Day 3: November 28
Today we took a subway to Kyoto station and finally purchased our ICOCA card, which would allow us to load money and not have to worry about paying each time for every transport leg. Even though the ICOCA card is sold in western Japan, nowadays it can be used throughout most of Japan (like other major transport cards). We also exchanged our JR pass that we would start using at a later date.
When you purchase your JR pass (outside of Japan only), you get an exchange ticket which you must then exchange in Japan (typically at any large JR ticketing shop/major airport), and they will ask you which day you would like your JR pass to be valid from. They will then print and put together your official pass which has the valid dates printed in big font. You can reserve tickets for all trains valid under the JR pass for free, which is advisable for your peace of mind for longer legs of travel. To use your JR pass, you walk through the manned ticket gate at JR stations while showing the staff the side of your pass with all your information. I’ve watched a lot of tourists slow down and jam up this manned ticket gate (a lot of people apart from tourists with JR passes use this gate and it does get congested) by handing their JR pass, not open on the right page, to the staff. All they need to see is the validity date, so if your pass has the right page showing and the staff can see it, you should be able to walk through without needing to stop.
We took a Kintetsu train to Nara, but I soon realised we were either sitting in someone else’s reserved seat or needed to pay an express surcharge. Thankfully since the train was virtually empty, the ladies took other seats and explained I would have the opportunity to pay the surcharge when the ticketing inspector came along, which is what happened later.
Arriving in Nara, we walked straight to Nara park. I have little memory of my previous visit to Nara, but I hadn’t expected to spot deer wandering on the busy roads outside the park. I saw one deer at a hospital entrance, which was on the other side of a very wide road from Nara park. Inside Nara park, there are deer everywhere! They are peaceful but rather enthusiastic and nosy if you appear to have food. Several deer were following behind my mum because she was snacking.
We were actually rather disorientated in Nara park. The park is so big! Eventually we made it to Kasuga Taisha.
Then we walked down to Todaiji, which houses a large bronze Daibutsu, buddha. There were a lot of small stalls outside Todaiji, and we ate dango and baked sweet potato.
Leaving Nara park, we had a short stop in a little cafe for quick rest and snack. Then we took a train back to Kyoto station and another train to Inari station to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha. Due to some bad planning, it was 3pm and we hadn’t really eaten lunch. We purchased and ate some hot food from the conbini next to Inari station. Around the entrance of Fushimi Inari Taisha there were also a couple of food stalls, one of them being a takoyaki stall. Of course I had to get some! The person in the neighbouring stall was complaining that people were only buying takoyaki (and not his food). So the takoyaki-san replied, “Of course, because takoyaki are delicious!”.
We started the ascent. Fushimi Inari Taisha is a shrine that sits at the start of the infamous mountain trails of endless red torii on Mt Inari. The ascent and descent takes about two hours at a comfortable pace, maybe three hours if you go slow and explore a lot of paths. The hiking trails split all the time resulting in so many paths to explore, it would be practically impossible to cover everything. Along the way, there are various smaller shrines as well as souvenir and food shops. Drinks from the vending machines also get more expensive the higher up you are! The top of Mt Inari is 233m high and just before the top there is a spot that offers a lovely view of Kyoto.
Apart from countless torii in all imagineable sizes, there are also fox statues everywhere. Foxes are the messengers of Inari, the God of harvest. Fushimi Inari Taisha is also the head shrine of Inari. While the paths of the mountain lined with large torii are really breathtaking, stopping every few mintes to look at the small shrines with foxes and smaller torii is also a “uniquely Japanese” highlight!
We actually started climbing after 3pm, and during our descent it had gotten a lot darker (since this was late autumn). Even in near darkness, it was kind of magical.
We then took the train back to Kyoto station, and originally intended to walk all the way back to our hotel and just have dinner wherever we found somewhere to our fancy. Kyoto station itself is actually quite an icon. It’s architecture is modern and futuristic, in contrast to what the old capital is known for. It is also huge – second largest station building in Japan. Like most major Japanese stations, you could spend days just exploring (or getting lost!). Right opposite the station to the north is Kyoto Tower.
Since we had no idea where we were going, or even if we were heading in the right direction, walking wasn’t actually a good idea. The neighbourhood got quieter and more deserted (perhaps we were mistakenly heading south, the quieter area). So we walked back to the station and just ate in a Chinese-style restaurant nearby
After dinner, we took the subway back to our hotel and stocked up on some food for breakfast and snacks.