The first half of our WaRaiDo Guide Networks walking tour of the backstreets of Kyoto took us through traditional Japanese fan workshops, shrines to health, the largest wooden temple in Japan and a tasting of freshly made tofu!
For the second half of the tour, we started off inside a community centre where we got a small bite to eat at a local cafeteria. It wasn't anything special but eating with the locals and sampling their handcrafted bread was really special.
Inside we discovered a small exhibit dedicated to the history of Kyoto. Kyoto has evidence of settlements as early as the 6th century. But it was during the 8th century that Buddhists travelled to Kyoto from China to establish this new village that would become Kyoto.
In the 16th century, urban Kyoto was designed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi using rectangular and square blocks of houses. Everything was designed to be accessible and easy to navigate, much like the structure New York is modelled on today.
The city of Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, was established in a very specific location for a very specific reason. The Buddhists of the period said that a city should only be built in a place where four gods can protect it. There needed to be a mountain to the north, a river to the east, a road to the west, and a plain with water to the south. Each one of those elements represented a different Kami (Japanese god); the Tortoise representing the North Mountains, the White Tiger representing the West Road, the Red Phoenix representing the south plains and the Dragon representing the eastern river. In Kyoto, you'll find the Hiei and Atago mountains to the north, the road connecting Japan's major cities to the west, the Uji River and plains to the south and the Kamo River to the east. Making it the perfect spot as per Chinese legends.
After a short rest, we headed back out to find the Ichihime Jinja shrine. Ichihime Jinja is a small shrine that is known for protecting women. All the gods worshipped here are female deities. The shrine was featured on a popular Japanese TV show, and ever since women from all over the world have come here to receive the blessings of the maternal deities.
The Omikuji fortunes at this shrine are unique as they are stuffed inside cute, red wooden dolls in the shape of a lady. Each one has a different hand painted face and holds within it a secret fortune.
Beside the shrine, you'll find the famous “Amenomanai” hot springs. These springs were once used by royal families, and it is said that soaking in it, in turn with praying at the shrine, will result in your wish being granted.
Yuki took us through the steps of praying here at the temple. First, you need to ring the suzu bells to let the gods know you're there. Then, at the altar, bow twice, clap your hands twice and then bow once more to pray.
Beside the shrine, there was a small, studio with the doors open. Inside, an old Japanese woman, surrounded by paint brushes and books, sat there painting the tiniest details onto a minuscule clay figurine. Japanse pottery is one of the oldest art forms in the country, and this woman was preserving its legacy. Surrounding her were hundreds of reference books, patterns, antique pottery and more.
Her face was so serious, but when she looked up, and I complimented her on her work, she smiled so wide - even after all these years, it still made her happy to see her work is appreciated.
Hidden in nooks and crannies of her studio were some of her pieces ready to be sent to high-end shops all over Kyoto.
Outside her house, she had shelves with a myriad of different bonsai trees carved into adorable shapes.
I decided to purchase a set of two sake cups from one of the nearby shops. Although she didn't paint them (her pottery was much more expensive -and rightly so), I still wanted a moment of the afternoon. I poured through the boxes of ceramic sake cups and finally chose two matching designs to take home with me, painted with cherry blossoms. My purchase incited the rest of my group to buy some as well as before we knew it, each one of us has our own little cup to commemorate the tour.
Before heading across the bridge, we passed the former headquarters of Nintendo. This was their location back when Nintendo was just a Japanese playing card company, established in 1889 before it had anything to do with Mario or Luigi. Inside this building was where Pokemon was first invented. The quiet street was very unassuming, and it was unbelievable to think that years later Pokemon is one of the most popular past time from kids all over the world.
Crossing the Kamogawa river, we headed to Shomendori Street. Shomen means "to face" because this street once ran in front or "facing" Hokoji Temple. This temple has long since been destroyed, only one small part of the temple now remains. We crossed the river, over the Shomen-bashi bridge. This is a more modern bridge, built in 1952, but nonetheless, keeps in line with the esthetics of the area's original architecture.
From the bridge, we had a fantastic view of both sides of Kyoto and the mountains in the background. The riverbank was filled with tourists and locals relaxing alongside. On either part of the bank, balconies from restaurants and houses overlooked the water.
Across the bridge, we stopped at Kanshundo Higashimise, a traditional candy shop that has been in business for over 150 years.
The sweet shop sells wagashi sweets made by skilled artisans who turn sugar into delicate works of art in all different magical shapes. These handmade treats always have seasonal touches. Since it was the autumn when we were there, the chefs had different autumnal flavours added to the sweets.
We sat at the back and were served a warm cup of green tea along with a sample of one of their handmade desserts which perfectly compliment the slightly bitter flavour of the tea.
This store makes penny sized candies made with sugar, with rice flour, and some additional flavouring. Since the main ingredients are incredibly dry, the sweets ended up being the favourite thing to be served at Japanese tea ceremonies as they were the perfect compliment to the tea.
After a quick snack, we headed over to Toyokuni Shrine. Originally constructed in 1599, the shrine was built in the memory of the great leader, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa Ieyasu wanted to be treated like a god after his death and had his followers build this great shrine where people could come to worship his memory after his passing. But his popularity proved to be his demise, even after death. The next ruler, Toyokuni was jealous of the dead leader's reputation and has the shrine destroyed and built one in honour of himself on the very same spot.
The karamon gate which you walk through to enter the shrine is rumoured to have been moved from the historic Fushimi Castle. This gate is one of the most iconic karamon gates in Japan, and people travel from all over to view its striking architectural style. Despite being over 400 years old, much of the gold leaf still decorating the outside of the gate is from the original design since it has been so well preserved.
The gate was built in the Momoyama period when Japanese architecture was refining many aspects of Chinese architecture to create their own style. Carved onto the gate are the images of cranes made by Hidari Jingoro, one of the most famous carvers of the 16th century. The cranes all possess no eyes because, as the legend goes, if they had eyes, they would simply fly away and not protect the temple.
Entombed inside the shrine is Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself and many people visit the shrine simply to pray near his tomb, in the hope some of his power will be transferred to them through their prayers.
Toyotomi’s family crest was a cluster of gourds and the shrines emas now portray the same image. Visitors write their wishes on these gourd shaped emas, praying for strength and power - much as Hideyoshi Toyotomi achieved in his life. Another popular item that the shrine is known for are their amulets called "Samuhara", which are said to ward off misfortunes.
Adjacent to the shrine is an ageing temple containing an enormous bell. This is the remnants of the ancient Hoko-ji Temple. Hoko-ji Temple was once one of the greatest temples in Japan, but after many wars, earthquakes and fires, all that remains is this small section and the giant bell which sit in the middle of a run-down parking lot.
This temple bell is the largest bell in Japan at 4.2 meters high and weighing 82 tonnes. If you crane your head over the barrier, you can see some of the restored engravings and paintings that decorate the ceiling of the bell's roof.
Not many people come to visit this temple, as it's not one of the more notable ones. But as such, it was such a peaceful place to contemplate life and end our tour of the backstreets of Kyoto.
This backstreet tour was one of the most meaningful experiences we had on our trip. We had such a lovely time getting to know our guide and the few other people in our tour group over the 5 hours we were together. When we left, an old married man and woman waved goodbye to us and yelled, "Goodbye couple!" as we walked away. It was so sweet, and the kind of interaction you only get from small groups like this.
We bid adieu to our guide and headed back out onto the streets of Kyoto with a new found appreciation for the little things, for the ephemeral and for the people that make up this this incredible city.