I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep nearly as soon as I got back to my hotel late Friday night.
I woke up at 0430, excited at the prospect of revisiting Saihoji (better known as Kokedera, “Moss Temple,” due to its gardens composed of dozens of varieties of velvety moss). I first visited Kokedera in 2011, and despite several attempts to make a followup reservation, had not had any luck (visiting the temple gardens is via a postcard “lottery” and as the temple limits the number of visitors, getting an admission can be tricky). Last year, I took a friend’s suggestion and visited Sanzenin in nearby Ohara instead. But I was thrilled that the weather forecast was correct and the day was absolutely stunning: crystal clear skies and warm sunshine.
I decided to splurge and go for breakfast at Ukihashi at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto, where I had stayed my very first visit to Kyoto in December 2010. Ukihashi serves a very upscale, traditional Japanese set breakfast that features grilled salmon, rolled omelette, miso soup, rice, and several small sides / pickles. I love Japanese breakfasts for their simplicity and variety, and the fact that each dish is one or two bites.
After breakfast, I set out for my first destination, the Toji temple complex with its landmark pagoda readily visible from around Kyoto. Toji was founded in the late 700s after the capital relocated from Nara, and 30 years after its founding, Kobo Daishi (the priest who founded Shingon Esoteric Buddhism in Koyasan) as head priest established Toji as a major Shingon center and ordered the construction of many of the temple’s subbuildings.
After visiting Toji and adding another temple seal to my collection, I set out for Jonangu Shrine, which I’d seen splashed across Facebook and Instagram for its spectacular weeping plums.
Unfortunately I’d arrived after most of the blossoms had fallen (the Facebook photos showed flowery cascades), but the shrine’s gardens were simply stunning, with many beautifully landscaped ponds, lanterns, and other traditional elements. Due to being tight on time, I traveled to and from Takeda Station by taxi, a luxury I rarely indulge in when traveling.
Next I set out for Arashiyama, where I had a lunch reservation at Arashiyamakan. I discovered this gem on Happy Cow and was overjoyed to dine at this tiny, family-run vegan eatery with a 100-year history and many beautiful antiques.
The owner shared many interesting historical facts about Arashiyama (including the fact that Thomas Edison used Arashiyama bamboo filaments in the original lightbulb design!) and took me to visit a beautiful temple next door.
The massive amount of delicious shojin-style bento could have fed an army; it included the lightest, crispiest tempura I’ve ever had, along with several excellent local misos, konnyaku, various cold vegetable salads, and assorted side dishes.
After lunch I set out for Saihoji for my 1 p.m. appointment (the postcard said to arrive 15 minutes prior). On that day, we did not write the Hannya Shingyo sutra as I had done on my previous visit; instead we chanted Hannya Shingyo several times. Afterwards, guests were free to wander the gardens at leisure. I also dropped off my goshuincho to collect what is undoubtedly the neatest seal in my large collection.
I hung back until I was nearly the last one in the garden, allowing me to capture absolutely spectacular photos of the moss, ponds, and various elements. The dappled sunlight filtering through the bamboos and trees absolutely transported me to a magical realm. The first time I’d visited, it had been overcast, and the garden was still beautiful but nowhere near the sublime beauty of Saturday.
After my visit to Saihoji (I was nearly the last one out the door), I stopped in to neighboring Cricket Temple (Suzumushidera) to collect another goshuin (the line to enter the temple was a 2-hour wait dozens deep, so I opted for the seal only as I had to get back to Higashiyama for the maiko performance at 17:30).
With no time to unwind, I grabbed my tripod from my hotel and set out immediately for Gion in the hopes of securing a good spot in front of the stage. For the first maiko dedication performance at 18:30, I was slightly left of the open stage and a pillar obstructed my view of the second maiko, but persistence paid off and after the first performance, a kind Japanese photographer let me stand directly near the center, allowing me to capture outstanding photos of the two maiko as they performed a fan dance.
After the second performance, I set out to photograph the fox wedding procession, but found it was simply too crowded to get any usable images. I went to the temple where I thought the procession was ending, only to find it set off again for another temple (Kodaiji) and I was too short / too far away to get photos. However, I took the opportunity to visit the lightup at Kodaiji, which was absolutely spectacular. There was a digital projection incorporating Western imagery and music across the dry stone garden and walls. The Weeping cherry in the garden was nearly blooming as well, lending the whole thing an ethereal aura.
The expansive garden and teahouses (designed by tea master Rikyu) were stunning at night. Again I walked the streets of Gion to try and capture the magical atmosphere of the narrow cobbled lanes lit by various styles of lanterns; there were very few foreign tourists and less Japanese than I was expecting even though it was the next to last day of the festival. I finally made it back to my hotel around 10:30 p.m.