Monday, June 7, 2010

SURVIVAL SKILLS: Total Immersion (The temples of Kyoto)

Having finished breakfast in Hakone, it was time to take the crazy bus back down to the train station and make my way to Kyoto, the last stop on my trip. I mentioned before that Tokyo is one of the most modern cities in the world. This is due to two main factors. Primarily the Japanese spirit of embracing modernity, but also because it was devastated by firebombing during World War II. Fortunately, Kyoto was determined to be too culturally valuable to destroy and was left mostly untouched by allied bombers.

If you're spending more than a week or so in Japan, you owe it to yourself to visit Kyoto, and see some of the 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites scattered throughout the city. But be warned, to get around Kyoto, you're going to need to know a little more Japanese than in Tokyo.

I arrived in Kyoto late in the afternoon, and it had been drizzling all day, but my time in Tokyo in the rain left me unwilling to waste any time lurching around the hotel, so as soon as I got checked in, I grabbed my umbrella and took to the streets. I was staying in the city center, right across the street from the huge, modern train station, so I decided to look at my guidebook, see what was closest, and walk there. To-ji was the winner.
To-Ji is a small temple complex with a pretty famous pagoda. It's one of the fascinating things about Kyoto. Here is a steadily modernizing city, where the block across the street could be occupied by a thousand year old wooden temple. Also, there's my sweet bladerunner style clear plastic umbrella, the only souvenir I took home from the trip. Another interesting fact about To-ji is that it is scientifically impossible to take a bad picture of the place, even in a light drizzle. To-ji is also home to a fairly large population of feral cats.

After taking a bunch of pictures, it was already starting to get dark, so I went back to my hotel. On the way, I stopped in a conbini to pick up a giant can of Asahi and some pocky. And this is where I first saw that English would be far less useful in Kyoto than Tokyo. For buying snacks and ordering dinner, the little I knew was fine. Using the bus to get around town would be a whole different story. Not being able to read signs or understand bus drivers means you have to count the stops and be semi familiar with the map. I took a bus to Kinkaku-ji, the famous golden temple, and I was able to count the stops so I got off at the right place. Like To-ji, I also managed to convince some other tourists to take my picture with the landmark.
Kinkaku-ji also featured a very strange sign, which... Well, I still have no idea which behavior it was trying to promote or curtail. As near as I can figure, walking dogs, wearing short jackets and having long loose hair are forbidden, but carrying cats, having slightly longer jackets and wearing your hair in pigtails are all approved.

After seeing Kinkaku-ji, there was another semi-nearby temple I wanted to visit, as recommended by my friend @nperkins. He had been to Kyoto while living in Japan a few years before I went, and he said of Ryoan-ji that everyone needs to "feel it in their bones". Despite being fairly close to Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji is a little more quiet, a little more spiritual and a lot less visited. But these are all reasons you'll be glad you went. Also, be warned: Ryoan-ji has a thing for footwear. You have to take off your shoes and wear little slippers they provide. Giant gaijin-feet may find these less than comfortable, but it's worth it, I promise.
When you get there, you'll immediately understand what @nperkins is talking about. The sand/rock garden inside the building is very calming and quiet. Strangely, it's impossible to capture the entire garden in one camera frame. You can get fairly close, but the walls are situated so you really can only see the whole thing in person, or with a fancy panoramic camera, which I didn't have at the time. I also convinced some tourists to take my picture. In fact, it was the same Japanese woman on the left in the picture above with the clear plastic bladerunner umbrella like mine.

Walking between Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji, I spent a fair amount of time semi-lost, wandering the outlying, kind of suburban areas of Kyoto. A handful of schoolchildren saw me, and practiced some English greetings on me. I missed a few buses that would have made things easier, and wound up finally finding my way back to the hotel around dark.

Now, I don't have any pictures for this next part, but I assure you it happened. My hotel stay included a sort of breakfast buffet crafted by a mad scientist. There were western style pastries with Japanese style fillings. The azuki bean danish was my personal favorite. I ate a bunch of them each day. The morning before I went to Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji was especially interesting, though. Seated across the room was a Japanese man in a ridiculously nice suit, and having breakfast with him, a geisha. Her outfit and makeup were both very impressive, and when I first noticed them, I thought that my Japan experience just got a little more complete. Then the guy in the suit reached across the table for something, and his sleeve slid up, revealing intricate tattoos all up his arm. Boom, a legit gangster, having breakfast with a geisha across from me in the hotel restaurant. Apparently, Yakuza aren't just for ninja movies.

I crammed an awful lot of vacation into my second week in Japan, so I think I'm going to break this post off here, and promise one more about the remainder of my time in Kyoto and my fantastic day trip to Nara.

@nerdsherpa, hopefully not on some Kyoto gangster's ninja-list.

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