New Years is a family orientated holiday. People go home to see family, friends and celebrate with traditional foods. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are also visited, with thousands of people paying respects to their deceased family and friends and to pray for the last time of the year. They also secure their good fortune by purchasing a lucky talisman for the year and throwing out the previous years charm. It is a truly wonderful time to be in Japan, witnessing the mad every day rush slowing to a more peaceful time to spend with family and friends.
With a full day in front of us, we took off with a one-day combined bus/subway pass for Y1200. Today's tip: the ticket and vending machines only take coins from Y10 upwards (what to do with all those Y1 and Y5 coins?) and only Y1000 notes. We tried a Y10000 note three times before working out the system.
Tickets secured and now with slightly less than a full day in front of us, we headed to Arashiyama in the north west of the city. We thought buildings in Tokyo were crowded in close. In Kyoto the houses are almost within touching distance of the railway lines and are jammed cheek to jowl.
The Navigatrix will post separately with details about all the gardens we visited today, so below is just a short summary.
At Tenyru-ji temple we strolled the beautiful grounds, including a contemplative rock garden, pond with giant koi, moss garden and hills for taking in the view of the buildings and the city. Next door is the Bamboo Forest, a most tranquil and peaceful space bathed in dappled green light. The only disturbance is the nearby railway line.
The centre of Arashiyama is more touristy with lots of souvenir shops, food stalls and barkers hawking rickshaw rides. We saw one Western-looking family done up in the full Shogun and Geisha outfit riding in a rickshaw. We also saw a Ferrari California convertible trundle by with the top down. A curious mixture of the old and the new.
From Arishiyama we rode a tiny trolley car up the hill to Roanyu-ji. This is home to the world famous Zen rock garden, which wasn't very Zen-like with hundreds of tourists crowding in to look. Shoes off in the temple because only Japanses leather slippers allowed. The Navigatrix found them comfortable but they were way too small for the Navigator. We sense we picked the wrong season to visit the gardens. Spring and the cherry blossoms would be amazing, as would autumn with the maple colours. Even photos of the gardens covered in snow look amazing but we got something in between with only the evergreens providing colour.
Onto the local bus up the hill to Kinkaru-ji, otherwise known as the Golden Temple. Even more people were here to ring the bell and say their prayers, as this is one of the temples to celebrate the New Year. There were many food stalls set up as well as shops selling New Years items such as arrows, good fortune cakes and cookies. Kinkaru-ji also has an expansive garden to stroll through. In many locations there are wishing ponds to toss coins. If you can get your coin in the bowl then that's clearly a good shot and good fortune- sort of like an ancient version of darts.
We got back onto the local bus just as it started to sprinkle rain and headed to the Imperial Palace, which was unfortunately closed. Second tip for the day: Check opening times before building an itinerary. With that lesson in mind we realised we weren't going to make it to our next destination in time, so instead headed for Fushimi Inari, otherwise known as the Red Temple.
Fushimi is another of the temples in the city popular for celebrating New Year and the party atmosphere was well under way. The Navigatrix was tempted by the barbequed fish on a stick, whilst the Navigator was similarly tempted by pork wrapped rice balls but dinner waited for us back at the hotel. Fushimi is famous for its 1000 red painted wooden gates which cover the path to the large shrine on the top of the hill. We only went part of the way up the hill - other people we spoke to said it was two hours to do the full journey. Each temple also seems to have an animal mascot. Fushimi's is a rather cute fox and the smaller shrine part way up the hill was covered with little fox shaped message boards. People write their New Years wishes, draw a fox face on the reverse side and tie the boards to the wall.
We went back down the hill just in time to catch the final sunset for 2015 and head back home. Back at our apartment, the staff served buckwheat noodles and Miso soup to celebrate New Year Japanese style. The buckwheat (soga) noodles are traditionally eaten on New Years Eve as the soga is easy to cut (signifying the end of the year) and can be made into long noodles, which represents longevity.
Always ask locals the best places to go, especially for a celebration. Everyone said Kiyomuzi-dera, a large wooden temple on the hill to the east of town. We headed via the bus at 10pm, walking 850 metres uphill to the temple through a narrow street with shops full of small family-run food and handmade craft shops. Even this early it was getting very busy. Up through the temple gate and past the pagoda. We paid our entrance fee to the main hall and said our New Years prayers. We washed our hands with the stream water in the traditional way to cleanse ourselves - left hand, then right hand, then drink from your left hand, then cleanse the left hand again. We then climbed down into the valley to see the engineering marvel built in the 1500's, with its massive wooden poles holding the temple to the hillside. No nails involved.
We kept going through the temple gardens and then returned to the main prayer hall and deck. Kyoto city lights and the modern Tower (every Japanese city seems to have a tower) are clearly seen from here. We purchased our NY charm of health blessed by the monks and crowded shoulder to shoulder onto the viewing platform. This period leading up to midnight is sacred - no drunken hooligans (maybe sake is drunk at home to warm up on return), no fireworks. Just a countdown to the stroke of midnight. Lots of subdued cheering but no hugs or kissing.
Then the crowd moved off immediately to line up and say their first prayer of the year, or be lucky enough to ring the temple bell with the monks 108 times and have their photo taken by an obliging monk in the process (almost like Disneyland!).
With more good local advice we lined up for a taxi (the buses were packed and we would have waited longer). Then like every city in the world, we had to wait. Eventually cabs arrived to drop people off to the temple and we slowly moved up to the head of the queue. After a clear starry night, it started to rain but a local family told us the first rain this close after midnight is very good luck. When we finally got our cab, the Navigatrix thought our driver was 90 (she read his birthdate as being 1926) but he knew his way around and took a narrow laneway to get us out of the traffic jam of cars leaving the car park.
Home by 1.30am - a spiritual and joyful experience