It was almost three years to the day when we returned to Kyoto in November 2022.
In the intervening time, when it was not possible to travel to Japan, I had travelled in my imagination to this beautiful city, through the Japanese literature surrounding and including Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji.
I'd created an ever-expanding list of places connected to the novel that I had never seen, and so when we knew that our flights were not going to be cancelled this time, and that we would be entering Japan again, it was to this list that I turned for our first trip back.
Most importantly were the family and friends of Zusetsu that I was so excited to see again!
With a small nod to the Japanese tradition of travel writing, I thought you might be interested to read about the places that I visited, in case you would like to include them in your own travel itinerary!
Monday: TOKYO to FUSHIMI INARI
What struck me most about the shrine of Fushimi Inari Taisha, that first evening when we'd arrived from London, was the colour: especially the vermilion reds of the torii and autumn leaves.
The place is deeply atmospheric, even more so after dark.
This was our second time staying there, in one of the small renovated houses of Inari Ohan, located a short walk behind the small station.
What draws me back is the opportunity to be able to wander through the shrine at any time. The chance to walk through any number of vermilion torii as the lights begin to glow in the lanterns, and visitors begin to drift away.
I like to imagine Sei Shonagon walking along these paths, as she details a pilgrimage she had to Fushimi Inari in her Pillow Book. She stops to take a break half-way up the mountainside when she overhears:
a woman of forty or more, not even dressed in travelling wear but simply with her robes tucked up, remarking to someone she'd met on the path as she descended,
'I'm performing seven pilgrimage circuits. I've already completed three, and it'll be no trouble to do the remaining four. I should be off the mountain again by early afternoon.'
It's easy to empathise with her, isn't it!
We climb through the deserted torii on our first evening, and two small boar dart across our path through the crisscross shadows.
It's a short walk to the small station at Fushimi Inari from our rental house, down a quiet residential lane, over the small river, past the handy kombini, over the railway line where the barriers always seem to close and the train warning sounds just like in every anime I've ever seen.
It's on the Nara line, with a swift local train stopping at Tofukuji before arriving at Kyoto Station, which is where we head for shops and restaurants.
Tuesday: DAIGO-JI and ISHIYAMADERA
Daigo-ji was mesmerising in its flame-coloured beauty. It's very old - established only about seventy years after Kyoto first became the capital.
The villa of Sanboin looked beautiful in the autumn sunshine. From the dazzling vermilion of the shrine and its kingfisher pool, Sanboin was hazy, verdant and gilded. The garden was designed by 16th century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
I loved the detail of the small gold leaf squares on the fusuma sliding doors, they made me think of the Heian paper decoration kirihaku.
Ishiyamadera was astonishingly lovely. Remote from the old capital, near Lake Biwa, the quiet of the temple precincts lent itself to a secluded author writing a novel over a thousand years ago.
It's here that Murasaki Shikibu is believed to have been inspired to write The Tale of Genji.
The temple and its hillside surroundings quietly referenced this author of huge significance to Japanese literature.
I was delighted to find a hidden figurine of Murasaki Shikibu among a small glass-topped case of gifts near the temple entrance. I was so happy to bring her home with me!
Murasaki's statue resides serenely amongst the
gardens. It was lovely to see her - it made me think of the woodblock prints that have been created over the centuries, depicting her looking out from the temple across to Lake Biwa. She is always depicted with some of her writing materials: her writing brush, scroll and ink.
There was a small teahouse near the entrance to the temple grounds, and it was lovely to sit peacefully with a bowl of matcha and a delicious sweet :)
Wednesday: KAMIGAMO and SHIMAGAMO
Kamigamo sits north of the city of Kyoto close to a wilder part of the Kamo river. Its neighbouring shrine Shimogamo is further downstream, near to the fork in the Kamogawa that is such a recognisable feature of a map of the city.
These two ancient shrines served the Imperial Palace and housed deities who protected the capital and its prosperity.
At Kamigamo there is some of the most beautiful Heian court-style architecture in Japan.
I was especially fascinated to visit this beguiling shrine because of its key role in The Tale of Genji.
Kamo sai, the Aoi Matsuri, which forms the backdrop to significant happenings in Chapter 9, began as long ago as the year 544, and so when Murasaki Shikibu was writing her novel for the Empress and the court, the festival was already ancient.
Aoi is the name of Genji's wife, as well as the name of a heart-shaped vine that was used to decorate the carriages in the Aoi festival. The high-ranking court ladies were travelling in their ox-carts to see a preliminary event to the festival - the procession of the Kamo Priestess to the Kamo river for her purification ritual. The Lady Rokujou's carriage is moved out of the way to make room for the carriage of Genji's wife. Lady Rokujou's angry spirit manifests a jealousy and a rage so great that it appears beside Genji as his wife is in labour.
Sei Shonagon writes about this procession too:
You've gone to watch the Return of the High Priestess after the Kamo Festival, and when you draw up your carriage by Urin'in or Chisokuin Temples, you hear a hotogisu singing with all the irrepressible feeling of this special occasion - then lo and behold, from deep in the high trees an uguisu joins in, in beautifully skilful imitation. It's marvellous to hear them chorusing away together.
On the day that we visited, little children were being taken by their families to have their photos taken as part of the gorgeous Shichi-Go-San festival. Children of 7, 5, and 3 are dressed in beautiful kimono for their formal photos. The children look adorable!
We walked to Kamigamo shrine from Kitayama station, using the Kamo river as our guide. Kitayama is where Naeko lives among the tall cedars in Kawabata Yasunari's novel The Old Capital : it's a lovely area, feeling spacious and full of nature. As we walked the Obon funigata hung over us, marked on a mountainside. It is one of the daimonji, the mountain lights that guide the departed back to the spirit world.
There is a wide park-like area just outside the shrine compound, with a broad drive, and it is here that the Kasagake horse-back archery takes place every October.
Also, it is here that the winding stream poetry contests take place in the Spring!
The path to Shimogamo shrine cuts through the ancient Tadasu forest. We leapt about catching leaves as they skittered down on the breeze!
We walked through the Shimogamo compound, intrigued by the Koto Zodiac shrines, to the Mitarashi-sha stream where fortune slips were being sold.
The papers were to be floated on the surface of the cool spring water (to reveal the fortune) and then tied and knotted - a nice lady showed me how to do it. They made me think of the knotted letters of the Heian nobility all those centuries ago!
We walked back into Kyoto along the banks of the Kamo river. What delighted me most of all were the stepping stone river crossings - especially the wide stepping stone crossing where the two branches of the river merge.
Thursday: MYOSHINJI, RYOANJI, CAMELLIA, KITANO TENMANGU, IMPERIAL PALACE, RYOZEN-JI
I love walking in Kyoto: a really good long walk, through temple precincts, along lanes of intriguing tatami-matted shops and traditional restaurants. It always feels like an adventure, discovering the sights and sounds of this city that is simultaneously ancient and modern.
I began the day running through Kyoto Station for the train that was just about to depart for Hanazono! I felt a thrill to be back at Hanazono and walking up to the entrance to the Myoshinji Temple complex. I have such good memories of staying here at beautiful Shunko-in, and visiting the garden at Taizo-in.
It was the most beautiful day, and the temple was wonderfully peaceful - until the children from the temple kindergarten filed past on a run, some full of joy and one or two not!
Up through the familiar lanes towards the mountains I wandered, until I reached Ryoan-ji.
Ryoan-ji, looking glorious in the fall sunshine. It was one of the places that made me fall in love with Kyoto on my first day in the city, over a decade ago. It was heaven to be back!
And then I had that sparkly feeling that you have when you know you're about to do something really wonderful: I walked down the little pedestrian path and stood at the entrance to the Camellia Garden teahouse.
Camellia Garden Teahouse
Tea ceremony at Camellia Garden with Atsuko san
During the long months when Japan was closed to visitors from abroad, we reached out to lovely Atsuko-san of Camellia, and she amazed us by inviting us to a special tea ceremony celebrating Tanabata and Gion Matsuri via Instagram Live.
It was wonderful to meet Atsuko san again. I'd met her several years ago when I had visited her original Camellia teahouse in Ninenzaka near Kiyomizudera. The original Camellia teahouse is where the Starbucks on Ninenzaka is now. I remember the twisty wooden stairs of the original Camellia, and the wonder I felt when I learned that this fascinating house of low doorways had once been a geisha house.
Camellia now has a pretty teahouse tucked in a small lane just behind Ninenzaka, and it's called Camellia Flower.
I could never have dreamed of the kindness Atsuko san showed me. She had chosen to wear a kimono that featured her favourite character from The Tale of Genji - Hanachirusato. And her Nishijin-woven obi sash was simply stunning - I love the medieval manuscript illustrations of The Tale of Genji, and the obi honours the stylised way of representing the characters, with the loveliest surrounding detail of Kyoto flowers, reed blinds, and the koto that the court ladies play.
I was astonished to see a koto in the entrance to Camellia Garden!
Atsuko san and I chatted for a long time, as the steam from the kettle gently curled above the tatami, and we looked out over the autumn garden.
I hope you enjoy the short clip of Atsuko san's tea ceremony above. She so kindly ordered a special sweet to go with the green matcha tea which was absolutely delicious!
The sweet is called oribe, named after the 16th century daimyo and famed tea master Furuta Oribe, who was a near contemporary of Sen no Rikyū . The wagashi recreates the porcelain-like surface and the greeny copper patterned glazes of oribe pottery - these early ceramics were created for tea ceremony in the Momoyama era.
Visiting Camellia Garden in the northern hills of Kyoto was a wonderful experience.
You can book your own visit to Camellia Tea Ceremony, Kyoto here.
From Camellia Garden Teahouse, I wandered through back lanes, passing students on bicycles, and headed towards a temple that I love very much: Kitano Tenmangu.
Kitano Tenmangu was built to appease the angry spirit of Heian nobleman Sugawara no Michizane, when a series of disasters struck Kyoto.
Sugawara no Michizane, a high-ranking Heian courtier, was wrongfully accused of plotting against the Emperor by his Fujiwara rival, and sent into exile. There are many sorrowful accounts of men banished from the capital in early Japanese literature: Sugawara no Michizane creates a poem to his favourite plum tree as he leaves it behind:
If the east wind blows this way,
Oh blossoms on the plum tree,
Send your fragrance to me!
Always be mindful of the spring,
Even though your master is no longer there!
ume no hana
aruji nashi tote
haru o wasuruna
Kitano Tenmangu is planted with many plum trees in memory of this Heian nobleman.
There is a beautiful festival each February called Baikasai, where maiko and geiko from the local Kamishichiken district serve tea amongst the shrine's flowering plum blossoms.
My happy memories of Kitano Tenmangu centre around my stay at ryokan Mugen, and being recommended by the lovely hosts to visit their local temple to see the autumn foliage lit up at night.
On another trip I saw the little children of the district dressed up to perform the Zuiki Matsuri Yaotome Dance, their regular clothes wrapped in large furoshiki and held by their grandmothers. (I asked them for permission to take this photo).
Within the gathered crowd, I gazed as the palanquin housing the deified Sugawara no Michizane returned to the shrine.
Today I decided to walk down the lanes adjacent to Kamishichiken, as it is mentioned in Kawabata's The Old Capital.
The lanes were quiet and peaceful, with nice-looking restaurants and intriguing shops.
Imperial Palace Garden and Rozan-ji
I walked eastwards across the city and entered into the north west gate of the Imperial Palace garden, stopping at the tea house for a second bowl of matcha and a sweet.
Before my meetings with friends and businesses in the centre of the city, I just had time to see the entrance of Rozan-ji with its statue of Murasaki Shikibu. I was keen to see this temple,
because it is built on the site of the villa of her great-grandfather (Fujiwara no Kanesuke), and it is where Murasaki Shikibu spent much of her life: from
her early years to her marriage and the birth of her daughter.
Friday: INE and AMANOHASHIDATE
We hired a car from a company south of Kyoto Station, and quickly sped through the city and out onto the mountainous roads that took us to Amanohashidate.
This is a famous beauty spot, renowned for the spit of sand that separates the sea.
I loved walking underneath the fragrant pine trees, listening to the sea. My thoughts were full of the matsukaze sounds of the kettle during the tea ceremony at Camellia Garden in the quiet northern hills of Kyoto the day before. The bubbling kettle is said to sound like the breeze through the pines...
While I walked the length of the spit, my hub took spectacular drone shots (he applied for the special licence to fly and flew within the zones that are allowed).
He even drove round to pick me up on the other side! :)
We then continued on the scenic road to the spectacularly lovely fishing village of Ine.
We loved Ine very much. For a place of such beauty we were charmed that it was so peaceful and unspoilt.
We found one cafe that was near to closing, where we could sit and have a drink. Through the tiny shop (that also served as a reception for the guest house, I believe), we stepped onto a plastic crate to step down onto the little concrete covered area that had views directly out onto the calm green sea. We were surrounded by fishing tackle; the chairs and tables were few and mismatched, and we utterly loved it!
Ine is a village of traditional funaya, boathouses, which line the beautiful bay. I'm a boat girl - I grew up around boats and sail and kayak to this day, and the funaya were heavenly!
On the twenty-ninth, the retired emperor boarded his waiting ship and set out for home, but the wind was too strong. The ship had to row back and put in once more to the Itsukushima harbor of Ari-no-ura.
His Eminence said, 'The deity does not wish us to leave. Present a poem.'
Lieutenant Takafusa therefore:
Nor is our own wish
to go away: We would stay on
to receive from the white waves
the blessings of the divine.
(The Tale of the Heike, translated by Royall Tyler, p. 196 Penguin Classics edition.)
In The Tale of the Heike, the 14th century account of the 12th century regency power struggle between the Heike clan and the Genji clan, we learn that the power-hungry Kiyomori has a dream in which he is promised dominion over Japan if he rebuilds the neglected shrine at Itsukushima.
In the scene above, twenty-year-old Emperor Takakura has been forced to abdicate in favour of the new three year old Emperor, who just happens to have Kiyomori as his grandfather. Retired Emperor Takakura travels to the Taira/Heike shrine on Itsukushima (Miyajima), ostensibly to pray for the new Emperor, but secretly to pray to the Taira deity to 'soothe Kiyomori's rebel spirit' (p.193).
The beautiful island of Miyajima is reached by shinkansen and ferry from Kyoto these days! The atmosphere was really lovely - families enjoying the weekend, playing on the beach, looking at the amazing torii that sits in the sea, and the enchanting temple that overlooks it.
I was keen to revisit the Kofukuji temple in the ancient capital of Nara. Kofukuji and the surrounding constructions including the magnificent black pagoda and the octagonal halls were the family temples and tutelary of the powerful Fujiwara family, who maintained the power behind the throne throughout the Heian era. Murasaki Shikibu herself was a member of the Fujiwara clan.
Isui-en is a beautiful garden that uses shakkei (the borrowed scenery of the mountains behind) to extend its vista. The garden has several peaceful teahouses overlooking the picturesque pools.
The teahouses made me think of the essay In Praise of Shadows by Juunichiro Tanizaki: the round-shaped windows of bamboo and washi are designed to create soft shadows within the teahouse.
Monday: TOJI TEMPLE and TOFUKUJI
We began our last full day in Kyoto at Toji Temple, for its early-morning market. With the ancient pagoda towering over us, and chanting emanating from the temple, it was so interesting to see tall sprigs of pine being sold from one stall, and beautiful bonsai from another.
I bought a card of Kitano Tenmangu from a man who was selling art by his wife. I was so happy to be able to chat with him using my N4 Japanese!
I had the most lovely welcome at Ino-kichi: it was wonderful to be able to meet our friends in person. They astonished me when they began to create a paper print of our Zusetsu Yuzu furoshiki in front of my eyes!
In the afternoon we visited Tofukuji, walking through the extremely busy temple compound (people were queueing to see the spectacular momiji) to visit the hidden and peaceful garden at the back.
Sokushuu-in was originally the retirement villa of the Emperor's chief advisor, Fujiwara no Kanezane, and it was built in 1196. (He is mentioned in The Tale of the Heike as the Minister of the Right).
This serene villa and it's beautiful garden belies a dramatic history: it is believed to have been the hideout of Saigou Takemori as he plotted the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate, and the hills behind the villa were the scene of a battle which eventually led to the restoration of the Emperor in 1868.
Tuesday: KYOTO to TOKYO GINZA
We left Kyoto behind and travelled across the country to Tokyo by shinkansen. We stayed not far from Ginza - we loved the udon restaurant Tsuru Ton Tan in Tokyu Plaza Ginza with its cosy seating, and we loved the cute retro cafe Ginza Sukiyabashi!
Wednesday: ROYAL PARK HOTEL and NIHOMBASHI
We had such a special day! We sat at the bar of the Royal Park Hotel Genjikoh Restaurant and watched the skilled chef cook delicious tempura in front of us. He heaped our plates with freshly cooked fish, prawns, and vegetables. My favourites? The tempura asparagus, sweet potato, and the huge curly mushrooms!
From here we headed to Sembikiya in Nihombashi for the most amazing parfait!
Mine was that enormous one in the middle front full of pears, but they all looked incredible!
One of the things that I loved about this trip to Tokyo was that for the first time I saw how liveable Tokyo is just a short distance from tourist hotspots like Shibuya.
Daikanyama felt different as soon as we stepped out of the station. Quiet streets with stylish boutiques and cafes. Daikanyama T-Site was packed full of books including ones I coveted on the artwork of Hayao Miyazaki!
Under a crystalline blue sky, gilded in sunlight, stood the Former Asakura Villa in its shady garden, a fine surviving example of early twentieth century Japanese architecture. This is a place where modern bustling Tokyo is left far behind.
It made me think a little of Tanizaki's Makioka Sisters :)
Friday: ASAKUSA, JIYUGAOKA and OMOTESANDO
We began our last day in Japan at colourful Asakusa, before making our way to the neighbourhood of Jiyugaoka.
Kosoan Teahouse had been recommended to us, and it was very charming with its low tables and seating on tatami. The green matcha tea and sweet was as delicious as the small autumn-leaved garden was beautiful.
What I hadn't expected were the paintings of Heian ladies on the walls!
Lastly, we travelled to vibrant Harajuku and elegant Omotesando, before spending our final night in dazzling Ginza.
Beautiful Fushimi Inari Taisha illuminated by a single star
I hope you have enjoyed coming with me on my trip around Kyoto and Tokyo. I hope it brings back lovely memories if you have been, and gives you some ideas if you plan to go!
Sei Shonagon, translated by Meredith McKinney, The Pillow Book, (Penguin Classics), p.152.
Translated by Royall Tyler, The Tale of the Heike, (Penguin Classics), p.196.
Sugawara no Michizane, poem to plum tree, Harvard Art Museums.
Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Sugawara no Michizane composing a poem about the moon and plum blossoms, (Claremont College Digital Library).
Discover Kyoto: Mitarashi-sha.
Discover Kyoto: Baikasai.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Ishiyama no Tsuki, British Museum, 1889.
Discover Kyoto: Rozan-ji
Real Japanese Gardens: Sokushuuin, near Tofukuji Temple
Camellia Tea Ceremony Kyoto website.
Our Instagram Live event with Camellia is featured in our blog: Tea Ceremony and Tanabata with Camellia, Kyoto
Sweets Tales, The Tea Master's Delight: Oribe Manju