Our hotel for 5 nights has been the Okura Kyoto, at the corner of Oike and Kawaramachi Streets, was a taxi ride from Kyoto Station for us and our luggage. The Okura is possibly the best we have stayed at so far on this trip. Our room is a big suite, the bathroom was spacious, the shower was hot and forcefull etc etc. Thanks Alan for arranging this stay! A great buffet breakfast was in the top floor restaurant with a great view to the east across the river, and a leaflet explained what all the landmarks are. The Okura let us check in early, and has direct underground access to a shopping centre and a subway station.
The Kamogawa River travels in a straight line south down the east side of Kyoto and no doubt helped to define the rectangualr grid of this city.
Earlier crossings of the Kamogawa River have been replaced by modern bridges and even stepping stones.
Most of the tourist hotspots are in the hilly rim surrounding Kyoto, but this shrine is right in downtown on Oike-dori.
After some exhausting days on Kyoto buses, we decided to have a relaxing, walking day assisted by the subway. Higashiyama Station is only a few stops away from the hotel, and from there we walked to Shoren-in Temple just to look at its very old sprawling camphor trees, and we found a nice quiet little zen garden there too. This is a pleasant spot bypassed by most visitors, it seems.
Virtually next door is Chion-in a huge and popular temple complex where the major shrine Mieido is undergoing a massive renovation and is entirely covered by a huge scaffolding shed which almost dominates the skyline. The works are not discouraging visitors - the place was quite crowded with both visitors and worshippers. Chion-in has yet another massive san-mon gate at the front steps.
Under guidance of a walking map, we found Maruyama Park, a wasteland when developed some 300 years ago, now a paradise of a Japanese garden whose cherry trees must be a picture in spring. But our main objective of the walk was a giant buddha backing into the hills that we could see from our breakfast room, and which (from the hotel's annotated flyer) we figured out to be the Ryozen Kannon temple, which doesn't feature much in Kyoto highlights.
Considering the crowds nearby, it was very quiet at Ryozen Kannon, and maybe we discovered why. It memorialises some unleasant truths. The 24m high buddha is "A Tribute to The Unknown (Japanese) Soldier - World War II" according to the brochure, and an adjacent memorial is for unknown allied soldiers who died on Japanese soil or occupied territories during the war. A large card index purports to contain the names, one to a card, of every such allied soldier. And, within the temple, there is a sad memorial to miscarried babies. There are cases of tiny statuettes, which now number just under 5000.
Just south of Ryozen Kannon we stumbled on a shopping/cafe area which is one of the prettiest we've seen. The main street in this area was labelled Ninen-zaka Path and in that area we also saw the Yasaka Pagoda, apparently the third highest wooden structure in Kyoto.
We figured we would walk home from here, even though snow was still falling. We passed through the area called Gion, a very popular touristy district, found some lunch, and walked along Shimbashi Street, a reputedly beautiful historical street. It was virtually closed - obviously Sunday is not a working day along here.
These two schoolgirls asked us to participate in a survey about our favourite foods in Japan and at home.
On another day we did some socialising and visited friends of Alan Gibson in the Kyoto area of Saiin. Saiin is towards the middle of Kyoto, so well away from the touristy rim, but near the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Eddi (Australian born, Italian by heritage) and his Japanese wife Hiromi own a cafe called Caffellatte in Shijo Street and gave us a great welcome. We enjoyed paninis, espresso coffees and gelato, and great conversation. You can find Caffellatte at http://caffe-llatte.com/index_e.php, we can recoomend it. Thank you Eddi and Hiromi!
In the evenings in Kyoto, when not after coffee, we usually wanted something stronger, but found bars were often expensive and (worse) smoky! We know that Japanese are renowned as heavy smokers, but frankly, have scarcely noticed smoking at all, wherever we have been, until we went into a bar. Smoking is clearly now discouraged in cities, and is outright banned in some streets. Restaurants have no smoking, or at least no-smoking areas. But bars! Well, that discourages us from having another drink, which is a good thing!
Steep cover charges are apparently common, and when you are not drinking that much, makes it an expensive tipple. Frankly, we paid too much for a drink or two in several places. Tourists' dislike of the cover charges must be becoming known - we now notice places advertising no cover charges for foreigners.