Off the Beaten Track: Kyoto
Yeah, I know you’ve been there, and probably went on a temple-hike and ate the mochi (I only managed to have some when a nice Polish family shared some during UNO at Shiorian. Thank you so much!!!) and saw some geishas. Unfortunately, or luckily, I didn’t do much of those things because I was too tired from walking from Gojo station up to the Gion area in the heat after I had explored the areas between Kyoto station and Gojo station. So here are some of the things that I did or saw which I thought to be interesting and I hope that it’d be for you too.
1. Kyoto Tower Onsen
I’m sure everyone has been to the iconic towers all over Japan. Tokyo Tower, Sky Tree (Asakusa), Nagoya Tower, Osaka Tower, and now Kyoto Tower. Yes? Probably. After admiring the architecture of the towers, you would probably head in, maybe pay an entrance fee, and go up to the observation deck to enjoy a nice view. Did you know that there was an onsen in Kyoto Tower? If you did, well, congratulations! I didn’t. But now you know. And quite the opposite of everyone else who was going into the shopping area and the other higher floors of the Kyoto Tower, I saw a Japanese sign that said ‘onsen in the basement!’ or something to that effect and followed it. Down and down and down I went, until I saw a helpful map of the tower which assured me that I was going in the right direction.
After maybe a 5-10minute descent, I reached a glass door. I walked into a building and there it was, on the left. Right outside the door (on the right of the passage-way) there is a ticket machine where you buy your onsen ticket. You get discounts if you are a student or above a certain age (60 I think?). Ask the staff if you don’t know how to use the machine. Bring your ticket to the onsen reception area and they will give you a yellow towel (I think it was).
Put your shoes in the small lockers in the waiting area in front of the reception and head in to the bath area. The female area was huge. There were so many huge lockers that maybe 2 backpacks could fit into one. At first, I had felt a little intimidated by the patrons who were hanging out in the waiting area and the old metal shoe locker. But the flooring, furnishing, lockers and other facilities in the changing area were super modern. I don’t know how to describe it—I think it is called polished wood? The only old marker of ancientness was an old weighing scale that had a red arrow that swings right or left to point at your weight. There were huge wall-length mirrors as well, in which I checked out my recent burns I got from climbing Mt. Fuji in the daytime. There were also many showering facilities inside the bathing area. Although I must say that bathing area is pretty enclosed, so the onsen (big tub of very very very hot water) was pretty hot. Even Japanese people complained to each other about the temperature! I went in nearly an hour before closing time, and from memory, I think only 1-2 foreigners were just leaving. About 5-10minutes before closing time, a closing song and goodbye will be played in a few languages. After putting your used towel in a bin in the changing room, go out, get your shoes and you’re done.
Yeah, more temples. But did you know that opposite the huge temple near the Kyoto Markets and Kyoto station, there is a shopping area called Monzencho? Practically the whole area there sells spiritual stuff related to temples.
Prayer beads, Buddha statues, joss sticks (for praying not gaming), paper money (for praying), pictures of Buddhas, fans, embroidered shoes and more prayer beads are available in that area of shops. This is really a must-go place for your spiritual needs and accessories. And considering that there weren’t many people during the daytime of a weekday that I went, it’d definitely be a noncrowded shopping haven for those inclined and interested in these things. I wanted a bracelet of prayer beads, but the shop looked a bit too elegant and I didn’t want to be rude to enquire about prices so I just satisfied my craving by staring through the shop window. After a while, I realised that one of the shops that I was staring at through a window was shut. I hope I didn’t come across as weird… As you wander around the area, you might even come across a quaint little bookshop with sliding doors.
Another street seemed dedicated to selling some kinds of food. One interesting thing about this area is that it seems mandatory for every household to put out a red bucket of water in front of their house (fire prevention?). The red colour juxtaposes with the wooden houses and it’s really quite pretty.
3. Nishiki Market
For more food cravings, head down to Nishiki Market. It sells food and more food. It’s an interesting, covered and long shopping street, which is a nice respite out of the sun. The streets that lead up to Nishiki are full of many other shops as well!
4. Shinkyogoku-dori, Teramachi-dori and others
After Nishiki and before heading to Gion, drop by the Shinkyogoku-dori area which is an area of doris that are all connected to each other and mostly covered. Duck in out of the rain and sun for yet another interesting time along shopping streets.
The shops here are more modern compared to Nishiki and if you just think of it like modern little cafés squashed next to each other but with Japanesey and maybe neon signs all along 5-6 covered streets, that’s probably Shinkyogoku.
I stopped by a convenience store and was lucky enough to get 3 pieces of fried croquette thingys for only 100yen. It was so popular that only 1 box was left even though they just cooked it. Look out for the huge, red giant crab hanging off one shop-front too! Another big surprise as I traipsed tiredly past the never-ending shops was a sudden non-descript sign saying ‘climbing gym’. A climbing gym right smack in the middle of a shopping street? I couldn’t believe my eyes! The gym is called Adsummum.
I took the lift up to the 3rd floor and entered the world of sweat and chalk.
The reception area and pro-shop were elegantly laid out in an open-plan concept.
And a staff member was nice enough to call out to me and ask me if I wanted to boulder. When I told him that I didn’t have my shoes with me (it’d take me 30minutes to get to the hostel and another 30mins to walk back…), he didn’t mind at all and still let me have a tour of the facility as we chatted for 15minutes in Japanese and some English. He told me that the gym was actually pretty popular with foreigners too. Thank you R for your time and being so friendly! I was extremely glad to meet a fellow climber and could spend some time in Kyoto talking about climbing to someone who understands!!
5. Hair Salon
Another thing you can do in Kyoto is getting your hair cut. Walking along Shijo dori, I walked past many quaint shops selling food, items and other things. There were 4 hair shops near each other—a barbershop was opposite a hair salon, and 2 salons were nearer to Daimaru. Unfortunately, one shop near Daimaru was really pricey and another had an unfortunate name called ‘Oops’. I decided to go to the hair salon opposite the barber.
Interestingly, I had to register. I had to fill in my details right down to my occupation and blood type. They were slightly surprised to know that I came all the way down from Kumagaya. After a little wait, my hair got washed and I was sat down in a chair. I took out a photograph of the picture I drew and tried to explain what I wanted. Being Japan, the style is ‘cute’. So it is likely that the cut will end up in soft curls or just general ‘softness’ in the cut. I originally just wanted a trimming of my already existing V-shaped hair, and to create a second V by cutting the top-half of my hair slightly shorter than the bottom-half. The stylist suggested that I go Ushaped instead as it was cuter and softer, and she gave me double-Us. (Oh, what a pun!) I felt very sorry for her because my hair was past my hips and she took a long time cutting it. At the same time, I felt kind of happy to hear yet another stylist compliment the condition and texture of my hair. (Some of friends always tell me that I should sell my hair instead of cutting it once every few years. Maybe I will do that next time for a worthy cause, but I believe that my hair has to grow much longer than that.) The stylist did do a great job in the end and I was even offered water and candy because I was coughing. Thank you very much!!
6. Kabuki and other Theatre
What else can you do in Gion besides eating, shopping and hoping that you’d get a glimpse of geishas? I recommend seeing a show. Kabuki, Takarazuka and other theatre shows are always on-going. This picture I took in front of the theatre show some current shows in October and November 2015. I watched Kabuki in Tokyo and I didn’t get my tickets until almost 1 day before the show, so it’s possible! Although it might be harder for Takarazuka as tickets almost always sell out quickly.
7. Shijo-ohashi (bridge)
On the way in and out of Gion, you definitely will have to cross this bridge. While the crowds are busy taking photographs of Gion and the buildings around the bridge and the bridge and the waters under the bridge while congesting the pedestrian paths of the bridge, it might do you some good to just step off away from everyone and join some brave others who sit by the banks (almost nearly in the water) along the river. It’s quaint.
Unfortunately, I was swept up in the crowds on my way home and only managed to look at the river whilst quickly snapping a picture of a building with many lanterns.
Have a good walkabout in Kyoto! (There are buses that go to these places too.)