A number of people have, quite reasonably, said something along the lines of “jesus you’re an overly verbose bastard. I kinda liked your travelogues, but I’m going to have to catch up on them later.” And it’s true: I wrote way too much.
So for those of you who were planning on going back and reading it during some hypothetical future moment of leisure that may or may not ever come, I have helpfully provided a one-stop shop:
And now, at long last, you get to hear me STFU about this damn trip, for which the rest of the world is undoubtedly grateful.
All articles, tagged with “wanderlust”
Someone made the mistake of actually asking me how the hell I wrote all of these travelogues while actually getting to do anything in Japan. For your sins, I will now proceed to tell you. At length.
First, the technical details. The thing that made this trip (and the Zürich trip) so much different (and verbose) than all of my previous trips? Very simple: I brought my laptop. Zürich was a work trip, so of course I had to bring it. Japan was for pleasure, but unlike China, Thailand or Vietnam, there’s no reason whatsoever not to bring your laptop computer with you: just leave it in your hotel room. It will still be there when you get back. It will still be there if you forget to lock the door. It will still be there if you leave the door standing wide open. It will still be there (and this we personally verified) if there isn’t a single door with a lock between it and the street and most of the walls are made of paper.
This level of safety made it possible to not only bring my laptop, but to bring two cameras: one an SLR, and one the same trusty pocket Canon that I took on my last few trips. Don’t want to lug the big camera around at night but still want to be able to take photos when necessary? Drop the little camera in the pocket and leave the SLR in the room.
…and bringing the laptop along pretty much revolutionized my travel writing. Every other trip has been a painful struggle to get enough time at an internet cafe somewhere to write up the last 2-3 days worth of stories, and uploading photos was a nonstarter. With the laptop, I could come back to the room every night, download every photo I’d took that day, pick 10 or 20 to upload to flickr, then tag and title them. In general, I’d upload and tag the day’s worth of pictures, and then write up the previous day’s travels using the pictures I’d uploaded the night before as my notes and reminders.
This also made carrying around additional memory cards for the cameras unnecessary: even at my most prolific, I never came close to filling up either camera’s card in a single day, and every morning I started out with an empty card.
This did mean sacrificing many nights after 8pm to pounding away at the laptop, but this ended up working out pretty well: not speaking Japanese and being 8-to-16 hours jetlagged meant that we weren’t going to be making any serious inroads into Tokyo’s nightlife in any case, and in the smaller cities there just wasn’t that much to do after dark unless we wanted to go sing karaoke. So it was easy to get a lot of writing done. I did miss a couple of nights due to plans or just being too tired, but I was always able to use the inter-city travel time to catch up.
Oh, the other thing about traveling in Japan that really helped this process: wifi everywhere. The only room swe stayed where I couldn’t find an open (usually the hotel’s, but not always) wifi network was the original backpacker hotel in Tokyo and the Cerulean Tower. (The Sakura offered in-room internet but our jack was broken — no matter, they had wifi in the cafe downstairs. The Cerulean had no wifi, but had an ethernet jack in the room.) Everywhere else — even the Zen monastery, the mountainside ryokan and the dodgy B&B — had wifi in the rooms, usually a solid 5 bars of reception.
This was all so incredibly helpful that I’m going to have a hard time not bringing a laptop on my next trip. But since that will probably mean carrying it with me during the day, I think I’m going to need a lighter laptop. A much lighter laptop.
With regard to the actual mechanics of doing all the writing, I had a simple trick up my sleeve: write poorly.
Writing is a never-ending war against cliche and repetition, and most writers that we think of as “good” are people who’ve managed a standoff. The “great” ones tend to win a few skirmishes and bury the evidence of their defeats. Everyone else goes down like Custer at Little Bighorn. And like in most creative endeavors, you can have speed or quality, but not both. The nice thing about travel writing from this perspective is that, putting it charitably, expectations are low: in a few months, I’m going to look back of all of this and want to commit suicide when I notice all of the hackneyed phrases, over-used adjectives and stilted descriptions, but the travel section of the New York Times frankly isn’t much better, so I can coast a bit. Actually rather a lot.
Okay, that’s maybe a bit overdramatic, but the point is: one thing I learned from my never-really-completed Vietnam travelogue was that writing well is good, but writing now is better. If someone wants to offer me money to publish this junk, then I can go back and tighten it all up.
So yeah, I managed to write somewhere in the range of 50,000 words, mostly by balancing a laptop on my knees in a series of hilariously small Japanese hotel rooms. Maybe I should think about writing a novel or something: apparently it can be done when you’re not even noticing it.
In addition to all of the verbiage, between both cameras I managed to take… exactly 2,222 photos. (For real.) This was my first trip carrying a DSLR, and for the most part I loved it. The only real problem is that… I’m not used to holding a SLR, which involves looking through the viewfinder while gripping the camera with one hand and adjusting the zoom if necessary with the other. I’m used to holding a pocket camera in front of my face with one hand and looking at the nice live image on the screen. As a result, some horribly large percentage of my photos (I’d guess at least 40 if not 50-60% — the ones I uploaded were selected carefully not to show this) are cockeyed about 10 degrees counterclockwise. I’m going to be spending days in iPhoto correcting this: if anyone has any advice about how to avoid doing this other than “practice practice practice” I’d love to hear it.
Two last notes on the technology: I was spoiled by my equipment on this trip, but I got to thinking: you can now buy 16gb memory cards for cameras for under $60. That’s a lot of space: I never came close to filling it up during the day. Why on earth doesn’t every camera in the world have a small microphone and the ability to record voice notes as I’m taking the photos? This would make it much easier to identify where photos were taken, which can get to be an issue when you’ve seen a dozen similar-looking Buddhist temples in a week.
…or even better, why not stick a GPS receiver into the camera itself, and tag every single photo with latitude and longitude coordinates? This is apparently starting to become available on some high-end pro cameras, but isn’t really available on consumer kit yet. This strikes me as ass-backards: pros already know where they’re shooting, or have workflow to let them figure it out already hammered out. It’s your average lost tourist who desperately needs this feature.
Okay, that’s it. I’m done now, for real. I’m also back in San Francisco and have to go to work tomorrow morning. God knows when I’ll actually wake up. Sleep well, kids.
Kyoto defeated us. I have no compunctions about admitting it. We stayed five nights and saw, on average, three amazing historical sites per day there, and yet barely scratched the surface. There are easily another dozen places in the city limits alone that we’d highlighted as worth going to, and dozens more that hadn’t made the initial triaging round. Five nights wasn’t enough. A month probably wouldn’t be enough.
But five nights is what we had, and we’d used them all. So on Friday morning, we woke up, repacked all our bags, and were graciously given a lift by our hosts to the nearest subway station. While we were casually packing up the car, we asked them how long they’d been doing the B&B thing, and were shocked to be told that they’d been at it for 5 years. I guess they’re just pretty casual about it.
We took the subway to Kyoto station, and dropped our bags into lockers. We didn’t really have any time to go sight-seeing (we had to catch a 1:45 train in order to make it to Kansai airport in time for our 5pm flight), but we did have time for one last meal in Kyoto, and we had a recommendation for what was supposed to be an excellent Japanese set-lunch place just a few blocks from the station…
…which was closed. A sign in Japanese was posted on the door: as close as we could puzzle out, they were gone on vacation. Oh well, there was another set-lunch place next door that was open and appeared to be doing steady business, so we walked in and ordered two out of the three available set lunches at random and trusted to fate. They weren’t life-changing, but they were very good, and I can now report that Kyoto does a mean Irish-style fried fish.
Lunch over, we walked the few blocks back to the station, and headed down to the basement for some last-minute provisioning. The food on the flight from SF to Tokyo had been pretty dire even by airplane standards, and it had occurred to me that as long as we were in a country that had basically perfected the idea of take-out food on this planet, there was no reason to put up with that noise. So we headed into the basement food courts underneath the station to stock up: I got a pork cutlet curry takeaway from a Japanese take-away chain called San Marco (completely Japanese fast food, but it was what I was in the mood for and it wouldn’t be hurt by the wait for the plane), Miranda got a bento box, and we both got a few random dessert items mostly based around red bean paste. This left us with another 45 minutes to kill, which we spent mostly having a cup of tea at a cafe: we were pretty walked out by that point.
On the way back from lunch to the station, I stopped at the post office to drop off the dozen or so postcards I’d been needing to mail for days now, and on our way in to the station I saw something that I decided would serve quite well as The Last Photo I Took In Japan:
And that’s about it. We took the express train from Kyoto to Kansai International, and suddenly we were no longer in Japan but in that everywhere-yet-nowhere land that my friend Ofer calls “Airportia.” We disposed of our remaining yen in the duty-free shops, tried and failed to find an electrical outlet for my laptop, I found a new English Haruki Murikami book in paperback at the newsstand, and eventually our seats were called. The stewardesses roundly approved of our choice of carry-on food. 9 hours later, we were home.
Goodbye, Japan. We’ll be back. I waited 15 years too long to get to you, and I’m not done with you yet by a longshot.
As the penultimate entry, and one which covers a very, very long day, this is gonna be a biggie. We are crushed by crowds and awed by big things on wheels. Then we investigate the floating world and the Shogun’s old vacation castle. We make a new friend, she takes us to dinner, and we do some serious drinking. A record-setting 35 photos for this post. Just
I gave up on using iCal events as an alarm clock (seriously, I do this shit for a living, and my whole-vacation record for getting iCal to reliably open an alert at 6:30am Japan time was 2 in 6), and instead installed Robbie Hanson’s Alarm Clock 2, and you can consider that to be the official product recommendation of this travelogue, as it worked consistently and flawlessly. As a result, we were up and moving at 6am on Thursday morning, and were out of the house by 7:30, ready to find ourself a good float-watching spot along the parade route.
…but in a weird way, we got up too early. We’d been thinking of the Gion Matsuri parade in terms of the New York Thanksgiving day parade, the route for which is packed 10-deep hours before the parade ever starts. We were planning to show up hours early, and had intricate backup plans for what to do if our preferred watching spots were unavailable. We severely underestimated how efficiently this event would be run, to the point that when we got off the metro at Shijo station at around 8am, we were a little worried by the fact that the metro didn’t seem to be particularly full at all, and we weren’t seeing anyone dressed up in kimonos or yukatas. In fact, the subway seemed to be kind of empty for nearly rush hour on a weekday morning in Japan, and when we got up to street level, there were still cars driving freely in both directions. We started to get a horrible suspicion: had we somehow misjudged the schedule, and missed the whole parade?
Well, there was nothing for it to walk over towards where the parade was going to be and find out. We saw a few cops standing on the corner, and that gave us hope. Miranda walked up and asked one where the parade was going to be, and he happily pointed her down the street at the kickoff point. We walked a bit further down, saw a small collection of people on the sidewalk, and calmed down quite a bit: we’d obviously missed nothing. Fine, time to make our way to our corner: we walked down the road towards the corner of Shijo and Kawaramachi, and started looking for a space. This turned out to be pretty easy: there were a couple of dozen, maybe a few hundred people hanging out on the corners, but nothing overly dense: maybe the pre-parade party was more popular than the parade itself? We carefully picked a corner of the intersection that seemed to be likely to stay in the buildings’ shade for most of the day, and parked ourselves. It was about 8am.
The really impressive thing: our parade programs (there was an English edition) claimed that the parade would start passing our corner at around 9:45am, and traffic continued flowing in both directions down Kawaramachi until roughly 9:25am. Think about that: the biggest on-street event Kyoto sees in a year, a parade substantially larger than the Rose Bowl parade or the Macys Parade, and they keep the streets open until 20 minutes before the parade passes by. We were agog.
…and in addition to being agog, we were a little smushed. The crowd of onlookers, which had started out so innocent-seeming at 8am, had slowly grown more and more dense over the next 90 minutes. See, we’d been told by several people that we wanted to stay on one of the corners so that we could see the floats turn. (More on that later.) What nobody had warned us was that every other person in Kyoto was going to have the same idea. By 9am, the police were having to form corridors to get people across the street. By 9:15, it was starting to resemble a packed subway car at rush hour. By 9:30, I couldn’t shift my weight from one foot to another without leaning on one of my neighbors. What I’m trying to say here is: it was a little crowded. The weather was warm and clear with only occasional bursts of wind: even though we were in the shade, I had sweat dripping in rivers down my back, and when the wind wasn’t blowing it felt like the temperature immediately shot up another 10 degrees. I was seriously beginning to question the wisdom of this plan, but damnit we’d come to see some floats get turned, and I was going to see at least one or two.
Thankfully, we didn’t have too much longer to wait. At about 9:40, the first procession strode proudly around the corner:
…and shortly behind them, two parallel rows of men in white robes, easily fifty deep, pulling on ropes. And pulling. And pulling:
More men and more rope kept coming into view across the corner, and at last something began to emerge from behind the department store building:
…something very, very large. The first float in the parade is always the “Naginata Boko”, and at the top of it a man stands with a longsword (the ‘naginata’ of the float’s name), sweeping it back and forth to sweep away the disease and evil that the festival was originally commissioned to combat.
Now the thing about the big floats in this parade is that the parade dates from the 9th century A.D. Most of the floats have been in continuous usage since the 17th century if not earlier. They’re made of wood and iron, are 26 feet tall (not counting the spire, which can reach as high as eighty feet), and weigh in the range of 25 tons. They’re enormous:
…but the age of their design, versus the grid layout of Kyoto’s streets, presents a bit of a problem. Their axles are fixed: there was no such thing as a differential gear in the year 869, and so the wheels can neither lean nor turn independently. So how do you get a 25-ton float to turn a 90-degree corner? Simple: you put a series of several dozen bamboo rods onto the concrete, arranged carefully at the right angle to the wheels. You wet them down with water to make them slick, you roll the front wheels onto them, and lay a few more wet rods down…
…and then you get your team of 40 men to line up with their ropes at the correct angle, and HEAVE for all that they’re worth:
Sure enough, you can turn a 25-ton float this way. Sort of. Each yank on the ropes usually manages to turn the float about 30 degrees. So to get one of the big floats around the corner, you have to set up the bamboo rods and break your back pulling three times in a row. In the middle of a Kyoto summer. We could understand why people were crowding into the corners to watch this: it was astonishing. After three solid pulls, the first float was completely turned, and ready to head down the street.
After the first big float came one of the portable shines. The shrines are much smaller, and weigh a “mere” 1.5 tons each. They’re still on fixed wheels, but the turning process is much simpler: the 14-24 people who’ve been pushing/pulling the float simply pick it up, turn it the full 45 degrees, put it down and continue on their way.
We watched two of the large floats get turned at our corner…and we were done. Very, very done. It was possibly the single most uncomfortable moment we’d both had in Japan: it was starting to push 90 degrees, it was impossible to move without elbowing someone in the face, and there was no way to even get pictures without holding our cameras above our heads. Miranda was feeling faint, and I wasn’t doing much better. There was an alleyway entrance about a dozen feet from us, and we resolved to make a break for it: if we could find our way to a less packed spot further down the street, great. If not, no parade was worth getting crushed to death for. Shouting “sumimasen!” at the top of our lungs, we forced our way back to the rear of the sidewalk against the nearest building, where there was actually a small single-file current of people moving their way along. A few seconds later, we stepped into the alleyway and thank you god could actually sit down, stretch out our legs, and breathe without inhaling our neighbors.
After taking a few seconds to savor the relief, we walked to the nearest parallel street, hooked a left, and walked two blocks up to another service alley. Even as little as a block from the parade, Kyoto’s streets were amazingly calm and uncrowded: if it weren’t for the ongoing sounds of Gion festival music, you’d never have known that anything was going on. We tentatively walked down the new alley, planning to flee with great alacrity if the crowds were anywhere near as dense. Instead, when we got back up to Kawaramachi, we found… the perfect spot. There were people, but an entirely manageable number of them, and most of them were schoolchildren who were actually sitting down on the concrete. The alley mouth was directly behind us, nearly completely empty, and offered a quick path of retreat. And even standing in the alley, we had a great view of the floats passing by. Best of all, there was a convenience store on the south corner of the alley, so we could dash in and get some sorely needed water. Just as we were contemplating the perfection of our new vantage point, something buzzed past our field of vision and Miranda gave a small yelp. Something had landed on her backside. Something very, very large. I swept it off with my hand-fan, and it landed on the street behind us and didn’t move. Damned if it wasn’t the largest cicada I’d ever seen:
Cicadas are notoriously stupid even by bug standards, and apparently this one had mistaken Miranda’s green shorts for a shrub or something. They’re harmless, but their legs have strong hooks to let them hang onto tree bark, so apparently having one land on you is a memorable experience.
Once that excitement was over, we settled in to watch the rest of the parade in relative comfort. There are a total of 32 floats and shrines, and this is already a picture-heavy post, so I’ll just show some edited highlights here.
Float #9 was the ‘Niwatori Boko’, which is decorated with, of all things, a 16th-century Belgian hanging tapestry depicting the Trojan war:
float #15 is the “Ayagasa boko”, which is preceded by “dancers and a music troupe…led by a bear waving a halberd”:
Six of the dancers are children, done up in Edo-era makeup and with an attending train of umbrella-carriers to keep them from spontaneously combusting in the summer sunlight:
Next up at position #16 was our old friend the Toro Yama, better known as the Praying Mantis Float, looking even sharper in sunlight:
Much later on came what was probably the best float of all, the “Fune Boko”, or as I liked to call it, “The Pirate Ship Float.” Alone among the floats, its very shape is part of its story:
It’s not actually a pirate ship, but a depiction of a story from the “Chronicles of Japan” (Nihon Shoki), in which the Empress Jingu Kogo crossed the sea to conquer Korea. For some reason, Jingu Kogo was then deified as the goddess of easy childbirth. What does easy childbirth have to do with conquering Korea? I have no idea. Um, look, a pirate ship!
By the time the parade got into its last third, the crowd had thinned out significantly — at exactly 12:30, all of the Japanese schoolchildren around us picked themselves up and vanished, leading us to speculate that they’d only gotten a half day off of school. We got to stretch out even more, and even chanced stepping into the street to get another requisite goofy tourist photo. HI MOMS!
More cool floats: the second-to-last float is the “Jomyo Yama”, and depicts a dramatic scene from the Tale of the Heike in which one warrior-monk leapfrogs his comrade to jump into the enemy’s camp:
Finally the last float, the “Minami Kannon Yama,” heaved into view. We’re not 100% sure, but we think this was the same float that we were allowed to climb up into two nights previously.
As noted previously, the floats are on fixed-axle wheels, being dragged by teams of 40 or so very sweaty men. Since the wheels are fixed, if the float starts to drift off course it’s an issue: under no circumstances not involving slicked bamboo rods do you want to drag the wheels down the concrete street. So to keep the floats moving in the right direction, a pair of men with big wooden wedges are constantly hovering around the front wheels, dropping a wedge under a wheel at key moments to do course corrections:
Finally the last float passed, and we watched the whole train receding toward the route’s next corner:
And that was that. 12:30pm, plenty of time to grab a quick lunch of ramen and see two more interesting things before the day was out. The crowds were already dispersing as we started to walk toward the subway station, and random people who may or may not have been volunteers were picking up any litter that might have been dropped on the street, of which there was already shockingly little. You could already tell that in another hour there would be no sign that the parade had ever happened.
Lunch was grabbed at one of the dozen or so ramen restaurants on the 9th floor of the Kyoto station mall, a meal that wasn’t in and of itself memorable, but was made slightly hilarious by the fact that we got lost in the station food court trying to find ramen row: we’d taken the wrong escalator, and ended up on the 10th floor, not realizing that the food court spanned two floors and as many different shopping centers. Only in Japan. While on our way there, I took the opportunity to snap a few more shots at the station.
Lunch consumed in proper breakneck Japanese ramen-slurping fashion, we jumped onto a JR train to our first destination, the Sumiya Pleasure House. We’d sort of hit temple/shrine saturation over the last few days, and we’d vowed that any post-parade sightseeing we did today would involve neither Buddhas nor Toriis. Sumiya, a former restaurant and bawdy house that was at the heart of Kyoto’s “floating world” entertainment district in the 17th through 19th centuries, seemed like just the thing: secular to a fault, and located just 3 blocks from the JR station according to the Lonely Planet map…
…which of course was wrong, or at least slightly misleading: the LP map showed Sumiya as being exactly adjacent to the JR tracks, just a few blocks back toward Kyoto from Tanbaguchi station. After walking about six blocks down the tracks, past a Kyoto city sanitation department garbage transfer station (in midsummer, lest we forget), we realized that we’d been sandbagged again, and started looking down parallel streets to see if we could find anything that looked much like a popular 18th-century bordello, and instead saw nothing but residential houses, tiny stores and gas stations as far as we could see. Oh, and a largely run-down children’s playground. We began to despair. Really, this is what it looked like in all directions:
Finally we gave up, and ducked into a small ryokan in hopes that the owners might be present and willing to lend a hand with directions. A few seconds after stepping into the lobby, an older man hustled into the front room, and on hearing our question practically bent over backwards to help us: he instantly produced a detailed single-page map of the neighborhood that was apparently printed up for use by the ryokan’s guests, gave us a copy, then walked outside with us to the nearest intersection, marked our position on the map with a pen, marked Sumiya’s position, and counted off how many blocks in each direction we’d have to walk. We’re staying with him the next time we go to Kyoto, I swear.
As it turns out, Sumiya had been so close it could have bitten us: it was directly on the opposite side of the ruined children’s playground we’d passed, protected from view by a fence.
Sumiya was one of the largest of the restaurant/concert house/brothels (ageya) of Kyoto’s Shimabara entertainment district in the Edo period, but by the time of the Meiji restoration most of the real action had been moved to the Gion district closer to the city’s center, and Shimabara slowly turned into the quiet residential district that it is today. Sumiya is one of the few ageya left, and is now operated as a museum by the city, although you can only get to the second floor by arranging a guided tour in advance, which is only available in Japanese. The first floor itself is plenty impressive: a massive kitchen, two enclosed gardens, and huge banquet halls looking out on them, faced with ornate painted screens:
We didn’t have much of an idea of how long it was going to take us to explore Sumiya, but it turned out to be pretty small (it was, after all, largely just a restaurant), and even given the time we’d lost trying to find it we were finished up by around 3pm, which gave us enough time to catch the JR train going out one more stop and jump on the Tozai subway line over to Nijojo-mae station to see one of the sites that had eluded us yesterday: Nijo castle. The subway stop is just around the corner from the castle’s entrance, and on the walk over we were treated to an awesome old-vs-new Japan composition:
Nijo Castle was the Kyoto headquarters of the Edo (Tokugawa) Shogunate: the actual capital was far away in Tokyo (Edo), but the Shogun needed to maintain a residence in Kyoto in order to do business with (and keep a close eye on) the Imperial family in Kyoto. The castle actually consists of two separate palaces, behind two separate lines of fortifications. At the main exterior gate, we were greeted with a slightly more detailed set of rules than usual:
Apparently it’s okay to be a drunkard at all of Kyoto’s other historical sites, or at least we never noticed any strictures against them there. Anyway, after paying for our tickets, we began to slowly move toward the entrance to the first palace, unsure if we were going to go inside or look at its gardens first. Then an announcement over the loudspeaker informed us that the Ninomaru palace itself would be closing at 4, so we hustled over.
Ninomaru Palace was where the Shogun did business while staying in Kyoto, and it’s consequently imposing-looking: the walking path through it led us through a series of thousand-plus-square-foot rooms, each dedicated to a particular court function, and then through the Shogun’s personal quarters, complete with mannequins posed to represent the Shogun himself and all of his assorted female attendants. The floors of the halls all squeaked and creaked as we walked down them: this was apparently an intentional design feature to discourage would-be assassins from thinking they could easily sneak by the shogun’s bodyguards. (They’re called “nightingale floors.”) All of the rooms were decorated with painted screens along their perimeters by a succession of famous Edo-era artists, but for my money the best art in the place was on the upper panels in the hallways, which were a series of abstract and geometric forms, including a pattern of linked squares against a cloudscape that looked nothing so much like a premodern Japanese Kandinsky painting.
No pictures of the interior of the castle are allowed, largely due to the screen paintings: flash photography would just accelerate their already significant deterioration.
Having completed the walking tour in time to not be kicked out of the palace, we had another hour to walk through the castle complex, starting with the main gardens, which are largely in a more western style than the typical stone-and-moss construction of the gardens at religious sites we’d seen.
Past a second moat and second fortification line is the Honmaru palace, which is clad in cedar planks, but is not open to visitors:
Since the garden trees afforded a great deal of shade, we spent another half an hour or so slowly walking through the gardens. The sky was brilliantly clear, with dramatic clouds at every angle.
After a bit of walking, we found the second set of gardens, which are in a more classically Japanese mode:
By this time, it was getting on 5pm, and we were panting a bit from the heat. Near the exit, we found an enclosed souvenir store and snack stand, and gratefully stole 10 minutes at a table to drink some water and sit down. But soon enough, the P.A. system started playing… Auld Lang Syne? Yes, the universal sign that a tourist attraction in Asia is about to shut down. It was time to sort out our dinner plans: we’d been playing email tag with
A warning to those people not familiar with Japanese pay phones. The small note in English on the phone instructions mentioning that “change is not given from 100-yen coins” may tempt you to drop in a few 10-yen coins instead if you think your phone call is going to be short. Do not do this. The extra 40-60 cents is well worth avoiding the aggravation of finding out the hard way that 10 yen buys you about 20 seconds of talk time and that no matter how good your reflexes are, the phone is guaranteed to cut you off before you get more ¥10 coins fed into it. Just trust me on this.
We didn’t see any Geisha, but dinner was so good we didn’t care. A. took us to a restaurant specializing in “Kyoto vegetable cuisine”, which apparently the au courant thing in Kyoto’s restaurant world. In operation it’s pretty similar to izakaya in that it consists of a lot of small plates which can be ordered continuously over the course of an evening, but the plates are focussed on (mostly local) vegetables (although yakitori skewers and other meat dishes are available), and the atmosphere is a bit more restaurant-like than bar-like. The restaurants all place baskets out front filled with examples of the veggies they’re specializing in, and unlike the plastic food in front of many Japanese restaurants the baskets appeared to be filled with the real thing.
(Okay, I have to admit that the first sentence of the last paragraph was a little white lie: I really wouldn’t have cared about seeing Geisha even if dinner had sucked: I know this makes me a bad Nipponophile, but the whole Geisha thing just never interested me that much. Women in white pancake makeup singing atonal Japanese classical music? Check please.)
The menu at the place we ate (no clue about its name, sorry) was all in Japanese— thankfully A. was not only fluent but also literate. Over the course of the night she probably translated about 90% of the menu for us, and all of the dishes were delightful. There were quite a lot of them, covering all sorts of preparation methods from steaming to stewing to frying; special mention should go to the tempura-fried ginger shavings and a cucumber-in-miso dish who’s name apparently translated literally and quite accurately as “you cannot stop eating this.” (And after our protein-and-starch-heavy diet of the last few weeks, a plant-focussed meal was really something of a relief.)
We also had a few drinks with dinner, and I allowed myself to be re-introduced to Shochu. Shochu and I have a bit or a tortured history: the one true oh-god-please-kill-me-now hangover I’ve ever had in my life happened after a night at a Korean karaoke joint in Manhattan where people kept brining me shochu-and-fruit-juice cocktails. The hangover was like someone had set off a concussion grenade inside my skull: it had been about 7 years since that night and I’d avoided the stuff assiduously ever sence. Still, A assured us that the local stuff was quite good, and recommended one that was apparently made from fermented sweet potatoes. Who doesn’t like sweet potatoes? How could sweet potatoes ever hurt you? Sure, I ordered a glass on the rocks. It wasn’t bad going down, but it had a strongly medicinal aftertaste that I didn’t much care for.
As we were eating, we noticed a bit of a commotion going on outside our window:
Apparently while we’d been poking through castles and bordellos after the parade, the floats were being broken down into their component pieces, and the evening was to be devoted to the float teams (by this time quite inebriated) carrying the top-parts back to the places where they are stored between parades: several teams of them passed by while we were eating our dinner.
The night was still young when we walked out, and A was promising to take us to one of her favorite bars in the city, but we wanted a slight break in the drinking before re-applying ourselves to ethanol, so we grabbed some ice cream from a nearby convenience store and walked down to the river to sit on its banks and have dessert while the various float-tops were carried by over the bridge.
Now would be as good a place as any to mention that A. really did not know us from Adam: she was a friend-of-a-friend-or-two who happens to live in Kyoto, and who we got put in touch with us by email when we mentioned to our mutual friends that we were going to be in Japan. Despite having no idea who the hell we were, she happily toured us around the city, took us to dinner and drinking, and generally went way above and beyond the call of duty to make our last night in Kyoto utterly awesome. We’ve always done amazingly well relying on the kindness of near-strangers when traveling (hi, Belle!), and our lucky streak definitely kept up in Kyoto. There’s a lot of favors in the bank — hopefully we’ll get to return them all one day.
Our ice cream finished, we headed off towards A’s favorite 24-hour bar, which necessitated crossing a stream of post-parade revelers. One we got close to one of the float-part carrying crowds, we realized that not only were many of them quite happily (and understandably) boozed up (not that we could cast any aspersions ourselves at that point), but many of the men were down to their shirts and loincloths. Oh well, even after dark it was still pretty damn hot.
Once there was a break in the crowds, we headed over to… well, here’s where I confess that we’d already drunk a bit at the restaurant, and when we got to the bar we had rather a bit more. So until I can track down the name of the place, you’ll have to content yourself with knowing that we spent the rest of the evening drinking at “the little 24-hour bar above the Brazilian restaurant with the really nice bartender with the tattoos who plays mostly ska and the Beatles on the bar stereo.” (However it is not, for the record, the Beatles Bar.) The bar was a tiny little place that could seat 8 at the bar and potentially a few more on a couch next to it, but there were only 6 people there including us and the bartender— which was great, since the bartender was a friend of A’s, the other guy was a friend of the bartender, and the woman next to him was a bartender from another bar. We spent the rest of the night happily drinking and chatting, and A handled translation duties awesomely.
Embarrassingly, when I’d walked in I’d seen the sign for the Brazilian restaurant downstair, assumed that the bar itself was Brazilian, and started off my drink order with a Caipirinha. It wasn’t until the bartender, bless his soul, started calling the guys downstairs on his cell phone to get advice on how to mix one that I figured it out. Oops. For the record, he made as good a caipirinha as one can with rum instead of Cachaça, and I switched back to shochu after that, and then gin and tonics.
Side-note: apparently the American habit of charging extra for “top-shelf” liquors is unknown in Japan. If you want a gin-and-tonic, it will cost you the same amount with Bombay Sapphire as with anything else: it’s all imported anyway. (If you want to drink cheaply, live dangerously and drink shochu.)
The drinking and chatting went on for a while, as these things tend to, largely revolving a series of somewhat sozzled conversations about the differences in sex and dating experiences between Japan and the US, resulting in a great deal of mutually buzzed hilarity. Certainly by the end of it, we would not have been eligible for entrance into Gijo castle! Finally around 11:30 I made the mistake of looking at my watch: oh dear, we did sort of have an airplane to catch tomorrow. We’d even planned on packing up our luggage that night, although that was looking less and less lightly. We said our goodbyes and… well, we weren’t actually drunk enough to “stumble”, but I have probably walked better in my life.
Unfortunatly, we’d waited a bit too long to make our exit: all of the Kyoto busses back to our station had stopped running for the night. A. earned her final purple heart for the evening by walking with us to the Keihan line train station, which was more or less her route home anyway, and which had a stop about a half mile from where we were staying. We waved her goodbye on the train, and lurched through the humid Kyoto night back home and to sleep.
…or at least that was the plan. It was a hot, humid night. A very hot, very humid night: probably the hottest and wettest since we’d been to Japan. I fell asleep pretty quickly once I lay down of course — ethanol will do that — but about 2 hours later when I mostly sobered up, I woke up: hot, sticky, and with a not-insignificant headache. Damn you, shochu! I’d been smart enough to pack a new bottle of ibuprofen in my bags, and so I crawled off my futon (n.b. not due to drunkenness: when both your bed and your bag are on the floor, crawling is the fastest route), located my toiletries bag by feel and managed to get two tablets out of the bottle and into me without waking anyone else. Back in bed, I switched through the usual number of uncomfortable positions until a small rain shower around 4am dropped the temperature enough for me to get back to sleep for a little while.
Oh well, you play you pay. It was still an awesome way to wrap up the trip.
Before we get to the grand finale and epilogue, a few random observations that I never really managed to shoehorn in anywhere else:
— Japan still has coin-operated left-luggage lockers, everywhere. Every train station. Every airport. Every large bus terminal. Most larger tourist attractions. Many of the smaller tourist attractions. They usually cost a dollar (¥100), and sometimes they were even free. Even though the Tokyo and Kyoto subways were plastered with “terrorism alert” posters due to the G8 summit, and even though Japan has adopted the same idiotic carry-on luggage rules as the USA now, nobody there has thought to make an issue about public lockers. Let me tell you: this was great. Backpack getting too heavy and hot on a summer day? Just leave it in the lockers. I did this constantly.
— Japan is handicapped-accessible. Let me reiterate that: as far as I could tell, the whole country is handicapped-accessible. Elevators everywhere. Chair lifts where they couldn’t shoehorn in elevators. Sidewalk cuts everywhere, almost no exceptions — and in situations like the Gion Matsuri parade, we saw cops forcing their way through crowds in order to help people with wheelchairs get through them. And this wasn’t just in the cities: hiking in the Japanese Alps, which you’d expect to be strictly a pursuit for the bipedal, we saw a family quite successfully pushing an older relative in a contraption that appeared to be an all-terrain wheelchair. I have no idea if this is just due to cultural reverence for the elderly or a Japanese version of the ADA, but coming after trips to China, Cambodia and Vietnam (short form summary for the disabled: rotsa ruck), this was unexpected, shocking and really really nice to see.
— Another note on vending machines: I probably mentioned that you can buy alcohol and cigarettes from them. What I should also have mentioned: you sometimes have to be careful not to buy alcohol from them. The alcoholic drinks are sometimes mixed in with the soft drinks, and on the scorchingly hot day in Kyoto when Miranda and I were walking back from the Daigo-ji temple, we ended up sharing what was basically a white peach sake cooler, because it was not immediately obvious that we were not buying a can of carbonated peach juice. It tasted great, but drinking it may not have been the wisest tactical move of the afternoon.
— Things that Japan, a famously clean and fastidious country, is strangely short on:
- Hand towels in bathrooms. Running water? Yes. Soap? Always. Some way to dry your hands other than shaking them into the sink, looking around hopefully and then sighing and wiping them on your jeans? Well… other than a few hotels and tourist attractions that obvious expected lots of westerners, no. As far as we could ever determine, most Japanese carry around a series of little washcloth-like terrycloth squares that they use to blot sweat off their foreheads on hot days, and dry off their hands any time they visit a restroom.
- Wastebaskets. This one really surprised me. You never see litter in Japan. Never. But on-street wastebaskets are rarer than bathrooms with hand towels. Apparently everyone just puts their litter (and there is a lot of potential litter, because everything you have heard about the Japanese propensity for wrapping everything individually is pretty much true) into their bags and carrys it home to dispose of.
— CANDY! Oh god, the candy. There’s so much of it, and it’s almost all perplexingly good. If I ever lived in Japan, I would gain a hundred pounds just on the Meiji Green Apple Chocolate Mint chews alone. It’s a good thing we walked everywhere.
— Tipping. Does. Not. Happen. Ever. I miss this already. It’s part of the reason food is so expensive: restaurants, cafes, hotels and the like have to pay their service employees a decent wage up front, and so they don’t have to dance for the customer to get paid. To my mind, this is really just a win for everyone.
— And speaking of money, I’m afraid Japan has made me reconsider my enthusiasm for the dollar coin. The smallest bank note in Japan is a ¥1000 note: roughly $10. Below that, there are coins for everything from ¥1 to ¥500. Result? After any day in which you purchase so much as a single thing, you inevitably end up with a bulging, heavy, noisy pocket of change. Maybe the dollar bill isn’t such a bad idea after all.
— All of the guidebooks warned us that Japan was a very cash-happy place and that western credit cards would be mostly useless there. This turned out to be a bit overblown: the only lodgings that wouldn’t take a credit card were the Zen temple and the dodgy B&B (not so surprising in either case), and I’d say that a good plurality of the restaurants we went to would take them. One thing that was noticable is that nobody blinks in the slightest about having to make change from a larger denomination bill. If you ask for ¥10,000 (more or less $100) from a Japanese ATM, it will give you a single ¥10,000 bill, and if you drop that bill on a street vendor for a ¥1 riceball skewer, they do not so much as blink. Once in all of Japan, we got politely asked if we had enough small-yen coins to round up to an even number, and that was it.
— Even odder, just about every single vending machine (of which previously noted there were lots) would happily take high-denomination bills. Want to buy a soda with a ¥1000 bill? Go ahead. More to the point, want to buy a ¥210 subway fare with a ¥10,000 bill? Not a problem, and it’ll give you exact change.
— While a great deal of signage, sloganeering and t-shirt decorative English in Japan appears to be dedicated to environmentalism, recycling, saving the forests (um, not the whales so much) and so forth, to the point that you’d really think it was a major trend, this does not prevent any retail establishment in any city in Japan in summer from opening its front doors wide open and blasting frigid air-conditioned air onto the sidewalk in hopes of luring customers in. I am not too proud to admit that this completely worked on me several times.
Okay, now on to the major verbiage…
We take a day trip to Nara and are mobbed by voracious deer! We see big things, then even bigger things! No seriously, you have to see how big these things are. There are pretty views, a few key facts about restaurants, a hall with a MILLION ARMS. Then I go on about expensive department stores and we meet the Japanese DuffMan. It’s all pretty awesome, and to read it you just
Wednesday: the plan was to wake up at the crack of dawn and jump on a train over to Nara, to wander through its park and meet its famous deer herd. We didn’t quite make the whole ‘crack of dawn’ part of the plan. Firstly because I’d been using my laptop as an alarm clock, and iCal’s ability to handle alarms set in non-primary time zones is pathetic, and secondly because the previous day’s thunderstorm had actually dropped the temperature to the point where I could sleep, and my body was making the most of it: I rolled out of bed at the relatively luxurious hour of 8:30am, and Miranda followed shortly after.
Figuring that 9-9:30 wasn’t really that late to be getting out of the house, we kept with the plan and after showers and breakfast found ourselves on a JR train to Nara, a roughly 50 minute ride away on a “rapid” train, which is basically JR’s equivalent to a New York, Boston or Philadelphia commuter train.
(JR also runs local trains that run on the same lines as the rapids, but stop at every little hamlet along the way, and look in their interiors much more like standard subway cars., and of course on the opposite side of the spectrum there’s the Shinkansen which runs on dedicated tracks and is the most awesome thing ever. But we’ve covered that already.)
Nara is a small town by Japanese standards: at around 370,000 people, it’s larger than Ann Arbor, Michigan, but smaller than, say, Cleveland. But once upon a time, Nara was the imperial capital of Japan. It was only the capital for about a century, but in that time it managed to accumulate rather a lot of temples, shrines and other buildings of historical importance: there are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nara. (There are a total of 20 in the entire United States of America, just for comparison, and only about a third of those are man-made.) Happily for day-trippers like ourselves, most of those are located in a single, easily walkable park just a few minutes away from the JR train station.
Of course, I couldn’t manage to get from the train station to the park without finding at least one thing amusing enough to take a photo of:
In addition to its temples and shrines (which we’ll get to in a minute), the Nara Park is famous for some of its living inhabitants as well: a herd of over a thousand sika deer which have inhabited the park since at least the 1500s. The deer used to be considered divinities, and killing them was punishable by death: nowadays they are themselves registered National Treasures of Japan, and presumably killing them is still discouraged — although we saw one shop offering deer antlers and hides for sale! (I presume that these were either from deer who died of natural or accidental causes or from deer not living in the park, but we didn’t think to verify it.)
The deer of Nara Park aren’t tame, but it’s a stretch to call them wild. They are very used to having inquisitive humans wandering up to them, and we saw several of them consenting to be petted for a while. (However, stern signs all around the park warn you against trying to pet any of the fawns, no matter how cute: the signs were all in Japanese, but the drawings of enraged deer parents made the self-correcting nature of that error perfectly clear.) Much if not all of their comfort with humans stems from the fact that for ¥150 you can buy a pack of deer biscuits and feed them by hand, and man oh man have the deer figured out that free food is awesome.
I bought my pack of biscuits from a vendor who warned me “keep moving.” I think she might have more accurately said “run for your life, son.” The moment I cracked the paper seal on the stack of 8 biscuits, I was immediately beset by a fast-moving herd of extremely hungry deer, none of whom were at all inclined to wait for me to carefully get each cracker into my hand and positioned for safe deer-mouth insertion. Instead, impatient deer heads butted at me from all sides, and when my hands (and their biscuity contents) were not accessible they began snorfling at my shirt and my pockets: by the time the process was over I had a good deal of deer drool on my t-shirt. The vendor’s advice to keep moving turned out to be very very wise: I made the mistake of slowing down for a second, and quickly found all of my paths of exit blocked.
I had to throw a few biscuits ahead of me to distract the damn things from my shorts and open up an escape route. My supply of deer cookies quickly exhausted, I opened my hands and raised them above my head, and damned if the little bastards didn’t know exactly what that meant, and quickly meandered off in search of the next gullible tourist to assault.
Miranda had had the camera in hand and was taking photos when not doubling over laughing. Since it had been so hilarious to watch me nearly get trampled by a herd of sacred deer (and just in case it’s not coming through: yes, this actually was hilarious, and I was giggling madly the entire time, even when I was nearly losing fingers), it was obviously only fair for her to try it next.
Unfortunately for Miranda, the deer did not seem so willing to believe that she was out of biscuits when the time came (perhaps they smelled the human-snacks in her backpack), and a small herd of them stalked her down the path for a good distance.
We eventually managed to outpace our pursuers (well, actually they just got distracted and wandered off), and made it to our first non-animal destination in the park, the Tōdai-ji temple.
To get to the main hall of the Todai-ji, first you have to walk through the enormous entry gate:
…with its stunning and not coincidentally also enormous guardian deities:
…but once you get past the gate and into the main complex, you find yourself having to revisit your assessment of the entry gate as “enormous.” Because beyond the gate is the Great Buddha Hall (Daibatsu-Den), and it dwarfs the gate. It dwarfs your house. It might well dwarf your city:
The Daibatsu-den is the largest wooden structure in the entire world. Let’s put a few tourists into that photo for scale:
The brain-melting thing is that this is the second daibatsu-den: the first one was built sometime in the year 740-ish, was destroyed in a fire, and had to be completely rebuilt in 1709… and the 1709 version is a third smaller than the original. (The original was also flanked by a pair of 5-story-tall wooden pagodas, which were never reconstructed.) This is really the scale model daibatsu-den, and it’s still nearly 300 years old and the largest wooden building anywhere.
Walking up the path to its entrance, you get the disturbing sensation that it’s looking down on you and is completely unimpressed:
So why would you build the largest wooden building ever, in the eighth century? Well that’s obvious, right? You build a Great Buddha Hall to house a Great Buddha:
The Great Buddha (daibatsu) of Todai-ji is a cast bronze statue that is just shy of 53 feet (16 meters) tall, and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 440 tons. I’m not sure if it’s still the biggest Buddha in the world, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and bet that in the year 746 when the statue was originally cast (it’s been recast a few times since then due to earthquake and fire damage), it was the Greatest Buddha by a good long yard.
Once again, let’s put in a full-size Miranda for a sense of scale:
There’s not much in the Daibatsu-den other than the Daibatsu itself (and two smaller gilt Buddhas — both Kannons if I recall correctly), but you’re allowed to take photos (really, what’s an in-camera flash going to do to a 50-foot-tall bronze statue?), and you can circle around the entire statue to see how it’s mounted into the building superstructure. Behind it, there’s a small attraction: one of the support pillars for the roof has a roughly 20-inch-wide hole drilled through it: it’s said to be the size of the Great Buddha’s nostril, and tradition holds that if you can squeeze your way through it, you’ve got a decent shot at enlightenment. Needless to say, enlightenment is best pursued by madly giggling six-year-olds:
Our circle of the Great Buddha complete, we checked our watches and our map: it was a little after noon, which was a bit later than we’d originally planned, but the park was small and it didn’t seem unthinkable that we could see one or two more of the notable sites there before taking off back to Kyoto. We’d been snacking from our horde of wasabi peas and crackers, so lunch wasn’t a high priority anyway. So we set off down a likely-seeming trail toward the nigatsu-do temple, which turned out to be a cute little hall and series of outbuildings a bit uphill and up a flight of steps from Todai-ji, with a tea shop just outside it that afforded a great view of the top of the Daibatsu-den and an expanse of the park looking back down.
Almost as importantly, when we reached the tea-shop we spotted another set of visitors having the single largest plate of shave-ice we’d ever seen in our lives, topped with green tea syrup. The temperature had been rising a bit (especially since the hall, on the hill, was free of tree cover) for the last few minutes, so this looked like about the best idea ever. As it turned out, it was the best idea ever:
Sharing a big bowl of green tea shave ice, sitting on a nicely padded bench, looking out over the park and an ancient Buddhist prayer hall? Simply awesome.
On our way away from the Sangatsu-den, we followed signs to the W.C. and found next to it one of the most thoughtful things we’d seen in Japan, a country not normally noted for slouching in the thoughtfulness department. It wasn’t clear whether it was run by the monks at Sangatsu-den or by the civil park authorities, but in any case, right next to Sangatsu-den was a huge “rest area”: a building nearly as large as the prayer hall itself, with chairs, tatami-mat tables and sinks. The ceiling was high and big fans kept the air circulating, and best of all it had free hot water and tea. Having just bought a huge shave-ice, we weren’t really needing any of the amenities there, but several families were seated around tables eating picnic lunches they’d packed, and were obviously grateful for the chance to take a break.
Our way back to the main path led through the rest hall and back around, past some unmarked buildings that appeared to be part of the Sangatsu-den complex. On a high beam near our heads on one of the buildings we were passing, we noticed a slightly frazzled looking bird, chest puffed out, holding its ground firmly and staring at us. At first we though it might be injured, but then we heard a small cheeping sound from the ceiling nearby:
Aha, mama bird was guarding her nest! All tourist pedestrian traffic suddenly ground to a halt as everyone pointed their cameras upwards to take pictures of the babies, no doubt frazzling the mom’s nerves even more.
The next interesting-looking site along the path was the Kasuga Shrine, about 1.5km away. The walk was mostly shaded under trees, and was quite pleasant by Kansai summer standards. Along the way there, though, we passed a stark reminder of why while you can still smoke in restaurants and bars in Japan, and non-Japanese signage is in general only spottily attended to, in all of Japan’s major historical sites, there are dozens of “no smoking” signs printed in every major world language, and repeated so that you can never fail to see them:
This wasn’t anything of historical importance: by the look of it, it was just a souvenir shop. But it had been made of wood to match the historical style of the park’s monuments, and when it had gone up it had taken everything that wasn’t made of stone adjacent with it.
The Kasuga Shrine is a shinto shrine dating from the middle 8th century, and is famous for lanterns: stone ones lining all of the paths approaching it from all directions, and brass ones on the inside. Obviously approaching the shrine near dusk when some of the lanterns are lit might have been preferable from an ooh-and-ahh perspective, but it was still utterly gorgeous.
I have to say: from a purely aesthetic perspective, visiting a Shinto shrine after what seemed like 8 or 9 Buddhist facilities in a row was actually a bit of a relief. Shinto houses of worship tend to be… not “spare” precisely, but there are few enormous looming buddhas with thousands of arms flanked by dozens of warrior demons. Kasuga in particular was very much focussed on a few key visual elements: the central stone gardens, the enormous and ancient trees that in some cases grew through the temple buildings themselves, the hundreds of lanterns inside and out, and the lovingly cared-for orange walls and internal passages:
…not that this reminded me of anything. We never made it to the Inari Shrine in Kyoto, so this felt a bit like that experience in miniature.
The inside of Kasuga lies behind wide orange walls, and has a path for visitors to walk that takes about half an hour to 45 minutes to get through, and lets you see just about everything other than the main temple itself, which is off-limits (although you can spot it through the internal gate). One particularly cute bit was a nearly windowless building used to store… what else, more lanterns.
Once we’d finished strolling through Kasuga, it was a little after 2pm, which presented us with a small dilemma: spend the rest of the afternoon walking through Nara park and its various sites, or hustle back to Kyoto in hopes of making it to one of the, oh god, more than a dozen sites still on our prospective itinerary, most of which would be closing by about 4 or 5pm? I’d been specifically interested in seeing Nijo Castle in Kyoto, and we’d passed on it for now two days running because we kept being on the wrong side of town. Its gates closed at 4, but the complex itself was open until 5, so maybe we could just make it…
We set off at a good clip down the central path in the park that headed straight back out toward the JR station. And we might have made it, if it hadn’t been for our meddling stomachs: by the time we reached the outskirts of the park, it was getting on 2:30, and a few handfuls of wasabi peas and some shave-ice were no longer cutting it as nutrition. Luckily, the park dumped us out onto a retail district, which itself was adjacent to one of Japan’s omnipresent covered shopping arcades, and we figured it would be a simple matter to find a take-away meal.
Here commenced a quick and thorough education in a small but important cultural difference between American and Japanese food service: in general, it appears, sit-down restaurants in Japan don’t do take-away. Or at least none of the ones in Nara do. Or perhaps we were using the wrong word for take-away. Point being, three restaurants in a row turned out not to do it, and while almost immediately after giving up on the restaurant approach we found a supermarket which did have premade and build-your-own bento boxes to go, the time spent asking for it added up, and we ended up on a 3ish train back to Kyoto…a local train. Midway through the ride, it became obvious that we were going to need a Plan B. Most historic sites in Kyoto close up at around 4pm, so our options were thin, but after some frantic page-turnig in Lonely Planet, we found one that managed to fulfill the tripartite criteria of being something one of us had previously flagged as interesting, was open until 5pm, and was close enough to Kyoto station to get there no later than 4.
The lucky winner was the Sanjusangen-do temple. Sanjusangen-do is a temple to Kannon (AKA Guan Yin), the goddess (or sometimes god) of mercy and compassion in the Buddhist canon. Sanjusangden-do is a nearly 400-foot-long hall, populated with a central statue (about 15 feet high and 8 feet wide) of the Thousand-Armed Kannon, flanked on each side by a thousand smaller (merely roughly human-sized) smaller Kannons, making for a thousand and one Kannons total, and one million and one thousand arms if you do the math (and accept a certain amount of fudging in the actual arm count: in objective terms, each statue only has a few dozen arms). The smaller Kannons are arranged in ranks ten deep, and you still have to walk past hundreds of them before you can even see the larger Kannon in the center of the hall.
I will probably be reincarnated as something scaly for having had Land of a Thousand Dances going through my head while walking down the aisle, but regardless, the row upon row of gold Kannons were monumentally beautiful.
Sadly, there is no photography of the interior of the Sanjusangen-do allowed, so you’ll have to either take my word for all of this, or look at the wikipedia page or this site, which somehow have a few shots of the inside.
The path through the temple is pretty much a closed loop: you enter on one side, walk past 1001 Kannons, then come back the same distance through a smaller hallway in back, which had a pair of unusual features: scale models of both the hall itself and one of the attending Kannons, in brass. The models were actually provided for visually impaired visitors so that they could “see” the hall and the statues by feeling them, which I thought was an especially nice touch.
As we were coming through the return hallway, the P.A. system informed us that the temple would be closing to visitors soon, so we hustled back to reclaim our shoes, walked outside and found a bus going back into downtown pulling up just at that instant, which we jumped on. We had vague plans of getting something to eat or maybe finding something non-religious to look at, but at least of getting closer to the subway. We found ourselves on Shijo avenue, distressingly close to that evening’s pre-Gion Matsuri street fair, which we didn’t feel much of a need to repeat. Casting around a bit, I noticed that we were across the street from Kyoto’s outpost of the Takashimaya department store, which we’d originally planned to visit in Ginza back in Tokyo, but had somehow managed to completely fail to find. Well, we didn’t have any other pressing engagements, so no time like the present, right?
My particular fascination with Takashimaya comes from the fact that alone among the major Japanese department store chains (high-end or otherwise), they have an outlet in the states, on 5th Avenue in New York City. Miranda and I had gone there for tea one sunday morning in 2003-ish and had then taken a quick peek through the rest of the store, where we’d managed to have what we’d thought were reasonably jaded New York sensibilities shocked by the prices: the single most reasonable thing I saw at their 5th Av store was a gorgeous grey men’s wool bathrobe that I had fallen instantly in love with until I’d turned over the pricetag and found out that true bathrobe love was going to set me back $750. Then we saw the furniture, and the zeros kept getting tagged on: I’d never personally beheld a six-figure price tag until then, and have not since.
Anyway, point being: in the states, Takashimaya is the most insanely overpriced department store I’ve ever gone into, and I was curious to see if it held true in Japan or if the US prices were a combination of shipment costs and marketing. The answer was: a little bit. In NYC, their store was relatively small compared to a Macys or a Barneys, and really stocked almost entirely Japanese brands. In Japan, they’re much more of a full-service high-end department store, and their clothing departments had little sub-stores devoted to all of the usual high-end American and European houses in addition to the Japanese ones: as Miranda pointed out, there wouldn’t be much point in stocking Burberry at the NYC store, since Burberry themselves have a store just a few blocks down the avenue. So in general, the prices were merely “breathtakingly expensive” rather than “grand mal seizure expensive”. Impressively, most of the attendants in the menswear section didn’t attempt to ignore my sweaty, grubby, be-sandaled self, and one self-sacrificing soul in the Issey Miyake section even offered to let me try on a jacket that I’d obviously been eyeing a little lustfully: after a moment’s hesitation (during which I contemplated both the state of my armpits and the store-wide hilarity that had accompanied my one attempt to try on a long-sleeved anything in Singapore), I regretfully declined.
After realizing that even the wallets and man-purses were in the “too overpriced to even consider as an excessive gift to someone cute” category, we headed down to the basement, because it is apparently the law that all Japanese department stores must have enormous food courts in their lower levels, and this store was no exception…
Oh god, have I just gone on at more length and detail about a damn department store than several centuries-old temples? Yes, I have. I am very, very sorry. I’ll try to wrap this up soon.
…and surprisingly, the food courts at Takashimaya seemed to only be a little more expensive than the food courts at any other department store we’d found in Japan. It did, however, have a few things we hadn’t seen before. Like… a bagel stand! Which, when we got to it, was selling… um… um… these:
Bagels, filled with ice cream. They also sold non-iced bagels, in varieties ranging from “arguably normal” (an “everything” bagel that seemed to have sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and cracked black pepper) to “outright insane”, such as the Green Tea And White Chocolate bagel. We bought one of the everythings and one of the green tea white chocolate ones, and I’m a little surprised to say that… they weren’t bad. They wouldn’t have passed muster at H&H, nevermind the mighty Brooklyn Bagel Hole, but they were better than a lot I’ve had elsewhere: chewy enough to suggest that actual boiling was involved, and a reasonable heft to them.
Having bought the bagels, a plan formed: since tomorrow seemed like it was going to require waking up really really early, for real, in order to stake out a viewing spot for the Gion Matsuri parade, why not just self-cater a meal from the food court, eat it at home and make an early night of it? Thus, we ended up with break from a French(-style) bakery, salami from a german(-style) deli, Japanese-made kimchi from a pickle vendor, some fresh fruit and handful of sweets involving red bean paste. Clutching our bags, we made our way to the bus stop, trying to skirt the edge of the ongoing street fair— a goal we mostly succeeded in, but we did have to stop and take a shot of this guy:
…and at the bus stop itself, as we were waiting, we noticed that in front of the illuminated bus sign, a very industrious spider was in the last stages of spinning a gorgeous web, and the next ten minutes of the warm night passed quickly as we watched her weave the center of her spiral. Just as the bus pulled up, she connected the last thread to the last spoke, and settled into the center to wait for what the night would bring.
And that would be a perfect end to this post, but I’m going to drag it out for one more small observation. I may not have made it entirely clear just how much into vending machines the Japanese are. The entire time we’ve been here, I don’t think we’ve ever managed to walk more than half a mile without encountering at least a soft drink machine, and often beer/sake and cigarette machines as well. And it’s not just in commercial neighborhoods: the rest stops on the paths in the Japanese alps often had them! So as we got off the bus and walked to the house, it seemed appropriate to stop and take note of this lone vending machine, light up brilliantly against the dark, in the middle of a completely residential neighborhood, with no other creatures stirring for blocks:
And that is actually the end of this day.
Okay, apologies in advance. This one may be a bit more, uh, telegraphic than the last few: we need to get up stupidly early tomorrow in order to fight our way through the crowds at the Gion Mastsuri, and if I don’t get this written tonight it ain’t never gonna get written. Plus I have like 15 postcards to write and address. Kill me now.
Anyhow, Tuesday started out a bit more comfortably than Monday, relatively speaking anyway: there was so much cloud cover over Kyoto that the sun couldn’t penetrate much. Sure, it was still hot, sticky and humid, but it was merely in the mid-80s fahrenheit, and after that last two days, that felt positively human-friendly. I even managed to catch up on a bit of sleep: perhaps even a bit too much, as we didn’t make it out of bed until about 8, and we’d originally planned to try to get up as early as possible to beat the crowds to the golden temple.
So it’s worth noting here that the “Silver Pavilion” is simply a common name for a temple that has no actual silver on it. The emperor who ordered the silver pavilion built had plans to cover it in silver, but it never really happened. So you might think that the “golden pavilion” is a metaphor for the grandness of this particular temple. Or maybe it’s covered in straw, or painted bright yellow, or catches the early morning sunlight in a particularly lovely way, right? Wrong.
You take the bus to Kinkaju-ji station, pay your ¥600, walk down a short wooded path, and through the trees you can see a glint of something. Then you turn the corner. Hello:
The Golden Temple is called the Golden Temple because it is in fact covered nearly from top to bottom in 24-karet gold leaf. The gutters are covered in gold. There is nothing else like it on this planet that I know of. Let’s take another look:
The golden temple in these photos is actually the second golden temple. The first one was burned to the ground in 1950 by a monk who had formed an unhealthy (to say the least) psychosexual fixation on it — a story that Yukio Mishima would have had to have invented if it hadn’t actually happened. As it was, he merely got to write a book about it. The temple was rebuilt in1955 as an exact match of the original, except with a great deal of the gold that had apparently worn off of the first version restored.
The Kinkaju-ji is probably the most efficient of all of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There’s a small garden and a few tiny shrines behind it, but really you’re there for the Golden Temple, and they waste little time hiding it from you. You come, you see, your brain melts, you stare slackjawed, you move around for another view, and then you move on.
Our ultimate next destination was far on the other side of the city, so we went there by way of a stop in downtown Kyoto, figuring to avoid a bit of the midday heat by browsing through the Nishiki food markets. I’ll get to that in a second, but first I need to show you a building that we saw on the way. I’m trying not to overdo it with photos of amusing uses of western languages, but I really couldn’t pass this up. Ladies and gentlemen, the Salon de Messiah:
I’m going to hell for the caption, but it was worth it.
Anyway, the Nishiki food markets are a nearly half-mile long covered arcade of food shops, selling fish, pickles, rice, tea, strange gelatinous things, stranger gelatinous things, crackers, bread, and basically everything else you might want to eat or prepare food with in Kyoto:
While there are a few obvious wholesalers there, Nishiki is on the whole pretty retail-oriented: you can browse around the shops, sample various foods, and if you walk slowly from one end to the other, get pretty much all of your day or week’s shopping done. Nishiki is actually one of about half a dozen covered shopping arcades scattered throughout Kyoto, and it’s probably the most highbrow of them all. We succumbed to the food smells after about 45 minutes, and ended up eating a lunch comprised of catches from several different stalls on a tatami-covered bench just across from a stall that I could only dub the House Of Deep Fried Everything:
Sadly the thing we got from the House of Deep Fried Everything turned out to be cold deep-fried fish cakes of a particularly unfriendly-to-Nathan spongy/gelatinous texture. On the other hand, the fish-shaped hollow cookies filled with red bean paste were awesome.
Also in Nishiki were several kitchen equipment stores, including a knife store that’s been around since 1560:
I went in. I drooled. I drooled some more. I decided to think about it over lunch. So far, the balance still stands in favor of “I don’t prepare sushi often enough to justify owning a $150-400 sashimi knife that cannot realistically be used for anything else, and I already have a perfectly good santoku.” But I reserve the right to have my will completely break before we leave Kyoto.
Lunch attended to, and the day still overcast enough to make wandering around outside a possibility, we grabbed the metro out to our next destination: the Daigo-ji temple complex in Kyoto’s far southeastern suburbs. This proved to be… a bit of an adventure to get to. The Tozai line has apparently been extended two stops since the 2008 Lonely Planet guide’s publication, and Daigo-ji is no longer the end of the line. That was easily enough surmised. Once we got to the station, there were a series of helpful signs for the “Daigo Community Bus” which we were assured would whisk us quickly to the temple. We followed the signs to a bus stop a few yards away from the metro exit, checked the timetable we saw there, and decided that a bus was just three minutes away. Sure enough, three minutes later a bus pulled up, we got on, and the bus took off…
…to god knows where. It was actually a pretty interesting trip: I’ve mentioned already that outside of its historical sites, Kyoto is a pretty working-class city, and we were very obvious in one of Kyoto’s lower-to-middle class outer ring neighborhoods, which bore a not-insubstantial resemblance to a far-east version of Northeast Philadelphia: big square apartment buildings, wide roads packed with auto dealerships, A/V stores and the occasional blocky shopping mall. It was about as far from the picture-postcard Kyoto as you can get, which was great except that we were specifically trying to get to one of the picture-postcard parts. After about 10 minutes on the bus (the book had assured us that the temple was a 10-minute walk from the metro stop), I accosted the driver at a stop and tried to figure out if we were actually headed to Daigo-ji. The answer was a very clear “no.” Apparently what we’d done was read the wrong timetable: instead of the “Daigo Community Bus”, we’d ended up on a random Kyoto city bus. The driver dropped us off at the next stop with instructions to look for the number 22 bus at the nearby train station, and pointed us in its alleged direction.
We walked a few block in the direction the driver had indicated, and found that the train station he’d pointed us at was in fact the new terminus of the Tozai line. Since we had open bus/train passes, we decided not to chance looking for the #22 bus (and trying to figure out what direction to take it in), and just got back on the subway and took it back to Daigo station to try to get on the right bus. Japanese subways being what they are, this took only ten minutes.
Round two: FIGHT!
Getting back to the same bus stop we’d left now about half an hour before, we looked a little harder, and found the timetable that had “Daigo Community Bus” plastered all over it and instructions in both Japanese and English. You can lead a tourist to information, but you can’t make us read it, apparently. The good news was that we were definitely in the right place. The bad news was that it was going to be 25 minutes before the next #4 community bus to Daigo-ji. We managed to wait just shy of 15 minutes before my patience expired. This was all over a 10-minute walk, and the route in the LP book had agreed with the map we’d seen posted in the subway station. So we set off.
This might not have been the brightest idea I’d ever had. The clouds weren’t quite breaking, but they were certainly thinning out, and as we walked — uphill of course — toward where we thought the temple was, the heat and humidity started climbing, and I started sweating through everything I own again. We got slightly confused by some side streets and… hell, this travelogue has had enough of me wandering around lost already. Suffice it to say that it took about 20 minutes to get there, but get there we did, to find the massive western gate under an enormous tarp. High summer is apparently low season for Daigo-ji, and while we could enter, a great deal of the temple complex was under construction for renovations.
This all is starting to sound like Daigo-ji was the low point of the Kyoto trip, and I think I’ve been complaining too much. In fact, Daigo-ji was awesome. We had the entire complex practically to ourselves, excluding a few schoolchildren and a handful of monks and workmen. And the thing I’d specifically come here to see was most certainly not under renovation. Ladies and gentlemen, the Daigo-ji pagoda, the oldest standing structure in Kyoto and possibly the oldest pagoda in the world:
It’s five stories tall, made entirely of wood, and it was built in Anno Domini Nine Hundred and Fifty One. 951. It’s over a thousand years old, and it’s still standing. Fires, wars, typhoons, earthquakes: it’s seen them all and lived. And it’s enormous. We’ll add a full-sized Miranda to that picture for some scale:
Let me put this another way: in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and this damn thing was already over 500 years old.
I probably spent a good half an hour just staring slackjawed at the pagoda, and we took some time after that to wander through the rest of the complex, or at least the bits that were open to us. Daigo-ji is gorgeous, but I have to admit that it looks like it sorely needs the facelift it’s in the process of getting: most of the halls and temples were pretty weather-worn, and the paths between them were rutted and cracked enough to make getting around in tevas a bit of a challenge.
Plus at this point, the sun was starting to occasionally punch through the clouds, and “punch” is very much the operative term there. It was about 3pm, there was really nothing else in the immediate vicinity to explore, and obviously it was time to move on. We trotted back to the subway station, and planned our next assault while on the train. Most of the things I’d considered doing that afternoon were going to close at 4 or 4:30, so Miranda suggested one I hadn’t flagged: the Kiyomizu-dera temple in southern Higashiyama, which she’d been to with her mom in 2003 and which she thought I’d underestimated. As it turns out, she was right.
But when we got out of the subway at Higashiyama station, I dug in my heels a bit. The clouds had completely burned off, and the temperature was rising quickly. I was going to call in wimpy for the next 30-60 minutes thank you very much: there was a likely-looking cafe across the street, and it seemed like a good place to wait out the peak heat with some ice cream inside air conditioning. In fact it was a great place to do that, and we passed the hour with plates of green tea ice cream and some Japanese fashion magazines.
By 4pm, the clouds had rolled back in, and we deemed it safe to venture outside. We settled our bill and grabbed a bus, which put us at the foot of the small street leading uphill to Kiyomizu-dera. The street was lined with mostly unmemorable gift shops, ice cream stands and cafes, but this one stood out a bit:
Kiyomizu-dera is a series of halls and shrines built into the side of a mountain. You walk past the last of the ceramic shops on the way up, and suddenly you see this:
It’s a very popular shrine, and was probably the busiest of the ones we went to. Part of this is due to the “lover’s walk” that’s situated up a short path from the main hall: a pair of large stones are sunk into the pavement about 20 yards apart, and a sign informs you of a local legend that you’ll get what you desire love if you can start a one rock, close your eyes, and walk to the other rock without deviating off course. This provides endless amusement for watching Japanese teenagers and middle-aged European tourists attempting this, and more often than not walking facefirst into another tourist or into one of the small shrines that surround the walk.
The main hall is built into the mountainside, and even lets you take some photos inside the hall itself.
But the main attraction is the verandah. From inside the main hall, it’s merely a large wooden porch offering sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and Kyoto. But then you walk about 5 minutes down a path that goes to another platform on the mountain and turn around, and suddenly you realize what it was you were standing on:
The path winds around a small pagoda and then heads down to the base of the hill underneath the verandah, where an old waterfall has been channeled into three spouts:
The waters are said to have healing properties, and people line up to take a cup on a long pole from an ultraviolet disinfecting station (seriously) and reach out to fill it from the waterfall, either to cure what ails them or just because it makes for a good photograph:
The path continues to curve through several lovely gardens and monuments as it goes back toward the original entrance; I’m forbearing on photos here in order to keep this to a reasonable length. Finally we emerged back at the entrance, and began to poke through the gift shops on the street back going back down to the bus stop, looking for the perfect Maneki-neko. It had been intermittently spotting rain since we had been on the verandah, but we apparently dallied a bit too long in the shops, because suddenly the skies opened.
The water started coming and just didn’t stop. And the shops were closing. We dashed from one open awning to the next— of course I’d gotten cute that day and hadn’t brought my backpack or my umbrella, and was just carrying my camera in my hand. I protected the camera with the high-tech expedient of wrapping it in a plastic shopping bag, and after waiting 15 minutes to see if the storm would blow over, I gave up and paid the ¥450 stupidity tax for one of the fragile clear plastic umbrellas that everyone in Japan seems to use, and we huddled together underneath it as we gingerly walked down the one-lane street dodging strangely aggressive taxi drivers on their way down from the temple.
At the bus stop, we joined a crowd of very bedraggled people. The bus shelter itself was full, so we waited in the over-hung doorway of the bank next to it. As we stood there, we could see the mountains in the distance over the buildings slowly disappear into the haze: this was going to be a corker of a storm. Suddenly I realized something strange: I’ve been in big storms in Asia before, and they’d all had one thing in common. One thing that was missing here. The storm sewers were not flooding. Not even a little bit. Buckets of water fell from the sky, buckets of water vanished into big grates. It was not what I’m used to.
Eventually a bus pulled up heading towards our station. In the 2 seconds it took for us to dash from the bank doorway to the open bus door, we got wetter than we had in the entire walk down to the bus stop.
By the time we made it back to our neighborhood, it had finally calmed down to a trickle, and the temperature had dropped at least 15 degrees from when the storm had started. Ah, blessed relief. I slept well for the first time in days.
Another really long one. I bitch about the heat, we have an amazing experience at a zen temple, I bitch about the heat even more, I rave about ramen, we geek out at a manga museum, we discover Superman’s strange Japanese ancestor and strange foods are consumed. All that and more, just
Monday morning started pretty much the same way that Sunday night had ended for me: stretched out on a futon, trying desperately to find some sort of optimum position of skin exposure that would both allow enough perspiration to cool me down to a range where I could sleep, and yet keep enough of me under a cover so that the moving air from the fan over my body didn’t jolt me awake with the sensation of insects crawling over me. Really, I am just not a hot-weather animal. Then the sun crested the horizon, and as the house’s owner had warned us, slammed directly in through the front window and into our faces, raising the temperature in the room by about 5 degrees instantly. I struggled to my feet to close the blinds, but the damage was already done.
So to answer the question on nobody’s lips: “Has two years of living in San Francisco turned Nathan into one of those horrible SF pansies who can’t tolerate so much as a minute of actual weather, hot or cold?” The answer is… well, I could probably make a good argument that the answer is “bite me, I always hated humid summer weather,” but I think it’s best to just succumb to the inevitable and admit it: I’ve become one of them.
But oh well, adequate amounts of sleep or not, it was time to get up and face the day. What followed was a replay of the hilarious sequence of events that used to happen every morning in the summer when I lived in Philadelphia, Boston or New York before I finally just bought a damn air conditioner: jump into the shower, rinse the night-slime off me, towel off furiously, then twist around like a circus contortionist in front of a fan on its highest setting, trying to get the water to dry off before I started sweating anew, so I could have one moment of blessed dryness in which to pull on a t-shirt and underwear. As always, this never quite worked. I managed to struggle into clothing regardless (much to Miranda’s amusement: she loves this kind of weather), and after a quick slice of toast and cup of tea downstairs, we headed out into the bright, bright sunlight to our first stop: the Ginkaku-ji, better known in English as the “Silver Pavilion.”
The Silver Pavilion was within walking distance of our lodgings, so we’d planned to wake up early and get there just as it opened in order to beat the heat and the crowds. Well, we certainly beat the crowds. The heat, however, beat me. By the time we’d gotten there, I’d already sweated through my t-shirt. We walked into the entry path (an 8-foot wide lane surrounded on both sides by tended shrubbery a good 12 feet tall, so you wouldn’t see the pavilion until you turned the last corner), only to find a sign letting us know that, regrettably, the Silver Pavilion was currently undergoing renovations to give it a new roof and shore up its foundations, but that all of the other portions of the facility including the zen garden were still open. It was only ¥300, so we paid up anyway and walked in.
Yup, under construction. Oh well, there was still a huge zen garden in front of us.
The zen garden at the Ginkaku-ji is, obviously, a masterwork. The following picture is of a conical structure that was the first thing you saw coming around the corner, but the zen garden itself stretched for several dozen yards in each direction behind it. It was all immaculately white, and there was a uniformed attendant doing maintenance around the edges with a small hand-come, apparently sorting out any non-matching pebbles that had somehow gotten mixed in from the pedestrian path.
What my picture here does not show you is, um, the swarm of bees. The entire zen garden was buzzing with bees, each easily twice as large as the standard american honeybee, all of them excitedly flying into and out of tiny holes in the collected sand mass. There was no signage that explained this, so I have no idea if the garden normally plays host to a beehive or if this was some sort of unexpected infestation. It certainly made us a little nervous to hang around too closely, so we moved on to the moss gardens further back, which in addition to being largely bee-free were also much more shaded.
The moss gardens were gorgeous and much, much cooler. There was even a tiny three-sectioned exhibit of the various mosses used in the garden, labelled “Very Important Moss (like VIP!)”, “residents of Ginkaju-ji” and (inexplicably) “Moss the interrupter.”
Since the main attraction of the site was under wraps, we only spent about half an hour wandering around the gardens, and after grabbing what would be the first of many waters from a vending machine on the way out, we headed down the philosopher’s path to our next destinations.
But first, a word about vending machines. I’m pretty sure that Japan has as many vending machines as they have people, or possibly even a few more. I don’t think we have yet once, except in the middle of the Japanese Alps, managed to walk more than 10 minutes without encountering at least a soft drink machine, and on most days the soft drink machine will be flanked by one selling cigarettes and one selling beer. On train platforms, there will usually be on selling hot and cold coffee drinks as well. The smoke and booze machines have little signs on them indicating that nobody under the age of majority is to use them. I’m told that people actually pay attention to these signs. I can’t personally vouch for that, but I can at least confirm that I never saw a teenager using one of the beer machines, whereas back in the states there would have been a line. And the best part of all is that the prices never vary. If a 500ml bottle of iced green tea is ¥150 in a desolate suburb of Tokyo, it’s also going to be ¥150 in front of the busiest shrine in Kyoto. It’s really pretty awesome.
Back to the path: the “Philosopher’s Path” is a famous ancient pedestrian path adjacent to a canal that connects some of eastern Kyoto’s most famous and important temples and shrines. From the description in the books I’d read, I’d been expecting a path between willow trees or maybe towering pines, winding its way through some sort of austere park dotted with temples. In fact, while certainly beautiful, the Philosopher’s Path is these days a completely urban artifact: a paved trail that follows a canal with steep stone and concrete sides, through several residential and commercial neighborhoods. Dozens of little cafes and stores, and not a few private residences abut the path, and it’s used daily by commuters, joggers and dog-walkers as well as tourists and monks.
It turned out to be a pretty good visual metaphor for Kyoto itself. From reading tourist books about Kyoto, it’s pretty easy to get an impression of it as a semi-mystical city, built entirely out of 1000-year-old shrines and populated by zen masters. In reality, Kyoto after a few days started to remind me rather strongly of Philadelphia: a city with a great deal of history, and which is filled to brimming with sites of amazing historical interest, but which outside those areas is a little on the gritty, industrial and working-class side. I like Philadelphia a lot, and I think I like Kyoto a lot too— it’s just that the contrast between the imagined and the actual is pretty vivid.
…of course in Philly, the sites of historical importance are colonial-era brick and wood buildings. In Kyoto, once you get to the doors of the right shrine, the magic bit really does exist:
That’s the temple gardens from the Eikan-do (aka Zenrin-Ji) temple. It’s one of at least a dozen shrines or temples along the Philosopher’s Path, but far from the most famous and it wasn’t actually our next planned stop, we just entered on a whim.
You mostly can’t take pictures inside the Eikan-do, which is a pity, since the temple’s two main halls are both stunningly beautiful, and the second hall houses something called the “Mikaeri Amida” — a statue of the Amida Buddha who appears to be looking backward over his shoulder. Most Buddhist altars tend to look pretty similar to (my) untrained western eyes, but this one was visibly different in a very obvious way, and the story that goes along with the statue (in which the Buddha looked over his shoulder at the former head monk of the shrine and said “Yokan, you are slow” was fascinating.
And that was just another random stop in Kyoto. Our actual destination was a bit further down the path, and it was pretty easy to figure out when we’d gotten there:
That’s the main gatehouse (san-mon) at the Nanzen-Ji temple, and if you think it looks imposing in that photo, you need to come see it in person. It’s built entirely of wood, was raised in 1628, and it’s enormous.
For a bit of scale, the wooden risers on the floor between those pillars come up almost to my knee. The second floor is accessible by stairs for a fee, and provides some amazing views of the scenery below:
The Nanzen-ji was probably my favorite of all of the historical sites I visited in Kyoto, and it managed to be so in spite of the fact that it was really the only one that completely nickel-and-dimed you on entry fees: climbing to the top of the san-mon was ¥500. Entry into the gardens was another ¥400. Entry into the main temple was (I think I recall this correctly) ¥1000. It was all worth it, but ouch.
On the grounds of the temple complex but outside any of the ticketed buildings, there was a large roman-style aqueduct: we searched in vain for any explanation of what it was doing there.
The first stop we made after the gate were the Nanzen-in cultivated gardens. They were predictably jawdroppingly beautiful, and again — importantly — shaded. I don’t really have a lot useful to say about pretty gardens at this point, so here’s a pretty picture:
After the gardens, we went into the main temple itself, and once we stepped in pretty much every qualm I had about the ticket prices fell away. After walking through a small series of rooms facing out onto cultivated gardens every bit as impressive as the nanzen-in if not moreso, you entered a wide hallway with a blast of white light coming in through the open screens on the left-hand side. As you approached them, what you see is this:
That’s the “tigers” section of the “tigers and cubs” zen garden: the three large rocks are the tigers. It was still early enough when we arrived that there were only two or three other visitors looking at the garden when we arrived, but more importantly and luckiest of all, we walked out onto the porch as a prayer ceremony had started in one of the rooms behind us: two monks were chanting sutras and beating drums while several older people read along in books on a smaller prayer mat beside them. We sat and stared at the rock garden while the chanting went on behind us.
You go to Rome to see men in funny red suits walking across the floor of St. Peters holding censers filled with incense. You go to Paris to see Notre Dame. You go to Salt Lake City to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. You go to Jerusalem to see the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. And if you go to Japan, you cross your fingers and hope that you get to sit on the floor of a temple older than your entire country, listening to chanting monks while looking at one of the most famous Zen gardens in the world. So we sat, and we listened.
Eventually, sadly, the service stopped and the monks left. We then got to realize just how lucky we’d gotten: with the monks gone, a narration in Japanese over a short repeated loop of Japanese Classical music came on. We moved on around the corner, where we could see the other half of the garden.
The rooms facing out onto the porches and gardens could be looked into but not walked into or photographed, which was understandable since their internal screen walls were covered with stunning examples of classic japanese paintings, including the famous “Tiger Drinking Water” by Kano Tanyu.
We spent a little more time wandering the halls and open verandas of Nanzen-ji, but the majority of the temple is still a working religious institution and is thus off-limits to visitors. And by this time, it was around 12:30 and we were starting to get a bit hungry, and even in the shade it was starting to get just brutally hot, so our thoughts turned to lunch, preferably somewhere air-conditioned. LP didn’t offer much in the vicinity of Nanzen-ji…except what they claimed was their favorite ramen joint in all of Kyoto. Hot soup sounded a little dicey at the time, but we set off in search of it anyways, and this turned out to be an excellent idea.
Amazingly, by cross-checking several maps, we were able to make it to the restaurant in just about 20 minutes. Karako turned out to be awesome. While Lonely Planet claimed that it was “not much on atmosphere,” I can only assume they’d gotten scared off by the semi-industrial neighborhood it’s in. Karako has exactly the kind of atmosphere you’d want from a great lunch joint: it’s small (one table plus the bar, which seats about 8), and is run by The Guy. The Guy is a middle-aged man with a short but solid build, and a completely no-nonsense expression. The place is a little cluttered, and there are posted menus with caricatures of The Guy on them, but you don’t need them because you’re going to order ramen. The kitchen is busy, and the A/C is powerful enough to keep the place cool despite the vats of soup. The Guy obviously knows most of his customers very well, and knows what they’re going to order before they ask. You walk in, he asks you if you want ramen, you get ramen. That’s atmosphere aplenty.
And oh my GOD the ramen you get. Obviously homemade noodles. A broth that’s thick enough that you would consider ordering it as soup all on its own. Fresh scallions and bean sprouts. No nasty white-and-pink congealed fishcake thing. And the pork…
…now at most ramen places I’ve been to in the states, the sliced pork in the ramen is really just there as a flavoring agent, and obviously got bought in bulk from somewhere else. It’s rarely bad per se, but you’d never think about it: it’s just another thing floating in the soup, and you’re concentrating on the noodles and broth. The pork slice at Karako was a 5” wide generous cut from what was obviously a rolled pork loin roast. An excellent rolled pork loin roast. One that I would have paid money for on my own. (In fact, if I interpreted some of the signs posted inside the place correctly, you could do just that.) It tasted of smoke and pork and bacon and it fell apart on your tongue.
Sorry, no pictures of the soup. I would have had to have stopped eating it. Wasn’t going to happen. You’ll just have to go to Kyoto yourself.
Sated and happy, we plotted our next move. We’d been to three temples in one morning, and that was feeling like enough temple for the day: like in Rome, it’s easy to get churched-out in Kyoto. It was also, now…
…well look, I have no idea how hot it was, and I’m running out of adjectives and cute similes. Many hours later, when we got back to the house long after dark, we checked weather.com and at about 9pm the temperature in Kyoto was still about 86f. Japan isn’t big on the whole “thermometer outside a bank” thing, so I don’t know what the high temperature on the 14th was, but if it didn’t crest 100f it made a good solid crack at it, and the humidity certainly never dropped below 95%. It was not comfortable, and it wasn’t looking like it was going to get any more comfortable until much later in the afternoon. So whatever we were going to do next had to involve no Buddhas and be climate controlled.
Luckily, Kyoto has a newly built International Manga Museum. It was time to hoist the otaku flag and go commune with Astro Boy. We jumped on the metro, took it a few stops down, got off, wandered around for only a few minutes looking for a museum that we knew was only half a block from the metro stop before finally noticing the huge “M” logo.
The IMM is housed in a converted primary school in downtown Kyoto, and is surprisingly accessible for English-speaking visitors. Of course one of the main draws of the museum is somewhat lost on us: the enormous “WALL OF MANGA” with several tens of thousands of volumes available for any visitor to pull down and read, but the exhibits in the main galleries had subtitling in several languages, and did a great job of showing how manga evolved out of older forms of Japanese popular graphic art, and how manga reacted to major events in Japanese history.
One of the most fascinating parts of the whole museum was a live demonstration of something called kamishibai. Kamishibai (“paper drama” or “paper storytelling”) was a form of street theatre that was hugely popular in Japan in the pre-war and immediately post-war years, and involved a storyteller standing in front of a box with a window cut into it. Inside the box were a series of illustrations, each one to be revealed by pulling out the one in front of it and placing it in the back of the stack. The illustrations were essentially a dialogue-free comic book, and the kamishibai performer would add the dialogue himself, working from (and likely embellishing) a script given to him by the same company that he rented the box and illustrations from. A performance would be announced by walking through a neighborhood clapping two sticks together, and once a crowd of enough children had gathered, preceded by the candy sales that actually funded the whole operation. Each story would go through 15-20 illustrations, and would always end with “…TO BE CONTINUED!” At its peak, there were apparently around 50,000 kamishibai performers in Japan, working from material created by dozens of companies and hundreds of artists. In manga’s weird parallel evolution with American comics, this was the newspaper serial years.
Even more interesting — to me anyway, some non-nerds have probably tuned out at this point but screw ‘em — was that the Kamishibai we saw that day was one taken from a real 1920s series: the continuing adventures of The Golden Bat and his nemesis Doctor Zero. The Golden Bat apparently debuted in 1930, and was an invincible, flying hero (with the head of a skull for some reason), wearing a skin-tight outfit with a cape, who would regularly laugh off rains of bullets from Doctor Zero’s hapless masked minions before swooping down to save the day. Sounds familiar, right?
Very familiar, except here’s the funny thing: Action Comics #1, the first Superman story, debuted in 1938. The Golden Bat’s first appearance is hard to pin down (the Kamishibai companies didn’t really keep good records), but appears to have at least been as early as 1930. It’s a funny old world.
As we made it to the end of our circuit of the manga museum, it had clouded up and was starting to rain a little bit, so we headed over to the museum cafe to grab a tea and wait out the weather. The slight rain quickly turned into a tropical gale, and we ended up staying in the cafe until around 4pm, watching as the horizontal raindrops occasionally convinced the automatic door sensor that they were customers trying to get in.
After the weather had mostly passed by, we walked out into a Kyoto that was if possibly even more humid, but which was thankfully a hell of a lot cooler. Our next stop: Kyoto Station, this time not laden down with a ton of baggage. This probably also falls as much into the category of high nerdery as the manga museum, but big, pretty train stations are a small obsession of mine, and in Japan train stations don’t get much bigger or prettier than Kyoto Station. Built in 1997, it’s a 15-story semi-open building that houses stations on the local metro and bus lines, as well as the Kyoto JR and Shinkansen tracks, a 2-level basement shopping mall, a hotel, dozens of restaurants restaurants, a live theatre (currently playing “West Side Story”) and an observation deck and skywalk that you reach by going up 15 stories of continuous escalators:
Now that’s a train station. It’s also, in a very hypermodern way, completely beautiful. After a morning spent looking through 400+ year old temples, this was a good change:
After spending about an hour going up all the escalators, finding the helipad on the roof, walking over the skyway to the other side, going down more escalators and then amusing ourselves sampling pickles and confections in the food courts of the shopping malls (and nearly getting sucked into buying more sake), we decided that it had officially cooled off enough to risk some actual outdoor activity: checking out the floats for Thursday’s Gion Festival. This was a return to the scene of the previous night’s aggravation, where we’d had to wade through the float-happy crowd to get to our dinner, but this time we were actually ready for it.
The Gion Festiva dates back to the year 869, and started out as a purification ritual to appease plague-happy gods. These days, there appears to be little overt religious context to the festival, but it’s a great excuse to get dressed up in traditional summer kimonos, open up your house or shrine to show off your heirlooms, and ideally help push a three-storey float down the street. In the three days leading up to the festival, large chunks of downtown Kyoto are made off-limits to cars, and the floats are displayed on the streets while a huge street fair rages around them.
Some of the floats will even, for a small fee, let you climb up and inside: we found a 2-storey float topped with a cypress tree that welcomed visitors for ¥300, and we clambered on up, waved at the crowds, and took a few pictures.
The funny thing about the street fair is how similar in a lot of ways it was to any summer street fair in New York City, and especially the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy. Huge crowds of gawping tourists? Check. Endless rows of booths on the sidewalk selling street foods? Yup. Cotton candy? Check. Meat-on-a-stick? Check. Ice cream? Check. Funnel cakes? Ayup. Candied apples? Check. Beer? Of course. Chocolate-dipped frozen bananas? Of course, there’s always money in a banana stand. Bags of nuts? Yup. Doner kebabs served by bemused Turkish guys? You bet. French fries? Sure! Enormous armoured beetles? Wait, what?
Enormous armored beetles. 4 to 6 inches long, evil-looking as all hell, with huge pinching mandibles Apparently being sold as pets, although given their location between the fried-checken stand and the funnel cakes I can’t completely vouch for that. How devoted am I to peace, harmony, international relations and not getting my ass tossed into a Japanese jail? So devoted that I didn’t immediately burn this booth down to the ground and stop up and down on the ashes. I should get a medal or something. As it was, I merely backed away very quickly once I realized what was in the little plastic cages. I could have easily gone my entire lifetime without knowing that those little fuckers existed, much less that I was currently sharing an all-too-small island with them.
And while we’re on the subject of the awful and gross, we passed this:
No, we did not eat there.
Back to happier topics, one of the things that’s apparently done in the lead-up to the Gion Festival is to open up your house’s front room to the street to show off the family heirlooms, and we got to stick out head in and gawp at a few, most impressively this painted screen:
And of course, there were the floats. Dozens of the things, two to three on the large blocks, but single ones hidden in the little alleys. They ranged form the somewhat bare-boned (so much so that I think they might have still been under construction), to elaborate ornate things with built-in puppets. Of the latter, our favorite one by far was the mantis float:
Yes, that’s an enormous praying mantis marionette on top of the float. Even better, beneath the float and in a temporarily attached tent, there was a motherload of kawaii: a smaller mantis figure that little kids could operate by turning a crank. The mantis would rotate away from the child to a hopper, where it would make a bowing motion and in return a little white ball would fall out of the hopper to be caught by the mantis. The child would keep turning the crank and the mantis would rotated back around to present the ball to the child. There was a good long line of 4-year-olds waiting to try this, and some of them were singing what I can only assume was the mantis song. Zorak would have been proud.
Behind the float, in the window of the facing house, was another mantis marionette, this one an automated one that flickered its wings and moved its mandibles about.
This all went on for block and blocks, and it seemed like all of Kyoto was there with us, checking out the sites. A lot of people were dressed in traditional Japanese summer kimonos. The older people tended to go for the more formal look, but some of the kids not so much:
It’s probably worth noting that in addition to all of the bog-standard street fair food noted above, there were also tons of vendors selling very non-standard but very good street food. Huge poofy pork bao. The aforementioned octopus balls. Peking duck. Broiled eel. And of course, squid on a stick! Squid on a stick? Yes, squid on a stick.
I prefer my squid deep-fried, but I had a nibble of Miranda’s squidcicle, and it was pretty good.
And that was one day in Kyoto.
This should be a bit shorter than the previous epic: in every major trip, there’s inevitably sooner or later a day that’s largely lost to travel and uninteresting stuff, and this was that day. We woke up, quickly packed our things, took a cold shower (damn you, water-hogging swiss tourists!), and rushed off into the morning haze to grab some breakfast and do some shopping. Tea and toast? Eaten. Assorted pickles? Acquired. Several pieces of lacquerware? Sorted. Two or three tiny sake sampler sets? Done and done. We were a little more efficient than we’d even planned on being, and ended up with a little time to kill, so we stopped at a cafe that offered TEA AND CAKE OR DEATH… okay, actually just tea and cake, and killed about half an hour there before returning to the Zen Ro Ji to assemble our suddenly much less wieldy bags and lug them back to the station.
From Takyama to Nagoya is about a 2 hour and 45 minute train ride, and at least the mountainous areas offered some incredible scenery if you were fast enough to catch it. Since this wasn’t a shinkansen, the front car of the train actually offered windows open to the front and sides, which was amazing to watch in person, but proved a bit difficult for my pocket camera to cope with:
The views out the side were a bit more its speed.
Getting off on the platform at Nagoya was like being slapped in the face with a hot, wet towel: we were no longer up in the cool mountains, but down in the lowlands again, and it was summer in earnest here. We had about 20 minutes to make our transfer, so we hustled ourselves over to the Shinkansen platform, lined up at the marker for the car our tickets indicated, and jumped onto the train the moment it got into the station and disgorged its passengers, knowing that we’d need a minute or two to stow our luggage. (Japanese trains are not big on luggage compartments: a lot of people make use of services that, for a stiff fee, forward your bags between hotels.) We did this and walked through the car to seats 6A and B, only to find them occupied by a family. We stared at our tickets for a second, started to look around for a conductor, and then I looked at my watch…
CAZART. Wrong train. In Japan, if your train is scheduled to depart at 14:22, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that a train coming onto the platform at 14:15 is your train. Because it’s not: what on earth is unusual about turning around two super-express train departures on the same platform within 7 minutes of each other? What would be at all difficult about that? Oops. At more speed than I would have given us credit for being able to produce at that point, we ran back to the end of the car, grabbed up all our luggage, and jumped off the train just as the sunny JR “all aboard” jingle began to play.
Just imagine Amtrak trying to do that. Now stop crying and forget I said anything.
Seven minutes later, our train pulled onto the platform and half an hour later we were in Kyoto station, a hypermodern, 11-story-tall temple to commerce and transit parked in the middle of a 1200-year-old city mostly known for 1000-year-old shrines. We’ll be going back to take proper pictures of the station later, but this stood out a bit on our way through:
Apparently you can add Cafe du Monde to the list of places making a little money on the side in Japan.
The proprietors of our B&B had offered to pick us up at a subway station near their place, which was looking more and more like the best idea ever: we didn’t have a good notion of where they were, we were pretty loaded down with bags from Takayama, and it was stupid hot. We took the Kyoto metro up to Imadegawa station and called them to let them know we were there. About ten minutes later, a Japanese/American couple picked us up in an somewhat weatherworn Isuzu, and drove us to their house, a hundred-year-old Japanese-style house in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the north of Kyoto.
We’ll call them K. and B. for now: I’m going to grouse a little bit about the service, and since I liked them fine on a personal level, I’d rather not have google attach my whingings to their name permanently. We kind of got the impression that they were either new to the business, or just weren’t that into it and were doing it halfheartedly to bring in some money on the side. Really, the problem was that we’d gotten the impression via email that they were running a full-on B&B, and really what they were doing was renting out a room in their house to the occasional traveller… for $50/person/night. Nothing wrong with that, but for $100/night (more than we paid for an actual hotel in Matsumoto), we were expecting a little more…organization. Little things like maps, a business card so that we could use a taxi to get home if all else failed. Failing that, printable directions to the place, or even an explanation of how to get there on public transit that involved a bit less hand-waving at the nearest mountain, and a bit more on-street landmarks and left-right turns.
Luckily, Miranda has an excellent sense of direction, or we’d still be wandering around Kyoto trying to find our way back to the house after our first night out. As it was, they quickly left to run some errands after we’d disembarked, and since we wanted to at least do a little exploration (not to mention get dinner) that evening, we walked out of the house, looked around, and had a bit of a sinking feeling: long, unmarked (of course) residential streets stretched in each direction. The Lonely Planet maps promised to be as useless as ever. Obviously, drastic action was called for: we took off in the direction of what we hoped K. had indicated as the nearest major bus stop, and along the way there I kept my eye out for anything that might prove to be a useful landmark. In about two blocks, we passed a hair salon that was still open, and I got a bright idea, walked in, and confused the hell out of them by asking in pidgin Japanese for their business card. After a little back and forth, they handed me what appeared to be a paper brochure, but it had what I was looking for: a map showing their location, so we were now at worst one taxi ride away from “close to home.”
Next item of business: a real map, followed by some sightseeing and possibly dinner. Lonely Planet didn’t mention any international bookstores, so we figured we’d head back to Kyoto station and find the tourist office there. A few block later, we found a bus stop, and even better, it had an obviously not-Japanese person there: a French (or possibly Haitian: I couldn’t peg the accent in the brief conversation) guy who pointed us around the corner to the right bus stop. Victory!
…sorta. As it turned out, we really should have taken the bus to the nearest metro station and taken the subway from there: downtown Kyoto is basically a week-long traffic jam due to the preparations for the Gion Festival later this week, and it took us the better part of an hour on a packed, barely-moving bus to finally pull into the station. Did I mention that it was hot enough to melt glass? We had, at this point, been in better moods. Whatever, we found the tourist office, got a 2-day bus and metro unlimited pass, grabbed a fistful of map-like things, and directions to a bookstore in the vast basement of Kyoto Station (more on the hugeness of Kyoto Station tomorrow), with a not-very-promising suggestion that they “might” have a proper book-form bilingual street atlas of Kyoto.
Well, the English section of the bookstore did have one street map of Kyoto, but it was a flat paper fold-out map, and didn’t have block broken down into building numbers. Oh well, by this time we had at least three map-like objects not counting the LP book, and it would just have to do. Other priorities were asserting themselves, primarily getting some dinner before we murdered each other or any passers-by. A quick consultation of LP provided few suggestions for the station area, but there was an at least interesting-sounding unagi-don place one station away, so we grabbed the metro heading north.
For the record, if you are ever in Kyoto Station during the week of the Gion Festival, are tired, sweaty and cranky, have grave doubts about the quality and locatablity of your lodgings, and are all-in-all one step away from smacking the next fool who looks cross-eyed at you, do not take the subway a station north in search of an unagi-don restaurant that you only have a vague notion of how to find. Because you will exit the subway directly into a mob of happy revellers all out for a night’s stroll to see the Gion Festival Floats and Shrines that are parked at strategic intervals every block or so in the neighborhood a bit north of Kyoto Station, and thus there will be several hundred thousand slowly moving people between you and your dinner. What you should do is take the escalator up to the “ramen restaurant food court” on the 9th floor of the station, where you could be eating an excellent bowl of ramen in air-conditioned comfort a mere five minutes later. But we didn’t figure that out until the next day. Suffice it to say that we found our way to the unagi place…eventually. The unagi-don was good, but $16/plate for eel over rice is a bit stiff even for Japan.
Still, a plate of hot food in an air-conditioned restaurant did a fair bit for restoring our sense of equilibrium, and while it was long past closing time for most of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, we decided to take a stroll around the Gion Shrine, itself, on the theory that the shrine at the center of the upcoming festival should have something interesting going on in or near to it.
Getting off at the nearby subway stop, we found that the shrine was lit up and people were streaming into and out of it, so our suspicions were correct. We heard the sound of flutes and drums from around the corner and decided to investigate that first…
…and were completely foiled. The flute-and-drum music was coming out of the P.A. system of a store hoping to cash in on Gion Matsuri fever. Bother. Back to the shrine, which was gorgeous enough to make all of the evening’s frustrations seem worth it.
Lanterns were lit all over the various courtyards and pathways inside the shrine, casting a friendly glow over everything and everybody. In the center courtyard, a stage was lit with dozens of lanterns on each side.
On the stage were the portable shrines that would be carried at the head of the parade on Thursday.
We spent a good half hour wandering the shrine grounds, taking occasional pictures and managing to relax a little bit. Then we headed out into the nearby neighborhood: a former pleasure district that still sees the occasional geisha (one of the 1000 left in the world) walk by, but is mostly now, like central Takayama, a series of streets of old merchant homes that have been converted into shops and restaurants. In the evening, it was quite pretty: Kyoto is much less illuminated than Tokyo, and some of the side-streets were actually dark.
Around 8:30, our feet were starting to hurt and we realized that we had no idea how long it was going to take us to find our way home, so we gave up our search for ice cream, pulled into a streetcorner and opened up…well, all of our maps. We had an English bus map that omitted various routes and stop names. We had a complete bus map that was all in Japanese. We had Lonely Planet and the Kyoto Tourist Guide, and we had the map I’d bought at the station bookstore, which had metro stops but no bus stops.
It’s at times like this that I am very glad that I date a former travel professional with an innate sense of direction, and even better one who knows enough Chinese characters to be a bit dangerous reading Japanese Kanji.. After a bit of cross-checking between the maps, Miranda decided that the 202 bus would likely put us back at the intersection where we’d started our adventure in the afternoon… and that the nearest 202 stop was about two blocks away. Which it was. And the next bus was three minutes away. Miracle of miracles, we were home less than 45 minutes later.
And thus ended our first day in Kyoto, with me trying fitfully to go to sleep in an un-airconditioned room on a hot summer night, and only occasionally succeeding. But I’ll save my real weather whinging for tomorrow.
Oh god, this is really long. Markets, castles, rantings about maps, the shogun’s torture chambers, 300-year-old parade floats, and a surprise guest appearance by Tommy Lee Jones, it’s all
We were woken up by the burbling sounds of the fountains and fish outside our room, and by the less burbling sounds of our Scottish and Irish next-door neighbors chatting in the morning. There’s nothing quite like staying in a building with paper walls to give a little insight into the historical Japanese cultural emphasis on quietness, manners and politeness: when your merest whisper can be easily overheard by everyone in a house, you’ll probably consider learning sign language too.
After making the small internal pilgrimage necessary to hit the toothbrushing sink, the western-style toilet and the shower all in a single morning, we were ready to head out and see Takayama proper. Takayama is a small town arranged around two rivers with bridges over them basically about every block, and alongside one of the rivers is one of two early-morning markets. The markets are a combination of working farmers’ markets selling fresh produce and pickles to the locals, and local arts and crafts fair, selling snacks, knick-knacks and thingies (and pickles) to visitors.
Along the way, we saw our first sign that the time-honored tradition of western movie stars making a quick buck by doing a product endorsement in Japan is still alive and well: apparently Tommy Lee Jones has lent his craggy visage to my favorite brand of canned ultra-sweet Japanese iced coffee:
We’d gotten up a little later than we’d hoped to, and by the time we actually got to the market it was about 10am and we were both getting to be on the cranky side of hungry, so on the theory that the market would still be there in another 20 minutes, we aborted our first pass at it and went back across the river to a small cafe/teashop that was offering a ¥450 set breakfast. Sadly for me, we didn’t look too closely at what the set consisted of,, and a few minutes later we were presented with identical trays consisting of a large piece of thick Japanese toast, and a single hard-boiled egg. For the record, I’d probably eat a pound of the congealed mountain yam stuff before a bite of a boiled egg, so Miranda traded her toast for my egg, and I resolved to get a bit more food at the market. While we ate, we had a lovely view of the river, and noticed that there were several schools of koi swimming in the river itself, putting a fair bit of effort into keeping stationary against the current. It wasn’t clear if they’d been put there intentionally or were escapees from some residents’ koi gardens, but they were very pretty and immediately visible in the crystal-clear water.
Thus fortified, we re-crossed the river and made our way through the market, which had obviously passed its peak time and was slowing down at lot. We leisurely moved from booth to booth, sampling various pickles and sweets, and making notes for the next morning when we figured we’d be doing the majority of our shopping.
Once we hit the end of market, we had to put a bit of effort into fending off a hard sell of black sesame brittle candy, and then turned around and headed back toward our next top, the Takayama-Jinya.
The Takayama-Jinya is the former seat of government for Takayama-Hida during the Edo period, when the Tokugowa Shogonate replaced the local governor with direct control over the province, in order to more efficiently extract rice taxes, timber and minerals from an area that was rich in all three. Possibly a little too rich for its own good: according to placards placed at the Jinya, on many years the province didn’t have enough rice left to feed itself after taxes were levied, and several of the Shogun’s representatives either had to put down riots or flee from them.
The Jinya is one of the few buildings of its type and era left, as many of them were either torn down during the Meiji restoration or afterward, or destroyed (by bombs or for firewood) during the war. It’s been carefully preserved and restored, and is large enough to spend most of an afternoon wandering through.
The Jinya and its outbuildings sprawl around a series of gardens, and the internal rooms are carefully arranged so that by opening screens and doors, you can catch any hint of a crossbreeze. The Jinya also provided a visceral reminder to me that pre-war generations of Japanese were much, much shorter than the current average, as I managed to crack my head against the overhanging crossbeams on two separate occasions. For the record, they are of very solid construction.
Along one of the passageways was a privy, which had the most signs in the most languages of any of the rooms in the place:
Further down was the “interrogation room,” where people who had made the mistake of displeasing the shogun’s local representatives (probably by, say, withholding rice tax) could be questioned at length, usually kneeling on wooden spikes, or having their legs broken by enormous stone blocks. The interrogator himself got to sit on a nicely raised tatami platform looking down on the poor unfortunates.
After the interrogation room we left the main building and entered the storehouses, which have been converted into a museum of Edo-era documents from when the building had still been in use — survey maps, tax collection tables and the like. There were also pictures and short biographies of the various governors: which ones had managed to put down riots, which ones had been killed by mobs and so forth. Ironically, not only had several of the Edo-era governors been killed by the locals, but so had the Meiji-era reformist governor, who died in prison shortly after a riot by enraged conservatives. Governor of Hida was apparently a pretty thankless job, if you don’t count the money, power, influence and the lovely house.
From the Jinya, we walked back toward the center of town, where three long streets are comprised of the original private merchant houses that were the town’s center in the 1700s. Most of the houses have been converted into stores for the purpose of separating visitors from their money as quickly as possible, and while that sounds kind of tacky it mostly wasn’t: Hida’s local craft specialties have been doll-making, sake-making and lacquerware for apparently decades-to-centuries now, and those crafts were on prominent display in the stores. Multiple sake breweries were represented (denoting by huge cedar-stick spheres hanging from their entrances) and offered free tastings. The effect was like a charming mix of Napa and the Jersey Shore.
We found a couple of very promising sakes and one lacquerware and furniture store that could easily have soaked up all of our discretionary income for the next decade or so, but we left everything where it was, figuring again that we’d do all of our actual shopping the next morning and not have to lug bags around town for the rest of the afternoon, so we merely carefully noted the location of a few key stores and moved on.
At this point, we were getting a bit peckish again.. god, this travelogue does really seem to revolve around my stomach, doesn’t it? Oh well, I knew I was going to eat my way across this country when we bought the tickets. Anyway, lunchtime. Restaurants were thick on the ground in the Sanmachi district, and we passed a very promising-looking one that had a menu on the outside that mentioned duck-meat ramen. That’s about the best idea I’ve heard in months, so we walked in and got a table. Sadly, it turned out that the duck soup was a seasonal dish only, but we did well anyway: we’d managed to stumble into Ebisu, a restaurant that’s been famous for soba noodles for just over a hundred years. And yes, they make their own:
After an amazing lunch of cold soba and hot tempura, we crossed over to the west side of town and to the Kusakabe Folk House museum, wherein one of the larger merchant houses has been opened up to the public. The brochure at the museum made the interesting point that Takayama, due to its direct administration by the shogun, had never had much of a local samurai class, and so there had been room for the local merchant class to actually stretch out a bit and put together their houses and stores in the center of town.
The Kusakabe house was one of the largest of its type, with two floors, about 15 rooms, and a garden and tea house in the back.
This wall-hanging was found on the first floor, and was bereft of English signage, but we guessed that it commemorated the driving of the train tunnels through the alps, something that probably opened up the Hida area to a heretofore mythical amount of commerce:
In some ways, the Kusakabe house was prettier than the Jinya: absent the need to crush the visitor with imperial grandeur, there was more room for whimsical details, like the carved panels over the door lintels:
Apparently unusually, the house had not been directly constructed by its residents, but commissioned of and planned by the town’s master carpenters, and they’d done an amazing job: the primary structure of the house was made of three beams, each easily 40 feet long, made from single red pines:
The same attendant who told us about the beams offered to take our picture, and since certain relatives have complained that there were very few pictures of us in this narrative, we consented to the inevitably goofy-looking “roundeye tourists posing in old Japanese architecture” photo:
From the Kusakabe house, it was a short walk to the Takayama Festival Float museum. Takayama, like many towns in Japan has several local seasonal festivals. Takayama’s festivals (one in autumn, one in spring) involve floats. So far we’re not too far away from carnival or mardi gras, but Takayama’s floats are a little…different. For starters, they’re 30 feet tall.
There are eleven floats in total (plus a portable shrine, but we’ll get to that), and the float museum has a rotating selection of a few of them on display at any time. The floats which are not in the museum are kept in enormously tall sheds scattered around the town center; walking around, you would inevitably pass them: in an area of Japan where the average building was two stories tall at most, the looming whitewashed doors were a little hard to miss.
The museum has on permanent display the original portable shrine that used to lead the parade. “Portable” is used somewhat advisedly: the shrine apparently weighs two and a half tons: the upper sections were made of various hardwoods, and the black band around the middle (and an unclear amount of the undercarriage) was made of, um, iron. The shrine required 80 people to carry it, 40 at a time and switching off frequently. According to the taped narration that we got to carry around the museum, it’s been retired from active duty (and replaced by a much smaller shrine) because it’s become impossible to find 80 people of exactly the same height to volunteer to carry the damn thing along a multi-mile route twice a year; an unexpected side-effect of post-war Japan’s height boom.
(For those of you who are scratching your head rather than giggling: the Osbourne 1 was the first “portable” computer, from 1982. It weighed 35 pounds, was the size of a large samsonite suitcase, and was “portable” by virtue of having both an internal 5” CRT monitor and, well, a handle.)
The floats were kept inside a huge glass-walled chamber (hence any odd reflections on these photos), and a path circled it, rising slowly from floor level to above the floats. The float in the last picture here has a marionette on the front, which apparently does multiple tricks involving both itself and the two smaller puppets on the side, and requires 8 puppeteers (operating 36 strings) to operate while the float is moving.
Also according to the tape, most of the floats are about 250 years old, and the oldest one is a little over three hundred years old. All of the floats are registered National Treasures, and the reason that they all look brand-new is that in addition to the amount of gold and lacquer used in their construction, the government funds their continual repair and upkeep.
Next door to the float museum, and free for holders of museum tickets, is a small building that contained, according to the somewhat worn audiotape we were listening to, “a scale reconstruction of the (mumble mumble) temple complex at (mumble mumble), with a computer controlled lighting system to simulate day and night as seen from (mumble mumble).” Figuring that it was free and air-conditioned, we walked over to take a look, only to find ourselves in a basketball court-sized room filled with an exact scale replica of… the Tosho-gu temple complex at Nikko. Nikko, I feel compelled to point out, is no more than four hours by train or car from Takayama. Apparently the model had been commissioned by a rich devout Buddhist, had toured the world on several exhibitions, and he’d requested that it be permanently installed near the float museum in Takayama, proximity to the original be damned. As with much of Japan, it was pleasantly baffling.
Quickly exhausting the amusement value of a miniature representation of somewhere we’d been less than a week before, we walked back out into the heat, and took a walk down Takayama’s shrine path: a 2km walking path that winds through nearly a dozen Buddhist and Shinto temples, each about a few feet from each other. None of the shrines was open to visitors, so we got to briskly move from building to building, through their various gardens (green and stone both), keeping to the shade and taking pictures.
The path crossed one major road, and a pedestrian underpass was helpfully provided. This was the second underpass we’d used in Takayama (the first on the previous day, on the way out to the folk village), and while they’re not exactly interesting per se, they’re notable for what they lack:
Note carefully the complete lack of graffiti. Or of urine stains. You can’t tell from a photo, but there was also no smell of urine. It’s not very clear in this picture, but the decorations in the middle of the tunnel are simply hanging from strings on hooks, and they were obviously several months to several years old, and completely unmolested.
America, this was not. Not coincidentally, as we were making this walk, our bags, including my laptop and one of my cameras, were sitting in a room made largely of paper, with exactly zero locks between it and the street. Our level of worry about the stuff in our room? Zero. Japan’s lack of crime is pretty much a cliche, but it’s also basically true, and for an American — especially a resident of, say, San Francisco or New York City — it’s a little unnerving. I’ll leave theorizing about the reasons for it to professional sociologists and criminologists, and merely say that it’s amazing how quickly you learn to trust in this, and a little depressing to think how quickly I’ll have to un-learn it once we get back to the states.
One of the last temples along the path is the Tensho-ji, which is also the local youth hostel, and had by far the most gorgeous garden we’d seen yet.
Having gotten through as many shrines as we were capable of in the midafternoon heat, we sauntered downhill toward the hotel to drop horizontal for a while, upload photos, catch up on email and so forth.
A few hours later, it was time for dinner. (Like an army, this blog travels on its stomach!) While it’s largely unknown in the states, inside Japan the Hida area is as famous for its beef as the Kobe region, and apparently takes similarly excessive care of its cows. Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and the “Takayama Gourmet Guide” that Tommy had provided all agreed that a restaurant called Shosuya was the best place to sample the stuff, so after checking the map, we strode out into the balmy early evening in the restaurant’s direction.
…more or less. Between the LP map and the Hida tourist map, we ended up about a block from it without having much of an idea where it was, before we had the bright idea of asking the ice cream vendor we were standing in front of while helplessly consulting the maps.
Quick digression: Japanese cities have streets, but by and large the streets are not named, and while buildings are technically numbered, they are not numbered in relation to the streets. Instead, cities are divided up into districts (ku), each ward is divided into neighborhoods (kinjo), each neighborhood is subdivided into sections comprised of 6-20 blocks (chome), each block in a chome is numbered, and each building in a block is numbered, but both numberings are not necessarily in any obvious sequence. Street signs, when they exist, will usually tell you which kinjo and chome you are in, but at that point you are on your own, roundeye, and the problem is compounded by the previously mentioned fact that tourist maps (nevermind the crap in LP) will often omit smaller streets, making block-counting (which is really your only viable option for navigation) an inexact science at best. The only thing that keeps this all from being fatally aggravating is that much like, say, London, it’s apparently just as confusing to the locals: you’ll often see Japanese people staring distractedly at maps on streetcorners, and judging from the ads we saw on the Tokyo metro, there’s a very brisk business in hand-held GPS navigators. Also, back at the Takayama-Jinya, one of the documents on display in the storehouse section had been a very detailed street map of Takayama, including prominent labelled landmarks for navigation: apparently everyone in Japan has been lost for hundreds of years at a minimum.
But I digress: there was an ice cream vendor on the street corner where we were standing, and after we asked her “Shosuya wa, doko desu ka?”, she was very amused to point out that it was about twenty feet away, around the corner.
Hida beef? Fucking amazing. I’m not much of a red meat eater these days, but this was a strong contender for the best meal I’ve had in Japan so far. It was simplicity itself: a dozen slices of Hida beef, a white-hot charcoal brazier, some rice, and a few vegetables to grill on the side. The brazier was hot enough that in about 30 seconds you could get a good sear on the outside of the meat while leaving the inside still pink-to-red, and it was… god, I don’t really have the vocabulary for this stuff. Salty and irony, with that full-mouth “beefy” flavor, but delicately textured, amazingly marbled and basically no connective tissue at all. I ate about a third of it raw or barely cooked at all. Miranda had a piece and asked for seconds. It’s a good thing that there’s basically no equivalent in the states for under a hundred dollars a plate, or I’d be a lot heavier and a lot poorer.
Miranda had a “mini-sukiyaki”, and I fear I’m doing it a disservice by talking about it after that glowing description. It was also fantastic; I’ll let her handle the descriptive details if she cares to.
More than sated, we took a quick stroll around the darkened city center, and then returned home to pack.