Determined to beat the colourfully-capped catering armies of school children this time, we rose at 5:30am and were on our way to the station just after 6. We took a train to Kyoto station and changed lines for Inari, then stepped immediately across the road from the station to where the entrance to Fushimi Inari shrine was marked by the first of countless vermillion torii (shrine gates).
This has been continually voted the top sight in Japan: the classic image of hundreds of gates, close together and forming a tunnel of orange up wooded Mt Inari. And getting there the first thing in the morning absolutely paid off. We had lots of opportunities to film and photograph this unique place without another soul in the frame.
We did have one drama on the 4km path up the mountain however. Carol’s camera went haywire and deleted all the still images from her memory card. Thankfully, we have both backed up all our image every evening on our iPhones, and the video wasn’t deleted, so she only lost the photos she had taken that morning, but it was very frustrating for her. Always back up and use multiple small memory cards folks!
It was quite a long walk up, passing many small shrines dedicated to Inari, the god of cereals, covered with hundreds of wooden model torii of various sizes (of course there are several places to buy them – the larger they are, the more expensive – and inscribe your message or wish on them and leave them at a shrine). No doubt the torii framing the path are purchased too (we noticed one that had the words TATOO STUDIO on it in English). Actually I’m thankful I don’t read Japanese as the atmosphere would have been ruined by the names of countless businesses on the gates. Guarding the shrines were stone foxes, each with its red bib.
It was an incredibly atmospheric place and we were really pleased at our early start. After reaching the top (just another shrine; a view of the city was further down at the Yotsutsuji intersection of paths, where we ate a breakfast of sorts) we headed back down, but this time used to the amazing site of the hundreds of gates.
Back on the train, another change, and a short hop to Toji temple, where a once-a-month market was taking place today. Lots of people, hundreds of stalls – clothes, food, antiques, knick-knacks, the usual market fare – with the temple building and pagoda looming over the proceedings. Carol bought an old kimono, and I grabbed an old coin to use as a game token, but nothing else jumped out at me as being worth buying. I’m not much of a souvenir buyer at the best of times.
I had some noodles and chicken on skewers for lunch. By this time, for some reason (probably the up and down of the morning hike) my feet began hurting more than they have up to this point, and my knees were sore too, so we headed back to the hotel and rested until it was dark.
After sundown we headed out again, walking up Shijo-dori and through the busy shopping streets again. Just before the river we found Pontocho alley, and as so often happens in Japan, with the turn of a street corner slipped from busy 21st century to the evocative and atmospheric past. The narrow pedestrian alley, lit by lanterns and restaurant lights, was a slice of old Kyoto in the very centre of modernity. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a real geisha, as she quickly shuffled past on her way to her night’s assignment.
Even more atmospheric was the street of Shimbashi in the entertainment and geisha district of Gion, across the river, which we reached from the north after crossing the river. Now lined with exclusive restaurants, if you can ignore the blank-faced mobs that were the tourist groups, you could easily go back in time. Will lined a canal, and low lights lit the cobblestones and old dark wooden shopfronts.
After wandering the streets for a while, we went back to Pontocho, and stumbled across a small store where we bought chopsticks, chopstick rests, and two bowls. Then we picked a restaurant out of the many that line the alley. The food wasn’t anything special, the portions were stingy, and the room stank of smoke, but it was still fun to be eating in Pontocho in Kyoto and it cost not much more than a meal out at home.
On the way home we stopped and shared a sundae, then walked back to the hotel.
Our last full day in Kyoto tomorrow, and it’s going to be a big one!