Last Day in Kyoto

Our last day in Kyoto starts with an early breakfast and consigning our luggage to the care of our hostess for the courier to collect then onto the bikes for a very short jaunt to the nearby Saga Shakado temple which is not particularly remarkable other than we had passed it several times in our toing and froing from the guest house and wished to see inside. It is still early morning and the air is only warm rather than stiflingly hot and we are the only tourists exploring it’s peaceful grounds. Though not the most impressive or famous temple in Kyoto it is unique at least that we can enjoy its simple splendor in peace, far from the madding crowd.
Next is the last of our long stretches by peddle power as we go to Tofukuji in the south of the city. This is another cluster of temples, shrines and pagodas made special by the deep valley they rest beside. Three exquisite little bridges lead over the valley and into the complex affording lovely tranquil views of the valley and the bubbling brook at its bottom.
A short hop up to Kyoto station and we return our trusty steads to the hire shop. I don’t think we could have seen quite so much of the city without them but both of us are more than a little saddle-sore and the prospect of strolling or taking a bus to our last couple of sight-seeing spots spells relief and recovery before the three hour seat on the Shinkansen home to Tokyo later.
And so we take the bus out to Ginkakuji – The Silver Pavilion. This building and surrounding gardens are modeled after Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) but there is no precious metal bespoiling it, instead it is a much simpler and considerably more aesthetic place to visit. The retired shogun who had it built did intend to coat it with silver and the white sand sculpture depicting Mount Fuji in the court yard would have been spectacular in moonlight, had he not died before any silver could be applied. I think Kyoto is better off with it the way it is – where the Golden Pavilion certainly displays value, the Silver Pavilion is of considerably more worth.
For our penultimate endeavor we are, for the first time, really badly led astray by my guide book (Frommer’s Japan) which has to date been a consistant and reliable companion. “For one stop souvenir shopping, your best bet is [the Kyoto Handicraft Center]”.
Bollocks. The place is five floors of expensive (and mostly Chinese manufactured) rubbish and a black-hole tourist trap designed for fat American wallets. The fact that it wasn’t in Natsuko’s japanese guide to the city should have tipped us off, we quickly learned our mistake as we were bustled about by a coach load of Yanks at the entrance and a detailed leaflet on how to reclaim tax on purchases over 10,000 Yen was thrust into my hand by a grinning girl with that haunted dead-eye look I usually associate with disaffected low-grade McJobbers in the UK. The first item I see is a broach I saw in Asakusa for half the price. We get out quick.
Incidentally, the Japanese are always really proud of the place they work and really are dedicated to ensuring their customers are well looked after. I’ve even had McDonalds in Tokyo and not only was it actually really quite tasty and well prepared from fresh ingredients (and I am using a green grocer’s “fresh” rather than a UK McDonald’s “fresh”) but the staff were genuinely delightful. Extraordinary.
After a bit of lunch (not McDonalds) and a bit of a wander we wind up in Gion. Unless you are a multi-millionaire with a multi-millionaire friend who is already a member of the club, you are unlikely to actually see a Geisha at all let alone performing any of the traditional arts they have been trained in since early childhood, and indeed we don’t see one nor even a Maiko walking the streets although this was perhaps made all the less likely by the onset of some pretty heavy rain.
Gion has wide streets and low wooden buildings and larger stone affairs behind high walls hiding expansive gardens. The little shops sell wares of artisans who spend months on a kimono or hairpin using techniques handed down over centuries and there are prices to match. It’s star as an entertainment district is waning as modern entertainments eclipse the traditional arts practiced for the rich and famous but it would be unfair to leave an impression that it is now no more than a playground for the upper class, its heritage is more important than that and this can still be seen shining through.
The Gion district is bordered on one side by a busy main road that leads us to the subway we take back to Kyoto station. On the other side of the road are ramshackle, cramped houses surrounding alleys too narrow for anything wider than a moped and darkened by the knots of TV antennae and power lines twisting around and between the buildings. The apartments must be tiny, even by Tokyo’s standards. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a rich district and such a poor one stand quite so close together with such a clear demarcation in any city anywhere. Just another peculiarity of one of the most extraordinary places on the planet.
Three days has not been enough time here, three months might make me feel I could really begin to get a fingernail under the surface. If you are coming to Japan, Kyoto is its shining jewel and you should plan your whole trip around your visit here.

One Reply to “Last Day in Kyoto”