Inside Senbon Torii

Travel Update: Kyoto, Part 2

After our sojourn in Tokyo, we proceeded to run along the length of Honshu (the Japanese mainland) again, this time with Shawn in tow. We were excited to revisit our favourite places and see some new ones along the way. We weren’t so excited that we were willing to get out of bed early, though — we left our hostel in Tokyo around noon.

We caught the bullet train to Kyoto, where we settled in at the same hostel we’d stayed in previously. In fact, we’d kept the same rooms rented while we were away in Tokyo and left our luggage there; in a way, the Kyoto hostel was our home-away-from-home-away-from-home.

We ate a quick dinner near our hostel and headed off to the Gion district of Kyoto. The Gion district is a historical preservation site, where modern towers and asphalt streets give way to wooden shops and stone walkways. It’s also a “Beautification Enforcement Area”, where littering is subject to a fine of ¥30,000 “regardless of your nationality or status” (or so the signs warned us). We were careful not to drop anything.

Gion District Walkway
Lit using traditionally-generated electricity, I imagine.

We were drawn to Gion by Gion Corner, a performing arts centre which showcases seven different styles of traditional Japanese art. It has the trappings of a theatre and the mission of a museum; field trips from local schools are common and informational materials about the arts on display are plentiful. It’s a magnet for tourists, which were also plentiful.

The seven traditional arts shown at Gion Corner are: a tea ceremony, flower arrangement, a musical performance with a Japanese zither, court music, a slapstick comedy show, puppet theatre, and a dance by maiko. The maiko dance (called kyo-mai) is the headline event; maiko are apprentice geiko, which are a kind of entertainer (similar to geisha, though I am advised that there are several important differences).

All seven events are shown on stage in rapid succession; the whole show takes less than an hour. The first event is the tea ceremony, which includes audience participation — two audience members are selected completely at random to be served tea. Once again, Kat was completely randomly selected, as she always is. A combination of aggressive arm-waving and brilliantly blonde hair seem to help tilt the odds in her favour time and time again.

The other six arts were quite entertaining, but involved significantly less Kat. This did not dissuade her — rather than returning to her seat, she set up shop a few feet away from the stage and proceeded to generate a photographic record of the show.

After the show, we exited through the gift shop, which we understand to be a traditional and essential part of Japanese theatre (something they have in common with the Canadian arts). This is where we met Mayumaro — Kyoto’s official mascot! He is an adorable anthropomorphized silk worm cocoon with an adorable coat and adorable eyes. We were smitten.

From this point on, we began to see Mayumaro everywhere. He was always greeted with a squeal of delight.

The larger area of Gion is very walkable, with many bridges and alleyways connecting its various shops, so we took an evening stroll through this picturesque region of Kyoto.

Along the way, we encountered Issen Yoshoku, which (we later discovered) is one of the more famous restaurants in Kyoto. It certainly is eye-catching — the restaurant itself is full of mannequins and the walls are covered in lanterns, signs, wooden faces and all manner of outrageous items. Out front is an anatomically-correct statue of a boy trying (and failing) to outrun a dog with a bag of take-out. Although I do not count myself among the most observant of tourists, the concerted lack of subtlety quickly brought the storefront to my attention.

Issen Yoshoku
The statue really is anatomically-correct. This camera angle was carefully selected.

We vowed to return to Issen Yoshoku for dinner on another night. In the meantime, we wandered the streets of the Gion district. We found that the area was densely packed with narrow alleyways bursting with shops, inns, restaurants and the like. Gion is also the centre of geisha culture in Kyoto, and we saw several women who appeared to be geisha flitting silently across alleyways.

On reflection, I suppose the alleyways weren’t really “narrow”. They’re about as wide as a typical sidewalk (or maybe even a little wider), there’s just no car-sized street to give the visual impression of space. They were well-lit and -populated, more like a city street than an alleyway. Plus, there are shops on both sides of the walkway, which is certainly an improvement from a pedestrian’s perspective.

It’s hard to capture the feeling in photos, but it was actually quite an intimate-feeling environment to wander around it. We really liked it.

We wandered for most of the evening and eventually began to find our way back to the hostel. Amelia began to feel peckish along the way, so we stopped in at a place called MOS Burger. And man, am I glad that we did.

MOS Burger was, hands down, the most revelatory part of our trip to Japan. MOS Burger singlehandedly justified all of the airfare and room fees encountered up to this point. MOS Burger is to cuisine as Koyasan is to tourism — the perfected distillation of the form, and the embodiment to which all others should aspire.

We really liked MOS Burger. Here is what Amelia ate:

Amelia’s MOS Burger
Why, yes, that is an egg, a tomato, sweet chilli, cheese and mayonnaise atop a succulent beef patty. It was $3.

Having dined on a small sliver of heaven, we retired to our hotel. We awoke feeling refreshed in body and soul alike.

We spent the next morning touring Yasaka shrine. This is, apparently, one of the oldest and best-known shrines in Kyoto, and is the centre of one of Japan’s biggest summer festivals. However, given that it was not yet summertime, the shrine was pretty quiet when we visited.

Yasaka shrine
The buildings of Yasaka shrine, seen through some trees on the shrine’s grounds.

The primary site of the shrine itself is a small complex of buildings, including a main hall, a dance stage, and other structures with purposes unknown to us.

The shrine was surrounded by carefully manicured grounds, complete with ponds, waterfalls, topiary, stepping stones and so on. We spent nearly two hours exploring the maze-like system of paths through the trees, over hills, and around buildings.

The shrine was a place of immaculate detail; every surface and alcove had its own character. Our cameras’ shutters got a real workout as we set out to document every nook and cranny.

After touring the shrine we stopped by a cafe for lunch. We were feeling like having something novel, so we stopped by a classy-looking spot in hope of munching on some fancy (and heretofore unmunched) Japanese cuisine.

Unfortunately for us, the place we chose turned out to be a European-style cafe with exotic and fancy foods such as… sandwiches. And, this being Japan (and not, say, France), we paid a premium for the imported luxury.

I think that there is a lesson to be drawn regarding the cues that we might read as denoting “classy” vs. a Japanese person’s perception of the same. But this is a breezy travelog, so there will be no such introspection here!

Following our feast on foreign fare, we made our way to another shrine — Fushimi Inari Taisha. This is the head shrine of Inari, the Shinto god of rice (and also, as it turns out, business). The main part of the shrine (go honden) is set into the base of a mountain, and the mountain itself has hiking trails connecting various smaller shrines to Inari.

Behind the main shrine area are the mountain trails. We hiked our way towards the inner shrine, though it was the trails themselves that we had come for. The trails are called Senbon Torii, meaning “thousands of torii” (torii are those distinctive arched gates that we’ve seen throughout Japan). The trails live up to their name; they are densely packed with torii, with many kilometres of gates forming a sort of red-hued tunnel up the mountain.

After a short hike we arrived at okumiya, the inner shrine. Children would make the hike and hang small fox-faced tokens here, presumably with prayers or wishes inscribed on them (though, not being able to read Japanese, this is merely an educated guess).

Further up the mountain are numerous smaller, private shrines (called tsuka). Worshippers hang tiny torii here (undoubtedly a much cheaper option than constructing a full-sized gate along the path), light candles, pull on prayer ropes and conduct other activities.

We made it to the summit and took a breather. Well, that might be over-stating our accomplishment; after two hours of hiking and diligent photo-snapping, we had made it to Yotsutsuji, a rest stop about half-way to the summit. Yotsutsuji is an intersection, where the path splits into one path going further up the mountain and another path offers a relatively direct route down to the city below.

When we arrived at Yotsutsuji the daylight was still shining brightly. After lolling about for twenty minutes, dusk had fallen. Our choice of direction was made for us. Although, to be totally frank, our hamstrings would probably have thrown the deciding vote if the sun hadn’t done so.

The view of Kyoto from Yotsutsuji
And besides, Kyoto looked so inviting!

Just as we began the descent, we heard some familiar voices behind us. It turns out that Robbie (who you will remember from our travels on Lantau Island) and Patrick (another friend from Hong Kong) happened to be hiking the very same trail at the very same time! We took this as a sign of good fortune, and resolved to tackle the evening’s adventures together.

The group, plus Robbie and Patrick, at Yotsutsuji
Wait, am I wearing dress socks and runners? Man, no wonder I preferred to stay behind the camera.

As it happens, the six of us were united by a single purpose and possessed of a common dream — conveyor belt sushi. Robbie happened to know a place, so we made haste towards this singular culinary marvel in downtown Kyoto.

Look, I don’t judge your dreams, OK? Let me live.

We spent a long evening devouring sushi and sharing travel stories with our surprise companions. After paying off our tabs at the conveyor belt sushi place (also called kaiten-zushi), we resolved to head back to our respective hostels. Robbie and Patrick were soon to be departing Kyoto, and we expected to spend the next day touring the Kansai region, so we promised to meet up back in Hong Kong.

With our bellies and cameras full after a long day’s touristing, we retired to our bunks and dreamed of temples yet unseen.