Day 15, 15JAN2017
Today was our second full day of sightseeing in Kyoto. Equipped yet again with our subway and bus day passes we walked from our guesthouse to the subway station around the corner. Enroute we agreed we both had a hankering for a burger and stopped in at Mos Burger, a Japanese burger chain from what we could surmise. Josh opted for the terryaki burger and I chose the mos burger, which came out with a thousand island sauce on it. Nothing too interesting, but the iced coffee we ordered alongside our burgers (it was that moment of time between breakfast and lunch, 1000-ish, and we needed caffeine) was delicious.
Once fed we were ready for the day and jumped on the subway catching it to the Kyoto Train Station where we then navigated the bus terminal and found the correct bus to transport us to the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
This Shrine is most certainly a Mecca. Disembarking from the bus station we still had half a mile to hike through winding streets, over train tracks and streams before arriving at the epicenter of the Shrine’s entrance. Not even a hundred yards from the bus station we were met with clogged roads crowded with tourists, Shinto Shrine visitors, and hawkers selling all sorts of food and souvenirs.
The entire walk to the Shrine felt as though one was completing a pilgrimage surrounded by anxious fellow believers and once the striking orange of the first Tori rose above the masses everyone looked up in awe.
We navigated from the men selling freshly grilled yakitori and walked to the bottom of the hill where the Shrine’s entrance began. From this view point one could see the complex and its ornate orange and gold buildings in blazing contrast to the snow covered hills in the background.
The place was absorbing – whether you are religious or not did not matter, the prayer flags, the sound of coins being tossed into metal bowls and statues, the smell of barbecued meat, the noise of water pouring from a cleansing paddle and dripping off faces into the collection pools, the light catching the snow or the gold on the buildings and temporarily blinding you, and the persistent clapping noise made when the devout bow before the edifices, this experience was transporting.
Josh and I took part in the cleansing practice at the Shrine’s gate, then entered taking in the sights, the sounds, and smells. We walked up the hill lined with cobble stones and in a slight bend found ourselves in the forest this Shrine is famous for.
A forest it is most certainly, for the pine and bamboo trees grow thick here and their branches heaved under the freshly fallen snow. However the forest of this Shrine is made far more enchanting by the thousands of bright orange Tori gates.
When I say thousands, I am not even remotely exaggerating. The Shrine’s more common name is in fact the “Shrine of a Thousand Tori Gates” and the scene is beyond compare. Set against the falling snow today’s 760′ hike from the base of the Shrine to the top of eponymous Mount Inari was sweat-inducing, winding and yet magical.
The hike transports you through a never ending series of Tori gates, each intricately carved with black calligraphy in a vivid vermilion. At the base of the mountain people congregate, the masses moving slowly such that you are unable to take a photo of you with the Tori gates.
As you climb higher, past a tranquil pond, over lumps and hills, further into the woods, passing smaller Shrines and orange trees, the crowds thin and you are suddenly alone in nature surrounded by the profound sense of sacredness.
It was at a fork in the road Josh and I chose to follow the path that would curve down and around the mountain summit before rising steeply to the top where we found ourselves in a remote, snow falling forest.
Snow falling has a fabulous ability to make all other noise irrelevant and disappear.
We were walking through the orange giants alone in our thoughts when unexpectedly we happened upon Josh’s family!
Of all places in Kyoto to run into your aunt, uncle and cousins, on the backside of a Shinto Shrine’s quiet mountain top was certainly not the place we’d think we’d do so. But sure enough, Richie, Katie, Rachel and Hattie were on their way down the mountain while we were hiking up. We stopped, I imagine the six of us all relieved from the temporary pause in the hike, and caught up. Before we knew it a half hour had passed and stories of all sorts were shared.
We decided upon a place to reconvene our meeting later in the evening and then parted ways to continue our acquaintance with the Shrine.
Josh and I finally made it to the summit and explored the nooks and crannies atop the alter. People placed all sizes of Tori gates as offerings at the various alters and smaller shrines in the complex and at the summit the towers of these wooden replicas were twice the size of me!
Heading down we were caught in a maze of people, the steps were thawing in the afternoon sun and now that the snow ceased falling people were carefully walking back to the base. Believe it or not, but there were dozens of women in high heels on this hike, which flabbergasted me – what an unsafe decision for the sake of fashion.
After the Shrine, Josh and I succumb to the yakitori hawkers – Josh buying a sausage, me a chicken yakitori with peppers smothered in sauce. I am unsure of the sauce’s composition, but I know it was remarkable.
Continuing on our sightseeing afternoon we hopped aboard the bus and made our way to Gion for afternoon tea.
Gion is known today for its Geisha origins. Today the area is packed with shopping, kimono rental stores, women posing for photos dressed like geishas, and the red-light district. I read in lonely planet that arguably the most beautiful street in all of Asia was located in this section of Kyoto and so we set off in search of the gorgeous sight.
What we found first was the red light district, turns out Shinbashi-Dori street is half gentlemen’s clubs and half the oldest most well-preserved street lined with a trickling stream, bowing trees and wooden buildings. Its odd, but true and so we walked through the unwanted zone which thankfully at 1600 was closed up and dark, and then we arrived at the nice part of Shinbashi-Dori.
Lonely planet probably is right that this street could arguably be the most beautiful street in all of Asia; my travels through Asia are rather limited though so I can’t quite declare. Unfortunately, when Josh and I happened upon this section of the heritage sight street the snow was pummeling the earth like a linebacker does the opposing team. We could barely see the tops of the two story houses because the white snow was so thick.
Nevertheless we snapped a few photos and circled back to our bus stop noting the gorgeous wooden beams and bamboo curtains that composed the homes.
Back at the Kyoto Station we pushed through throngs of humans and made reservations for a few bullet trains in the coming days then settled at HUB PUB for happy hour awaiting the Clapins.
The HUB was midway through the cheapest happy hour I’ve ever experienced! For the cost of $5 Josh and I were able to buy two large sized cocktails; yes, that’s $5 for TWO cocktails, not $5 apiece. It was remarkable. Before dinner the entire crew to include the Clapins partook in the awesome drink specials.
We then walked across the street and crammed six people around a booth made for four and devoured okonomiyaki. The beers persisted, the stories continuously shared, and the laughs grew deeper. We had an absolutely wonderful evening with family and retired with plans to meet for breakfast and a tour to Arashiyama the next day.