Mob Scene or Personal Journey? Choose your own path in Kyoto!


Quick – have there ever been any religious arguments in Japan between Shinto and Buddhist’s? Answer… No!

Our awesome guide at the Edo-Tokyo Museum explained that the religions get along so well because they have different mandates. Shinto – the original religion of Japan is about living – births, wedding, celebrations of life – these are all Shinto related experiences. And when you visit a Shinto shrine to pray – you are praying for the continued health and happiness of those you love. Or perhaps you are praying for their speedy recovery. But it’s about living!

Buddhism on the other hand, at least according to our guide’s quick explanation, is about what happens after death, and more importantly perhaps, how you prepare for that. So Buddhist priest have no issues with their congregants going to a Shinto Shrine – and the opposite is also true. In fact, most Buddhist Temples include a Shinto Shrine on the grounds – even the massive training facility at Koyasan had a Shinto Shrine. It was designed as part of the original design in 803 or so and dedicated to the Shinto Gods that protect that area of the world. How cool is that?

All this said and observed, the two religions do have different traditions that dictate how you worship at the shrines or Temples, and one could even comment that they march to the beat of a different drummer.

Shinto Shrines all have Tori Gates — in the case of Fushimari – over 2000 of them. Upon entering or leaving a Shrine, one washes ones hands and mouth, and bows at the gate – upon entering to focus your mind, on leaving to say thank you for letting me visit, and for listening to my prayer.

Shinto traditions place a lot of importance on fortune telling – and there are plenty of options available. Shaking a container with sticks and then picking the fortune that the stick directs you to by number or symbol is very popular. And if you don’t like that fortune – no problem. Just tie that fortune to a nearby tree or post, and then pay again to pick again. Our guide told us that the fortunes are about 70% good, 30% not so good – and it’s considered excellent fortune to get a bad one first – the gods are going to be very happy when you pay a 2nd time for a better fortune.

More costly fortune telling involves a more personal touch – but the idea is the same. Good fortunes go home with you, Bad fortunes stay at the Shrine.

There are also prayer plaques. These are thin wooden objects that you put your personal design on or prayer or both and then hang on boards near the shrines. I loved the ones at the Fushimari Shrine – they were shaped like fox faces, and folks who knew how had decorated them Manga Style.

The Buddhist do it very differently. They chant sutras, meditate, and sound gongs during specific parts of the service. In Shinto, you do your own gong/bell ringing – it’s a more personal approach.

Buddhist monks, like monks the world over, dedicate themselves to their religion, never marrying, and denying their past existence in the hope of reaching nirvana. Shinto priests (men or women) can marry and have children – and choose to live at the Shrine, or just be a day visitor. It’s a much more flexible religion.

But all of this aside – I want to describe my favorite Shrines and Temples!

We happen to adore Zen gardens, particularly the dry stone gardens. So many of our favourite Buddhist places – like Ginkaku-ji Temple (the Silver Pavilion) or Eikando Zenrin-Ji had magnificent stone gardens. Ginkaku-ji actually had both a pond to walk around while meditating, and a double stone garden. The stone gardens were quite small, but very dramatic – and of course hand done.

But Eikando Zenrin-Ji was the favorite of all the Temples we’ve seen. For starters – there were few other tourists – so the experience was a very private one. And the buildings were varied in shape, and we were able to walk inside them to admire the magnificent sliding panels. But the real prize were the varied gardens for meditating. One had a wonderful pond with a waterfall, and places for folks who couldn’t quite do the on the floor kneel to sit and enjoy the place. They even had free hot tea – so you can imagine that the Intrepid Traveler and I took full advantage of the opportunity to just enjoy the space. On the other side of the main mediation hall was a stone garden that along with the curved stone outline, had a water feature. So the sound of moving water was everywhere to be enjoyed.

On the other hand, we have little positive to say about the Nanzenji Temple. It was crowded and unpleasant.

The same thing could be said about the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-Ji. It is not much of a religious experience when you are sharing it with a thousand other folks all snapping pictures and shoving you out of their way. I saw it, but we can’t recommend the experience.

We also tried to visit some of the other Shrines in Kyoto – but in almost every case the sheer popularity of the sites ruined the experience for us. Of those we popped into – the Heian Shrine, the Yaskaka Shrine (formally the Gion Shrine) and even the generally outstanding Fushimari Shrine were just plain mobbed – and not in a nice way. I found the abundance of faux geisha interesting from a photographic point of view, but the giggling, the posing for pictures, the lack of any kind of religious intent just felt wrong. Even the Meiji Shrine that we visited in Tokyo suffered from an overwhelming popularity. Much nicer were several smaller Shrines that we spotted as we walked, and just went inside to pay our respects. Quiet, serene, and peaceful – our kind of religious experience.

Bottom line – do include the Eikando-Ji on your list of must visits when in Kyoto – and spend time looking for smaller, less visited temples and shrines in Japan. You will be glad you did.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Kimonos in Kyoto


If you are coming to Japan to see ladies (and men) in Kimono – then let me recommend Kyoto. We’ve seen hundreds of folks wearing Kimono – not all of whom are geisha – or for that matter – normally wearing Kimono!

It turns out that there is a very large industry here in Kyoto in Kimono Rental. For anywhere from $15 to $30 a day, you too can be dressed in Kimono, complete with hair ornaments and proper sandals. They even provide tabi socks and proper hand bags. These places advertise madly – and not just in the Gion area where you might expect it. We spotted Kimono Rentals near the train station and near several of the major shrines. There was even one near Nijo Castle.

So how to tell a ‘faux’ kimono wearing young woman or man, from the real McCoy?

Dead give-always include speaking Chinese not Japanese. Or wearing sneakers. Sometimes you can spot leggings or pants under the kimono – that’s another sure sign it’s a faux Geisha.

Hairstyle is often another sign that the gal wearing a kimono is actually a tourist, although many orientals have long hair, and the kimono rental places do a good job of getting the hair up, and the hair ornaments in place. So that’s not probably the best sign.

If you spot an iphone – particularly one being used to snap ‘selfies’ – it’s a faux.

Overly bright colours are also a give-away – the gals that we’ve deemed as real tend to the more conservative styles and colours – those fluorescent reds, pinks, violets and oranges are often the choice of young ladies who want to look flashy – not necessarily like wearing a kimono is natural to them.

As for the men – we’ve spotted men in Kimono that look incredibly dapper and well dressed. They hold themselves erect, and walk with purpose. Often they are older gentleman – who we’re guessing either are extremely conservative, or feel that wearing a Kimono sets them apart. Whatever – they do look very smart!

The ‘faux’ male atire is often cotton, wrapped poorly around the guy – and almost certainly on a guy accompanied by a female faux geisha. I’m guessing there was some arm twisting involved. In any case, very few of these guys look like they are comfortable – and certainly one wouldn’t describe them as dapper. Often they look like they are wearing bathrobes – not even nice ones either.

There is another dead giveaway – but this required looking at the way the Obi is tied in the back. There is a cheap trick to getting that fancy knot on the back of the Obi – it is a separate piece of fabric, tied in a bow, and then fastened to a metal hook. The hook slides in the obi folds, creating what appears to be a bow tied in the sash. But it’s a fake. And if you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot.

The older the person wearing the kimono, the more likely it is that the kimono is real. I spotted older women gossiping on a street corner – and I’ll bet those kimono were real. On the other hand 3 young ladies giggling madly over ice cream are not serious about their kimono.

Last but not least – look for folks wearing Kimono that are doing things that a tourist wouldn’t be doing. For example, I saw one gal pushing a bicycle. I’m pretty sure her kimono was real, just because what tourist would even think of pushing a bike wearing one!

In the 6 days we’ve been in Kyoto – and the countless times we’ve ridden a bus thru the streets of Gion, I’ve only spotted one gal that I am pretty certain actually was a Geisha. Why? Because her hair was in the traditional style, her kimono was a very conservative cut and design, her posture was comfortable but not silly and she looked like she knew how to walk in her shoes.

Desperate to see more true Geisha, I went at twilight to Pontocho Alley – and found my self face to face with three different Apprentice Geisha – looking for all the world as if they had stepped out of a history book! I was so shocked – I didn’t take pictures! Silly me. But they were very cool, and very in a hurry to get where they were going.

Overall, I’ve spotted lots of woman that I’m sure were wearing Kimono because it was comfortable and attractive – some of them were attending a festival at one of the shrines we visited, and were invited into the inner sanctum, others were in the stands at the Aoi Festival, but looked comfortable, not stilly, and still others were just riding the bus or visiting a museum or a garden with us.

So while you are far more likely to spot faux kimono wearing tourist than real kimono wearing ladies and gentleman, if you know what to look for – at least you can be sure when you are lucky enough to see the real thing.

And a lovely thing it is!

Signing off the visit more temples and shrines – there appearing to be no end to these in Kyoto – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Nijo Castle – Negative Reviews aside – it’s totally worth a visit


Sometimes I wonder if folks who write those negative reviews have even been to the same places I’ve been. It’s a puzzlement, for sure.

For example – Nijo Castle, one of the most important historical buildings in Japan, got beaten up pretty badly by 2 different reviewers on Trip Advisor. And I can’t even begin to understand why.

The first reviewer belly ached about having to take off their shoes, and how horrid it was to walk barefoot where other folks have been putting their smelly feet. Hello dear reviewer – did you not read up at all about Japan before you came for a visit? Taking off your shoes is the absolutely in thing here. Everyone takes off their shoes to enter most important places – whether they are shrines, temples, historical momuments, or even folks homes. So get over it! And if you really don’t want to put your bare feet on their floors – carry socks! Seriously. How can you tell folks a place as important as Nijo Castle isn’t worth visiting because you didn’t carry socks with you.

The other complaint was about the use of restorations instead of the original painted sliding doors. Again – what was this reviewer thinking. This place is 400 years old – and it’s completely open to the environment. Why would they ever leave 400 year old painted wood sliding doors up in such a location. Be glad that they replaced them with the most gloriously painted panels – using exactly the same techniques and following the same exact patterns. You can really feel how incredible it must have been to be admitted to such a glorious room while you waited on knees and knuckles for the Shogun to hear your petition. And if you want to see the originals – they are housed in a specially designed building – temperature and humidity controlled – right on the grounds of Nijo Castle.

But my annoyance with lousy reviewers aside – Nijo Castle is well worth paying whatever it costs to visit. It’s amazing. And surprisingly open to visitors. Since it’s no longer in use by the Imperial family, except for very special occasions, tourists are allowed inside the castle itself, not just inside the gardens.

And it’s the inside of the castle that is special. From the famous Nightingale floor that sounds like a thousand birds singing as folks walk around to the marvellously painted shoji screens that divide the space into rooms, this is an amazingly beautiful space.

We particularly loved the thick (over 1 foot thick in fact) carved wooden transoms that created an early form of AC for the rooms. One side was carved with Birds, the other with flowers, and between the carvings, holes allowed air to flow from room to room.

The painted shoji screens are stunning, made even more impressive by the fact that the paintings extended above the doors, almost to the ceilings of each room. The effect was both dramatic, and intimidating. And apparently the intimidation factor was an important component. The Shogun didn’t want anyone getting uppity on him, and there were subtle, and not so subtle ways to keep the powerful lords in their place.

Like the Emperor, the Shogun always sat on a higher floor. And the ceiling above him was also raised to make sure everyone knew who was the most important person in the room. Even the paintings were done to focus eyes on him, and him alone. I loved the sheer audacity of the men who commissioned such work. No wondering about who they thought was boss.

Nijo Castle is not only beautiful, it’s of historic importance. It is here that the first Shogun of the Tokugawa family accepted his commission from the Emperor, and it is here that the 15th and last of that line announced that after 266 years of rule, he was returning authority to the Emperor. It gives me the shivers to think I walked on those same floors.

Just a heads-up on the time required to tour Nijo. It took us at least 3 hours to see the entire castle and all of the gardens. It is a vast area, and you really don’t want to rush through it. We wisely paid a bit extra for the audio tour in English, which combined with the well placed English language explanations provided an excellent and informative view of the entire place. And it’s well worth it to take your time. It’s hard to appreciate how magnificent and detailed the paintings are if you just glance into the rooms.

Folks with a different attitude towards touring rushed past us, hardly spending a moment to glance quickly into the rooms. Given the details on the paintings, birds singing, tigers glaring up and down or nursing their young, we can not fathom how they saw anything – let alone appreciated the incredibly detailed work. Well each to their own I guess.

We finished our day at The Museum of Kyoto, which was having a special exhibit on Ukiyo-e paintings of ‘Beauty’. While the collection in the regular part of the museum is nothing exceptional, the special exhibit was outstanding. We were very intrigued by the 111 painted scrolls – all dating from 1700 – 1850. It’s hard to believe that paper that old can still be in such excellent condition, the colours so vibrant, the details so intricately executed. Of particular interest was the wig collection. Over 70 wigs were used to show the different hairstyles – and labeled in both Japanese and English so that we could see what kind of women were being portrayed. Just an FYI – most of the women were Courtesans, Geisha, or similar. After all, the wife of a nobleman, or even a woman of the middle class would hardly pose for an artist.

This was a very interesting, if very long day. We finally dragged our tired feet home for a well earned dinner and relaxing evening.

Tomorrow is the Aoi Festival – a once a year event that I’m greatly looking forward to seeing.

Signing off to nurse our tired feet back into health, The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

A Find of a place to Stay in Kyoto


We are in love with our lodgings in Kyoto.

Seriously – this place is awesome. I found it on Air BnB – and my husband will be relieved to know I didn’t have to meet the owner under a bridge at midnight to get the key.

The Gottingen (strange name – I know) is really more of a very tiny hotel than a real Air BnB lodging. But despite that, it’s adorable. The host is a lovely gentleman named Peng – who while not the owner, is effectively here 24/7. I’m hoping he gets some time off, but I’ve never known him not to be either at the front desk, or available thru the intercom.

The Gottingen is located in a very residential area of Kyoto (we love being in residential areas) to the West of the Kyoto Imperial Palace and just North of Nijo Castle. Even better it’s right near 3 grocery stores – one huge, one medium sized, and the third is a more fruit based smaller store. There are restaurants within easy strolling distance, and we are right on a long thin walking pathway along what used to be a river running thru the city.

And there are 4 different bus routes that go almost past our door – so you can really get almost anywhere you want to in Kyoto without much walking. I’m a very happy camper.

Our room is on the ground floor – so no dragging our carry-on’s up a flight (or two) of stairs, and our room has 2 twin beds and a sleep sofa. It even features it’s own bathroom – no sharing.

The bathroom has actually two spaces. A toilet and sink space (yes – one of those bidet toilets that the Japanese love so much), and a ‘bath’ space.

The ‘bath’ space is actually a shower and a bath tub combined, in the old Japanese style. The shower head swivels out so you can shower standing on the self-draining floor, or swivels in so you can use it in the bath tub. The tub is one of these short deep jobs, so you can in fact get in a soak if needed.

There is a lovely kitchen area right at the front door, so while we are preparing our meals we are also greeting our fellow travellers. There have been several Chinese groups coming and going while we have been here – since we are just 2 hours from Shanghai, it’s an easy 2 day, 1 night trip. But the guests that we tend to chat up, and who are staying longer in Kyoto are the westerners. There’s a couple with their 2 year old son from Germany, two Polish Women, and a couple from Italy. I think the newest arrivals are Spanish- it’s hard to say for sure since they just nodded as they walked quickly by on the their way out for dinner.

We get fresh towels every other day (a pleasure compared to our lodging in Tokyo where we never got fresh towels during our entire 9 day stay), and the place is spotlessly clean.

So – great host, clean space, lots of room (no dresser – but I don’t think the Japanese do dressers), our own bathroom, and a lovely quiet location with folks walking by on their way home – what more could we ask for!

Oh yes – and it’s within our modest budget – just $60 a night total, or $30 per person.

We are happy campers.

Signing off – The Intrepid Traveler and the Soup Lady

Loving Kyoto


Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is civilized, friendly, and easy to navigate. Not that it is easy to navigate, just that its a whole lot easier than Tokyo.

And Kyoto is cheaper. We’ve been running under $10 for lunch, and under $20 for dinner – including either Saki or Wine. How are we doing this – ah ha! We cheat.

Lunch is often at a restaurant, where we’ll share one meal between us. It is just lunch after all. And our new lodgings have a lovely kitchen and dining area. Perfect for cooking in. And that’s what we’ve been doing. Putting together meals from a combination of ready to eat stuff from the grocery store, and stuff we have to microwave or the Intrepid Traveller works her magic and cooks.

Tonight we’re having Edamame for tea time, followed by a mixed Tempura Appetizer and then dinner will be Wine, Rice with a raw egg and a tempura shrimp and onion pie, and mixed cooked vegetables. We even decided on a lovely Caramel thing (we hope it’s Caramel – it’s smelled like Caramel) for dessert. Yum.

Kyoto has been an amazing city to visit. I had pre-organized trips to 3 of the restricted Imperial Palaces – only to discover that they aren’t that restricted – you just need to reserve. Good thing too because I blew it on the dates for 2 of the 3. But I digress. The 3 restricted places we are going are the Sento Imperial Palace, The Katsura Imperial Villa, and the Shugakuin Imperial Villas.

Back 25 years ago, all three of these were only available on guided tours, pre-reserved, by foreigners from outside of Japan. No Japanese was able to see them. Boy have things changed in 25 years. Today there is an office of the Imperial Household Agency located near the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and all anyone, Japanese or Foreign must do is go to the desk and ask about available spaces. If there is space available – you are in!

Because I totally mucked up the dates, this proved to be a godsend. We first toured the Sento Palace and Gardens. This palace is still in use today by the Emperor and his family when they visit Kyoto. Our audio guides explained that the palace has been completely remodeled inside – this means carpets and western furniture. I’m wondering about toilets of course – but I suspect that’s understood to have been done.

Most of the tour consider of viewing the absolutely stunning garden. I want a garden like this. Even a little bit of garden like this. Of course there were 4 gardeners in one tree alone when we were there… so maybe the labor to maintain the garden would be well out of my price range, but still. It was magnificent. And right in downtown Kyoto. I do not understand why it’s not booked solid, but I think the whole – go to the Imperial Household Agency requirement puts people off. In any case – you are alone in the garden, you can pause to reflect and take pictures… it’s wonderful.

Our second tour was the Shugakuin Imperial Villas – and I think they were my favourites. Again – no lines, no crowds, no rushing you thru. And the tickets are free – my kind of price point.

There are actually 3 villas included on the tour – and to me the highlight was how close we could get to the villas. And all the shoji screens were open – so you could see thru to the magnificent views that they were created to showcase. Wandering paths, tinkling water falls, random bridges, glorious plantings, and magnificent moss gardens were there to be savoured. I loved it.

The bad news about the Shugakuin, ignoring my mixup of the dates, is its distance from Kyoto. We had to take a subway and a bus – and then walk. Naturally we got lost on the walk, so a 15 minute walk took 30 minutes – but we did eventually arrive at the Villas. Totally worth it. And the way back to Kyoto proper was much much faster – one bus ride and we were downtown enjoying ‘Kid’s Day’ at one of the major parks.

What a hoot and a half that was. The theme of the ‘fair’ was kid safety – and they had police cars for kids to climb in, big construction equipment that they could push buttons on, a Virtual Reality game that taught you to stop before you hit pedestrians, and a series of the most adorable bike riding courses.

For older kids, there was a biking maze set out with safety cones and policeman signalling directions. For younger kids unable to actually ride a bike, they had those push bikes. Kids mounted them, then either went around in a circle collecting rings from organizers standing on the outside of the circle, or – this was the best part – on a signal they got off the bikes and used special gloves to pop bubbles that the organizers were creating in the zillions.

We loved it and so did the kids.

Today we tried for the Katsura Imperial Villa – but again a date mix-up happened and we discovered it was closed. But all was not lost – we ended up at the Kyoto Aquarium. This is a completely marvellous aquarium, complete with a dolphin show, a seal show that had the young trainers bringing the seals out among the crowd, and a Penguin show. The stunner of the place was right at the entrance. You walk across a virtual tide-pool that ripples under your feet – revealing Giant Japanese Salamanders. These are roughly the size of a 4 year old child – and they are meat eaters. And they are native to the Kamo river that runs thru Kyoto.

I’m so not swimming in that river.

These things are huge – with enormous teeth and extremely ugly. Yuk!

Another highlight was the jellyfish exhibit – all black light and glowing jellyfish floating around in huge tanks.

Speaking of huge tanks – there is a ‘Sea of Kyoto’ Tank that contains Manta Rays, Sharks, and a school of small fish that numbered in the several hundreds. I’m thinking these fish might be the dinner for the seals – but as a school, they created wonderful balls and funnels and odd shapes.

We watched as one of the organizers suited up and dove into the tank – and fed both the fish and the manta rays. I’ve never seen a manta ray eat before – so this was very cool. They have mouths on the bottom, and create a vacuum that sucks any food that passes by into their jaws. So the diver just released the tidbit, and the manta did the rest. It was very cool to watch.

On the way back home, we decided to visit one of Kyoto’s most famous Temples – the Golden Pavilion (also known as Kinkaku-Ji). We’d been warned that it was a mob scene – and figured that hitting the place in the late afternoon might have thinned out the crowds a bit. I think it did to be honest – we were able to get photographs of the Pavilion without having to wait our turn. But compared to the serenity of the other gardens – this place was decidedly unpleasant. I got hit a few times by other tourists trying to get past me in a hurry – one wonders what was the rush, and the number of souvenir stands made it feel tawdry. Worse – we had to pay for the privilege of going in.

Well – I suppose it’s one of the must do things here in Kyoto – but I’m basically glad we crossed it off our list.

We still have a lot more to see and do here in Kyoto – including seeing the Aoi Matsuri Parade, so I’ll be reporting on Kyoto again in a few days.

Meanwhile – I’m the Soup Lady – signing off to help the Intrepid Traveller prepare our dinner. (That means I pour the wine and set the table – she cleverly does the rest).