It’s our final day in Kyoto before we head back east for the bright lights of Tokyo. After our ludicrously ambitious Miyajima and Hiroshima day trip yesterday we’ve woken very late in the day and as a result won’t have enough time to do everything we’d hoped in Osaka, our planned excursion for today. The main reason for this is that I’ve managed to book a special dinner at one of Kyoto’s top-rated restaurants. Before any of that though, we couldn’t ignore the massive temple we’d been passing every day, on our way to the train station.
Let’s get started…
Our Japaning Hotel was actually nestled in the streets between two large temples that sit in central Kyoto, a short distance north of the main train station. Together they’re known as the Hongangi Temples.
Higashihonganji Temple, or East Honganji, is the one whose presence was known to us due to the moated outer wall we admired on our first evening in the city. Today there was a cleanup crew wading through the pea-soup that clogged the moat, cleaning by hand in the baking morning sun. I could only imagine the feeling of spending the day doing such a task.
The duties of a Buddhist monk? Algae of enlightenment perhaps?
As we approached the gate we realised just how much space the temple occupied, giving us an idea of the importance of the structures within its walls. The elaboratively impressive Shinshuhonbyo Mieido-mon (Founder’s Hall Gate) we passed through would be the largest we would pass through on our whole trip.
Through the gate was a large open area covered with a serenely flat layer of grey stones with narrow walkways that connected some of the biggest halls we’d seen. I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t particularly busy when we visited or if the grandeur of the space itself just gave that impression but I had little time to ponder that thought with the once again searing heat of the sun pushing us to seek shelter in the temple shop near the gate.
I let my son pick himself a drink to cool down. Of course, he chooses a chilled green tea which wasn’t to his taste, so I took the opportunity to enjoy it to myself while my partner perused the ornaments and trinkets on offer. When I approached her she was trying to convince herself that the beautifully crafted and hand-painted hand fans she was looking at were a little too expensive to be aerating herself with. Feeling positive about it I asked her which she liked the most and then proceeded against her better judgement to buy it for her. We’d not bought anything so far from any of the temples we’d visited and known now that our ill-made promises to return to those places to buy things was as good as a lie. This purchase would make up for those mistakes.
Or, at least that would be my short-sighted reasoning on the matter anyway.
The main hall at Higashihonganji Temple – Amidado Hall – is actually the largest wooden building in Kyoto and one of two of the biggest in the world. It’s dedicated to Shinran, who is the founder of the Otani Faction of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism, also known as Shin Buddhism or True Pure Land Buddhism. Attached to its structure is Goeido Hall, which itself is dedicated to the ‘Immeasurable One’, Amida Buddha.
Sadly, this is all I can tell you about Higashihonganji because as usual, we’d totally underestimated how much time passes when you’re tired and you need to carry two small children around Japan. We would have liked to have explored more, as we’d only really poked our heads through the door and not even seen half of what was on offer there.
Neither would we have time to walk back past our hotel towards Nishihongwan-ji, or West Honganji, which is the older of the two Honganji Temples. Nor could we take time to visit what looks to be a rather lovely looking Shoseien Garden, just a few streets east of Higashihongangi.
It was already noon and without breakfast, we were setting ourselves up for disaster in this pounding hot mid-day heat.
As we leave the sign on the south-east wall reminds me that ‘Now Life is living you’.
As I wonder over this cryptic Engirsh wisdom I’m starting to feel sad about having to leave Kyoto tomorrow. We were so busy visiting places near and far that we’d not really taken in a lot of the city itself. Hopefully, we could remedy that tonight.
Then a cheery “choo-choo!” – brings me back to the moment, as my son points out a small train statuette, which only now I realise is one of many different pieces that adorn the large steel signposts scattered along the length of the street we’re taking towards Kyoto Station.
Naturally, it attracted us.
Stumbling out of the very busy and cramped feeling Namba Station we take an immediate casualty at the top of the stairs as our family unit spills out into the hot and noisy street from the underground exit, like a burst fire hydrant in some American film.
Man down! I need 150CC of ice cream, stat.
Licking our wounds and our quickly liquidising ice treats we break from the heavy flow of people and down into a quiet side street that filtered into the Ebisu Bashi-Suji Shopping Street. Here our attention is quickly overloaded with gold bagging Chinese tourists, hangars full of shiny tan-hide belts sporting an array of polished buckles, stacks of discounted suitcases bursting from doorways and the neon-delivered promise of cheap trainers that tote the badges of the most hype brands.
Remembering that our family-sized suitcase is now missing a wheel I make a note with my partner to pick up a new one on the way back. I could also do with a new belt that would keep these jeans from sliding, but there’s no time for me to waste. I’m interested in animal-derived products but my stomach isn’t going to let me think about leather right now.
The end of the shopping street brings us to Dontonbori Street, possibly one of the most popular and famous spots in Osaka. It’s known as a night market and we have heard that you really must visit later in the day to get the best atmosphere. However, with the change of plans for this evening, we had to make the best of what limited time we had here, which was going to be during daylight hours.
We head east along the street, dodging and weaving between the crowds while occasionally stopping to absorb the sights, sounds and smells – the smells – of a street bursting with food options. This level of choice is certainly overwhelming, especially when we knew we could only try so much without exceeding our time, budget and/or capacity.
It was a special kind of torture, to be honest.
My partner and son picked up some takoyaki from one of the quieter stalls but I couldn’t decide on what to try and ended up leaving empty-handed. We then changed course and crossed Tazaemon-bashi Bridge, which runs over the Tombori Riverwalk, parallel to the street we had just been on. We spot a lonely bench positioned in the shade of the bridges wooden girders and proceeded to exploit it as an impromptu picnic spot. The Takoyaki was especially delicious my partner exclaimed, better than the ones she’d had in Tokyo.
Back up on the bridge, it was hard not to be drawn to the insanely excessive Don Quijote Dotonbori Store, whose recently renovated Ferris wheel had only just reopened in January of 2018, after spending the past ten years out of commision due to a technical fault.
Approaching the store from this side you’re welcomed by many seemingly good deals on cosmetics and other essential tats. Inside the store, however, we found only disappointment. It was very cluttered and cramped with relatively bad prices compared to what we’d saw only a short walk away. The multi-floor maze of confusion was such that we had to leave. Even wielding a four-month-old baby in this place got you no concessions, people would push past without consideration and the staff seemed disgruntled and annoyed. This wasn’t the Japan I’d been gushing over so far. No sir. There was no way we were going to enjoy ourselves here, we couldn’t have stayed there any longer.
There would be no Ferris wheel for us.
We exit sharp and as we leave the Donki behind our ears tuned to the electric synth-pop noise that’s coming from further along the opposite side of the riverwalk. Three small figures are boisterously bouncing around, cordoned off between two tents whose only English reads Animal Beast.
Is this the name of the band? The event promoter? A Japanese bestiality website? We may know.
One thing we can tell is that there is a clear divide between the young female fans, who we were standing by, and the older male fans/dads/creeps nearer the bridge. I realise then that I look like a foreign pervert standing on the wrong side of the divide.
I usher us along and up to Ebisu Bridge in an attempt to break my awkwardness.
Having completed a single lap which covered less than a sixth of the Dotonbori area we were buzzing with enthusiasm about what we should do next. Sadly, none of our desires would become reality, as upon inspecting our itinerary I realise it’s already almost time to leave.
Out of time, we head back down the shopping street and we quickly grab a bargain suitcase before running back to Namba Station. We have to hurry as the only train to get us back to the Kyoto in time for our meal reservation was a local express, not a shinkansen. Bad planning on my part and this all may have worked out better if I hadn’t booked an early reservation. Though, I feel a lot of the time we lost was unavoidable, as it was likely due to the strain of the previous day giving us a late start.
Still, I beat myself up about it as I watch the city zipping past the window of the train carriage. All that potential we left unexplored.
One thing that did work out though was that we now had two sleepy children on a half hour train journey. With the sun glaring through the window they had little left to do but close their eyes and within less than a couple of minutes, both were asleep. This was great news for us as it meant they’d have a little more energy and hopefully a little less stress to help get them through tonight’s outing.
The lady next to me smiles as she closes the blind on the window, providing us with some shade as I fanned our dozing babes in case it was actually a case of heat exhaustion.
We never saw that damn hand fan ever again…
Our train arrives on time at Gion-Shijo Station and before we know it we’re heading through Hanami-koji (flower viewing street) – Kyoto’s famous geisha (or ‘geiko’) area. It was bustling with tourists from around the world, some of them dressed in rental kimono and some of them clutching their cameras, desperate to snap a picture of those coveted ladies commuting between appointments.
While the street itself was nice to see, it contrasted heavily with the surrounding area and you got the vibe that this was being maintained mainly as a tourist attraction. Maybe behind the panelled doorways of the restaurants and fenced housings were hid real gems of the east, but that wouldn’t be for us to find out right now.
A short way down the street we break for a quiet alleyway, taking a shortcut that leads directly to the corner of Yasaka Shrine, where our appointment for the evening was to be held.
Back on the main street, we can see a sign for the Teppan Tavern Tenamonya on a very slim four storey building. Upon inspection, we notice that there seems to be some grievance between the restaurant that’s located in the basement and the one that is located in the building above. A sign notifies visitors seeking the real Teppanyaki Tavern that the business that goes by a similar name located upstairs is not associated with them in any way and that they should bring their custom downstairs to avoid disappointment.
We chuckle at this for a moment as we’re a few minutes early but soon the large green plant that blocked the doorway to the basement is removed and our host below bows with a polite and welcoming smile as we make our way in.
They obviously cater to many tourists here with a heavy emphasis that they speak fluent English, which is rare in this country. However, let me assure you, as the signage outside made apparently, this is the real deal.
The restaurant was highly decorative but well-lit and arranged, despite there being little space within the buildings long and narrow area.
We placed our belongings into our newly worn-in suitcase and placed them into a wicker basket behind us, which is customary in Japan but is also a great way to keep your stuff clean and the floor space clear in such confined quarters.
Our host, a woman with a warm and sincere smile, made sure we were comfortable by the door and promptly helped us order some drinks while explaining the menu and pointing out today’s speciality items which were chalked onto blackboards above the bar which also doubled as an open kitchen.
Being very hungry we ordered our first round of food items. I made sure she knew that we’d be ordering multiple times, but that the main reason I was here was to engorge myself on their much-touted grade A5 Wagyu beef. Both her eyes and mine curled up to expose our crows feet, as we grinned like grinches in recognition of their star prize.
“I kept you some, yes” – she confirms, in reference to my request for it when making the booking over the phone a few days earlier.
Oh, she knew why I was here. Soon as I walked through the goddamn door…
Our order from the menu:
- 100 grams Grade A5 Wagyu Beef with Potatoes and Brocolli
- Pan-fried Tofu with Soy Sauce
- Potatoe Chips/Fries with Cheese, Onion, Bacon and Salsa
- Speciality Spring Onions (seasonal blackboard speciality item)
- Beef Curry and Fried Egg atop Yakisoba Noodles and Mixed Vegetables
- Kushikatsu/Kushiage assortment (Mushroom, Potato, Quail Egg, Cheese, Beef)
- Homemade Special Gyozas with Pork & Chingensai (Chinese Spinach) and a Special Ponzu Sauce
- White Rice
While all the food was excellent quality, the standout item was – of course – the Wagyu beef, which was what I can only describe as a perfectly seared, tender and juicy slice of heaven (or devilishly deviant hell if you’re a vegan like my partner). The phrase melts-in-the-mouth literally applied here, as upon touching the tongue each morsel would transform into a hot butter consistency as the beef juices burst from the marbling, coating the whole mouth in a juicy liquid so obscene that even writing about it makes me feel like I’m reviewing a lewd but sexy porno.
The beef didn’t even spend enough time on the plate for us to get a picture of it! The curried beef yakisoba with fried egg was also Grade A+ delicious.
The staff at this restaurant give it a different atmosphere to the larger, chain restaurant we visited on our first night in Kyoto. It’s very well reviewed on Trip Advisor and they deserve the praise and custom they attract.
I would highly recommend a visit if you’re staying in Kyoto or even just visiting for the evening. Just make sure you follow their instructions and ring ahead so you can book a table if you plan on visiting. I’d read this in the reviews as well as on their website and can confirm that even though we were the only table at 5 PM, the place is small and filled up quickly. Even with half the tables in use, they had to turn away people trying their luck, as they were fully booked for the evening. From what I can tell their focus seems to be providing a quality experience for a small number of guests each night.
Our experience was certainly one that will take us back there someday. Hopefully very soon.
Pushing the door curtain aside as we say goodbye to our hosts we notice that the sky has clouded over and the sun has begun to set.
Lanterns that went easily unnoticed before are now lit up all around us and the cool, clear evening air makes has markedly relaxed the cities population.
The flow of traffic, both human and machine, seems to have been stemmed and slowed everyone’s pace, as the last of the days visitors vacate the nearby temples and streets.
Sated we join the thinning masses for a directionless stroll through Gion.
It takes only a short while before I spot an empty alleyway whose cavernous entrance calls to me.
As the alley opens us, separating into two rows of tall buildings, we realise we’ve stepped into a contained hive of tucked-away bars that serve food and drinks till the late hours.
I bemoan my partner that we hadn’t visited Japan when we were younger and child-free, as I would have loved to have stopped by some of these types of places.
As the alleyway connects with a more open side street we stumble across some really interesting architecture among the mix of modern and traditional looking buildings that are packed along the length of the street.
The city buzzed, flashed and flickered around us as evening momentum took over. Perhaps it was just the mass of overhead cables and funky neon signage, but there was a real cosy feeling to this area.
When we reach a junction we realise that we could wander this area for hours, checking out the hundreds of restaurants and bars that took up almost every floor of every building around us.
It was excessive, true, but I loved it.
The route we took back to the hotel took us down the now relatively empty Hanamikoji Dori, which had a totally different mood going for it.
If your visiting Gion then this may be the perfect time to explore, as you get great old school vibes from the soft lighting that punctuates the environment.
Of course, we broke off into a side street as soon as one presented itself. Here we found large golden-orange fish chilling outside doorways, cute kempt flower blossoms in among the greenery as well as glimpses of private gardens through the bamboo and rattan walls and doorways.
It felt like we’d been literally transported back in time some 100 years or more.
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It’s obviously kept this way on purpose and in some ways, it felt like we were on a film set for a promotional video. That didn’t bother us though, it’s still a very nice area if you catch it at the right time.
Everything is designed to entice.
As my son gleefully bounded ahead of me he encountered two strangers coming towards him, one dressed in authentic garb and the other shooting video. The costumed girl caught sight of my son as he stopped skipping and hopped to a complete halt. Simultaneously she broke her stride, the sound of her heel ringing out for a second as time seemed to freeze still…
…silently, they resume their course.
A magic moment.
Abruptly the alleyway ends and we run into a bank of vending machines, bringing us straight back from our time machine with their beaming white aura.
Winding our way through the side streets and back towards our hotel we stop off for ice creams at Lawson (Hail Lawson!) which fulfils our craving for some sweet dessert after we’ve had the chance to digest our dinner on the walk.
The streets are narrow as ever but now there are vehicles and torii gates that mean we have to zig-zag our way along the streets while juggling our children, suitcase and frozen treats.
Not far from the store we meet with the Kamo River, which we must cross sooner or later. Much like in Hiroshima the riverside was almost completely dark, with a pavement that ran alongside the river without any street lighting. However, in contrast, this riverside was alive with the headlamps of cyclists, rhythmic pattern of joggers and boombox beats emanating from the tinny speakers of the smartphones of young b-boys and b-girls practising their breakdancing and doing flips.
This, coupled with the excellent reflections of the riverside establishments lights rippling on the surface of the water, gave us all the enticement we needed for a slow and heady walk along its dark banks.
Across the way, the gentle sway of countless lanterns and silhouettes within the windows could be appreciated. Their reflections providing a slow and pleasant dance on the water’s surface, the perfect destresser after a hot and busy day. Many people write about the joys of a walk along the Kamo River and I can now see the appeal and state that it’s something I wish I could do often.
Next time, perhaps.
Walking back to the hotel was quite a distance but also a much-needed exploration of the area in the evening. Something we hadn’t had time for since the night we arrived in the city.
Hiding in the darkness, suddenly illuminated by a passing car – statues guarding the shutters of a religious goods shop!
I’ve mentioned it before but it’s something that I believe; that you can get a sense for the spirit of a city from the sounds you hear walking the streets at night. In Kyoto, it seems like there are more ground-level residences, which gives you a street-level living feeling that you just don’t get much of when you’re walking around the high-rise crammed area of central Tokyo.
As we near our final destination for the evening I start to feel a slight sadness. I didn’t want the night to end. Didn’t want us to stop walking around this beautiful city.
As with any good holiday, I suppose you start to get the blues if you aren’t ready to leave yet. We had to though, and that pained me.
Time for bed – one last time, Kyoto.
Before I row my boat merrily down the into a stream of unconsciousness I make a snap decision. I’m going to set my alarm real early and see if I can climb a mountain before lunchtime tomorrow. A little solo adventure to the top of Inariyama, a holy mountain and the southernmost of the 36 Higashiyama peaks.
Then let’s see if our second and final act in Tokyo can top the past few days life-affirming experiences, eh?