We just woke up in our tiny room on Horikawa-Dori in Kamigyo Ward after a well-deserved sleep. Our first full day in Japan was about to begin. What are we waiting for?
The best way to visit a new city is to explore the surroundings by foot, as much as possible. It’s what we did in our first day. A map plus some GPS apps on our smartphones, like Triposo or Maps ME can give you all the freedom you need, without the fear of getting lost. Japan is very well-organized, with plenty of signs and indicators using the Latin alphabet – at least in the big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and many others.
After a coffee and some very strong green tea in a small family coffee-shop with just 4 or 5 tables, the city was ours to explore. The sun was already up and just before noon, the day was really hot for the end of April. Knowing the Imperial Palace was very close to our location, we decided to get there, by foot, using our sense of orientation and sometimes a map. In our neighborhood, the small, but beautiful Seimei Shrine was waiting for us – this was our first flavor of Japanese shrines and temples.
Thanks to our digital maps, we took some shortcuts to the Imperial Palace and enjoyed the beautiful and quiet small streets of Kyoto. I tell you, this thing, walking down those narrow streets, was one of my favorite activities we’ve had there. It fills you with peace, you can talk to your friends, or just keep it quiet and let your thoughts align themselves along the serene atmosphere.
Indeed the Imperial Palace was near. Open to public to visit and preserved since 1877, this is one of the places you need to see when traveling in Kyoto. Everything is so majestuous, with a typical Japanese rigour and every element seemed to be so natural, without striking the eye.
We entered the surrounding park (Kyoto-Gyoen) and we thought it would be great to visit the inner gardens and the palace (Sento Imperial Palace Gardens) while having a guided tour in English. We booked a free tour with English-speaking guide for the next day, because it was too late for us when we arrived and enjoyed the tranquility of the Kyoto-Gyoen.
Let’s explore some more. We had no schedules, no timetables, it was a free walk for the first day. We left the Imperial Palace location and headed to one of the greatest temples in Kyoto – Ginkaku-Ji. The streets were visually busy, but quiet. The majority of cars are petrol fueled (diesel only on trucks) and most of them are hybrids, so the noise-level in such a big city like Kyoto was incredibly low. Some of this people’s calmness can be seen while driving their cars : patiently, no horn usage, almost no stress in the traffic whatsoever.
Riding a bike is what you see as a very important, quick and free mean of transportation. No matter the age and social status, wearing jeans or a business suit, a lot of people commute by bike.
On our way, we found the Shiramine Shrine, a place dedicated to Seidai Myojin – the god of sports. One moment you are on the streets of Kyoto and a second later, you enter a place of peace, silence, rich in history and tradition. There are plenty of such opportunities, just perfect to offer your soul and body a moment of rest.
Afterwards we got back on our route to Ginkaku-Ji, while enjoying the calmness and the specific atmosphere of Kyoto. Even if you don’t visit a shrine, museum or temple, just walking those streets gives you a feeling of awe.
Just before the Ginkaku-Ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) we found a beautiful place named “Philosopher’s Walk” (Tetsugaku-no-michi) and we took advantage of it by having a good break, resting our tired feet and admire the scene.
The temple was very near, on an ascending path, full of small shops where you can buy local food and souvenirs. The place was crowded and we knew we were very close to our second most important objective of the day.
Of course by the time we got to the entrance, it was 5 pm – closing time. As I’ve told you before, this was a free-schedule day and we had no reasons to hurry. This is my ideal kind of journey. No travel agency, no guide, no imposed program. You get to visit the most important tourist attractions, but it’s all in a rush and you miss valuable and charming details.
Most of the time your touristic interests are different from what the agency has prepared for you. At least for a travel photographer, stepping away from the typical tourist paths and diving into the side streets, into the unknown – it is essential.
It was a good time to admire the surroundings and visit the small shops on our way down, back to the Philosopher’s Walk.
We decided it was the right time to change the direction, leave the Imadegawa-Dori boulevard and try a different perspective on Shirakawa-Dori. The evening was close, but still summer-like.
It’s good to just wander the streets. Not waiting for something specific, just absorb the atmosphere through its fine details : the streets (with their plane asphalt and cleanness – very impressed!), the buildings, old or new, the trees and green spaces guarding the road, the people with their calm faces, not showing many emotions, perhaps a smile.
Very soon we got away from the main street and “lost” ourselves in a district with very small streets and houses. The golden light of the sun and the coolness of the evening were painting the neighborhood with a warm touch.
We finally found a Family Mart convenience store and had a cold Asahi beer and a well-deserved break.
Suddenly the night came and we hit the road once again. It was the time to head home and our GPS apps showed some 6,4 km to go (a value we’ll meet again in the days to come, which became like a universal constant each time we were checking the remaining distance to our home – a cosmic coincidence, or some GPS error). We felt the fatigue after a whole day of walking, but that feeling of total relaxation was indeed unique.
Heading home, we stopped one more time at “our” Family Mart store (I’ve told you, in Japan, Family Mart is your friend) and grabbed what was needed for breakfast and some beer & snacks for our daily Late Night Briefing. It was absolutely necessary that we review, in Gabriel’s room (The Meeting Room) our first complete day in the Sunrise Country.
It was a full day with many walked kilometers and many interesting things. My first deep contact with the street life. And it feels very much alive in my mind, now and forever, because I’ve tried to focus on the present moments and deeply breath-in every second or reality we’ve spent there.
Day One was over. We just couldn’t wait for the next one, when actually visiting the Imperial Palace (with a scheduled tour at noon) and Ginkaku-Ji (open until 5 pm) were our real priorities for Day Two. We just started to plan ahead our objectives and itineraries.
All photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2015 / http://www.sebastianboatca.com