Kyoto: Sightseeing and Sanga in Japan’s ancient former capital

Shrines, temples and peaceful mountains await in a city that needs little introduction. But there’s also a football club to discover

Date: Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019
Location: Kyoto
Venue: Nishikyogoku Athletics Stadium
Match: Kyoto Sanga verus Montedio Yamagata (J.League 2)

It’s 5.30am. I stumble off the night bus from Tokyo, clutching my bag, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. It’s a bright, crisp April morning and all is quiet. Until the bus starts up and trundles down the road, turning at the lights and plunging early-morning Kyoto back into silence.

I’m confronted by the immense structure of Kyoto Station. A couple of commuters are heading inside before the morning rush gets well underway. I cross the road and follow them inside, past the still shuttered stores, picking my way through the waiting travellers who are slumped half-asleep against the walls.

Signs overhead lead the way to the trains. It’s almost deserted as I go through the ticket gate and up on to the platform.

Five minutes later, after whistling through the low, scattered houses encroaching on the line, I’m at Inari Station with a handful of other tourists.

In front of the station stands a huge torii gate. It’s only the beginning.

Fushimi Inari Kyoto torii red gate shrine Japan
Welcome to Kyoto

I shake the tiredness out of my stiff legs following the eight-hour bus ride from Tokyo. And soon I’m trekking up the side of Mount Inari under an endless tunnel of red gates.

Kyoto torii red gates Fushimi Inari shrine Japan

This is Fushimi Inari, an incredible shrine featuring thousands of torii gates. It’s the perfect introduction to Kyoto, and an invigorating remedy to a tiring overnight bus ride.

Up at the summit, 233 metres high, and the cobwebs are well and truly blown away. Stretching away below the beautiful shrine is the sprawling modern day city of Kyoto. Fushimi Inari has been at this site since the eighth century. It has stood witness to the incredible changes this city has undergone.

Today, 1.5 million people call this place home. And millions more descend on the temples and shrines every year.

It’s also home to Kyoto Sanga, currently residing in J.League 2. The purple-shirted, Nintendo-sponsored, former Emperor’s Cup winners are one of Japan’s most enigmatic teams.

Tonight they take on Montedio Yamagata, and I’ll be there to experience match night out in the suburbs at Nishikogyoku Stadium.

But first, it’s time to find out why this corner of Kansai is one of Japan’s biggest attraction.

Tourist overload

To understand why Kyoto is so popular, it’s important to consider its history. This is Japan’s former capital, serving as the emperor’s residence from 794 to 1868.

It was once upon a time known as Heiankyo, meaning “peace and tranquility city”. This was all the way back in the 8th century, but it was a pivotal era for the development of Kyoto.

Countless shrines and temples here have survived the passage of time. Whereas other Japanese cities were obliterated during World War Two, Kyoto was largely spared the wartime destruction.

The city, though, was initially on the potential list of targets for the atomic bomb, which was instead dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, under the recommendation of Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War in the US government, Kyoto was removed from the shortlist.

That all means that Kyoto today is one big open-air museum of traditional Japanese culture. Every corner turned reveals another temple. Every other side street leads to a shrine.

But it also means tourists. Lots of them.

And during peak times, it causes problems for everyone. Especially the locals.

Traffic congestion, including massively over-crowded buses, makes every day life difficult. There have also been problems with bad behaviour.

There are two times of the year that are particularly busy. One is autumn, when the leaves turn a deep red above the dark, wooden temples.

The other peak time is when the bright pink cherry blossom blooms. Which just so happens to be now.

Cherry blossom Kyoto Philosopher's Path Japan

A philosophical walk

It’s approaching 8am by the time I emerge from the maze of gates sprawled up the side of Mount Inari. The morning rush hour isn’t so hectic in Kyoto, not by Tokyo standards, anyway.

But the number of tourists is beginning to increase, and when I reach Nanzenji at 9am, there are already groups posing for photos under the cherry blossom.

Nanzenji temple Kyoto Japan cherry blossom
Nanzenji and cherry blossom

There are places of tranquility to be found, though, amid the sprawling grounds of this Zen temple. It nestles up against the deep green of the rising Higashiyama (East Mountains), a beautiful combination of colours with the dark temple and light, pink cherry blossom.

A cold morning is beginning to warm up. Steam rises from the wooden roofs of the traditional buildings dotting the complex. Time is ticking away, and there’s so much more to see.

From Nanzenji, there’s a pleasant track that leads alongside a gentle stream, beneath a canopy of cherry blossom. This is Philosopher’s Path, named after Nishida Kitaro, who used to mediate on this route when it was his walk to work at Kyoto University.

Meditating on Philosopher’s Path today would be a struggle. There are people everywhere, leaning over the river, crowded under trees, blocking the pavement.

This is Kyoto during peak tourist season. From this point on, it’s going to be manic.

Escaping the silver temple

Philosopher’s Path connects Nanzenji with Ginkakuji, or Silver Temple.

The first thing to know about Ginkakuji is that it’s not actually silver. For literal temple names, head to Kinkakuji. That one is very much gold.

Kinkakuji Golden Temple Kyoto Japan
Kinkakuji in all its golden glory

Ginkakuji is a more modest, but no less special temple. A perfectly-raked sand garden sits in front of the main building, and a path winds between the abundant greenery of the complex.

Ginkakuji Silver Temple Kyoto Japan garden

It’s nearing lunchtime now and the crowds are swelling. It’s almost impossible to navigate the route around the temple. Everyone is jostling for space, guided tours take up huge sections of the path, and selfie takers block the views.

I stay for about five minutes. This is the reality of peak-season tourism in Kyoto. It feels like the time to take a break for lunch.

A glimpse of Ginkakuji

Modern day Kyoto

Kyoto isn’t all about shrines and temples. There’s also a vibrant food culture. And there’s nowhere better to get an idea for this than Nishiki Market.

Food galore at Nishiki Market. Credit: D-Stanley

Seafood, vegetables, tea, sweets… everything you could imagine is here. It’s a dark, aromatic, bustling hive of activity, where traders, customers and tourists brush shoulders.

It’s a side to Kyoto that’s often overlooked, as is the modern face of the city around the station.

Most people will arrive in Kyoto on the bullet train, and will be greeted by a behemoth of a terminal. It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, with staircases rising to sky-high walkways, amid a world of gleaming glass and metal.

The futuristic Kyoto Station. Credit: bethom33

And soaring above this stunning piece of architecture is the unmissable red and white Kyoto Tower.

Kyoto Tower Japan

This is a structure that has caused almost endless controversy due to its appearance and size in a city of small, traditional buildings. But one sure fire way to remove it from view is to travel to the top.

And from its 328ft (100m) observation deck, Kyoto stretches out to the surrounding mountains. The city’s famous places can be picked out amid the busy arteries that cut through the low-rise collection of houses, shops and restaurants.

Clouds are rolling in, casting shadows across the districts of the city. It’s late afternoon now, and down there in an eastern suburb, preparations are taking place for a football match.

Kyoto Tower Japan
The view from Kyoto Tower

Kyoto’s purple heart

It’s a short journey from Kyoto Station out to Nishikyogoku Stadium. A few minutes underground on the Karasuma Line, a transfer and five more minutes above ground on the Hankyu Kyoto Line.

The sun is beginning to set now, and the hustle of the day is fading. There are few tourists out here. Mainly just purple-shirted Sanga fans congregating on the stadium.

Nishikyogoku Stadium Kyoto Sanga J.League 2 Japanese football
Welcome to Kyoto Sanga World

Cherry blossom trees in full bloom flutter in the cold breeze. There are purple food trucks and merchandise stalls dotted around the plaza in front of the stadium, and groups of fans are gathering for their pre-match refreshments.

The team was formerly known as Kyoto Purple Sanga, and despite being dropped from the name, the colour is still very much evident everywhere you look. It’s a bit Harchester United, but striking, and makes for some great shirts.

Kyoto Sanga match night programme J.League 2 Japanese football

Inside the stadium, early-arrivers are taking their seats. There’s an hour until kick-off, and the sky is bathing the pitch in a soft glow.

And as we get nearer to 7pm, the sun drops further beyond the mountains that surround the city. The floodlights get brighter and the noise levels increase.

Nishikyogoku Stadium Kyoto Sanga J.League 2

An evening of discontent

Kyoto is famous for its refined culture. Its complicated, intricate tea ceremonies. Its perfectly-manicured gardens, where no blade of grass is out of place. Culture, tradition, history, all observed with an air of restraint.

Sanga isn’t like that. It’s pretty wild with the hardcore fans behind the goal. There’s a lot of passion in these stands. The fans care a lot and express their support for the team through enthusiastic flag waving and chanting.

Moments before kick-off and a huge tifo is unfurled. The fans are bouncing up and down, shouting at the top of their voices, and covering themselves with the ultimate display of support.

The chanting and singing is relentless throughout. The fans are incredibly vocal, but in return for this backing, they expect a certain level of performance. And tonight it isn’t forthcoming from Sanga. They create a few decent chances in the first half, but in the second it’s all Montedio Yamagata.

And, inevitably, the goal comes for the visitors. A cross from the right by Yuta Kumamoto flashes across the penalty area. There’s panic in the six yard box, with Katsunori Ueebisu stumbling and inadvertently turning the ball into his own net.

With fewer than 20 minutes to go, there are rumbles of discontent from the home fans. Sanga rally late on, forcing a couple of corners, raising hope. But it’s all in vain.

The final whistle blows with Montedio holding on to take the three points back north to Tohoku.

It’s not what the Sanga support expected. Form had been good going into this game, and after last season’s flirt with the relegation battle, there are strong demands for an improved 2019.

And the fans aren’t afraid to express their feelings. When the players come over to thank the ultras for their support, they’re met with a wall of noise. Boos, whistles and shouts rain down on to the pitch. The players quickly bow before slinking away to bring a disappointing evening to a close.

Kyoto Sanga fans J.League 2 Japanese football Nishikyogoku Stadium

Farewell to a complicated city

It’s freezing now, with a bitterly cold wind whipping through the exposed concourse outside the stadium. April has only just begun, and after seven games, Kyoto find themselves in mid-table, while Yamagata are striking out as early-season front runners.

The atmosphere is subdued on the walk back to Nishikyogoku Station. Most of the fans have already disappeared into the night by the time I reach the platform.

Back at Kyoto Station, the tower is shining bright high above the buildings. A few late-working commuters are wearily traipsing towards the ticket gates. Couples hand-in-hand make their way to restaurants and bars, and a gaggle of tourists are happily experiencing Kyoto under nightfall.

This is a city that needs little explaining at a superficial level. It’s beautiful, and it’s no wonder that so many people make the effort to visit. Who can blame those who want to experience this traditional time warp of old Japan?

Of course, the sheer number of visitors brings problems. Those who behave badly should, it goes without saying, be criticised. But the vast majority just want to see Kyoto with their own eyes. In many cases it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But for the locals, their city has become something of a theme park. It’s a sad punishment for being lucky enough to call this stunning place home. Hopefully in the future the local authorities can find a way to balance the number of visitors with a comfortable daily life for locals.

When it comes to Sanga, it feels like somewhat of a release for residents of Kyoto. Away from the crowded streets, packed buses and over-reserved restaurants is a sanctuary where they’re free to express themselves.

A new stadium is on the horizon, which will surely add to the experience. While Nishikyogoku is atmospheric, it’s still an athletics stadium, and the running track dilutes the passion pouring from the stands. The new, dedicated football ground in Kameoka has the potential to make Sanga one of the best football watching experiences in the country.

If this new venue brings a bit more joy and escapism to local residents, it will be more than worth it. And I’ll certainly be back for another game with the Sanga ultras.

You’ve read the blog, now watch the video! Click on the link below to see a day of sightseeing and football in Kyoto. And if you want to know how to get to the city and Nishikyogoku Stadium, click on page 2 for travel information.

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