Saturday, August 30, 2008

I'm saving this last piece of refried-filled Moon Cake as my Chew Bite

We pre-shopped our tickets to Kyoto last night in order to avoid a mad rush at this station this morning. There was an interesting discrepancy between the two machines we tried – one allowed you to reserve a seat in a smoking, non-smoking or “green” car and the other basically just gave you a fare with electives. Both though allowed you to pick the time so when we hit the station this morning we felt well versed enough to just buy the tickets.

The only problem was it was not clear which was the proper side of the station to catch the train so we asked an agent who was pretty much unable to help us other than to say that the tickets were wrong and that we’d have to change them. Why the machine did this, was unclear and he could not explain it aside from pointing in the direction of the ticket office and saying, “Go there.”

Again, no English but we were more or less able to muddle our way through the process with the next agent who understood about 7 words “Express, Reservation, Kyoto, Shinkasen, 5 tickets, No Smoking and Track.” Turns out we had underpaid bay about 100% making me wonder even more what the machine had sold us.

The Shinkansen train is a white serpentine monster that cruises the countryside at 180 MPH. Not as fast as our friend the Maglev in Shanghai, but certainly no slouch. It’s a very comfortable way to spend the 40 minutes to Kyoto.

It was rainy when we arrived and so we had a debate about how to make our way around town. Kyoto is not huge, but walking does get tiresome after 8 or 10 miles. The option of an all day bus pass with discussed with a kindly English-speaking woman at the tourist information office but that felt a bit confining so we headed out of the station and into the rain.

Umbrellas are ubiquitous in Japan where it apparently rains all the time. I’d opted for my high-tech Gore jacket and began to pay the price for that almost immediately. It was hot and I was steaming up at a rapid rate, but I forged ahead having no other option. I am pretty surprised just how hot and steamy it is here, considering how far north we are. One of these days I will have to spend some time doing a bit of research about why the climate is so warm in this part of Asia.

Kyoto was spared significant bombing during the Second World War so it is unique in that much of the pre-war architecture remains intact. The neighborhood streets are narrow and cluttered, and it’s not uncommon to find a shrine or two interspersed among the tiny apartment buildings and houses. We had no problem navigating as the Tourist Society had put together a couple of nice maps which the lady at the desk had graciously given us. One gave a good view of the city and the other depicted a set of walks designed to take you past the historical sites. Our goal was a walk that wound its way through the foothills past many of the famous temples and shrines.

Like most of the Japan I have seen, the urban areas are not particularly attractive to the eye. They tend to be gray and shabby and the areas we covered were no different. But as we neared the foothills, things began to change. The land picked up, the forestation increased and we found our way to the first of the shrines.

We saw so may today that I really have not had a chance to do much research about their individual stories and so I won’t be going into detail about each one. The pictures below are a nice representation of my favorite spots, chosen mainly to give a broad exposure to the different sites. Most of these were Buddhist in contrast to the Shinto shrines I wrote about in Ise.

We wandered around our first stop, staying a bit to observe a Shinto ritual that was underway. A priest in black and green robes carried a lacquer tray from an altar to a family standing at a rail in the front of the shrine. He said a few words and there were many bows and they he went on his way as did they. Down the path, a young woman from the group stopped to take a family picture and when she was done I pantomimed an offer to take one with her in it. She was very grateful and after I took the shot I was thanked with many “arigatos” and bows. This might have been my first positive cultural experience since I arrived.

We took a wrong turn out of this stop and climbed a hill to the Kyoto cemetery, a serendipitous mistake as the burial grounds here are like none I have ever seen. In a country where space is always had at a premium, little ground can be dedicated to the dead and so cemeteries make the most of what is afforded them. The plots are tiny and very closely spaced, each having a simple gray or black marble spire and a small altar for offerings. I saw many small ones from the train to Ise, and none of them compared to this. The only thing that came to mind was a small scale model of a big city with skyscrapers marching off into the distance. It was an interesting contrast in sameness and difference in a densely packed patch of ground.

Heading back down the hill we located the street that angled up the hill to the first of the major shrines. It was a tourism paradise with souvenirs and snacks offered in shop after shop. We once again sampled the ink cartridge ice cream and on this hot day it was quite refreshing. The rain had mostly stopped by now so I got out of my jacket which was also nice given the nature of the climb. One interesting little observation here – umbrellas at the bottom of the hill were 300 yen. At the top, they were 450. Supply and demand in action.

It was a tough slog up the hill and the multiple flights of stairs at the top really capped it off. But the view of Kyoto was spectacular as were the multiple buildings on the site. This was Kiyomizu Dera, an ancient temple rebuilt to its current state in the 1600s and now a World Heritage Site. The orange painted buildings offered a spectacular contrast to the densely green hills. Dozens of smaller shrines dotted the hillside along with several large timber buildings further up the rise. The beauty of this place made the long haul worth every burned calorie.

We headed down another street that went off at an angle to our path up - more shops and even more tourists. We found the continuation of the temple walk which made a right heading down a set of stairs. One of us ducked into a shop to buy a snack of these little cakes that were being stamped out by and automated machine in the store window. The dough is pressed into little circles by a metal stencil and a moving table sends them into a small over. They were a tasty sort of pound cake but the second bite uncovered a center that looked and felt like refried beans, but tasted much sweeter. I'm not sure what it was.


A beggar in traditional dress held out a bowl with a bowed head, straw hat obscuring his face. I suspect he was an officially sanctioned pan-handler and perhaps the donations go to the temples. I’m not sure, but it seemed a bit too pat to just be someone looking for spare change.

Towards the bottoms, rickshaws were offered by young tour guides for rent. They had the most amazing shoes – identical to rock climbing slip-ons but with a split for the big toe. Coupled with gum soles, I suspect they are designed to offer better purchase for these guys as they head up and down the steep, slippery streets.

We took a side road off to Ryozan Kannon shrine, the site of a big Buddha and a shrine to an unknown soldier. Two hundred yen bought admission and a stick of incense to place in the burner. Behind the Buddha were several smaller shrines hiding in a dense forest of the biggest bamboo I have ever seen.

By now it was getting to midday and the rain was picking up making the climbing of the many, many flights of stone stairs to these various places tiring and a bit dangerous. I stopped and bought a nice little umbrella for 400 yen as insurance against another downpour – there was no way I was going to put that jacket on again. Of course spending the money was actually a guarantee that it would not rain again, and it didn’t.

Our goal of reaching Heian Jingu, one of the chief east-side sites, was beginning to slip away and the walk up to Chionin Temple was all it took to put a final bullet into the only genuine objective we had for the day. Two things were at play here, exhaustion from walking up and down the hills in killer conditions and a sense of being “templed out.” After a point, you just lose interest, and that point is about 5 hours.

After entering through a massive timber gate, you climb several hundred feet of stairs formed from 15 inch stone blocks bringing you to an open space on the hillside that holds 4 main buildings. The purification font in front of the main temple was a welcome means to cooling off after the climb. We headed over to the big building and removed our shoes, placing them in plastic garbage bags that were offered for that purpose. Up a very steep set of wooden steps, we entered a large temple hall and sat down on tatami mats. A monk was performing a ceremony, chanting and sporadically beating on a large, deep sounding drum. A woman walked in and entered a small office to my left and spoke with a monk behind a desk. The monk rose and brought the woman to an altar off to the left of the temple where she knelt in prayer. The monk stopped by and said a few words to his chanting brother and the chanting stopped. The office monk left and the chanting monk got up and moved to the right, sitting in a new location and beginning a new chant, this time striking the most mellifluous gong which rang true and clear, resonating for many seconds with each strike. I closed my eyes and sat there soaking it all in. Other people in the hall would occasionally stand up, approach the main altar tossing a few coins over the rail and then kneel in prayer.

I could have stayed there for hours – it was sublimely peaceful – but the heat was oppressive so I went back outside and sat on the top stair while my body regulated my temperature back down below heat stroke level. At this point it was clear to me that the day was over, and what a perfect way to end it amidst a sacred ceremony, incense and a hall decked with golden hangings, Buddha and peaceful worshipers.

We caught a couple of cabs at the base of the stairs and headed back to lunch at the train station. The ticket purchase was not so difficult this time but we ended up with non-reserved seats which meant we ultimately had to hunt and peck for a perch, including a near fatal walk through the smoking car. The ride back to Nagoya was fast and quiet, and an interesting contrast to the throngs that were out for Saturday shopping in the station.

I’ve mentioned some of the oddities I’ve seen to date, but today’s crowd trumped them all. A pack of teenaged girls, dressed all in black but with cat ears, whiskers and big, striped fake bandages awaited us on the platform, sort of an injured Ninja Hello Kitty clan, complete with silver face make-up. Topping them were the girls in alternating black and white leather outfits wearing platform boots with 4 inch heels clogging their way through towards the escalator. One of them had a dog collar tightened on her forehead acting as a hair band. Another interesting cultural aberration was represented by a plump little girl wearing a waist length Geisha jacket complete with obi and back pad, a bright pink ballerina’s tutu, bunny ears and pink Converse Chuck Taylors. Her friend wore a conical straw field worker’s hat and navy blue pajamas decorated with little red, blue and green farm animals. I wish I could find a bench and just sit there taking pictures all day long, because my descriptions just don’t do justice to the weirdness these kids dream up.

My overall impression of Kyoto was very positive, and I think I would like to come back and see the rest of the sights. But I’d do it in November or March when the heat and humidity would not suck the life right out of you. It’s a grand place, and certainly worth the time to explore it.

The last little vignette of the day has to do with a little boy on one of the food floors of the mall below this hotel. We were heading down the hallway on the way to our meal at an Indian place when this little guy headed out the door of an adjoining restaurant. He took one look at me, got this terrified look and did an abrupt u-turn. But his curiosity got the better of him and 10 seconds later he was peeking around the corner again. I made a big smile and waved and he tore back inside. We did this two or three times until he finally started smiling back. Eventually he was delivering giant smiles and big waves, under the protective watch of his grandmother, who had just appeared out of the place.

You wouldn’t think in this day and age in one of the largest cities in Japan that children would still be shocked at the sight of a westerner. Yet, they look at us with amazement all too often. Perhaps we are unusual in this particular place, perhaps they just like to play, but it was a nice moment for me at the end of a long hard trip to a place I am still pretty unsure about.



























































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