Japan in Spring: Day 1 – Kyoto Imperial Palace & Hanatouro Illuminations, March 2015

It’s always stressful planning a trip to a foreign country, especially when there are cultural and language barriers to deal with. Japan is a country I’d travelled to years ago and it has always been on my list to revisit – and I did earlier this year along with my sister.

Kyoto Tower

We spent 6 days in Kyoto and 6 days in Tokyo in March, which is the start of Spring in Japan and the beginning of the cherry blossom season. The ideal time to view cherry blossoms is April, which is pretty much peak season for tourists.

We arrived in Tokyo first and caught the Shinkansen (handily covered by the JR Pass), which took around 2 and 1/2 hours to reach Kyoto Station. Our accommodation in Kyoto was the Hearton Hotel, which I had an enjoyable stay in on my previous trip. You can book a room with hot buffet breakfast thrown in for a reasonable price. The hotel room showed a little more wear and tear since my previous visit, but it was clean and the bacon and scrambled eggs breakfast is a hearty way to start a busy day.

A tip for those staying at Hearton or in its proximity: if you’re catching the subway to Karasumaoike station with your luggage, there is an elevator that goes up to street level. Not knowing where the elevator was, we pretty much ended up hauling our huge suitcases up the steep set of stairs. Funny, because I remember doing exactly the same thing last time as well. We headed back to Kyoto Station for a late lunch. There’s a floor dedicated to restaurants on the 11th floor of the station called Eat Paradise. We went to this place that I thought was Katsukura, but was actually Wako Tonkatsu. I found out days later that Katsukura and some other restaurants were closed due to renovations… boo.

Wako Tonkatsu Kyoto
The plastic displays rife in Japan
Wako Tonkatsu Kyoto2
Katsu Nabe Gohan
Wako Tonkatsu Kyoto3
Hirekatsu Gohan

The tokatsu was succulent and crunchy, but the star was the miso soup – we found the secret ingredient as we got to the bottom of the bowl. As with all tonkatsu restaurants, you can ask for unlimited refills of miso soup, cabbage (I can tell you, the Japanese love their cabbage!) and rice.

Wako Tonkatsu Kyoto4
Miso soup flavoured with clams

After lunch, we headed to Kyoto Imperial Palace. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to see when we came – many of the buildings including the Imperial Palace were closed and not many of the trees were in bloom.

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Kyoto Imperial Palace
One of the many intertwined trees at Mother & Child's Forest
One of the many intertwined trees at Mother & Child’s Forest
Peach Grove
Peach & Apricot Grove
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Peach & Apricot Grove

You’ll see many locals walking their dogs around the grounds or passing through on bicycles.

Man and dog
Man and dog

We came on the last weekend of the Spring Hanatouro, so we decided to head there as it started at 6pm. Hanatouro is the annual illumination festival held during Spring in Higashiyama, Kyoto. They also have an Autumn version in Arashiyama in December, which sounds pretty spectacular as well. We started at Northern Higashiyama from Shorenin Temple, walking down the lantern-lit street past various Ikebana displays and lingered amongst the large crowd gathered to watch Japanese artists at work. Their drawings were projected onto large screens, against the backdrop of a magnificently lit Chionin Temple..

Public Drawing Display
Public drawing display

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Ikebana Exhibitions
Ikebana Exhibitions

Walking down the path to Yasaka Shrine we passed a variety of demon and animal lanterns.

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Zodiac Lanterns

The stage at Yasaka Shrine featured a dedication dance by Maiko from Kyoto’s five entertainment districts. The Maiko were extremely graceful and beautiful to watch – definitely a great way to experience one of the unique aspects of Japanese culture.

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There were also art exhibitions by students of Kyoto universities with the theme of “Traditional Lights”.

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Lgihts

Some of the temples were open late especially for the event. We decided to head to Kodaiji and although it had one of the priciest entry fees of the temples at Y600 per person, it was very well worth it.

View from Kodaiji
View from Kodaiji
Kodaiji grounds
Temple grounds
Light show
Light show

Highlights included a light show and the climb up to a beautifully lit bamboo grove. The real star of the temple though was this…

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That is a pond with water so still and crystal clear that you don’t realise where the ground ends and the reflection starts. I can’t think of a sight where people actually stopped and stared in bewilderment and awe at the same time. And here’s one of just the reflection.

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It was quite late by the time we headed back so we went to get some bentos from Lawson, one of the many convenience store chains in Japan. For the budget conscience traveller, it’s a good idea to splurge on lunch then prowl the basement floors of one of the big department stores for dinner, as lunch is usually cheaper than dinner at the same restaurant.

Inari & Maki Sushi bento
Inari & maki sushi bento Y410
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Katsu bento Y450

My sister-in-law introduced this Japanese sweet to us and when we saw this sakura edition, we just couldn’t resist.

Sakura Mochi Icecream
Sakura mochi ice cream Y173

It’s got a lovely thin sakura flavoured mochi exterior, creamy vanilla ice cream and a chewy mochi filling. The plain mocha with vanilla ice cream flavour is delicious too. In the next Japan in Spring post we head to Arashiyama, where we did lots of walking and visited some of the lesser known temples.  

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