This was a perfect day! A great complement to the previous day, when we have seen a part of the history-enriched Gion and the prodigious Kiyomizu-Dera temple. Well, the following day was about to be even better – perfect.
We started by foot from our base-camp on Horikawa Dori and took a bus to our first destination of the day. And what a destination : The Golden Pavilion, known as Kinkaku-Ji.
The Kinkaku-Ji 金閣寺 is located in the northern side of Kyoto and it was on our initial lists of “sites to be visited at all costs”. It is one of the most important tourist and cultural attractions in whole Japan.
This was a sunny, warm day, but not so hot as other days we’ve seen in our spring journey. And talking about crowds of tourists… it was crowded. Outside, more buses filled with tourists kept on bringing more groups, so we decided to step up the pace and enter the inner gardens.
This place was marvelous, a real iconic site enriched with history and beauty. The gardens keep the same usual natural balance, everything seems to be in the right place with the right shape. There is no need to change anything. And after a few steps, there it was :
This golden pavilion, as its name says, has the 2 top floors covered in gold leaf, with its structure built overlooking a large pond. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history, including twice during a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.
Surrounded by gardens, in a go-around style, this is a place where you could stay much longer than anticipated. I’ve seen some photos of this beautiful architectural masterpiece taken during the winter. Contemplating Kinkaku-Ji covered in snow, surrounded by the beautiful scenery, is pure poetry, something I cannot describe in words, not even the words of my mother tongue.
Indeed, this is an ideal venue for contemplation. Just stay here for a while, and make peace with yourself and your thoughts. Of course, this would be one of my most important locations where I should go back on a different time of the year. The autumn and the winter, too, should bring a perfect background for this marvel.
Going round on the alley in the garden, we have reached the souvenirs shops and finally the exit.
After a traditional lunch break with excellent fresh food in a very small restaurant (around 700 yen per person) it was the time for our next destination for the day : the lovely Arashiyama area with the unforgettable Bamboo Groves.
We went to Arashiyama by Keifuku Railway train. The small and beautiful train connects Arashiyama with Omiya Station at the intersection of Shijo Street and Omiya Street in central Kyoto. Keifuku Railways, or Randen also provides access to Kitanohakubaicho Station in northern Kyoto, not far from Kinkaku-Ji, Ryoan-Ji and Ninna-Ji Temples. One transfer of trains is required along the way. Keifuku Arashiyama Station is placed in the center of Arashiyama.
This was the most glamorous railway station we’ve ever seen in Kyoto with very nice decorations – it wasn’t a classic railway station, more of a museum of art. Getting away from the Kyoto’s center, in such a small train was already creating the feeling of a relaxing journey to the silent beauty of western Kyoto’s outskirts.
After going out of the station we were enveloped by a unique atmosphere of rural, yet perfectly civilized paradise. Across the Nagatsuji-Dori street, we had a modern and elegant shopping center and this was our first stop, since our arrival in Arashiyama.
We stayed here for a while, admiring the small boutiques with souvenirs and traditional commodity. I had no idea this was the place where my friends had a plan for my birthday, which was about to come really soon.
The gift I was about to receive in a few days from this moment, was quite a perfect gift, especially for me, being there in Japan : elegant traditional chopsticks, beautifully hand-crafted with my name and my birthday date engraved on them.
There were so many models and sizes, it was really a hard choice. From 2 – 3.000 yen up to more than 40.000 yen, a pair of chopsticks, well, there were models, sizes and colors for every taste and whim you could imagine.
I was waiting for them, quite a while. Staying outside, on a bench, I just felt it was the perfect moment to admire the people, their quiet rhythms, gather my thoughts and dive into the beauty and tranquility of the moment. Carpe diem!
When the group was ready to leave, we commenced walking north, along the Nagatsuji-Dori, looking for the entrance to the Bamboo Groves. The street was quiet, not so much traffic – the only traffic we have got was from the tourists. We were in no hurry, even though the sun was on its way to set.
Houses, bars, restaurants, small shops, the street was quite a tourist attraction itself. And just when we were wondering where would we find the entrance to the bamboo forest, there it was.
I have dreamed about this place, seen so many pictures on the internet and frankly, I hoped it wouldn’t be so flooded with tourists – for my photos. The sunset wasn’t that far, the light was beautiful, until I have realized that we will make our way through a deeper and thicker bamboo forest. This means even less light for photography.
I was worried about my photos – I think I just expected them to be perfect, with the ideal light and not so many noisy tourists, unaware of getting in front of my camera, just when I was ready to take my shot.
The photos don’t always represent the accurate reality. It was a little cold and quite dark, so I had to raise my ISO and try to get my shots staying as still as possible. This is one of the times when you would trade your lens for another one with image stabilization, or a super fast lens, with a very wide aperture, like F1.4. Mine was used at F2.8, its maximum constant aperture with quite good results, the pro-grade Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8.
Because of my photographs, most of the times I was left behind, so I always had to run and catch up with my group. The alleys in the forest, the peace and the silence, the ocean of pure green and the fresh oxygen were fascinating. Breathless! You walk those places in a state of continuous admiration. Man and nature, reunited for a common purpose: Beauty. Contemplation. Nature does this by itself, following some secret, sacred laws. Man destroys nature, most of the time, but not here.
I wished those moments could be locked in time. Surely they will never be lost in time. I will treasure them for the rest of my life, because they were pure beauty and for the modern man, if there is something that we terribly lack in our modern, metropolitan lives, well, it is the contact with the nature.
We need to get out of our “comfortable” and “plentiful” homes and embrace nature in its beauty. Meditation, contemplation, self-acceptance – we must re-learn those things from the old ways of Japanese people.
The maze through the Bamboo Groves in Sagano is much bigger and deeper, but we have found a way out and discovered a very peaceful neighborhood, filled with houses and beautiful gardens. One of my favorite things to do, while traveling to Japan – to walk the small streets, away from the maddening tourist crowds, to taste a bit of a peace and silence that surround those places and those people.
Traditional houses, modern houses, some of them mixing up the new with the old, it was a pleasure to discover those areas. The beautiful gardens added the right amount of exquisite flavor to each house. After leaving the Sagano bamboo forest, we had encountered not a sigle tourist. In fact, the evening was very near so the streets were completely silent and empty. All for just the five of us.
After a while, we have realized we were really lost. Impossible to follow the same route we took when we came, but that was the beauty of it. Explore! A map in your pocket and a smartphone with a digital map, based on GPS and you are good to go.
The fact of getting lost, revealed to us some more amazing small streets. Eventually, after consulting our map, we had our clear way to a train station, so we could return, back to the center of Kyoto. A few more streets, passing under a bridge, walking close to an important building named “19th Century Hall SL & Piano Museum”, where an old steam-powered locomotive was exposed in perfect condition and there we were, at Saga Arashiyama Station.
Quite tired, after such a long day, we decided to take the train to somewhere in the Kyoto’s center. After leaving the station, we begun to do what we did best : explore.
And we headed our way to the shopping street of Kyoto – the Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcades. It was 8:30 PM, already dark and quite late for shopping, where almost every shop was closed. But our last point of interest in our plan was not to go shopping. Very close to this shopping street was the famous Musashi Sushi restaurant and we really had to give it a try.
This small restaurant, located on Kawaramachi Dori is one of the most pleasant attractions in Kyoto. Really small, really crowded, so we had to wait for a while, on a long bench just close to the door, to get some free seats (we were 5 and we preferred to stay together, so 5 free places in a row – not so easy). Just 140 yen for one small plate and I had not more than 5 or 6 plates with different kinds of fresh, raw fish.
How would I summarize this experience? To be short : Sushi and Sashimi (capitalized) at the highest level in this world! Exquisite!
After this amazing diner it was time to make our way home. Walking in Kyoto by night is one of the greatest experiences as a traveler : you feel secure, there are no hazardous back alleys, not a single reason of intimidation. The main streets are still full of people, cars and lights. Enough light to easily read a book, in the street and still get great pictures at reasonable low ISO settings (ISO 640 at F2.8 as an example for the picture above).
Leaving the exuberant Kyoto’s center with its “quiet” & civilized crowds, we arrived at home, after some good miles of walking and, of course, urban exploring. So we were back on the same sweet pattern, that we held so dear : Horikawa Dori, Family Mart, Asahi Super Dry for the take-off, the late night briefing and a most welcome good night sleep!
Such a perfect day! I wished it would last forever. One of the finest days of my life. A perfect day!
All photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2015 / http://www.sebastianboatca.com