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jidaiWe checked out of our hotel this morning after a small sleep-in, grabbed a crap but cheerful breakfast from a cafe, and walked with our packs the 20 minutes or so to our last-night-in-Kyoto hotel, the Hearton. Carol had done some serious online work getting us this last night’s accommodation so we could see the Jidai Matsui Festival – which happens to pass by just down the road. After we’d just left the hotel reception to start the day, when I badgered her to go back and get a merino top, she was also given tickets at for roadside seating by the hotel!

The two middle-aged women who let us sit in front seats didn’t check these tickets however; and we ended up sitting for almost an hour right next to traffic protected only by a cloth barrier – and then got kicked out by the holders of our premium seats, forcing us to move down and across the road and to a second-row, less prestigious position.

But still, because of that error we did snag the high-quality programmes, which described every costume and character in the parade. The Jidai Matsui goes back in time from the 19th century to about the 8th, with period-accurate costumes throughout. It’s one of the major Kyoto festivals of the year.

The costumes were certainly gorgeous, but we were amused by the very stately pace, virtual silence and incredibly polite nature of the proceedings. The crowd lining the street was pretty much entirely quiet (apart from a murmur when a police car whizzed by), and apart from three or four bands and performers, so were the marchers. Which gave everything a strangely subdued air during the more than two hours it took to go by. It was definitely worth seeing, but perhaps it needs a little more livening up!

We had seriously considered going to the Kurama Fire Festival in the evening, but in the end decided we didn’t want to spend our last night waiting in queues, being crammed in trains and herded around (the festival takes place in a small village to the north, and the crowds are apparently ridiculous and you don’t get to see much). So instead we walked around downtown Kyoto and took it easy, visiting the narrow Nishiki food market street, packed with people, walking down Pontocho again taking arty B&W photos, and even dropping in to see a Kyoto games store!

In Gion we stopped at a small place and had a couple of drinks at a counter facing the street and chatted to the friendly waiter, who had been to Melbourne and cycled the Great Ocean Way. Then, after strolling along and browsing a few stores (Carol bought some more printed cottons), we found a fantastic little noodle place packed with locals in a side street and had a delicious dinner.

The back streets of downtown Kyoto are endlessly interesting, crammed with stores and restaurants and strolling people, and everything is on a grid pattern so it’s easy to keep your bearings.

We made it back to the hotel and checked in. I’ve got a stiff neck, a sore foot and a dodgy knee, but we’ve been walking some serious kilometres. We leave Kyoto tomorrow for Koya-san which is exciting, but Kyoto has really grown on us in the short time we’ve been here.

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!

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