10th – 17th October 2019
Kyoto, Osaka & Himeji.
11th October 2019
0830 – Met my parents at Kyoto station. With the morning peak hour in mind, we knew better than to arrive on the dot. Boy, were we lucky all four of us shared the same thought! Yesterday’s human streams were now full-fledged gushing rivers of suits and skirts pressing their way to their 6’x6′. It was futile finding the right current to ride on, even with Kenny’s height, so we scurried along the wall towards the train platform like little rodents avoiding footsteps of the giant.
The train was already sitting by the platform with its doors open. Kenny and I stood outside of the last car, about 3 metres apart, keeping an eye out for my parents. I looked at the board. It read 0833 departure. The time was 0828. “Do you see them? Look for daddy’s white clump of hair!” I called out to Kenny, while glancing back-and-forth between the train door and the black sea of people, as if that would magically prevent the steel horse from galloping away. “I see him! Your mom is right behind.” he cried, beckoning them to hurry. We hopped onto the train one after another and managed to find ourselves a booth seat (4-seater, facing each other). Time – 0831. For the last remaining minutes, we caught our breath and chuckled with much relief as our steed cantered away. The Singaporean kiasu-ness had served us well.
WEST KYOTO – MIZUO
©Photo: The village shuttle schedule between Mizuo and Hozukyo station. (Left) Departures from the station (Right) Departures from the village; a Japanese hiker’s blog
While researching on treks for our trip, I came across a local hiker’s blog about Mizuo. Known for its citrus farms and chicken yuzu sukiyaki, I figured we could do a morning hike up, have their local delicacy for lunch and take the shuttle down. Unfortunately, the restaurants were either fully booked or do not service foreigners. Some even reject Japanese visitors who have not patronised the establishments before. Since yuzu sukiyaki lunch was a no-go and the bus schedule did not have a mid-morning outbound, I switched the plan around. We were going to walk our way down instead.
Arrived at Hozukyo station shortly past 0900. Right on time to catch the 0910 village shuttle. If we had not boarded this train, we would have definitely missed the bus. As we disembarked, we were instantly engulfed in the vastness of Hozukyo Gorge:
©Photo: Hozukyo Station, rakuten
In the echoes of departing metal hooves came the stillness of cold morning air; so calm that each step felt like a crack on ice. As though hearing us, the mountains stirred awake. The autumn wind grazed my skin as she whispered her siren song of rustling trees and chirping birds. Just as I was about to be lulled into a daze, Kenny’s bellowing voice broke nature’s spell, “Walk faster, cake. We don’t want to miss the bus.” Without a word, I trotted ahead of the group but not before taking a last look at my picturesque surroundings.
I tapped out first to locate the bus stop lest it was a distance away. Fortunately, the Mizuo shuttle was already parked at the station’s entrance. Right after we boarded the bus, a local hiker jogged over with a concerned look on his face: “Are you lost? This is the bus to Mizuo, not tourist bus.” I replied that we were heading to Mizuo for a hike to see the citrus farms and Emperor Seiwa’s Mausoleum. Upon hearing that, he let out a huge sigh of relief and apologised for being startled to see us here. He explained that only, mostly, locals come here for hikes and Mizuo was not a well-known place for tourists. At ease knowing we were alright, he wished us an enjoyable day and bade us farewell. It was very kind of him to check on strangers like that.
Took the shuttle less than 10 minutes to meander its way uphill to Mizuo. The village bus stop, one and only, had a lavatory, drinks vending machine and the elusive trash bin, which would later serve as our last garbage disposal point before leaving the village.
*Note: Skip unless you are curious about the lack of trash cans in Japan
The 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo station by the cult, Aum Shinrikyo, killed 13 and injured more than 5000 people. To allay the people’s fears of more terror attacks, trash bins have been removed from many public areas. Today, litter bins can be found next to vending machines, at the parks, outside convenience stores and in some train stations.
(taking a photo at mizuo’s welcome signboard is protocol of a school excursion lolol)
(pure serenity; mizuo was so quiet we had to keep our decibels in check!)
Following the signs, we walked to the end of the village and commenced our ascend towards Emperor Seiwa’s Mausoleum. It was a pretty steep 2km climb. Talk about an early morning workout (bleargh)! Before long, we reached the top. Not much of a view as it was blocked by towering trees but this was the off-the-beaten-path hike catered for Kenny and Dad, and it was easy enough for Mom. The history nerd in me though did not pick this hill at random at all:
Here lies the actual remains of Emperor Seiwa. He was the ancestor of Seiwa Genji, the most powerful line of the Minamoto clan whose descendants included the founders of the 3 shogunates of Japan. Born to a Fujiwara mother, the dominance of the Fujiwara clan over Heian-kyō began with his reign in 858.
Crowned at 9 and ceded his throne to his son at 27, Emperor Seiwa became a monk at age 30. After travelling around, he chose to spend his last days in Mizuo, a quiet place near the capital. A year later, he fell ill and passed away. His last will was to be buried at the peak of Mount Mizuo, where his mausoleum Seiwa Tenno Mizunoyama no Misasagi now stands:
Save for the bus driver, a postman, a farmer and a 3-man construction team building a small shop, there were no other locals in sight. We surmised that most of the residents probably worked in the city and/or the village could be one of those weekend places where locals drove in for a day trip.
Returning the way we came, we strolled along Mizuo’s main road, spied orchards of citrus and plums:
(forgot to take photos as we were thoroughly enjoying the walk)
And took a detour to Emperor Seiwa’s shrine, Seiwatennō-sha, before exiting the village:
(the kami/spirit of the revered emperor is honoured and protected here)
©Photo: Akechigoe Hiking Trail; kameoka city
The 3km walk (circled) from Mizuo back to Hozukyo station was a downhill one, which greatly helped in pacing our energy levels for the rest of the day. The trek is part of the 10km Akechigoe hiking trail. It was named after Oda Nobunaga’s general, Akechi Mitsuhide, who walked this very path up to Mount Atago and penned 100 poems declaring his intentions to betray his daimyō.
*Note: Unless you are a history geek, best you scroll past the purple bits:
The Sengoku Period (1467-1603) saw the rise of the 3 unifiers of Japan – Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. A century of conflict had weakened most daimyōs which made it easy for Nobunaga to militarily assert his power.
1560 Battle of Okehazama:
Oda Nobunaga killed Imagawa Yoshimoto, one of the most powerful warlords at the time, thereby establishing himself as one of the frontrunners for Shōgun. In crippling the Imagawa, Nobunaga gained the submission of the Matsudaira clan, a long-time enemy of the Oda. In 1561, a formal alliance was forged between Nobunaga and Matsudaira Motoyasu aka Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was also during this battle that Nobunaga noticed the potential of his talented sandal-bearer, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
1568 Oda Nobunaga enters Kyoto:
Ashikaga Yoshiaki went to Nobunaga and appealed to the warlord to help him take back Kyoto from rival clans. The daimyō jumped at the chance of entering the capital and agreed. Victorious, his armies began their march into the city and in doing so, Oda Nobunaga, seemingly, restored the Ashikaga Shogunate by installing Yoshiaki as his puppet shōgun.
1573 Azuchi-Momoyama Period begins:
Yoshiaki had been openly antagonising Nobunaga and the latter finally had it, defeated the shōgun’s troops and exiled him from the capital, officially marking the end of Japan’s second shogunate and the beginning of Oda Nobunaga’s reign until the betrayal by one of his most trusted generals which led to his suicide in 1582.
(a simple timeline of medieval to early modern japan; made on canva)
21 June 1582 – Coup at Honnō-ji
At the pinnacle of his power, Oda Nobunaga already had central Japan under his control and left 3 more clans to subdue before successfully uniting the whole country. Riding the waves of victory, Nobunaga’s generals and armies kept on fighting at the frontlines, expanding his territory. Word arrived asking for reinforcements to which he promptly responded by sending his general, Akechi Mitsuhide, ahead while he made preparations to join later.
Due to host tea ceremony in Kyoto, Nobunaga left Azuchi Castle and headed for Honnō-ji. The temple was the daimyō’s usual resting place whenever he was in the capital, a fact very well known to Akechi. Moreover, this time, Nobunaga only had a small entourage accompanying him as most of his men were out on the battlefield. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Akechi marched his army into Kyoto under the guise of following Nobunaga’s orders.
In the dead of the night, Akechi’s troops had the temple surrounded. Nobunaga realised it was hopeless to fight his way out and committed seppuku. His loyal retainer, on his orders, burnt Honnō-ji down so that no one would get his master’s head. Up til today, Nobunaga’s remains have not been found.
(map from kyotostation.com)
In spite of our leisurely pace, we were still ahead of schedule. The time was 1159. Knowing that the Torokko station allowed ticket exchanges, I told the family that if we hurried a little, we could gun for the 1230 Sagano Scenic Railway train instead of our originally-purchased 1430. It would not be pleasant killing 2 hours in Umahori.
We reached Hozukyo station just as the train was pulling in. This time, my parents were the ones on tenterhooks. Kenny and I had both forgotten his wallet was in my bag! I had to run back to the gantry to pass his ICOCA card back to him. Kenny tapped it and we flew down the stairs, across the bridge under the tracks, up 2 flights just to see the conductor smile behind my parents’ anxious faces as he held the doors open for us. We thanked him profusely while gasping for air.
That was not the end of it though. After alighting at the next stop, Murphy toyed with us again. Kenny had insufficient funds in his ICOCA and needed to top up the card before exiting the station. Mom told me to go ahead and get the tickets exchanged while they waited for their son-in-law. That was a rare telepathic moment between Mom and I. She knew I was concerned about availability and the possible long queue at the ticket counter.
©Photo: Towards Kameoka Torokko station, flashpackingjapan.com
I dashed from Umahori JR station, along these pretty fields, to Kameoka Torokko station. Been 16 years since I sprinted and man, it felt good! In autumn weather and to a charming view too! As luck would have it, the station was packed but the queue was short. Zig-zagged my way through the crowd and slipped into line just as another tourist stepped behind me. Next up, meeee!! #InsertYesBabyMemeHerePlease
I could feel the cosmos turning in our favour. There was availability on the 1230 but in a standing car, which was a no brainer. Exchanged our seated tickets for the earlier train, joined up with the family and got us in front of the queue to board our car. About a minute or two later, the Torokko rolled into the station:
(the japanese word, torokko, is derived from the english word, truck – trucko – terucko – torokko)
As we hopped on the 19th century locomotive, I gestured towards the ‘right’ side of the car. “Why the rush to get on first?” Dad queried as we waited for the massive groups of tourists to board and find their seats. “Because this side is the where the view is.” Dad gave me a puzzled look, which was not unfounded since the torokko had opened windows on both sides:
©Photo: Sagano Romantic Train, japan.travel
This was one of the rare times where I genuinely appreciated my good sense of direction and Singaporean kiasu-ness in the face of the Chinese tourist horde. Mom wanted to ride the Romantic Train and it would all be for nought if we were looking at cliffs throughout the journey:
(make sure you watch in hd to see hozugawa & hozukyo gorge in their full glory and enjoy my parents’ live commentary. lol)
Before the advent of rail transport, rivers were the lifeline of trade between cities. As early as the 8th century (Nara Period), Hozugawa (aka Hozu River) was used to transport lumber to Kyoto and Osaka. The river was then widened in the 1600s (Edo Period) to accommodate larger shipments of rice and other cargo. Come 19th century, diesel-powered trains and trucks hauling freight replaced the boats, rendering the centuries-old transportation obsolete.
(waved at the boat people)
Another way to sightsee Hozukyo Gorge is a 2 hour cruise down the ravine on traditional boats steered using oars and bamboo poles. The vintage train, however, takes only 20 minutes to chug along Hozugawa between Kameoka and Arashiyama.
(map from kyotostation.com)
Essentially, we took the JR Sagano line to Hozukyo station to hike at Mizuo, hopped back on the same train to head further out west to Umahori station and crossed over to Kameoka Torokko station, where we boarded the Sagano Scenic Railway train towards Arashiyama.
WEST KYOTO – ARASHIYAMA
(map from japan-guide.com)
1250 – We got off at Arashiyama Torokko station instead. I had read that the last leg of the train ride to the terminus, Saga Torokko, is mostly through tunnels; nothing to see. Besides, to get to our designated lunch spot, we would have to walk through the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest, which was another Mom thing on the itinerary:
(unfortunately, kenny and i have been spoilt by lombok’s bamboos but we see arashiyama’s appeal)
(the happy mom got her tourist train ride and instagram shot)
(the most enjoyable part of the bamboo forest – the handpan busker)
Made it through the mob to Sancyuu! We were famished and ready to devour our highly-anticipated, and first, soba-udon meal:
(left: bamboo shoot udon, fried tofu soba, grilled mackerel soba and raw egg soba x 2 with gyoza in the middle)
Rejuvenated, we dove right back into the ocean of heads and made our way to Tenryū-ji:
The Zen Buddhist temple was built in 1339 by Shōgun Ashikaga Takauji, the founder of Japan’s second bakufu, the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336-1568), as a memorial to his former ally-turned-enemy, Emperor Go-Daigo after the latter’s death.
*Note: Unless you are a history geek, best you scroll past the purple bits to the next photo:
Emperor Go-Daigo had always wanted Japan to be under sovereign rule. During his reign (1318-1339), his ploys to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate (1183-1333), in 1324 and 1331, were both discovered and quashed, with the second resulting in his exile. In 1333, Go-Daigo escaped and raised an army, prepared to fight his way back into Kyoto. To quell his rebellion, the Kamakura Shogunate sent their general, Ashikaga Takauji. However, for reasons unknown, the samurai switched sides and fought against the bakufu. This allowed Go-Daigo to take back the throne and initiate the Kenmu Restoration (1333-1336), thus marking the end of Japan’s first shogunate.
Aimed at reviving royal dictatorship, Emperor Go-Daigo’s policies prioritised the nobility and severely alienated the warrior class. The samurai’s growing discontent culminated in a 1336 uprising led by Takauji, who subsequently captured Kyoto and established the Ashikaga Shogunate.
In the last 100 years of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Japan was drowning in civil war. Known as the Sengoku Period (1467-1603), the turbulent time began with the Onin War (1467-1477), which had originally started as a quarrel over shogun succession. In 10 years, Kyoto had been reduced to ruins and the fight had spread to other parts of the country. The incessant fighting in and around the capital had also caused the burning of Tenryū-ji. This blaze was just 1 of the 8 major fires the temple had endured.
While Tenryū-ji’s halls repeatedly fell victim to fires and wars, the temple’s garden remained intact in its original design through the ages:
Tired of being swarmed and craving for more serene surroundings, we took a cab up north to Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street to escape the masses:
©Photo: Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street maintained in the style of the Meiji Period (1868-1912); foursquare
It was an immersive visual journey through time, strolling along traditional Kyoto houses (machiya) where we got to see different architectural variations of the city’s old housing.
(the roof behind has wet moss on it to, probably, keep the house cool during summer and prevent it from catching fire easily)
As Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street is connected to the main Arashiyama tourist area, we continued on the road southward, past the bamboo forest, cut across Kameyama-koen and finally emerged at the riverside where we followed Hozugawa towards Togetsukyo bridge. Along the way, we stopped by % Arabica (Percent Arabica) for me to grab a cuppa:
©Photo: Corner of % Arabica Arashiyama, on the right by the lamp post, @phalatromcai
This famed global coffeeshop, @arabica.journal, started right here in Kyoto. Perfect opportunity to try the brew on their home turf. The time was 1630. Although there was a crowd and line, I did not wait long to queue nor collect my iced latte. Not more than 10 minutes, I reckon. Verdict? Kenny and I both liked it. A strong pick-me-up without an overwhelming bitter after-taste.
Mom was too tired to walk further to check off her tourist bridge plus everyone could eat so, we gave Togetsukyo a miss – well, not really because we could already see the bridge from % Arabica – and headed to our dinner spot, which was only 5 minutes away!
(entrance of yudofu sagano)
A little indulgence to bookend a productive day of exploring West Kyoto:
We dined on tatami in full view of the pretty garden:
Tofu had arrived in Japan from China during the Nara Period (710-794). Perfected over centuries by Buddhist monks, Kyoto’s handmade specialty is the tofu benchmark of the world and comes in different styles – boiled, baked, fried, chilled:
(there is a sequence to this. i think we ate from the left and ended with the boiled tofu in the pot. dessert was served later)
On top of being a place of leisure for the aristocracy since the Heian Period (794-1185), Arashiyama was also a temple district, due to Tenryū-ji ranking first among the city’s five major Zen temples. Feasting on tofu kaiseki, the haute cuisine originally reserved for nobles, right here in the old temple quarter was a very apt dinner experience.
Pleasantly surprised by how palatable and filling tofu kaiseki was, we had to let the food settle before getting on our way. It was an exceptionally memorable meal for my parents, who had already been in country 5 days before us. For the next 2 days, Mom kept bringing up this dinner each time the conversation segued to food topics. LOL!
Time was 1900. We were the last customers out of Yudofu Sagano. Loaded google maps and took a shortcut through residential houses towards Randen Arashiyama station to check out the Kimono Forest:
Founded in 1910, the Randen is the only electric streetcar in Kyoto. You can buy the 1-day Randen Pass to hop on and off at the various sightseeing spots:
The Kimono Forest is an art installation of 600 two-meter tall acrylic cylinders displaying various kimono fabric designs. Every evening, the forest lights up between 7pm to 9pm:
We first entered Arashiyama through the Bamboo Forest and now, we were going to exit via the Kimono Forest. A splendid way to conclude our first adventure in Kyoto!