Kyoto, Japan and the Hillwalker Tour

Artisan fans on display

Trip Taken: 2007

The many sites of Kyoto were too hard to try group into a coherent itinerary for one or two days. One of the things that Adam, my sometime Japan travel buddy, and I decided on was to do a tour of Kyoto with Johnnie Hillwalker. He came with some good reviews from various travel sites.

I was coming from Osaka and I think Adam was already in Kyoto at the time. I arrived at the meeting spot for the tour before he did. There were about a dozen of us on this tour and our guide, Johnnie, was pretty good.

Buddhist temples

Higashi-Honganji is one of the biggest temples devoted to Shin Buddhism. Here it was explained to us that the Japanese run their lives according to Shinto beliefs but the death rituals are devoted to Buddhist beliefs. Families pay each month for priests to bless and pray for their ancestors. Johnnie told us that many families still practice this belief.

Shinto shrines

The shinto shrines are scattered all over the place in Japan. They can be found in small nooks in many neighborhoods. A lot of the shrines are devoted to the Shinto god Inari, the god of wealth and commerce. His messengers are foxes and they like to eat Inari sushi, tofu skin wrapped around sushi rice.

Geisha district

We also visited an old geisha district, where there is still an active school teaching girls the ways of the geisha. We didn’t see any geishas, or girls for that matter, walking around the neighborhood, but I remember hearing some Japanese folk music being played in the background. The neighborhood is called Gojo-rakuen and it’s a pretty neighborhood with old Japanese architecture still intact.

Arts district

The arts district was definitely one of the highlights of the tour. This is where many artisans have their workshops. The crafts range from pottery, lacquer ware, paper, fans, lanterns, brushes, pastries, and on and on. It was a really cool place to find some extraordinary handmade crafts. Johnnie tells us that many of these businesses are having a hard time competing against mass produced competition made in China. He showed us an example of the difference between a mass produced Chinese fan and handmade Japanese fan. Touching it and looking at it showed a world of difference (That’s not to say handmade stuff in China can’t be stunning as well). Adam bought two cups from a pottery workshop. I wished I bought something from the shop or snatched up the only decent looking cup before he did.

Culinary treats

Along the tour, we got to sample some treats relating to the story Johnnie was telling us. We got Inari sushi when we were talking about the Inari shrines. Best inari sushi ever but then again it’s hard to go wrong with inari sushi. We also stopped by an old sweets shop and sampled some confectioneries with free tea.

The end of the tour led us to the hill that went up to one of Kyoto’s most famous temples, Kiyomizu. Adam and I headed back towards the arts district trying to find some good deals on handmade souvenirs. Alas, most of them were closed by this time. That’s one place I wished I spent more time at to buy thoughtful souvenirs.

Parting Words

The Johnnie Hillwalker tour is a good start to knowing a little bit about Kyoto, Japanese religion, and some hidden back street gems. It’s not something that will show you the main tourist attractions but gives you a little back story about the little things you will see all around the city.

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About the Author

John is always trying to find his way back to the road. He has an affinity for Germany due to his three years studying German at Cal, and a year working as an intern in the Stuttgart area. He also likes chocolate cake and good cheese.