The day started with me doing a bit of wandering around the wards in the east of Kyoto, mostly I was just picking random side streets and wandering aimlessly around to see what I came across.
I felt like playing Shenmue for real, the narrow streets with old style buildings, only a handful of people slowly walking around, vending machines, and a series of fun narrow pathways and steps. I had my usual Fire coffee from a vending machine, passed by some small shrines and a few schools, then made my way back home for some game dev work.
Kyoto after dark!
Now Kyoto is generally not that great for nightlife, the district of Gion is pretty popular, but other than that it’s mostly a city that does go to sleep after about 9pm! Osaka is very close to here and is certainly the place to be if your looking for nightlife and a city that never sleeps.
So far I had been out to explore bits of Kyoto at night, I’d been through the nightlife district of Gion, wandered through the city at night for a game dev meetup, and been around the central station area where coloured fountains had danced to some music.
But tonight I decided to head out in search of a illumination festival I had heard was taking place for the next couple of weeks. I took the subway to Higashiyama station then started walking south expecting to find something, 5 minutes later I found a street lined with lanterns on the floor which led me to a small illuminated garden.
There was a guide who gave me a map showing the area of the city and temples that were displaying illuminations and lights, it was pretty much the whole Higashiyama ward! In a straight line this was about 2.5 miles from one end to the other, but plus all the side areas and trips round temple gardens I walked about 4-5 miles and still didn’t see everything!
After a walk around the small garden I approached my first temple, Shoren-In temple. I paid 500 yen entry and was immediately greeted by the blue glow of the temple walls, the tone of colour was great and the trees became silhouettes against the background.
I was expecting just to have access to the temple grounds, but the entry gave access to the temple interior as well. Seeing the inside of a temple at night is something you should really do if you get the chance, there aren’t as many people around and the artwork and rooms look great in low lighting, the artwork can really stand out.
From one of the temple rooms you could go out and sit on the edge with a view out over the gardens, which for this temple had been covered in a series of shimmering blue lights, with the temple walls also in a fluorescent blue. The lighting faded in and out and was truly spectacular to see.
Beyond the temple the bamboo forests had been lit up in a glowing white light, it was very X-Files and I half expected to see a mysterious shadow or alien wander out from the woods towards me.
I spent more time walking through the gardens before exiting and heading further along the route of lanterns illuminating the roadsides.
Eventually I arrived at Chion- In temple, the main gate lit up in a truly spectacular fashion. I then headed up the steeps toward the temple grounds, another 500yen paid and I was allowed to enter, I was even given a piece of candy from a monk for some reason, no idea why but it was nice!
The lighting around this temples gardens was mostly a mixture of whites and yellows, things here weren’t as impressive as I might have thought after seeing the main gate, however the Sakura hadn’t yet bloomed here, and I think when they have then it will certainly notch it up a few levels.
Despite this temples grounds being very big, the area open during the illuminations was only a small section. Still worth the 500 yen though, and not to be missed if your here during this festival.
A short walk after exiting the temple and I had arrived at Maruyama park, the place had been scattered with illuminated flower exhibits and seemed to be acting as the central hub for the festival as there were lots of people and food stalls.
The streams in the park had been lined with clusters of lights, and the ponds were surrounded by bright lights and gave a crisp reflection in the waters.
In the middle of the are there was a series of illuminated floats of large monsters, each looked very impressive! There were food stalls lining the side of the area, I picked up a tasty pork meat skewer.
I wandered down another side area of the event, this led to rows of illuminated sculptures which had been designed by local university students. A really impressive dragon one stood out amongst the others, made of several light cubes that had a Tesseract feel about them.
There were a lot of sculptures but this was my favorite pick.
Heading away from the main area I followed more lantern lit streets which eventually led to a tall temple tower, this one wasn’t open but it was still an impressive sight anyway.
I moved on exploring some smaller shrines along the way, these had been filled with rows of lanterns.
Eventually I arrived at Kodai-Ji temple, here I had a quick energy boost from a vendor selling mint tea ice cream cones, it was some of the best ice cream I’d ever tasted! 900 yen then gained me access to Kodai-Ji temple and EntoKuinteien temple, I didn’t actually know where the other one was but was hoping I’d come across it. A small walk up the hill after entering, and I got to a clearing with a view out toward a pagoda bit further south. Against the night sky it looked an amazing building.
Moving through the temple I reached the grounds, again you could sit on the edge of the temple and watch the amazing light show that had been put on. It was a series of moving pictures representing animals and some people, even a dragon! It was all to music and really out of this world, it was hard to think I was in a temple! (I will link a YouTube video when I upload it)
The show lasted about 5 minutes, I sat there to watch it twice, once to record it, once to just sit and admire it.
With more still to see I moved on to the next area, a large pond with a small shrine and walkway. The pond was crystal clear and the waters perfectly still, allowing a really crisp and clear reflection of the buildings and trees.
Further up on the hill was another temple building, this also reflected down into the waters.
Through the gardens were some really large trees which had all been brightly lit, the path then led to other smaller shrines which I entered, but no photos allowed.
The pathway eventually led back down the hill through a bamboo forest, similar to the grove in Arashiyama but not quite as dense. Still though walking through the bamboo lit up at night was a sight to behold.
Passing through the grove I could see a large illuminated statue in the distance, sadly I would later find I reached this temple to late to enter it. Moving on I walked a short distance and discovered EntoKuinteien for which I already had a ticket.
This was a very surreal experience, as I entered just 10 minutes before the gates closed for the night. This meant there was no one behind me, and any people that had already entered seemed to be long gone. I essentially had the whole temple grounds and building to myself!!
Walking through I passed the small zen garden, the raked grooves bathed in bluish green and white lights. I then entered the main building which still didn’t have anyone around, no one else to be seen nor heard.
Though this temple may not show up as a main place on any websites, it certainly had no shortage of things to see. There were a lot of rooms which all contained either, stunning wall paintings, artifacts or scrolls of some form. Walking on the wooden planks around the temple walkways felt great, the feel of the cold wood floor (shoes off!), the darkness outside of the unlit gardens at the back, and the creak of the floorboards was really cool!
On exiting the temple there were more smaller shrines with lantern filled walls.
Moving on I then came across lights lit up forming a large Kanji, I haven’t yet translated what it said.
The Kanji was made of lanterns which each had their own unique design which I think were done by children from local schools.
Sadly for me some things were now staring to be turned off and temple entrances were now closed. I decided to continue walking anyway, knowing I would return to explore the rest.
This turned out the be a great time to explore Kyoto as the streets were now deserted, the only people I saw were a handful of people walking back from a temple and shop keepers who were closing up.
There was still time for me to find my way through the winding empty streets, now covered in a warmish yellow orange glow. I ended up reaching one last tall pagoda which was still lit up, I’d seen it earlier from up the hill at a temple.
Eventually I left the district and headed for home, I made a pit stop for a very late dinner of duck udon, to my surprise the udon was cold, I had to heat it in the broth of the duck. Any udon I have eaten has always been hot, maybe cold is how it’s meant to be had?