Kyoto and Koya-san – May 2014 Japan Trip

After our stop in Nagoya, we spent several nights in Kyoto and one night in Koya-san. We’d seen the sights before, but it was still a fun adventure with my parents.

Day 6: Kyoto – Golden Pavilion and Plum Wine Festival

Photo album for Day 6 (Saturday, May 24)
On Saturday for breakfast we got some tasty pastries at a bakery nearby. We definitely miss the pastries – I (Teisha) got a bread roll with BBQ chicken on it, and the other pastries were similarly interesting and tasty. While walking around it was also interesting to see a parking garage that was primarily for bikes – such a different approach.

We then hopped on a bus to go to the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji). Andrew and I (Teisha) had seen it before, but my parents hadn’t so they had to see it – there’s really not much to it (you can’t go inside the temple, and basically get herded around the sides of it), but it’s on every set of pictures of Kyoto because it’s so famous. It indeed is coated in gold, but it got burned down not that long ago so the building you see now it’s even really historic. And it’s super crowded (we had been warned not to go on a Saturday, but we didn’t have many options with our schedule.) The grounds are really beautiful though – there’s a peaceful lake surrounding the temple with happy, large koi and waterfowl, and lush plants all over.



After being herded with tourists, we fled to a plum wine (umeshu) festival we’d heard about just the day before. It was in Arashiyama, another tourist-filled area of Kyoto, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the Golden Pavilion (hard to imagine anything else being that crowded!). The plum wine festival was a little roped-off area in the Arashiyama train station – there were probably about 6 or 7 wineries there, with a long table for each winery, and about a dozen different plum wines from each winery. It was, of course, the most amazing assortment of plum wines we’d ever seen. For five dollars (500 yen) we got six tasting tickets, with a sample of a wine costing between one to three tickets. We took some pictures of our favorites, but they weren’t for sale at the festival (only a few were for sale there). Probably the most interesting one I had was a yogurt plum wine drink (like a lassi). We then wandered around Arashiyama, which has a beautiful, wide, slowly moving river going through it. There are again a lot of tourist shops and some (over-priced) restaurants, one of which we ate at (Teisha got salmon on rice and Andrew got an oyakudon dish – chicken and egg with noodles).

We then just barely had time to hop on the train/subway to go see the castle in Kyoto, Nijo Castle. (We got there just a little before they let the last people in.) Andrew and I had seen the castle before and really enjoyed it, so we didn’t mind going again. Most of the castle there is still the original parts, built around the 1600s, when it was made for the Tokugawa Shoguns. Andrew always had fun hearing the “nightingale floors” – the floors were made so that they always creak when somebody walks on them so it’d be very difficult for assassins to sneak in. And sure enough, the floors still creaked. The surrounding grounds are also very beautiful – lots of gorgeous ponds with rocks, waterfalls, plants, and happy koi.



This night Andrew and I headed down to our favorite “night life” part of Japan, the Shinkyogoku shopping arcade (this is like the covered walking mall we explored in Nagoya). This area is filled with snack stands, claw machine arcades, interesting shops, and restaurants. I discovered one of my favorite snacks (which I’m going to be trying to recreate at home) – it’s basically waffle batter cooked around a filling of (semi-sweet) red bean paste, and it’s often made in the shape of a fish. It’s called taiyaki. Andrew got a tasty (rather non-oily) slice of pizza, which was warmed up right then and there for him. Then we got a “real” dinner at what was basically a burger joint – we split a shrimp (ebi), tartar, and shredded cabbage sandwich. It was surprisingly good for a fast food place. There was also a large movie theater nearby and Andrew took pictures of the movie posters of what was playing then – it wasn’t anything that was playing back home, except Frozen (extremely popular in Japan right now), and there were multiple animated movies for adults showing.

Day 7: Kyoto and Koya-san – Flea Market and Koya-san Cemetery

Photo album for Day 7 (Sunday, May 25))
Today we headed up into the mountains for a night in the small town of Koya-san, but before leaving, Andrew and I hopped on a bus to go to a monthly flea market in Kyoto, specifically at the Kitano Tenmagu Shrine. Five years ago, we’d caught the tail end of the flea market, but this time we got to walk through the entire thing – it was huge, probably covering an area at least a mile long, with several side paths. It had everything from fresh produce, to ready-to-eat snacks, plants (so many I wish I could take home), knick knacks and toys, games for kids to win prizes (like little goldfish or mysterious bags of goodies), homemade leather and wood goods, and much more. We could have spent the whole day there, but only had a little while. We ended up eating a breakfast of okonomiyaki (Hiroshima style) and it was super tasty – a good mix of fried noodles, eggs, vegetables, and shredded cabbage.

We then began the long journey to Koya-san. It took about 2.5 to 3 hours (via trains) total. We took a train from Kyoto to Osaka, where we caught a relatively short train line to another part of Osaka, and then transferred to take a longer train ride to a small station at the end of the line (Gokurakubashi Station). This is where we took an amazing cable line ride up the mountain (very steep!) to Koya-san (there’s one road up to Koya-san, but it’s on the other side of the mountain – the cable car is the main way tourists and other visitors get up there). We took a taxi into town from the cable car stop (alternatively we could have walked 45 minutes, but that’s hard with luggage). (Amusing side note – Koya-san is such a sleepy town that twice while we were there we saw taxi drivers asleep at their wheel while stopped and waiting for a customer. Two taxis were waiting at the cable car stop – the one in front was stopped, and when we asked the guy behind him about it, he got out of his car and went up and banged on the truck of the guy in front, waking him up! They were all very friendly/joking about it.)

In Koya-san, we stayed at Komyoin Temple (it was a bit expensive, but included a great breakfast and dinner). We mainly picked it because of its proximity to Okunoi, an enormous graveyard which was our main reason for coming to Koya-san. (Last time we stayed in Koya-san we stayed at a different temple, Henjousonin temple, which is much farther from Okunoi.) After checking into our temple rooms (which had pots of [non-electric] hot water waiting for us so we could make tea, on top of little tables with electric foot warmers under them!), we walked down the hill and to Okunoi.

Okunoi is truly an amazing graveyard – check out the summary we wrote about it on our last trip for more details. We had enough time to go to the end of the graveyard and get back to our rooms for the scheduled dinner. My parents, Andrew, and I were served in our own private dining room (on the floor mats) a wonderful, multi-course vegetarian meal – it included steamed vegetables, miso soup, specialty tofu items, white rice, pickled sides, and many other little vegetarian items. We then showered in the temple’s (gender-segregated) onsens — we were told we would have to shower in the evening as we could not use the onsens in the morning (and there were no other showers/baths – the rooms did not even have a restroom, but these were just at the end of the hall). We headed to bed early (not much night life in sleepy Koya-san!) — the futons were fine to sleep on (to Andrew and I at least) but the pillows felt like they were made out of hard beans… hadn’t experienced that yet! (Andrew cheated and bunched up some of the comforter to rest his head on – I’d imagine the bean pillows take some getting used to.)


Day 8: Koya-san and Kyoto

Photo album for Day 8 (Monday, May 26)
After a tasty, multi-course vegetarian breakfast in the temple, we started our casual way back to Kyoto. We didn’t stop by Okunoi in the morning, but instead walked into town (the opposite direction) and wandered through some of the many temples. The town was very quiet and peaceful (we were told it was a busier tourist time the month before). For more details on the other temples in Koya-san, check out the summary we wrote about them on our last trip

We then re-traced our train trips from the day before, taking a taxi to the Koyasan (cable car) station, taking the cable line down to Gokurakubashi station, taking that end-of-the-line station back to Shinimamiya Station, going through Osaka, and then ending back up in Kyoto (again taking about 2.5 hours total). In Kyoto, we stayed at the same places as we did before our night in Koya-san. After dropping off our luggage, we went to the Shin-kyogoku shopping arcade, possibly our favorite “hang out” in Kyoto – it’s basically a big, indoor, covered mall (we went there on Day 6).

After getting snacks there and wandering around a lot (my parents were fascinated by a two-story shop there that seemed like it came right out of Boulder – it had lots of incense, candles, beautiful rocks/gems, and African artwork/cloths), we then relaxed a bit (it’d been a long day of travel). We later went out for dinner at Porta, the underground, upscale mall by the Kyoto station (which we ate at in Day 5), where we had delicious noodle bowls.

Day 9: Kyoto: Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, Kiyomizu-dera temple, and dinner with Shota!

Photo album for Day 9 (Tuesday, May 27)
Today we saw probably our two favorite temples/shrines in Kyoto – the Kiyomizu-dera temple and the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine. They were pretty much as we remembered them from last time, although a large area of the Kiyomizu-dera temple was closed for renovations (we peeked in and it was amazing to see the large statues lying around waiting to be put in place). The temple itself is an amazing building, having been founded in 798 C.E., with the current buildings being made in 1633 C.E., and the view it has of the town below it (it’s on a mountain side) is also quite incredible.

The Fushimi Inaria-taisha shrine is amazing because of all of the torii gates – there are thousands of them covering paths through a beautiful, moss-laden forest. For more details on this temple and shrine, check out the detailed write-up we did on them for our last trip.

As a side note, there are a lot of cute tourist/gift/crafty shops on the roads that go up to the Fushimi Inaria-taisha shrine. (Teisha ended up buying a little glass aquarium with glass fish from one.) Also, while up at the shrine, a group of school students asked us questions about our trip – it was similar to an encounter with a smaller group of school students in Tokyo – both groups were doing it for an English class they were taking.

We also enjoyed some shaved ice (green tea flavor) from a little café/restaurant that was basically on the grounds of the Kiyomizu-dera temple.

And some pictures from the top of the Kyoto station (they have a nice garden way up there):

For lunch, we stopped in a multi-story shopping building (it had a whole floor with toys, another floor with many restaurants, a book store, and an internet café, an electronics store on another large floor, etc.). We ended up getting Chinese/dim sum! It was tasty and not nearly as greasy as it is in the U.S.

For dinner, Andrew and I went back to the Shin-kyogoku shopping arcade where we had fun playing games at arcades until we met up with an old friend of ours, Shota Chiba. (Shota was a post-doc in a lab that Teisha worked in as a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara.) Shota’s is a professor at a university near Kyoto. We actually had dinner at a restaurant we’d enjoyed going to five years ago – it’s a tonkatsu restaurant, and we had trouble finding it again because it’s down a narrow alley on one of the main roads in the shopping arcade. We were very grateful Shota was with us because we wouldn’t have known some tips to ordering – for example, there were free rice refills (we had no idea) and he helped us order other parts of our meals. It was really nice to meet up with Shota, hear about his work, and then have him show us some of the less touristy areas near the shopping arcade. (Shota, you’re always welcome to visit us in Colorado – we’ve got a guest room!)

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