“What are you doing for Golden Week?” was the newest addition to the standard small-talk for the weeks leading up to last weekend. In Japan, “Golden Week” is a series of holidays that occur within a close period of time of one another. Many people get the entire week off of school or work, but unfortunately, I only enjoyed a 4-day weekend. I had originally planned to spend the entire weekend in the historic cities of Kyoto and Nara—famous for its Giant Buddha and bowing deer—with friends from my study abroad program, but we ended up restricting our trip to just a single day. I traveled by overnight bus, using one of the many available companies for such a trip, and slept the whole way through the 6.5-hour journey from Tokyo to Kyoto.
Conscious of the small amount of time I had to explore so much terrain, I got going as soon as I arrived in Kyoto, bright and early at 7 a.m. I first took a bus to my hostel in an old residential area. The businesses on the main road were still shuttered at this early hour, and narrow streets off of the road—lined with wooden houses constructed in old Japanese style—branched off at irregular intervals. I arrived at the hostel, where the manager greeted me. I had booked a room at this particular hostel in order to experience an older Japanese home—complete with tatami (woven bamboo) mats on the floor of the bunk room—as well as for its desirable location in Central Kyoto. After the manager gave me a map of Kyoto, I began my explorations by visiting Nijo Castle. I had purchased an all-day bus pass, which, at the price of two rides for a bus system that had stops at many major locations, was a great deal. After paying admission to the caste, I entered the first building—the Ninomaru Palace—right at opening time, taking off my shoes as was mandatory and proceeding in socked feet. It was a grand wooden palace, complete with “nightingale floors” that chirped under each step to warn of intruders, intricate paintings on the golden walls, sliding doors, and a different theme for each room. Some of the rooms had been set up to show how meetings would have been run while the shogunate was in power.
After managing to get lost on the castle grounds for a while, I found my way back to the area where the actual palace was located.
After visiting the castle, I journeyed to Shinsen-en, the oldest existing garden in Kyoto. It dates back to the Heian era, although it was rebuilt in the Meiji era. To my surprise, the day I visited, there happened to be a festival! I had noticed children parading around a mikoshi, or portable shrine, not long after exiting Nijo, but did not realize that this was part of the festival until I entered the garden. It was peaceful, with a large koi pond taking up much of the area. I was called out to in English by one of the fellows manning a game along the small line of vendors, and, responding in Japanese, I decided to try my luck at the game. It was like a plunger-less, non-electrical pinball, with nunchuks as the flippers. A small crowd gathered around as I played, watching my near-misses and sinking of the ball into the wrong holes. On my last ball, I managed to win, and was rewarded with a box of ten freshly-made takoyaki (pancake-like balls with a piece of octopus in the center)—a delicious lunch. Later on, I watched chigo gyooretsu—a procession of young children, responsible with Shinto or Buddhist festival temple duties, wearing elaborate attire.
Moving on from the garden, I intended to head to the sights in Northwest Kyoto before visiting Gion, the district where geisha/maiko reside. However, I managed to again get lost on the bus system, making the loop of an incorrect route twice before understanding my mistake. It’s a lesson I’ll remember for future travels: never forget your transit map.
I made it to Kinkakuji—the golden temple—at what was supposed to be the perfect time for the sun’s rays to make the temple gleam, but the sky had become cloudy just as I finally arrived. Even so, the temple still was quite a sight. Before exiting, I bought some souvenir sweets called yatsuhashi, a Kyoto specialty, for my host family.
After visiting Kinkanuji, I wandered minimally before retiring to my hostel for a few hours before catching my bus back to Tokyo. During my rest, I had a conversation with a young Japanese young woman and recent college graduate now working in Tokyo. She was also traveling for Golden Week and was served some delicious-looking green-tea-flavored pancakes by the hostel manager before I had to rush back to Kyoto Station to catch my overnight bus. My Kyoto journey was rather fun, but thanks to my trial and error, I definitely now have a few more experiential skills to use during my future travels in Japan.