There it stood, stunning and gleaming on the edge of a serene mirror-like pond—an intricately-designed temple covered with gold-leaf. The Rukuon-ji Temple, or more popularly known as Kinkaku-ji or Golden Temple, was our first stop on our second day in Kyoto. A retirement villa built in the late 14th century, converted into a temple, and centuries later, reconstructed after it burned to the ground, it is one of the more famous cultural sites in a city dotted with 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shintō shrines. So famous that guide books will tell you that the UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts hordes of tourists almost any day of the year. If you want some semblance of serenity while beholding the gilded Zen temple, be there early before the bus-loads of tour groups arrive, or before the temple closes. P and I, along with our two friends from Manila, were there a few minutes after it opened and, though we were amidst quite a number of fellow tourists, it thankfully hadn’t reached Tokyo-train-station-on-a-rush-hour proportions just yet.
After viewing the temple, we followed the path leading through its vast gardens, climbed a few steps overlooking it, passed a traditional teahouse, and a small shrine called Fudo Hall. Nearby are a few shops selling souvenirs, sundaes, matcha tea, and Japanese snacks like dango balls. We didn’t stop to have any of those. We did stop by one of the many vending machines outside the temple for a drink. Keeping in stock every kind of drink—water, coffee, tea, cider, soda, beer (and sometimes even food)—vending machines are found in almost every street corner in Japan.
From the northwestern part of Kyoto, where Kinkaku-ji is, we had to go east to Northern Higashiyama area where we planned to spend the rest of the day—walking the Philosopher’s Path from Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji. We walked to the Kinkakuji-michi bus stop to catch either bus no. 102 or 204, which both stop at Ginkakuji-michi. The way the bus network of Kyoto is mapped out, it appears as efficient and intricate as the railway system of Tokyo, with most of the former imperial capital’s attractions easily accessed by taking a bus. While the city has a helpful railway system, which you can opt to take to avoid downtown traffic or cover longer distances, it is not as elaborate as Tokyo’s. Also, in some train stations you might have to walk quite a distance, take a bus or a taxi to get to where you want to go.
Once we reached Ginkakuji-michi, we stopped by a restaurant to refuel with tempura-soba and tempura-don. Outside, the cherry blossoms beckoned. Tetsugaku-no-michi or the Path of Philosophy is a wonderful vision in spring with the cherry trees in bloom lining the pedestrian path that follows a canal. It was supposedly where Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro practiced meditation while he walked from his daily commute to Kyoto University and it’s easy to see how it could be a perfect place for contemplation. But following his footsteps nowadays may not be that easy, especially in spring, when you have to stroll the path with many other cherry blossom-seeking tourists. Being part of that group, I didn’t really mind.
When we came upon a fork in the road, we kept to the left before continuing our Path of Philosophy stroll. The road, crowded with more tourists and lined with souvenir stores and food stalls, leads up to Ginkaku-ji.
Known as the Silver Pavilion, the Zen temple is another popular sight in Kyoto. It was built as a retirement villa and was meant to be covered in silver, which was never completed. It isn’t exactly a bad thing as the two-storey temple of white and brown is a soothing sight, especially next to the beautifully raked white sand. The only thing to spoil the very Zen-like scenery were us tourists huddled together, taking snapshots and getting in each other’s shots. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Kyoto as a place “where you will find the Japan of your imagination.” Just from seeing the two popular temples and the Gion area the night before, the description definitely rings true. Just be sure to include crowds of tourists in your imagined Japan.
When we got out of Ginkaku-ji, the crowd on the road seemed to have swelled even further. Upon joining them, we stopped by some souvenir stores selling Japanese paper products and handkerchiefs wrapped beautifully. We also bought yatsuhashi, a delicate Kyoto confection made from rice (like mochi), folded into triangles and filled with red bean paste. It came wrapped in a pretty box and with a sweet yet stern instruction from the old lady vendor to eat it within three days and hold the box flat on its back. “This way, okay? This way.” She repeated, showing us how to do it. They put so much effort into making it, you can appreciate how she maybe didn’t want it to look all squished once you finally open the box and eat those delicate triangles. There’s also a store (near the Ginkaku-ji gate) selling huge cream puffs that must be tried, especially when they’re newly baked, warm and crispy and soft. It was pastry bliss.
Pleased with our purchases and cream puffs, we walked down the road and resumed our stroll down the Philosopher’s Path. Charming cafés and beautiful homes line the two-kilometer path, which guide books will tell you can merely take half an hour to walk. With all our ooh-ing and ah-ing, stopping for photos, and peeking inside some of the stores, it took us a little more than an hour. At the very end, we turned right and followed the road and the signs toward Nanzen-ji. By the time we got to the Zen temple (our third for the day), it was five p.m. While we could explore its sprawling grounds located at the foot of Higashiyama mountains, the inner temple buildings and the rock gardens were already closed. We didn’t feel too disappointed, because at that point we badly wanted to rest our legs. We did walk from Nanzen-ji’s imposing Sanmon entrance gate to the brick aqueduct. But we didn’t go past it—to the Nanzenin Temple, its garden and its pond, which is said to be a beautiful sight in autumn. I thought, I would want to see Japan in autumn.
By the time P and I got back to the guesthouse, we remembered that IchiEnSou owners Yashi and his wife had invited all their 11 guests for an evening stroll around the neighborhood and to have a little hanami of our own in Maruyama Park. Yashi, his evening walks, and hospitality are always happily mentioned in Hostelworld.com reviews, so even with weary legs we agreed to join the stroll around the neighborhood.
A little past seven, we all bundled up for the walk. We crossed the main avenue of Shijo-dori and walked to the Gion area, particularly along the scenic street by the Shirakawa Canal. There, willowy cherry trees line the canal where posh restaurants and many ocha-ya overlook the lovely scenery.
From there, we walked back to Shijo-dori and stopped by a Lawson’s convenience store to buy some food for our littlehanami. We bought onigiri (rice balls wrapped in nori that P was becoming very fond of), a katsu sandwich, some rice crackers and beer. When we got to Maruyama Park, although it was still chilly like the night before, there were now more people gathered around the picnic tables and on the blue sheets spread out under the trees. We parked ourselves by a bench under the weeping cherry tree and started eating our stash. As if we didn’t have enough food, P bought more from the nearby stalls, some chicken karaage and takoyaki balls. While we chatted with Yashi and the other guests about the weather and each other’s Japan itineraries, we realized that somebody was huddled under a sleeping bag on the blue sheet next to the park bench. Since the best hanami spots are much-coveted, Yashi told us that groups of people, from offices, for example, usually send the newest recruit to save a spot, sometimes for several days. We assumed the guy huddled under the bag was one such unfortunate fellow. We didn’t know how he could withstand the cold for the rest of the night, because after just an hour P and I decided to return to the guesthouse (along with some of the other guests) and take comfort in our heated room.
We walked back with Amanda, an Australian staying in IchiEnSou just for the night. She had spent the day walking as well, but she did it around the Gion area and she led us through Hanami-koji and some of the narrow and beautiful residential streets, a few turns here and there and we were back at IchiEnSou. I could finally put my feet up and rest. I needed it since we were going to be doing some more walking in ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’ the next day.
Kyoto City Bus basics: The fare is a flat rate of ¥220, unless otherwise stated for longer distances. Most, if not all, buses don’t give change so either always have the exact fare or buy a City Bus All Day Pass for ¥500. If you’re taking the bus more than twice for the day, it should already save you some yen. Buses typically run between 7 to 9 pm.
Kinkaku-ji Kita-ku Kinkaku-ji-chō; admission ¥400, 9 am to 5 pm. Take Kyoto City Bus number 101 or 205 from Kyoto Station or bus number 102 or 204 and go down Kinkakuji-michi bus stop, a two- or three-minute walk from the temple entrance; while bus number 12 or 59 stop at Kinakakuji-mae, which is just outside the gate of the Kinkaku-ji area. According to japan-guide.com, it can be faster and more reliable to take the Karasuma Subway Line to Kitaoji Station (15 minutes, 250 yen) and take a taxi (10 minutes, around ¥900) or bus (10 minutes, ¥220, bus numbers 101, 102, 204 or 205) from there to Kinkaku-ji.
Ginkaku-ji Sakyo-ku Ginkaku-ji; admission ¥500, 8:30 am to 5 pm March to Nov, 9 am to 4:30 pm Dec to Feb. Can be accessed by bus number 5, 17 or 100 from Kyoto Station; or by foot from Nanzen-ji via the Path of Philosophy
Nanzen-ji Fukuchi-cho, free admission to the grounds, inner temples and gardens have a fee that range from ¥300 to ¥500, opens at 8:40 am. Take bus number 5 and get off Nanzenji-Eikando-michi bus stop, which is a 5 to 10 minute walk to the temple. If you’re taking the train, get off at Keage subway station, also 5 to 10 minutes away from the temple.