Sunday, May 11, 2008

Adventures in Kyoto

Everything is starting to get back into the swing of things after a few holidays the past couple weeks. Somehow I just haven't gotten around to updating the blog. Again. Between working out and Japanese class and work it seems like I'm always pretty exhausted by the time I'm able to sit down and relax.

April 29 was Showa Day, a celebration of the birthday of Japan's last emperor. Since it fell on a Tuesday, we took that Monday off work and took a four-day trip to Kyoto. I was super excited about this trip, as Kyoto is regarded as the cultural capital of Japan with many, many magnificent old temples. Since the city avoided serious bombing during World War II, it still has a lot of old pre-war buildings. People tell me that you can explore the city for months and still not see everything.

It was about a five-hour trip by bus, which passed quickly and comfortably for me with a good book called "What Should I Do With My Life?" by Po Bronson. Yeah, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I read such a thing, but... it's a question that HAS been on my mind lately. After Japan, then what? I don't know yet. But anyway, Joe and I have decided we love traveling by bus. They're so roomy here that even a big gorilla like Joe isn't cramped.

We stayed in a hostel for the first time. It was called Backpackers Hostel K's House Kyoto, and for 5,500 yen per night ($55), we got a small room with a table, bunk beds and an air conditioner. We were on a floor with several other private rooms and a shared bathroom. It was immaculately clean, the beds were comfortable (by Japanese standards, anyway) and the air conditioner worked. Better than some of the hotel rooms we've stayed in for double the price! Plus the staff spoke great English.

The hostel was probably a 10 or 15 minute walk from the train station, located near Gion, the famous entertainment district that I was warned can be slightly seedy after dark. However, I never saw anything that made me feel unsafe. Gion also is known as the place where you can glimpse geisha, which is why I wanted to stay there.

The first thing that struck me about Kyoto, once we walked away from the giant gleaming train station, was how... unimpressive it all was. It really looked like every other city in Japan I've seen so far. Lots of concrete and plain dingy old buildings cramped together like sardines.

After we dropped our bags off at the hostel, we walked along this river on our way to find someplace to eat.

This is a shot of a big intersection around Gion.

A bit underwhelming, to say the least.

That feeling faded quickly though as we embarked on our sightseeing tour.

My favorite place was probably Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a complex of five shrines sprawled across Inari mountain in the city's south end., a tourism web site, says Inari is the Shinto god of rice. But my Lonely Planet guide tells me Inari is the god of cereal grains, which I think is a lot cooler.

The really cool thing about this place, though, is not the shrines. It's the walk to see them. Thousands of orange torii gates form a 4-kilometer tunnel up the side of the mountain, leading visitors to the shrines. We hiked the whole way.

There are times in Japan when I just have to pause and remind myself that it's all real — Yes, I really am seeing this with my own eyes! Even now, after nine months here, it's hard to believe I'm actually seeing these ancient places, that I'm really here. I feel lucky.

The shrine at the top was nothing special, though we did get to watch a group of older Japanese people praying and chanting at the shrine.

All along the way, visitors had left countless miniature toriis as offerings, particularly around the many stone foxes guarding the path. According to Lonely Planet, "The Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred, somewhat mysterious figure capable of 'possessing' humans — the favoured point of entry is under the fingernails. The key often seen in the fox's mouth is for the rice granary."

Probably my next favorite spot was Kiyomizu-dera temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is one of the most famous temples in Japan.

To get there, we trekked up another huge hill (this one in eastern Kyoto) past lots of little shops selling Japanese souvenirs and sweets. At the top is a big temple with a decent view of the city. It juts over the side of the mountain, supported by a bunch of huge pillars. The temple was first built in the late 8th century, but it was reconstructed in 1633. It still blows my mind to think about how old so many of the temples are.

Kiyomizu-dera is named after a sacred waterfall. I never actually saw the waterfall itself, but there was a structure where some of the water was directed into a few falling streams. Visitors stuck tin cups on the end of sticks into the streams and drank the water, which is supposed to have healing properties.

I also enjoyed seeing this ancient pagoda there. All the pagodas we'd seen so far had been pretty well maintained with relatively fresh paint jobs. But fresh paint hadn't touched this one in ages, and it was cool to see what they look like when they're left untouched.

With all the Japanese maple trees that surround this place, it must be positively spectacular in the autumn. I'd love to see it again, if I can muster the patience to deal with the crush of the crowds.

Other highlights:

— A Zen temple called Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion because it is covered in pure gold leaf. It too is one of Japan's most famous sites.The temple originally was built in 1397, but an obsessed monk burned it to the ground in 1950. It was rebuilt five years later.

Kinda neat, but tacky. Architecturally speaking, this temple has nothing on some of the others I've seen. But it is unique, have to give it that.

We also tried to visit its counterpart, Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. Though it is not actually coated in silver, some of my Japanese co-workers have told me they like it better. It was undergoing some revitalization work when we arrived, though, so we chose not to pay the entrance fee to see it under construction.

— Ryozen Kwan-on, a shrine serving as a tribute to the unknown soldier of World War II. It is dedicated to the memory of more than 48,000 foreign soldiers who died on Japanese territory. This shrine is characterized by an 80-foot high statue of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. A Bodhisattva is "a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others," and Avalokitesvara means "Lord who looks down."

Some chanting type music was being piped over loud speakers around the statue, and when you stood before it it just felt like this enormous thing was staring down at you. Creeeeeeepy!! Though the statue and main hall were in great shape, it was interesting to see that the actual memorial hall to the dead soldiers was in a state of semi-disrepair. The grounds leading up to the memorial hall were covered with weeds and the inside was rather old and dreary, containing a display with urns containing a bit of earth from all the countries involved in World War II.

— Ryoan-ji, temple of the peaceful dragon, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ryoan-ji is home to Japan's most famous Zen rock garden. It's a large rectangular area with 15 large rocks surrounded in a sea of carefully raked white pebbles. This is regarded as one of Japan's cultural masterpieces.

The brochure they gave me said "It is up to each visitor to find out for himself what this unique garden signifies. The longer you gaze at it, the more varied your imagination becomes. This rock garden surrounded by low earthen walls may be thought of as the quintessence of Zen art."

Yeaaah... It was lost on me.

Joe and I sat and stared at it for a couple minutes. I imagined the rocks representing the major turning points or hurdles of a person's life during their journey from birth to death, the whole time feeling ridiculous about trying to imagine some deep significance in the whole thing. I turned to Joe and mouthed the words "This is bullshit." He nodded vigorously, and we left to explore the gardens around the temple, which weren't all that impressive.

Add Zen art to modern art in the categories of artwork that I don't understand. Must've missed that gene at birth.

Moving on...

— Nijo Castle, another, you guessed it, UNESCO World Heritage site. Kyoto and neighboring Nara are full of them.

The castle just celebrated its 400th anniversary. This castle was different from the others I've seen, which have been ornate multi-level structures full of peaks and ornamentation. It looked like a single story or two with a couple large peaks in the roof. It was hard to get a good shot that looked like anything, but this was the view from the lookout.

The front entrance of the place was ornate.

We took a tour of the inside. It has 33 rooms, most of which are bare rooms covered with the straw tatami mats. The floors squeaked — you could almost say they sang — with every step. They're called Nightingale floors and they were intentionally built that way to alert residents to intruders. Photographs were "strictly forbidden" on the inside, unfortunately, so I can't show you what it looked like but it was filled with old wall paintings and and intricate carvings above the sliding doors.

Also on the castle grounds, it was cool to climb up to one of the look out areas where you can see out over the moat. The stone walls surrounding the complex are incredibly thick. It boggles the mind just to think of how much effort was involved in constructing them (or what it would take for enemies to penetrate them!).

— Heian Jingu, a shrine that deifies two emperors of Japan. Emperor Kammu was ruler of Japan in the late 8th century, when Kyoto was founded and went on to serve as the country's capital for more than 1,000 years. Emperor Komei took over the throne in 1847 and is credited with laying the foundation of modern Japan.

I think the picture at the very top of this blog was taken at the entrance to the shrine complex, but I don't remember for sure now. I was really impressed with the look of this shrine. It was so beautiful. And behind the temple itself was a gorgeous and peaceful Japanese garden.

I enjoyed hopping the rocks to cross the pond.

— Maruyama Park, famous for its beauty during cherry blossom season. The cherry blossoms are gone now, but it was still a relaxing place to wander around in and it had this cool building with a bunch of lanterns.

So those are some of the main sights we saw in Kyoto, though there are numerous other places I'm not detailing here. We also strolled around the massive stone walls of the Imperial Palace but found out we couldn't actually tour it without going to some government office to apply for permission to see it, which we didn't have time to do. We admired several other ornate temples we stumbled across during our long walks all over town (we took the bus a few times but still did a ton of walking). In particular I enjoyed walking along the Philosopher's Path, a pleasant walk dotted with a few charming coffee shops and plenty of trees, some with beautiful wisteria vines clinging to them.

We also stumbled across some geisha or maiko (geisha apprentice), or at least some people dressed up pretending to be them. There was a business in the Gion district charging $300 to get all dressed up and made up like a geisha. So we saw several of them walking around in Gion, but I wasn't sure if any of them were the real deal.

Another pleasant surprise was the bald, hunched monk we saw slowly plodding through the grounds of a temple we passed by. It was just so cool to see him.

So, I enjoyed Kyoto immensely. A fascinating place to explore. And, there were lots of little things to be appreciated, too. The little purple flowers I saw growing all along the sidewalks, the amusing fake stuffed cats in all the souvenir shops, the green tea ice cream stands... this sake (rice wine) vending machine sitting on a street corner just a stone's throw from a playground in a quiet neighborhood.


Miki said...

Hi! I just stumbled across your blog via ex pat blog roll. I really enjoyed looking at these pics! They're great!

Anomaly0617 said...

Wow - Sometimes I have to remind myself that you're in a culture with hundreds or potentially thousands of years worth of history, and I'm in... Dayton. With it's hugely impressive 200 years (of crumbling buildings).