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  • Writer's pictureRuss Tierney

Japan - Day 5 - Nijo Castle, Gion Geisha District, Samurai Museum & a Pig Cafe!

Nijo Castle, Gion Geisha District, Samurai Museum & a Pig Cafe!

Beautifully ornate Nijō castle gate in Kyoto, Japan.
Nijō castle gate

We had our slot at the Samurai and Ninja museum pre-booked for 1:30pm, so we decided to head to Nijo Castle in the morning. You may remember that we trekked there a couple of days back but didn't go in, but I can't remember if we braved the walk this time. I think we might have done based on a random shot on my memory card - that's how I'm piecing this all together by the way, my memory isn't as great as these blogs may imply! Historical places in Japan aren't too much to enter typically, and looking on Dr Google, it cost us 1,300 yen, which is about £7. I think most museums without an entertainment experience attached you can check out for under a fiver, too, or at least the ones we went to. In stark contrast, however, museums here aren't quite of the likes of those in the UK where we've pillaged seemingly unlimited artefacts which we have displayed in endless rooms; they're just a couple of rooms with a niche topic. Technically this isn't a museum I guess, but that "oh is this it" feeling at museums is something we'll come across time and time again on this trip. The castle gate is stunning, it's beautifully ornate as you can see from the above 'nuked in photoshop' image, to extract all the detail. It's an impressive entrance, and you're kinda intrigued as to what lays ahead inside! In reality, it's a bit disappointing. There are some audio interfaces you can interact with, along with signs in both English and Japanese to fill you in as you tour empty rooms. The rooms all have traditional tatami floors and differently painted wall murals.. and that's about it, really! There's a few roped off pieces, but nothing much, it's definitely more about the history of how the space if used and who, what, where and when in terms of the people using them and the traditionally painted walls. Inside Nijo is a no photo zone, but out in the gardens it's OK.

I have a feeling (aka I can't remember) you can pay just to go into the gardens, and they're worth a look around. I enjoyed that, even if my feet were approaching pain levels at this point, and as always we were all dying of thirst. What I do remember was, it was insanely hot.. again! Luckily they have toilets with access to water on the way around, plus near the end there is a drinking fountain (which is warm, but it's still drinkable water) and a gift shop with a café and some gachapon. Definitely make a habit of bringing a water bottle with you, or reusing one from a vending machine - you will drink like fish!

After leaving the castle, we walk around in a massive circle trying to find a metro line - they're just kinda hidden in some buildings, which when combined with our bad Google maps skills, it meant we must have just fancied adding another 1000+ steps to worn feet. It's today that Me and Linc also managed to fix our locked IC cards. The other guys managed to unlock theirs on the way to their sword forging yesterday, to a less than impressed guard so I was told, so I braced for a telling off and wrote the basics of what happened into Google Translate, ie, we were on the same platform and had to get the next train so couldn't tap out, and it locked our card down to Tokyo.. he gave it a quick swipe, and we were on our way!

Now back on teramachi-dori street with working IC's again, I imagine we fill the time waiting for our booking by having another mooch up and down the shopping street. The samurai and ninja museum looks nothing like it does on Google. I'm not sure why, as I recognise pieces of armour, but the layout is completely different. It feels smaller, with just 4 small rooms crammed with 20+ tourists. It may be an ever evolving space, or it might be that they've moved buildings to another place on teramachi-dori, but it's not quite what I expected. Different parts of the experience are indeed on different floors, with the sword cutting down the street even, so this seemed like a good explanation.. in my mind, at least. It doesn't have a museum vibe, but more of a 'we managed to get hold of a bunch of stuff and turned it in to an entrepreneurial exploit' kinda feel.

Nevertheless, we had a young guide who had fun with it while trying to be both informative and funny, which is no easy feat in your second language! It turns out Ninjas weren't badasses who snuck around in the shadows, but more so they were farmers who just threw shit like Shurikens, and then ran away. And apparently Tom Cruise wasn't the last Samurai, even if they did have his picture up in the museum. Who would have thunk it!? While the tour is guided, you do get a little time to roam free after the ninja part of the experience if you'd like. I didn't book this one, so while I knew we were doing sword cutting, I had no idea what was to come in terms of the ninja stuff. That ninja stuff being throwing said Shurikens (throwing stars). It sounds like a health and safety nightmare right, but the stars were a hard plastic, and we threw them into polystyrene targets. It was pretty cool, it would be a funky experience to set up over here in the UK with the popularity of axe throwing. Proper throwing stars aren't legal over here, but I imagine the plastic ones would have a workaround because they're not sharp, just pointy enough to stick in thin polystyrene, and we do after all allow people to throw fully sharpened axes that sometimes bounce off the wall back at the thrower.

This was shortly followed by our sword cutting of rolled up tatami mats after they'd been soaked in water. Apparently, this is the closest consistency to chopping a real human neck. You get changed in to your robes and then the instructor gives you some pointers and a little training with wooden swords, with of course some critical health and safety guidance for when we're handed the live one. If you thought waving a live sharp sword blade around to cut stuff would be easy and all about the power you can create from a slice, then you'd be sadly mistaken. It's all about the angle and technique for a clean cut.. but some say leaving a little skin, so the head doesn't roll away, is the way to go - and that's my excuse for my poor cuts. Dexter, who does iaido, smashed it, he made every single cut clean and look effortless, while I think I only managed one clean cut. After this, you get to dress up in some mostly mock samurai armour and take some piccies. This cutting experience is all an added extra to the samurai and ninja one, and it takes place about a minute or two away, as previously mentioned. Still on teramachi-dori where we'd seen the Pig café in the days prior, we make a booking and get in for 4pm(ish) I think it was. I had to do an animal café, it was on my list of quirky things to do, and my mom loves pigs, so it made sense. I'd love to do an even quirkier one if I ever go back, maybe a capybara, but there are loads of options for different animal cafés dotted around the place, and some are of those are of animals that you'd not normally get a hands-on experience with. As with any animal exploitation, there's a questionable moral and ethical cloud that overhangs it all, so I think you have to judge for your self. At the end of the day, we have pets because we choose to normalise that notion and dictate what animals are acceptable as them, which in its self is weird if you weren't programmed to be accepting of it, but you are in a different culture on the other side of the world. I don't think you can be too upperty as long as they're looked after and treated well, and the girls at the café did seem to enjoy stroking and looking after the pigs too. My only criticism may be that, having that many personalities of pigs in one spot, they do occasionally fight and bear the marks of having their ears bitten by the others... but I guess that would happen anywhere! Animal cafés are starting to spring up in the UK more and more too, so it'll be interesting to see where that leads both legally and in terms of culture.

Still with an hour and a half of daylight available to us, we head to Gion, which is known as the Geisha district. There's a few must take shots to be had in Japan, and one is here. You'd have to come super early before the shops open to get an empty street and the wooden buildings in full effect, unless you move to a more residential part of the district. It's a very traditional area with working Geisha, of whom you're not supposed to ask for photographs when they're just trying to get between jobs and do their daily work routines - in fairness, we didn't see any that late in the day. Some of the roads are private and photography is forbidden as per directions listed on street signs, which I imagine is to clamp down on the touristy activity and help the locals maintain some normal freedoms and privacy, but it's still super busy during the day on the main run of shops leading up to the Kiyomizu-dera temple.

Walking up the ever pictured narrow winding road of shops that are all traditionally wooden too, we were just making it up as we went along while dipping in and out of them. I never actually expected to see the Kiyomizu-dera temple at the top as it wasn't the place I had in mind when visiting Gion, nor was it where we were heading per se, and it was only on the way back down while shops were closing that I found the classic shot I was looking for of the Hokan-ji, aka the Yasaka Pagoda. I'm sure you could easily spend half a day exploring Gion properly, both the commercial and traditional parts of the district, but with daylight against us and the temple getting roped off as it has a closing time (unlike Fushimi), we still managed to squeeze in a little exploration of the said temple before heading back to the hotel.

In the next blog, I'll give you a run-down of our Kyoto hotel (it was probably my favourite one) and some of the food options we had while we were there.



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