Kyoto Fall & Winter Trip Report – Part 2

It’s been a while since our two months in Japan ended (and since Part 1 of our Kyoto Trip Report), and this recap seems to be losing steam, both on my end and in terms of reader interest. Rather than dragging it out unnecessarily, I’m going to wrap it up with two final installments. I think that makes sense as it allows me to focus on posts about specific temples, restaurants, and other planning resources. To the extent that I have other interesting anecdotes, I can include most of them in those posts, anyway.

One anecdote that probably won’t fit elsewhere–and is somewhat integral to a pivot made in our trip–occurred one afternoon when I found myself at Nanzenji. I was out on my own, and had returned by happenstance as I made the rounds hitting the other Higashiyama temples that didn’t have nighttime illuminations to photograph their fall colors.

Since Nanzenji is free and I always enjoy wandering around it, I made the stop. At this point it was about 45 minutes until sunset, and I was debating whether to continue towards Kiyomizudera–a better area for sunset–or try to make the most of the Nanzenji area, which has a heavier canopy. Then, I was struck by a bright idea…

Bishamondo Temple was on my list of places to visit, but it was difficult to access via the rail network, requiring a convoluted approach. I had read somewhere that a relatively easy hiking path connected Nanzenji Temple to Bishamondo Temple, which I planned on testing that at some point for the sake of itineraries I’d be writing. Why not give it a try right now, I figured?

With no marked trailhead, I started out on what I assumed was the correct trail behind Nanzenji’s aqueducts. Fortunately, there was only one way to go, so the lack of signage was no issue. After hiking for maybe 15 minutes, I came to the first split in the trail.

Near it, there was one small sign, entirely in Japanese. I tried the Google Translate app on it, but that yielded no results. On the ground, another, which appeared to be a faded sign in English pointing back to Nanzenji.

Then I saw the sign pictured below with the angry face on it. I decided to follow it.

Not because angry emoji is the universal symbol of Bishamondo Temple, but because that seemed like the most logical direction to go in terms of heading in the direction of Bishamondo.

Another 20 or so minutes later, I encounter another fork. This time, it was less clear which direction I should go. However, angry emoji was once again present, and this dude had never steered me wrong. Also, his direction once again looked like it was pointing in the general direction I needed to go, so I thought maybe the angry emoji led towards the temple.

It seemed plausible, right?

Perhaps angry emoji was instead used because hiking this dude’s stretches of trail will piss you off. While mostly level at first, there were parts of the trail that were difficult to locate, and then a few up and down stretches that cruelly led you up a grueling stretch only to undo that progress as soon as you breached the hill’s crest.

This leg of the hike was incredibly intense–certainly not the easy trail the internet promised me. I did several hikes during our time in Japan, and none were as bad as this one.

After just under an hour, the angry emoji did, in fact, lead me to Bishamondo Temple. I just missed what appeared (through the woods, at least) to be a pretty sunset, but at least I made it. My research indicated that the temple closed at 5 p.m., and it was only 4:40 p.m. What the resources I consulted failed to indicate is that the last entry is at 4:30 p.m.

Oh well, not a huge deal. Online resources indicated Bishamondo Temple did a nighttime illumination in late November and early December. I joined the dozen or so other people who were loitering about outside, presumably waiting for that to start.

I took some photos, and noticed that the colors of Bishamondo’s iconic approach were already past-peak as compared to photos I had seen. This was a bit of a bummer, but I figured that when bathed in artificial lighting, it’d be less obvious.

When 5:15 p.m. rolled around, the crowd had thinned out, and there were zero signs pointing to a nighttime illumination, I became weary. Nevertheless, I decided to wait around until 5:30 p.m., not wanting that intense hike to be for naught.

Unfortunately, it was. At this point, I was more than a little irritated. Thanks to three pieces of poor advice (the hike’s intensity, closing time, and existence of a nighttime illumination), I had wasted the better part of an afternoon and early evening, and now had a long commute back to the city-center.

Before heading back, I drowned my sorrows in some McDonald’s. Don’t laugh. At this point, it had been a long time since I had had a burger, and eating something familiar was quite welcome. Sarah had been rebuffing my attempts to score a Big Mac the last several days, but she wasn’t here to stop me now.

The Big Mac went a long way to ease the pain of hiking and wasting so much time, but I was still irritated. In fairness, it was my own fault I didn’t turn back on the hike after seeing the first split, and it’s my fault I hadn’t given myself more of a margin of error on the operating hours, but I was still annoyed.

There was no single turning point, but this was definitely one contributing factor that changed our more laid back ‘living like locals’ Kyoto stay into an intense “research” trip. I had always planned on writing a slew of blog posts about our Kyoto experiences, but this misinformation pushed me towards something more ambitious.

As for what form that ‘something ambitious’ idea will take, I’m still not entirely sure. Even before the trip, I was slightly annoyed by how superficial and lacking English Kyoto resources are–many seem machine-written, or like copy and paste variants of one another.

This is something that has surprised and frustrated me given that Kyoto is one of the greatest cities in the world. We are far from the definitive experts on Kyoto, but I’m pretty confident we can now offer English planning advice that’s superior to the vast majority of what’s out there.

Realistically, if this hike didn’t trigger that turning point, something else would have. After only a few laid back “local style” days, I had already been feeling guilty that I wasn’t out exploring Kyoto. I was actually starting to feel anxious about it, as odd as that might sound. I’m a fairly restless and compulsive person; I guess the concept of a “relaxed” local experience in a duration-limited scenario just wasn’t in the cards.

For pretty much the rest of the trip, I got up at 6 a.m. and worked for a few hours, then we (or sometimes just me) headed out to sightsee/research until around 7 p.m., and then came back and worked until around midnight. This schedule worked surprisingly well, as our time out was basically when the United States was asleep. It left almost zero downtime, which was a bit exhausting, but I think it was totally worth it. Our stay in Kyoto from then out was a blast, and this was much more enjoyable and satisfying than a relaxed approach.

There was another unintended (okay, it was totally intended by me) upside to the new research-heavy approach: we didn’t prepare another meal over the course of the trip. We still ate oversized carrots and other healthier items from 7-11, but we stopped cooking. Part of researching Kyoto meant that we “had” to figure out which restaurants were the best. Thankfully, a bowl of ramen is <$10 (roughly what each prepared meal cost us, anyway), because we ate at roughly 30 ramen shops, and a variety of other places.

Alright, that’s it for this installment. As mentioned at the top, we’ll return with one last trip report from Kyoto to wrap things up. Aside from an “interesting” encounter with a wild boar on our last night in Kyoto, I’m not entirely sure what we’ll cover. A lot happened in between, but most of that can be shared via individual temple, restaurant, and other posts. I’m sure I’ll have no trouble rambling on for a few thousand words, but if there are any remaining questions you about our experience in Kyoto, post them in the comments here and I’ll try to incorporate the answers into that trip report.

Check out All Installments of Our Japan Trip Report for more on what we’ve done. If you’re planning a visit, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help plan.

Your Thoughts

Would you have gone on the hike with no map and without a clear idea how to navigate the trails? Surprised by our shift from “laid back local” experience to “frenzied tourist” approach? Anything you’d like to see us tackle in the final Japan trip report installment? Any questions or other comments? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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14 replies
  1. Liz
    Liz says:

    I really enjoyed reading your report on Kyoto. It’s great information as I plan to visit Kyoto next fall. As a small repayment, the sign with the angry face you saw said “November 23: After the event is over, return this way.” So nothing to do with the temple, actually, although it seems to have all worked out! The big red sign in the other picture says “Beware of forest fires.” Thanks for your posts!

  2. Includem
    Includem says:

     Enjoy the view from the Kyoto Tower The Kyoto Tower can be found across from Kyoto Station. With its 131 meters it’s the tallest structure in Kyoto. The tower stands out in Kyoto because it’s a modern landmark, while Kyoto mostly is famous for its historic temples and shrines. Even though it’s in contrast with the rest of Kyoto, the Kyoto Tower is a great place to get a 360 degree view of Kyoto and even of Osaka on a clear day.

  3. Will
    Will says:

    Tom, I’ve very much enjoyed your Kyoto trip report and I’m disappointed that these will be seeing a quick end. I’ve enjoyed the reports and the anecdotes, especially the one in the previous update about the consumer pricing. I may be headed back to Japan soon and it’s great to have these reports and reviews as a resource.

  4. Ross
    Ross says:

    Honestly, I think temples (and shrines and castles) are pretty boring to cover deeply-I don’t travel to specifically visit any temple in Japan. I mean some of them have lots of history and are interesting for various reasons. But I don’t go to a place for a temple, I go for other attractions and may visit them if they’re on the way.

    Do you really think your readers care about the intricate details of each temple though? (If you’re really into temples in Japan then you can probably Google in Japanese to find out far more.) Let’s also say your top 10 list in Kyoto is way too full of temples (or maybe you should just call it top temples and cut the other stuff). Where’s a garden or a museum or a train line?

    I think you’re giving too much dedication to single attractions (temples) rather than putting things together that are in similar areas.

    There’s a fair bit around Kyoto Station, there’s a fair few things to do around Arashiyama (given, you have previously covered these), there’s other areas to Kyoto as well (I don’t know a lot about Kyoto). The other major topic is transport around Kyoto-bicycle, bus, subway, JR, Hankyuu, Keihan, Kintetsu etc. There’s a lot of passes across all those options-might be worth breaking down what you used etc outside of just the JR pass.

    There’s basic things to do in Kyoto too-eating, drinking, shopping-that you could probably write more on that would be interesting to hear your perspective on.

    The interesting part of this post to me was how you spent your day, work, explore, work rather than your ramblings on walking an unknown route which is part of the joy of travel and exploration.

    That’s my 2c-hopefully you find it a helpful critique, if not continue with posting about all the temples you visited. 🙂

    • Comfort
      Comfort says:

      “Do you really think your readers care about the intricate details of each temple though? (If you’re really into temples in Japan then you can probably Google in Japanese to find out far more.)”

      Fair enough, but personally
      1) I do not speak Japanese, and many translated sites are confusing and feel very incomplete.

      2) when someone googles something, what results does it bring back? Sites like this. So, I like to find sites that I find reliable. Like this one. So, I want reviews from sites I find reliable, like this one. And that’s why I disagree.

    • Comfort
      Comfort says:

      Thanks. That’s is good to know. It’s nice when one can actually get useful information from a comments section.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Thanks Ross, I appreciate the feedback.

      With regard to the temples, I realize regular readers of the site are going to grow disinterested in dedicated posts to each and start skipping those (if they haven’t already). However, I view those posts as foundational for a lot of the more interesting or useful content I’ll be writing about the city. From my perspective, Kyotos are the reason to visit Kyoto. While we’ve visited several museums, the only one that I think arguably even belongs in a top 20 list is the Railway Museum (and even that has superior counterparts in Nagoya and Tokyo). While there’s absolutely much more to Kyoto than its temples, as specific points of interest, those are the main draw.

      As far as other practical planning posts, you’re absolutely write. I definitely need to weave those in, and I’m already working on a post that’s a ‘comprehensive’ guide to Kyoto. Dining is another major topic that we’ll be covering–with the first post on that next week.

      I definitely agree with you that more variety in these Kyoto posts is a good idea; I’ll try to accomplish that without coming at the expense of temple coverage, though. 🙂

  5. Comfort
    Comfort says:

    What I learned from this is, angry faces in Japan mean “proceed this way, you are heading the right direction.”
    The sign looked so official too.
    Maybe that angry face was actually some angry guy who was doing a meet and greet on 11/26. You may have just missed him!
    Dang, now we are all going to have to live the rest of our lives wondering, what could’ve been.

  6. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    As you’re looking to wrap up this report, I have some questions. Did you experience temple fatigue? As a reader, they all blur together and I wonder how it was living that out. Any reflections on your first long trip, how expectations differed from reality, what you might do differently next time?


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