp, kyogen, dance, swordplay and dance were performed in a distilled download of Japanese culture. So imagine, when, during a performance of Japanese koto, the lady sitting on the floor next to us starts chatting to us in English with a Geordie accent and we find out that she spent a summer in Newcastle (as part of an exchange) in the 60s. She also introduced Gabby to miracle mosquito-bite-numbing-juice, which Gabby went out and bought that evening.
6. Kyoto station
When I imagined Kyoto, I imagined an ancient city, almost a relic of a bygone Japan, the repository of the essence of Japanese culture. However, when we first arrived in Kyoto, the amazing, futuristic station could not be further from the mausoleum of Shogunate, Imperial and religious architecture that I expected. Maybe it does still represent Japan since it’s home to a mall, cinema, hotel, department store and local government offices while also processing 240 million passengers a year! It makes the list as well for being the start and end point of a great day trip to Nara.
7. The market at Nishiki
Nishiki Market, is the culinary artery of Kyoto. We loved walking down it and examining its the weird, wonderful and suspicious offerings – yes I’m thinking of you Picasso of fish heads. Aritsugu’s famous 500-year-old knife shop is there (they engrave your knife with your initials as you wait).
The hills around Kyoto form a bowl and the city sits in the middle of this basin. Heat and moisture are trapped there for days and there is no wind to speak of. The sun through the ensuing haze is still sharp and so, in summer, it is usual to suffer a slow slither as your sun-creamed face feels like it’s sliding off. To be honest, at times and wouldn’t begrudge it leaving to find somewhere cooler. Welcome to mushiatsui. The Japanese word for this weather, which contains the kanji for steam and hot, is far more appropriate than our “humid”.
The only thing to do is act like a local, to do this you will need:
An umbrella, Japanese mosquito repellent, a small towel (wetted and slung over the head or neck will make all the difference), a Pocari sweat drink, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s vending machines and air conditioned department stores, a fan, a yukata (cf 14 in Part 2) and not to be trying to see a tourist’s amount of attractions by foot at midday (good luck with that last one!).
For me, it would have been unthinkable to travel to Kyoto and not make a pilgrimage at the home of my childhood friends: Nintendo HQ. There is neither tour nor museum, figurine, effigy or picture of our heroes. In fact, there are no physical homages at all. There are only the pharmaceutically sterile white buildings of Nintendo Kyoto. Unexplainably, this is not an anti-climax because having beat-boxed the tune to supermario bros all the way there, you realise that you’ve already brought the legends with you in your head. Your presence is the present you present at the altar of Kyoto’s newest shrine.
This is where dreams are made and when you’re in the dream business you don’t dwell on the past; Nintendo started off making playing cards. Now their workers, all asleep inside, are trying to inceep imaginary friends into the minds of the next generation. I wished them well!
Besides, spying the security guard’s Mario Kart calendar in his cubicle is better than a tour of Universal Studios or a day at Disneyland.
10. Fushimi inari shrine
My absolute favourite place in Kyoto. Nowhere emphasised more the difference between a Zen Temple and a Shinto Shrine like Fushimi Inari Shrine on Yoi-miya festival. The energetic dancing, the lighting of lanterns, the joy, the worship of Inari (the Shinto kami, ‘spirit’, of rice), the thousands of vermillion Torii lining the 4km hike up the mountain, the street food, the outdoor party and the ubiquitous Kitsune (for French Pokemon fans think “Feunard”), all highlighted to me how Shinto is a celebration of life. In contrast with Buddhism which seems to focus of eternal-life/after-life (NB: very very shorthand, ill-informed interpretation of witnessed architecture and behaviours not dogma).
All in all, Yoi-miya was incredible and for that reason, Fushimi Inari Shrine is the location of possibly one of my best days in Japan. Who can argue with ending a day eating chips and squid-on-a-stick, watching the sun go down as 400 lanterns are lit and we dance around the maypole (Julypole?)?
Part .2. coming soon!