One of the best ways to explore a city is with a local guide. Free walking tours are offered in larger cities across the world, but more often than not, you get what you pay for. They also usually have huge tour group numbers and only take you through the most popular attractions, you probably have already seen. Our Ryokan suggested Waraido Guided Tours which give 5-hour walking tours of the Kyoto Backstreets, through hidden alleyways to discover the roots of Kyoto itself.
We met our guide outside Kyoto station along with a few other guests. The weather was perfect, which was lucky since such a long walking tour would have been no fun in the rain. Our guide's name was Yuki. Yuki was raised in Osaka by a Japanese father and a German mother. Due to her multilingual family, it was an easy transition for her to become an English teacher. After retiring from teaching, she started working for Waraido to share her love for the city she now calls home.
The first stop of the tour was at Higashi Honganji Temple. The temple complex is enormous as Higashi Honganji is one of the largest Buddhist denominations in Japan and this is their headquarters. Higashi Honganji has approximately 10,000 local temples, 50 regional offices and over 200 temples overseas.
The two buildings standing in the centre of the grounds are the Goeido Hall (dedicated to Shinran, the sect's founder) and the Amidado Hall (dedicated to the Amida Buddha, the most important Buddha in Jodo-Shin Buddhism). There is great historical importance to these building, and they have been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Before entering the shrine, it is customary that you wash your hands as a means of cleansing the body before stepping onto the sacred ground. Yuki took us each through the process at the dragon fountain in the centre of the two buildings.
Jōdo Shinshū or Shin Buddhism started in 1173. It is the most popular form of Buddism practised in Japan, partly due to its simple methods of practice. Shin Buddhism "focuses on daily practice, open-minded reflection, and the direct and personal religious experience of the transcending mystery of life, symbolised by Amida Buddha."
The main Goeido Hall is one of Japan's largest wooden structures. Originally built in the Edo period (1603–1868), the current building is a faithful reconstruction from the Meiji period (1868–1912) of the original structure.
Inside the main hall, you'll find a peaceful spot for meditation. The high ceilings are dotted with golden chandeliers in the shape of lotus flowers. 90 wooden pillars support the roof, complete with organically shaped capitals. Delicate tatami mats cover the floor, their light colour in contrast to the dark wood surrounding it. A large golden altar sits on a raised platform in the front of the hall. On top of the altar, there is a wooden statue depicting "Shinran", the founder of the Jodo Shinshu Sect.
Opposite the main hall, connected by a long wooden ramp is the Amida Hall. This building was rebuilt in 1895 and contains a statue of the all mighty, "Amida Buddha".
Connecting each of the buildings is a wooden walkway which displays the architecture prowess of the Edo period.
Outside on the walkway, you'll find some small exhibits about the construction of the halls. In one we can see a little diorama which depicts how the lumber was transported from the forests to the temple. In one scene, workers are fleeing an avalanche; some look like they're not going to make it. The scene truly shows how some people had to risk their life so this temple could be created and this exhibits pays homage to their sacrifice.
In another glass case, we can see an enormous rope which was created from human hair. Female Buddhist would donate their hair to the temple so that ropes could be made that helped move the lumber into place.
Although there are multiple gates which are used to access the grounds of the temple, the most impressive of all the gates is "The Founder’s Hall Gate". The gate was built in 1911 and is over 92 feet tall. It is quite opulent and has two roofs, stacked one on top of the other, creating a layered effect like on a pagoda.
From outside the temple, you can appreciate how large the complex of buildings is and how vast their congregation must be.
Along the exterior of the temple runs a small moat filled with lily pads and lotus, flanked by rows of Japanese black pines. The green trees and plants set against the brown and beige structures is a wonderful yin and yang of colours.
After finishing touring the temple, we headed away from the tourists and into the back streets of Kyoto. Although Kyoto is a modern city with 2.5 million inhabitants, there is still a quiet, traditional side to it. Becuase Kyoto was saved from the extensive bombings by the USA in WWII; the town has preserved much of its original architecture. Walking along these backstreets, there are ordinary, residential houses which are like museum pieces.
Our first stop along the backstreets was at an unassuming, wooden townhouse, or "Machiya". Here in Kyoto craftsmen and women keep old traditions alive and well.
In this shop, artists create and assemble Japanese fans in the same manner as they have been made for hundreds of years.
The first appearance of fans in Japan was in the early 6th century, brought over from China although these fans did not fold but were completely flat. They were also usually relatively large and were operated by a servant since they were too big to hold in hand at that point.
Legend has it that the Japanese folding fan was invented when a craftsman serving the emperor saw a bat and was inspired by the design of its wings. The fact that the fan could fold meant that it was easier to hold in your hand when not in use and could travel more easily.
There are three main varieties of Japanese fans; the feather, the folding fan and the brisé. Traditional Japanese fans are magnificently painted with images of pines, chrysanthemums, birds, plums or cherry blossoms. All important symbols of their country.
For 250 years, Japan remained closed off from international trading and when it's doors were finally opened, their exports were highly sought after items. Japanese fans began to flood the North American and European marketplaces and were some of the most fashionable accessories to have.
Opposite the fan shop, there was a small group of woman, clamouring around surrounding a glass refrigerator case containing fresh tofu. Our guide asked the woman behind the counter if we could come in and see how the tofu was made and she happily ushered us inside. Everyone seemed so excited to demonstrate to us their skills and creations.
Inside the shop, there was a sweet fragrance which filled the air. Well worn machines surrounded the outer walls of the shop and women in aprons mulled about pouring hot soy milk into plastic moulds. They sprinkled each square with magnesium chloride which is the magic ingredient that turns the soy milk into tofu.
Tofu is to Kyoto as pizza is to New York. There are many different varieties made all over the Japan but nowhere does it better than Kyoto. Tofu was first brought to Kyoto by Buddist monks in the 6th century who could not eat any meat or dairy as an alternative protein.
We each got to try the tofu they had just freshly made. Some people were a bit squeamish, but I dove right in. This tofu was extra creamy, and you could taste just how fresh it was. It was almost like a pudding and would have gone perfectly with some sweet syrup. In addition to tofu, they also made little pastry like buns from the soy which people from all over town come to purchase at lunch time.
As we continued down the streets, we came upon the Ayako Tenmangu Shrine. Sitting outside the shrine is a stone sculpture of a bull. The bull is the symbol of health in Japan, and this shrine is dedicated to bringing better health to both the body and the mind.
The shrine is a very popular place during exam season when students come here to pray for academic success.
In these Kyoto backstreets, you could find anything. Some streets seemed completely residential and then all of a sudden you'd come across a high fashion kimono shop selling one of a kind garments for Japanese weddings. The colours were stunning, and the amount of layering is almost impossible to imagine how these women manage to walk effortlessly and look graceful under all that weight of cloth.
Further along, we came upon Gojo Rakuen, which is what used to be the old red light/Geisha district. Although real geishas weren't anything like prostitutes (they were more like companions and entertainers), there were various women of the night who would dress like a geisha and offer up their "services" to gain a particular type of clientele. Brothels inside wooden teahouses were once the main kind of establishment on these streets.
Gojo Rakuen translates into "fifth street paradise". That "paradise" refers to all the "pleasure" services once offered here.
A strange feature could identify these houses of ill-repute. Unlike the red lights district in Amsterdam, where the houses were light up with red lights them as brothels, Japanese brothels were identifiable by having a fish tank outside their open door.
After becoming a seedy part of town, many branches of the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) also moved into the area, making it an off limits places for many Japanese people for many many years. Only now, after years of them being exiled, can people walk these streets without fear.
Unlike European cities where houses along the river bank are seen as some of the most desirable properties in the city, the houses along the river bank here are old, wooden townhomes. Some almost falling apart. They are humble houses that have yet to be swept up in the wave of urbanisation.
Walking through these streets, there remains many old tea houses and traditional restaurants. No trendy cafes or loud bars. These streets keep the vestiges of the old ways.
We stopped by the iconic river for a water break and were amazed at seeing not another soul but our group there to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere.
We stopped in at a family run shrine and cemetery so Yuki could tell us about the realities of life and death in Japan.
She took us through the cemetery and explained how entire families are buried here, all together. She let us know that unlike in North America where we don't visit cemeteries all that often, in Japan it is a very common thing to do weekly. You visit your family here and bring them things they loved in life like; beer, food or even sometimes something to read. They still cherish their family, even after their passing.
This concluded the first half of our tour. Seeing as this is already a pretty long post I figured I would continue it in Part Two!