Our first morning in Kyoto we took a 1/2 day, 4 mile walking tour of part of the city with local guide Shihoko. She layed out a plan to show us just a few of the temple and shrine highlights of this amazing city.
As we had stayed up a bit late and slept in we hadn't had any coffee/tea. When we asked about grabbing something she took us to a Starbucks! She said it was the only shop that did "to-go", oh well.
As we walked out of our Gion neighborhood Shihoko pointed out the Geisha school and tea houses. Also she showed us the apartments where the geisha live and the small wooden plaques hung outside showing who lived inside. There are so few geisha left in Kyoto and they were all living just steps from our apartment!
We started off at the beautiful Yasaka Shrine, a very popular shrine on holidays. There was lots of activity as everyone was getting set up for new years eve. Shihoko was great at explaining what everyone would be doing that evening and also what people did in general when visiting the shrines. She also helped me to shake a lucky number out of a wooden box and then turn it in to receive my fortune. The fortune she read to me was the best she said! Money, love, health, etc were all to be mine! Now that was worth a couple of yen for sure!
Onward to Chion-in Temple and the massive gates that welcome you. There was a service going on inside and Shihoko took us in to watch for a while. The buildings were so old and beautiful. We learned how the smoke from the incense was thought to make you more beautiful and smarter so we stood in it for a while. I'm pretty sure it worked!
From the temple we walked through the beautiful Maruyama park and then through part of the Higashiyama neighborhood. I can't say enough about the beauty of this city. The buildings, parks, streets, etc are charming and so interesting to look at, truly foreign to our eyes. As we walked through the crowded streets we gasped as we saw a geisha standing silently and posing for pictures. Shihoko told us later that Japanese tourists will pay to dress up and walk through parts of the Gion. This girl looked really good but what gave it away I guess was her being by herself as well as being out at this time of day (early afternoon) when most would be in school.
Perhaps the most impressive of the sights that day was the sprawling Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We climbed the steps through massive orange gates up to a height which gave you wonderful (although hazy) views of Kyoto. Here sat the pagoda and other surrounding buildings. We walked with thousands of people towards the temple which is a huge wooden structure built completely without any nails. It sits 13 meters (about 42 feet) above the ground and the site is over 1200 years old! There are many different shrines and statues on the grounds, each with their own story. One of the things I enjoyed the most was watching worshipers line up at Otowa-no-taki to catch the flowing spring water in cups and drink it for health and prosperity.
Our last stop of the day was at Sanjusangen-do, the temple of 1001 Buddahs. Unfortunately you aren't allowed to take pictures inside but I found this website that has some great images. Once you take your shoes off you enter this massive building, surprisingly quiet for the number of people inside, lit very dimmly and smelling of incense. The site of all those statues with their real gold is amazing! The temple is also know for training the best of Kyoto's archerers and you can still see marks in the beams where some of the arrows stuck.
Walking around Kyoto with a local was such a great way to get aquainted with the city as well as learn a little of the customs of the people. I would highly recommend Shihoko should you ever go!
To see all the photos from our walking tour click here!