November 17, 2012 by IPAlchemist
Dr Jess, known on Twitter as @JessTheChemist, is off to Japan to go to a conference in Kyoto, and has asked for recommendations while there. It is not the first time that I have been asked for such suggestions, as I lived in Tokyo for two years 1996-1998, and have been back most years since 2001, so it seemed worth putting my thoughts on a blog post so that they are there for anyone else too. So here goes.
There is too much to see in Kyoto. I have only seen a tiny fraction – for example, I have never visited the old Imperial Palace.
Things I have seen and would recommend (which I remember as “the one with…”) are as follows:
This is one of the most famous temples and is considered a “must see”. Avoid the young people offering to guide you around in return for practising their English – they are annoying and know nothing about the place.
Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple)
The one with the gold-covered temple pavilion, and is also generally considered a “must see”.
Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Temple)
The one with the frustoconical pile of sand. (Confusingly, there is no silver temple pavilion in it). Also features high on the tourist agenda.
The one with 1001 buddha statues which was one of my favourite Kyoto sights.
Called a castle, but actually it was a palace for the Shogun. Civil architecture a welcome relief from all the temples.
The one with the garden with 15 stones and a wall with a funny stain. (If you don’t go here, try to go to another Zen stone garden – you should probably try to take in one).
Worth visiting if you are in the area (which is likely since it is close to Kyoto station). It has a huge impressive main hall.
The one with the dragon on the roof and the mediaeval sauna. This is a great place – a temple in a huge temple complex. I think it is not on the general tourist circuit, and, at least when I went, was very much less busy than anywhere else I ever went to. Description here.
I wouldn’t bother with the Heian Shrine, which is modern and dull. This is my only anti-recommendation.
I treasure two shopping experiences as well.
Jusanya, which sells boxwood combs and is situated in a lovely market (location described here.)
Aritsugu, which sells Japanese kitchen knives, a work of art in themselves. Also in a nice market (location described here.)
If you never saw anything at all in Kyoto, but instead got on the train and spent the whole time in Nara, I don’t think you would have made a bad decision.
The usual tour includes Nara park (with the deer, to which you can feed rice crackers that they sell there) and Todai-ji – the one with the giant Buddha statue. Both of which are lovely.
For me, the real treasure is Horyu-ji, which is my favourite temple in Japan. It claims to be the oldest wooden structure in the world. The atmosphere there is quite magical. If I could see only one thing in Japan again, this would be it.
But also very highly recommended is the Toshodai-ji, in a different part of Nara, and also quite lovely. It recently emerged from a long period of refurbishment, I am told.
There is nothing old in Tokyo, basically, so if you want to see traditional Japanese stuff, then you probably need to do a day trip. My recommendation would be Nikko, but Kamakura is also popular. If you stay within Tokyo itself, then Asakusa has a temple which compares reasonably favourably with those in other parts of Japan. (Any Tokyo apologists reading this – sorry, but you know it’s true!)
If I could do only one thing in Tokyo, it would be to have lunch or dinner in the restaurant Ukai Toriyama (website here.) It is a way out of central Tokyo, and you have to take the Chuo line out to Takao-san, and then a minibus supplied by the restaurant, but it is doable if you seek guidance, for example from your hotel (or just the restaurant website). The journey take about an hour.
I will now get down to serious heresy. People talk about the different parts of Tokyo having different characters, but I find that many of the main department stores, for example, repeat all over central Tokyo, and so rather than fight your way to Ginza or Nihonbashi, you might as well look out the Mitsukoshi or Takashimaya that is closest.
On the subject of department stores, most have restaurant floors, usually near the top, and these are rarely a bad place to look out to eat. You get a very large selection of eating possibilities in a small space, and usually with pictures or models that will give a good idea of what the food is likely to be.
If you get a clear day, find a tall building with public access and admire the view. These used to be in short supply (and I used to recommend tea or cocktails in the lobby bar at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku – I swear I did this before it appeared in Lost in Translation) but so many tall buildings have sprung up since my time that it is hard to avoid finding one. So there seems very little point in going to Tokyo Tower any more.
If you fancy seeing Mount Fuji from Tokyo, which can be done especially in winter, the best time is first thing in the morning. Daytime or evening it usually gets hazy. You don’t need a particularly tall building (I used to see it from 5th floor at Tokyo Institute of Technology), but you do need uninterrupted view in the right direction, and this can now be hard to find.
I expect more thoughts will come to me over time, in which case I will add them.