Kyoto has long been my favorite destination on earth; I am perpetually enchanted by its timeless bamboo groves, historic temples, and the many visible aspects of Japanese culture and refinement that originated here - Nishijin textiles, the tea ceremony, shojin ryori / kaiseki.
I had visited Kyoto 10 times previously, many of those visits when I was living / working in Komaki, Aichi (near Nagoya), when Kyoto was a simple 37-minute bullet train ride. Now it takes about 3 hours and $300 round trip, and requires more coordination / planning.
Last year, I heard about Kyoto's two yearly lantern festivals for the first time; Arashiyama lightup in December, and Higashiyama (Gion) in March. Early this year, I made reservations for March 16-18 in order to attend several nights of the Higashiyama Flower Lantern festival, as well as add some new temples to my itinerary.
On previous visits, I had already visited most of the "must-sees" featured in guidebooks, including Kiyomizudera, Gion, Ginkakuji, Kinkakuji, Sanjusangendo, Fushimi Inari, Ryoanji, and Nijo Castle, along with other "off the beaten path" gems like Shosei-en gardens, Sanzenin in Ohara, and the Kyoto Railway Museum.
On my 11th visit, I added several new temples and shrines to my list, including Tofukuji (東福寺), Daigoji (醍醐寺), 東寺, Jonan Shrine (城南宮), and Gioji (祇王寺). I also revisited several old favorites including the beautiful Saihoji (西芳寺), also known as Kokedera 苔寺 (moss temple), which is by reservation only.
In the evenings, I wandered the mysterious narrow lanes of Gion's cobbled alleyways, lit by the soft glow of thousands of lanterns. I visited several spectacular temple lightups at Shoren-in and Kodaiji, attended several dances by Maiko-san from various okiyas, and watched the fox wedding procession (狐の嫁入り) both nights.
I had packed my suitcase and camera gear with the goal of reaching Kyoto by 08:30 a.m. on Friday morning in order to give myself as much time as possible; against my better judgment, I followed Google Map's advice of taking Shin-Yokohama station (I usually leave from Shinagawa), and once again it reaffirmed my dislike of this route!!
As soon as I arrived in Kyoto Station, I dropped off my luggage in a coin locker and headed directly for Tofukuji (which I had planned) and Daigoji, two temples I had not previously visited.
Tofukuji boasts several beautiful gardens; unfortunately I did not have time to visit all of them before I set off for Daigoji (I had made a lunch reservation for 11:30 a.m and did not want to arrive late!). The cherry blossom buds were nearly ready to open, and the gardens offer astounding panoramas of cherry blossoms in the spring. Even in the light drizzle the temple grounds were stunning, with several moss gardens and dry stone gardens.
Next was Daigoji; the famous vermilion bridge is a familiar sight in Kyoto tourism brochures and photos, particularly in autumn. On this drizzly day, I had nearly the entire temple complex to myself and was able to enjoy it in serenity.
Lunch at 雨月茶屋 was marvelous; I opted for the lunch which included yuba-wrapped sushi, soba with grated yam, and other delights. I have enjoyed 精進料理 (Japanese Buddhist "devotion cuisine," which is vegan) at temples around Japan including Kyoto, Kamakura, Koyasan, Nagano and Tokyo.
After checking in to my very centrally-located hotel (which I had stayed at previously in 2011), I headed out for the first evening of Higashiyama Hanatouro (Flower Lantern Festival) in the hopes of catching a maiko performance. Alas, on March 16th, the maiko dedication dance had been moved to the much smaller Noh stage at Yasaka Jinja, and a horde of middle-aged male Japanese photographers had already crowded the very narrow stage with a clear view more than an hour before the performance. I kept getting jostled (I was even asked to move so the maiko could enter (!), they walked right behind me), and decided I would try my luck the following evening instead.
I headed out to try and catch the Fox Wedding procession, based on a traditional legend. I was able to snap a couple of photos at the beginning of the procession on Friday night, which features a woman in a beautiful white kimono. She was wearing a fox mask and was pulled in a rickshaw accompanied by her "groom" and attendants (also wearing fox masks), who were carrying real candle-lit paper lanterns. The procession moved quickly to the spooky sound of woodblocks and bells as they made their way through the crowded streets to stop at various temples along the route.
I tried to follow the attendants and rickshaw, but the pace was too quick, so instead I stopped to admire the various lanterns and ikebana arrangements around Maruyama Koen and stopped in to see the lightup at Shoren-in. I was very surprised to see a group of lanterns that look very much like my beloved Aomori's famed Nebuta; I will be visiting the Nebuta Museum in Aomori next month. The garden at Shoren-in was laced with small blue LED lights that blinked slowly into life like fireflies as the surrounding wall faded into a rainbow of colors. Thus ended my first memorable evening at Higashiyama Hanatouro; according to my iPhone, I walked 20 kilometers on Friday!