A quiet festive period visiting temples and shrines

After a day of sitting in our hostel writing blog posts and editing photos it was time we saw some of Kyoto. We woke up early to avoid the crowds and got our bus passes which would take us anywhere we needed to go.

The first stop on our list was the Bamboo Grove, which some people misleadingly call the ‘bamboo forest’. This nickname and the photos we saw online lead us to believe we’d be wandering through massive bamboo stalks for ages. After a brief 10 minute walk through the bamboo trying to get around selfies we reached the end of the grove and for a few moments we stood there trying to figure out if we’d missed something. We were soon joined by a number of English speaking tourists who also stared at the path behind in confusion. Eventually we decided to take another walk through the grove and head back to the bus.

Our next stop was Ryōan-ji which has a rock garden Mark remembers as a desktop background from years ago and wanted to see for himself. The rock garden was beautiful in its simplicity and the regular garden around it was lovely. I got another stamp in my book and we then went onto Kinkakuji, the beautiful golden temple.

It was after 10am when we got to the temple, which is when the crowds begin to grow at any tourist spot here and the best view of the temple was rammed full of people taking photos and selfies. We tried to stand and enjoy the view, which was difficult with people shoving us on either side to try and get a good angle with their phones. With some concentration though it was possible to filter out the noise and enjoy the beauty of the place, even in the cold winter when the trees were more brown than green. I’m eager to plan another trip back in a few years for warmer months and I can’t wait to see the gardens in bloom.

Mark hadn’t been very ambitious with his list for the day so when we did the three main things before midday we weren’t sure what else’s to do. There’s a huge amount of things to visit in Kyoto and that just makes it harder to select some. We decided to go to one somewhere in the middle of the map, but when we got off the bus we realised it was definitely closed. Our one-day bus pass was proving to be useful as we got on yet another bus, this time to Gion for the old streets where you can see geishas and Kiyomizu-dera.

It was after 1pm when we arrived, which meant the streets were full to the brim with tourists or tour guides waving random soft toys on sticks for their groups. Days of the week blend together when you’re travelling and it was at this point we realised it was a Saturday and probably the worst day to see everything. Around New Year people in Japan flock to temples and shrines though so it was a case of braving the crowds or missing the things entirely. Rather than go back to the comfort of our hostel we continued to wander, vowing to come back in the future first thing in the morning on a Tuesday or something. We saw as much as we could until the crowds became too much.

Satisfied with what we’d seen that day, we made our way back to the hostel to use the evening wisely and write some postcards. Unsurprisingly Japan has been the most popular country for postcard orders, but it’s also full of inspiration so it won’t be too difficult to think of things to draw. For Christmas I’d treated myself to some expensive new pens which I decided to play with properly for the first time. After using them to colour a koi carp and some Torii gates I fell in love and can’t wait to use them again on more cards.

The following day we rose early again to make sure we missed the crowds at Fushimi Inari Shrine, home to 1000 torii gates. We’d been told that it was bound to be full with it being New Year’s Eve and Mark had been looking forward to this one the most so we left the hostel first thing in the morning. When we arrived there were a few people about but thankfully not too many, which meant as we got further up the climb it was really quiet.

One of the most misleading things at Fushimi Inari is the map which tells you where you are in the loop around the gates. The walk up and through all of the gates really isn’t that difficult, though there are a couple of points where you have a high concentration of steeper steps. It’s at the end of these points that they’ve placed illustrated maps showing you in a seemingly random scale how far you’ve come. When you reach the middle point, huffing and puffing after a tough bit, you’re shown a map which makes it look like you’ve just barely done a fraction of the climb and there’s at least five times that waiting for you to get to the top. The climb after the mid-point actually wasn’t that hard and because there were so many people giving up here it made for much nicer photos without the traffic. The steps even out and you can take your time getting around the loop, especially if you arrived early on.

On our way back down the shops were beginning to open and when we got back to the main shrine there was a huge queue for the shrine stamp. As it was New Year’s Eve there were loads of people visiting to pray, so I had to just get in line and wait. I’m loving getting these stamps though as they’re marking the date I was here and giving me a beautiful souvenir from my visit to even more beautiful places.

It wasn’t even 11am when we left Fushimi Inari which meant there weren’t really any stalls open for us to grab snacks and it was too early for lunch. We wandered a little around the area but it was pretty cold, so we decided to head back to the hostel and put on some extra layers. On the way back we ate at a place where you order your food from a vending machine and even though we didn’t know what we were eating, it was still tasty. Our budget doesn’t cover fancy food but we’re okay with random cheap restaurants serving hot plates of rice.

After lunch we weren’t sure what to do with ourselves but we ended up wandering to a shrine close to Kyoto station. The building was gorgeous and is apparently the largest wooden structure in the world.

Before everything closed for the day we checked out a few shops and stocked up on blank watercolour postcards. Japan is such a creative country which means there are huge shops full of arty materials, including paper and postcard supplies. Much like we send Christmas cards, Japan seems to send New Year postcards to wish their friends and family well for the year. I wanted to buy all sorts in the art shop we found, but I managed to keep it down to card, stickers and a bunch of washi tape.

Although it was New Year’s Eve we didn’t have big plans and more people visit shrines than party in Japan. We tried to socialise in the hostel but the atmosphere was dead, with people sticking to their groups and the hostel staff staying behind their desk. The best hostels we’ve stayed at were great because the staff were so involved, but unfortunately this wasn’t one of them. After a long day and with an early morning trip to Hiroshima in the morning, we decided to just sleep instead of wait to see if anything interesting happened. I started my year much like I usually do at home; fast asleep in bed.

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