Kifune Shrine and the floating noodles fiasco

I added Kifune Shrine in my Kyoto itinerary based on Japan Guide‘s description of it and after a search on Google Images yielded lots of pictures of the red lanterns framing the stone steps leading up to the shrine. Then those red lanterns started appearing in travel articles all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. It’s like Fushimi Inari, the famous Kyoto shrine with the thousand torii gates, but not yet as crowded.

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So, here’s the thing. Yes, there are more people at Fushimi Inari. But it’s also a bigger place. And depending on what time you go, it’s possible to outstrip everyone else and catch a section totally devoid of people for a few minutes. At Kifune Shrine, the steps aren’t that many, and there’s no angle at which you can hide the people from view, unlike Fushimi Inari, so snapping a pic empty of people will require patience. It never happened for us, although I would by no means consider Kifune Shrine “crowded” by Kyoto standards.

There is another flight of stone steps on the other side of the main shrine, but the lanterns are only on one side. It’s much easier to catch it isolated though.

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Now to backtrack a little. We took the bus to Kifune Shrine, which is in the North of Kyoto in an area called Kibune. By the time you reach the last bus stop before the shrine entrance, you’ll notice that the road gets really narrow so it’s sometimes a bit of a challenge to walk alongside cars taking turns to pass from both directions.

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Since it was summertime, restaurants had set up platforms for diners over the Kibune River, which runs down the mountain parallel to the road. Almost all the restaurants were serving kaiseki meals exclusively. Kaiseki is a multi-course Japanese meal. It can get pretty fancy and expensive. From the menus that I saw in Kibune, the cheapest is around 3,000 yen. It can easily go up to 20,000.

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I read something online about a restaurant called Hirobun that serves noodles from a bamboo with water. The review did say to go early otherwise it can be quite the wait. We had business to take care of at Nishiki Market that morning so we only reached Kibune in the thick of lunchtime. We got a slot for 2:30pm. That’s a 2-and-1/2-hour wait for lunch.

So we went around the shrine first. In the main hall, as in any shrine or temple in Japan, there are amulets and good luck charms for sale, as well as the wood tablets called emi where people write their wishes. Unique to Kifune Shrine are the maple leaf-shaped emi, after the maple trees that surround the shrine. There is also a fortune called omikuji that you can buy then put on the water in a little fountain area of the shrine. Once the paper gets wet, the fortune becomes visible.

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Right around the area where the restaurant Hirobun is at is a small shrine called Yui no Yashiro, where you write your wish or prayer on pieces of green paper and tie it up around string. This one I did as the place was peaceful enough when we were there, unlike the more crowded main hall.

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After visiting those two areas, we were just tired from the heat, and a little hangry, to be honest. So we took shelter at a little souvenir/cosmetic store that also served drinks. That was expensive. 1,050 yen for a hot tea and an iced coffee. The seats had a nice view of the street though for people-watching.

Tip if you plan on eating at Hirobun as well and get stuck with a long wait: bring snacks. Seriously. There are only drinks in the vending machines in the area, and two places that sell coffee (the other coffee place was expensive as well but I don’t know if they sell any snacks). The noodles will not make up for going hungry for at least two hours. They really won’t.

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We went back to Hirobun 10 minutes before our slot. The lunch is a set meal worth 1,300 yen per person. You already pay in advance and they give you a fan with a number and the time you should come back. When we were finally allowed in, we were shown into the lowest level platform that serves as a waiting area. Yes, more waiting! But at least we were finally sitting down and there was shade.

From there we observed the proceedings. A guy calls out numbers (in Japanese! so pay attention and read other people’s fans) and when yours is called, you move up to the higher level platform and… wait, but in front of tables this time. On the same platform are those fortunate enough to take their turn eating.

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There is only one source. A lady comes down the stairs from the street level with a tray of noodles and they feed it to the bamboos that have water flowing on them. Each group of diners is assigned a specific “lane” so that you’re only sharing with members of your group, and not dipping chopsticks with strangers.

The set meal comes with a dipping sauce and a dessert of green tea mochi squares. No drinks, although there is a bucket of ice with some bottled drinks for sale by the reservation booth.

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A mouthful of noodle comes through the bamboo on your lane and you catch it with your chopstick. You have to time it so you don’t miss your noodles. I have no idea where it goes if you miss it, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. This was a very stressful experience for me. I like taking my time to enjoy my food. I did not like having the timing of the noodle dictate when I can eat. That lasts for 10 minutes or so then it’s another batch’s turn. So, nearly 3 hours waiting, for a 10-minute meal. I was still hungry after that but we had to move on to Osaka that same afternoon.

I have to admit that it was all very interesting, and the interiors were very pretty. But it’s not something I’d repeat. For the price and the quality of the food, my advice is to save up for a keiseki meal if you want to experience dining on a platform on the river. Keiseki is another must when traveling in Japan and we had a very pleasant experience in our traditional ryokan in Hakone.

I had originally planned to go to Kinkaku-ji after Kibune but there just wasn’t time after our lunch at nearly 3pm. I have very mixed emotions about Kibune after everything. On one hand, it’s all very pretty and we definitely liked taking pics in the area. But like those reality vs expectation side-by-sides you see these days, there’s definitely more going on behind the scenes than the Instagram pics will show you.

On the way back we took the train via the Eizan Kurama Line. That was a very scenic ride along the mountainside and small neighborhoods in the outskirts of Kyoto. It reminded me of some anime locales. The train seats face the windows so everyone can enjoy the view as they travel through North Kyoto.

A good day, wrinkles and all.

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