My original (last-minute) plans were to spend the night in Kyoto last Saturday, but rain and overcast skies dampened my enthusiasm, and I spent Saturday doing two weeks' worth of laundry instead. Sunday, however, was a pristine day at peak bloom, so I hopped on the 6:44 train to Heian Dori and caught the 7:37 nozomi shinkansen to Kyoto. It costs about $130 round-trip, but it only takes about 35 minutes from Nagoya station, which is pretty painless. After a quick stop at the ATM (zero cash!), Starbucks, and the post office, I crammed myself onto the bus with about 3.5 million other Japanese (OK, slight exaggeration!) to head out to Kiyomizudera, one of Kyoto's most famous temples and best cherry blossom / fall color spots.
Before heading up to Kiomizudera proper, I discovered another Buddhist temple with a pretty stone bridge, so I stopped over to take pictures (and to avoid the rowdy bunch of young guys that had just poured off my bus, who had engaged in what seemed to be “unnecessary” jostling as we stood back(side) to back(side). I took a different street up to Kiomizudera (the traditional approach is full of souvenir shops and food stalls), and got some spectacular photos. I also worked up the nerve to ring the rin gong。 Large rin gongs are wonderfully, powerfully resonant, and I find the sound very soothing. Rin gongs are traditional fixtures of household butsudan, or Buddhist altars. They are also used in meditation.
I headed down the steep, delightful warren of shops in Ninen-Zaka-Sannen-Zaka and decided to stop for a picnic lunch in the park above. I found a shady stoop to have my French bread, Camembert, and Belgian chocolate, when to my amazement a parade of colorful (pseudo) maiko-san (tourists dressed as geishas-in-training) and wedding parties trooped by, photographers in tow. I saw at least seven or eight "maikos" and two wedding parties; one bride had on a magnifnicent uchikake (embroidered wedding kimono), but I didn't want to be intrusive, so I was content watching the happy couples pose for the (official) wedding photographer.
Later, I walked up by Chion-in Temple and checked out the bell, then I headed back down into Gion to Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park, where the alcohol was flowing all too freely at 11 in the morning, as evidenced by happy drunken shouts. The ground under the cherry trees was jammed with tipsy young people sharing convenience store snacks and cheap booze.
Next, I took the bus to Heian Jingu, built in the late 19th century. Before entering the shrine, I took photos by the Okazaki Canal, where numerous cherry blossoms were in full bloom on both sides of the river. I walked around the shrine courtyard and picked up another "castle" coin for my collection. I almost left without seeing the garden, but I'm so glad I stayed! It was filled with weeping cherry trees, a variety that I hadn’t seen elsewhere (at least, not in those numbers). I stopped for matcha and wagashi (powdered green tea and a Japanese sweet) and got slightly sunburned!
Finally, I caught a bus up to Ginkakuji, where I discovered that there AREN'T any cherry trees in the entire garden! (I did see another bride in a magnificent wedding kimono). However, the amazing Philosopher's Path more than made up for it. It's a canal lined with thousands of cherry trees, and the water's reflection is pure white from the blossoms above. By then, it was almost 5 p.m., and my feet and knees were about to give out, so I headed home. By the time I got back to Nagoya, it was 8:20 p.m., but I had about 230 amazing photos and memories I’ll always cherish!