Kyoto, City of Zen

Although Kyoto is one of the most visited places in Japan, it is a rather small city. Its buildings are much lower than you’d expect for Japan and you don’t get the bustling city vibe and massive neons that you would find in Tokyo for example. Instead, Kyoto is renowned as “the city with a thousand temples“, a well-deserved nickname. We took our time and spent five days walking around the city through castle gates, zen gardens, and temples, hiking in the hills surrounding the city to visit monkeys or to escape the tourists floodings at popular temples. We might have seen several dozens of temples – some large and famous, some only tiny structures hidden between two ugly residential blocks – but did not get tired of it because all of them were actually quite different.

On the first days, we walked through the imperial palace’s massive park and napped on the grass, walked through the magical garden paths of the Ryoan-Ji temple and contemplated the perfection of its zen garden. We visited Nijo Castle, which combined historical explanations and beautiful gates, gardens and wallpaintings. We admired the perfection of the Kinkaku-Ji, aka the Golden Pavilion, which definitely looked perfect between hundreds of selfie-sticks and ipads stretched above the heads. Luckily, Quentin is still taller than the average asian crowd so he could get a good shot 🙂

Ryoan-Ji’s Zen garden
Beautiful path in Ryoan-Ji’s compounds

One of the nicest walks we did was through the Philosopher’s Walk: a beautiful little path along a river covered in cherry and maple trees. It was very relaxing and we could peek in the multitude of little artisan shops along the path and in the side streets. We also stopped by at a deserted temple with a magical garden all covered in thick green moss.

One of our most-awaited visit was to Fushimi-Inari Shrine, commonly known as the “Thousand-torii temple”. Actually, there are probably well-over ten thousands of those red-orange gates that are actually offerings from people starting their businesses. Some were put there as far as 1300 years ago. We had thought we would beat the crowds by going there at 8 am but we arrived together with the crowds. Luckily, the Shrine spreads over an entire hill, and the higher you hike the fewer the tourists. One hour higher-up and we were almost alone, walking below never-ending rows of red gates.

In the west of Kyoto, we also visited the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest and the Monkey park, where dozens of macaques hang around freely. You can give them food if you want, but only from inside a cage, so it get confusing as to know who’s the attraction for whom…

Food-wise, we also had a great time, having an amazing ichigo-mochi (a strawberry stuffed in a chewy rice paste, stuffing ourselves with delicious ramen, cooling ourselves with some zaru-soba (cold buckwheat noodles that you dip in a salty thin sauce before slicking them up), experimenting with a tonkatsu covered in a shiso-plum sauce, having our first okonomiyaki (sort of pancake with cabbage, covered with a thick layer of sauce and mayo!) and finishing it off with a pile of sushi taken from the belt or ordered from the electronic screen!

The (not so relaxing) sento experience

On a rainy day after some shopping we thought that a hot bath should be the best option for relaxing. We thus went to a sento on our way back home. A sento is a very local style of public hot bath where foreigners rarely go. Quentin’s host father describes them as “probably too difficult for foreigners to go in”. The sento we found had two doors, one for women and one for men, although leading to the same room divided in two by a bamboo wall. As soon as we stepped in we found ourselves in a big changing room which was just separated from the bathing place by a glass window.  We both had our own experience there. If you want to know more about it, read below!

Rebekka’s version

When entering, I could already see some ladies inside the small bath that had the size of a big living room – the average age seemed to be at least 80 (or rather 90; people get old in Japan!). I was directly spotted by the 10 little grandmas (or great-great-grandmas), who wouldn’t stop watching me as I was undressing myself in the entrance room. Surprisingly, being naked was the least uncomfortable thing about the whole sento experience. It was actually more stressful to have twenty wrinkled eyes observing me while making every possible mistake (verdammte Japanese bathing etiquette!). The first and probably biggest mistake: I didn’t bring my own soap. How dare you forget to bring your own soap? It’s even more important than the water here – you are supposed to scrub and rub and foam yourself for about 20 min until your last tan is gone. With my few words of Japanese (and with some desperate random gestures), I tried to kindly beg for some soap from one lady next to me. She reluctantly allowed me to rub some of her hard soap on my towel, making it clear that it was an act of extreme generosity.
There’s a fixed order of when to wash, when to bathe, when to exaggeratedly wash yourself, etc. I, of course, did it all wrong and ran to the cold pool several times since the water in the tub was just so insanely hot. I also tried the sauna and sat sweating with two old ladies that were busy commenting on everything they saw – at least one thing that stays the same on every continent.
The only relaxing part about this whole sento experience was probably the soft Beatles music playing in the background while in the hot sauna… When meeting Quentin after coming back out, we both bursted out laughing and kept this experience as an awkward but definitely funny memory.

Quentin’s version

I’ve barely stepped in that I already get this feeling of unease – unfortunately too common in Japan – that I’m doing something wrong. It might be that my sole presence is the mistake. It hardly gets more local than that: the place is a bit run down, and could as-well pass as a 70s antique shop, with its rusty coin-hairdryer and faded Showa-era advertisement drawings hanging on the walls. The place is clean, but you can see that the erosion is starting to take over, as the 80 year-old owner must have opened this place when he was in his 20s and hasn’t done any renovations nor changed the decoration since.
First thing I notice: no towel included, just the tiny towel that you use to rub yourself in the bathing area. I guess I’ll just improvise when going out. I strip down and enter the bathing area only armed with my tiny towel. It feels like I’ve entered the bath house of Spirited Away. Next to a line of sitting showers, several little baths occupied by grumpy-looking grandpas with towels on their heads. I rinse myself and realise there’s no soap/shampoo, and that everyone has to bring their own here… One more reason for the grandpas to believe I shouldn’t be here. I rinse myself an ask two grandpas whether the baths have different temperatures. They do not even deign answering my question and keep staring at the wall with a disapproving look on their faces. Aaaalright, sorry for disturbing. I pick the bath in which an ugly cupid statue joyfully empties his amphora. At least one smiling face in here… A bit later, I decide to try a tiny bath that’s about 1 sqm only. I get it and suddenly my arms feel numb and I get spasms in my chest. I start freaking out when I notice the little sign above the bath. The only kanjis I can recognise are 電気, aka electricity. It’s a bath with electric shocks! I pull myself out and decide to try the sauna. Three minutes later, I already feel too hot so I check the temperature: it’s 112°C! I get out and try to cool myself down with the lukewarm shower, which doesn’t work so well… Time to get out and meet Rebekka. I’m curious to hear what she’s got to say about this, but before: how to dry yourself with a wet 30 sqcm towel…
I get out in the rain but it does not make any difference at that point. Next time we’ll come prepared (or stick to the hostel’s shower)!

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