Okay, so Hirakata is a great city and all, but I wanted to escape the bubble of international students as soon as I could so I could, and go out and experience Japan. That being said, some friends and I made our way down to Kyoto last week and saw a few bits of the city. For those of you who don’t know much about Kyoto, it was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868, until the capital was changed to Tokyo. Therefore it’s jam packed with historical sites, temples, and shrines. We definitely couldn’t cover it all in one day, but it’s only about 35 minutes by train from Hirakata to Kyoto so I’ll definitely going back soon!
The first task that we had to conquer was the Japanese train system. The MVP of our travel group was definitely Google Maps because the train stations are packed with kanji and vocabulary that none of us knew! Luckily, we just followed the directions on our phones, using our handy dandy pocket Wi-Fi, and we were well on our way!
Our first stop was to Higashiyama-ku, which is one of the eleven wards in Kyoto. After exiting the train station, we made a trip to Yasaka Shrine, which was founded over 1350 years ago! It’s such a crazy feeling going from such a young nation like America, to a country like Japan which is so deeply rich in history. At Yasaka Shrine, we watched as visitors, some adorned kimonos while others opted for less traditional clothing, rung bells, clapped their hands, and made wishes that would hopefully be soon fulfilled. The center of the courtyard had a wide array of beautiful paper lanterns. We only visited the shrine during the day, but I’d love to return and see all of the lanterns lit up at night. Yakasa Shrine was so enchanting, it seemed straight out of a fairy tale.
The next point that we visited was the Kiyomizu-zaka street. I couldn’t believe how crowded it was! There were so many people there that I couldn’t get my camera out of my bag to take a picture. Just imagine long, winding roads packed with people from wall to wall. On each side of the street were lines and lines of food vendors, and occasionally you could hear someone shout “Irasshaimase!” (Welcome!) to those who stopped for a quick snack break. The most amusing thing was how cars would occasionally drive through the street, so people would have to bunch up against either wall. It felt like I was playing Frogger!
After threading our way through the crowds at Kiyomizu, my friends and I decided to take a lunch break. Mind you, it was about 98 degrees outside and we had been walking around for three hours straight! In short, we were sweaty messes. We found a shop with air conditioning (sweet, sweet air-conditioning) and dropped in for some cold udon noodles. Best. Decision. Ever. The juxtaposition between how overheated we felt combined with the cold noodles that we were hungrily consuming was so so pleasant! I swear those noodles added seven years to my life. I’ve included a picture so everyone can appreciate the noodles that cooled me down and were “meccha oishii” (super yummy)!
Afterwards, we faced the heat once again and….. immediately got lost. “But Baylee, how can you get lost while walking down a single street?” I don’t know, but that’s just life sometimes. An upside was that we stumbled upon a river with a beautiful (and mysterious~) building on the other side. It may have raised more questions than it solved, but this little excursion just made me appreciate Kyoto more. Even though it is a huge city, there are scenes like this that are so connected with nature that it makes you forget about the hustle and bustle going on around you.
After finding our bearings, we trekked over to Kiyomizu dera, which is another famous temple in Kyoto. Unfortunately, it was under construction so a lot of the temple was blocked off. However, the buildings outside of the main temple were still open so we wandered around, admiring the architecture. A woman who was visiting the area told me that Kiyomizu dera is a popular spot for seeing the autumn leaves, called momiji in Japanese. I’ve lived in Florida (aka the land without seasons) for all of my life, so I’m so stoked to see all of the leaves turn into shades of yellow, orange, and red!
At that point, my friends and I were pretty sick of the crowds and sweltering heat, so we decided to change up our game plan. It was only 3PM, so we didn’t want to go back to our dorm, but we also needed to get away from the city. The woman that I was speaking with suggested that we go check out the Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama. She gave us directions on how to get there (I take back what I said earlier, she was actually the MVP of the group), and once again we were off! One bus ride and three train transfers later, and we were at Arashiyama!
I haven’t even been in Japan for two weeks yet but I know for sure that Arashiyama will always be in my top five favorite places in the country. It’s been by far my favorite area so far! The whole area was surrounded by beautiful, sloping mountains. I’ve read that when the leaves change color at Arashiyama, it looks as if the mountains are on fire. Viewing them while they were completely green was still such a wondrous experience, and the feeling of being surrounded by such huge formations made me feel so small and cozy. For those who are wondering, Arashiyama means “storm mountain.” Arashi means storm, and is also the name of a popular Japanese boy band that I may or may not be listening to while typing this post. Yama simply means mountain. Put those two together, and you have “storm mountain.” I’ve made a chart to make it easier to remember 🙂
That being said, we crossed the Tokugetsu-kyo bridge (which is four hundred years old – imagine crossing a bridge that’s older than your country!), walked about 15 minutes, and were immersed in a bamboo forest. The forest was amazing, and once you got past the entrance it was dead silent, except for the occasional chirping of crickets and buzzing of mosquitoes (I just can’t escape those critters). It was at that moment that I realized that ever since I arrived in Japan, I only stayed in bustling cities. I’m from a small town, so I find more comfort being surrounded by nature than people. Therefore, when I was in the forest, it was the most comfortable I felt in Japan. Pictures truly don’t do it justice.
After wandering through the forest, we stopped by for some bamboo flavored ice cream and caught the next train back to Hirakata city. Staying true to ourselves, we got lost on the way back and ended up having to take an hour long bus ride to the correct city. Whoops! After that, we got some french fries from McDonald’s and called it a day. I was so drained from our outing that I ended up sleeping for ten hours! There were so many things that we missed, so I can’t wait to go out and explore other parts of Kyoto and the rest of Japan!