In Kyoto we saw bamboo, a golden pavilion and drank green tea; in Nara we fed many deer and climbed through the Buddha's nostril; and on Mount Koya we stayed with monks and ate monk food.
We stayed in a ryokan called Musubi-an whose owner also owned a cafe nearby. It was a tiny place with only four rooms or so, and was very cosy. We'd found a place near the Arishiyama Bamboo Forest, so we could be there at sunrise before it became too busy, as the guide book warned it would.
We arrived and were just about the only people there to begin with. It was beautiful and serene.
The forest itself on either side of a fairly short pathway, but it was long enough to feel like you were surrounded by bamboo. After enjoying the sunrise we did a walk around some nearby shrines and gardens.
My favourite place on the walk was the cottage and garden that belonged to a haiku writer called Matsuo Basho. The place was serene, and there was a water feature that rocked a shard of bamboo every few minutes with a satisfying hollow donk sound.
On our way back, right next to the bamboo, was Ōkōchi Sansō, which used to be owned by an early film actor. The gardens were pretty and there were some attractive pavilions with nice views.
We finished with a matcha green tea before travelling back to the centre of Kyoto.
There's a lot of things to do in Kyoto, and we started off in the North of town where there were lots of temples and gardens. The most impressive temple was the Golden Pavilion, which, considering it is gold-leafed, was a lot more tasteful than I'd imagined.
After this, we went to a Zen garden called Ryōan-ji, the Silver Pavillion, and another Zen garden called Daisen-in.
In the evening we walked around the Gion district, traditionally the area inhabited by geisha (though we didn't see any).
The next morning we visited shosei-en gardens which were rather quiet and lovely. In one part of it, there was a building with a sign saying "Be careful of the bee." We kept our eyes out for it. There was also a pond full of koi that worked the water up into a frothy mess if you went near the edge.
We passed by Nijō Castle briefly before going to a booked private tea ceremony that Emily had treated us to. It was interesting to see the ceremony performed, and then we had a chance to make matcha green tea, which is an emulsion of ground tea leaves, rather than an infusion, ourselves.
In the afternoon we walked the Philosopher's Walk, a picturesque route along a river lined with cherry blossoms.
We visited the Silver Pavilion, which had very green surroundings, and had a green tea flavour ice cream outside afterwards.
After two full days in Kyoto we took a day trip to Nara, which is known for the many deer that live around the Buddhist temples there.
Deer are held in extremely high esteem in Japanese culture which is why they have been allowed to roam the area freely. Some of them have learned that bowing their head encourages visitors to feed them.
Tucked away down a side street is the Yoshiki-en garden, which was really quiet and pretty!
Then we went to Tōdai-ji, where the Great Buddha Hall has a 15-metre Buddha inside.
More importantly, it also has a hole in one of the pillars, apparently the same size as the Buddha's nose, that you could squeeze yourself through.
Afterwards we had a black sesame ice cream, and visited the Okumura Commemorative Museum where we got to sit in an earthquake-simulating chair.
For eats, we walked to a vegetarian restaurant called Kinatei, but found that we had missed the opening time by ten minutes or so. However as we were rummaging in our bags for some water before going back to Nara station, the door opened and the owner welcomed us in ("For you we're open!") and went about making us a meal. On the walls were some maps which we were given a sticker to mark our hometown on, and there was also a guestbook which we signed. The meal itself was really tasty, and afterwards the owner looked up train times for us and drove us to the station in her Prius!
On the way back to Kyoto we stopped at the Fushimi Inari-taisha, which was shown briefly in the film Memoirs of a Geisha as a corridor of orange torii-gates.
We were expecting the corridor to take perhaps ten or fifteen minutes to walk along, but the gates kept on winding further and further up the hill, and splitting into multiple paths, and we ended up spending two and a half hours there. We'd timed it quite nicely, and got to watch sunset from a viewpoint half-way up.
It was fully dark by the time we finished and while some parts of the path were lit up, others were more atmospheric.
Mount Koya hosts a number of active Buddhist temples that pay for their upkeep by feeding and hosting visitors. The place Emily found, Komyo-in, was tucked out the way and had just one other person staying at it. They served us amazing food (traditional vegetarian Buddhist fare) and we observed our host performing the morning prayer the next morning.
Koyasan has the largest cemetery in Japan, Okunoin, which sounds grim but was very atmospheric, especially in the dark when they light up the many lanterns along the path.
At the far end of the graveyard is a temple that had an amazing room filled with lanterns stacked as if they were a library, as well as incense sticks, and golden ceiling lamps which gave the whole place a wonderful atmosphere.
Koya town itself has many other temples and shrines which we wondered around while waiting for the bus back down to the railway station.
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