Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Kyoto - March-April 2012


If there was one city, other than Tokyo, I always knew I would have to visit before I left Japan, it was Kyoto.  I’d considered going there for Golden Week last year, but had been forced to re-think my plans after the earthquake.  So for my last spring break and my last big trip in Japan, I decided to devote an entire week to Japan’s historic capital city.

Due to poor planning on my part, I ran into some difficulty on the way there, and ended up having to get a night bus to the city, arriving early Sunday morning, rather than Saturday night as expected.  I’d booked myself eight nights in a “capsule hotel”, something I’d heard of before but never experienced.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a very nice place.  The bunks were sarcophagus-sized and stacked width-wise, with a curtain for privacy and locker space underneath.  Other than that it was much like any other hostel I’ve stayed at.  I checked in, took a long nap, and got up in the early afternoon to begin exploring the city.

Sunday was overcast and rainy, which was unfortunately characteristic of the weather while I was there.  I started with a walk down the street, which took me past Kyoto City Hall, where some kind of parade was happening.  Then I went to Kyoto Imperial Park for a look at the Imperial Palace and a walk around the grounds.  Sadly another unfortunate feature of the weather was that it was not yet sufficiently warm for spring to have begun.  I’d hoped to arrive in “hanami” season, with the cherry trees in bloom, but with the exception of a few plum trees, the city still looked wintry and lifeless.

I couldn’t actually get into the Imperial Palace, but after a peaceful but uninteresting walk I found myself at the Kongo Noh Theater.  I was just in time for the last of three plays being performed that day, and since it isn’t every day one gets to see a Noh production, I bought a ticket.  Obviously I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but the programme included a plot summary, which allowed me to follow along with the story.  This was fairly minimalist; the play seemed to be built on monologues and dance sequences more than on plot.  Though I found the singing style strange, it grew on me after a while, and I started to think that it made a very good device for communicating the grief of the characters.  On the other hand, the characters also used the same style when they should have been communicating more positive emotions, so perhaps it’s just a stylistic device that I as a foreigner don’t understand.


On Monday I went to Nijo Castle, which was rather more interesting than the Imperial Palace.  The grounds could also have benefited from more greenery, but were pleasant to walk around nonetheless.  The building itself was quite interesting.  The “nightingale floor” was deliberately designed to squeak when walked on, in order to prevent sneak attacks.  Walking on it, it really did seem as though there must be birds hidden in the rafters.  The interior artwork was also worth seeing.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take pictures inside.  I went to see Toji temple in the afternoon.

Tuesday was one of the nicer days of my visit, and I spent it visiting Kiyomizu-dera.  The building, whose name means “Clear-Water Temple”, is one of Kyoto’s most famous sites.  As interesting as the temple itself, however, is the walk up the Higashiyama (“eastern mountain”) to it, which takes one up several interesting streets lined with artisan shops selling jewellery, pottery, snacks, tea, sake, and all kinds of souvenirs.  I took several hours over the climb, picking up lots of presents for friends and family members, and even a couple of things for myself.

By the time I reached the temple itself, I was pretty tired.  I can’t say I found the place singularly thrilling, and without leaves the view over the tree tops wasn’t that interesting, either.  Still, it was a famous Kyoto site I could say I’d been to, and the trip afforded a great shopping experience, if nothing else.


I made Wednesday my Philosopher’s Walk day.  The Philosopher’s Walk is a walking route along a canal that became famous for being the favourite of a local professor.  The canal was unimpressive, and, as already noted, the cherry blossoms that would have made the route lovely had yet to appear.  The walk was notable mostly for intersecting a number of temples.  I started at the southern end with Nanzen-ji temple.  It looked much like other Japanese temples, but had one surprising feature – a red-brick, western-style, Meiji-era aqueduct!  I spent several giddy minutes walking under and over and around it.  It’s not every day one sees an aqueduct, especially in Japan!

I saw several other temples along the route, my favourite of which was the peaceful and secluded Honen-in.  Eventually I came to the highlight of the route: Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion.  This building is, rather disappointingly, not coated in silver.  It was originally meant to be, but the plans were never realised.  I’m not sure that was a bad thing, as the building would most likely have turned black without constant polishing.  At any rate, the bare wooden structure was nice enough to look at, and the grounds pleasant to walk around, in spite of the rain.  It would have been nicer with fewer other tourists, though.

In the afternoon I took the bus down town and visited the Higashi-Hongan-ji and Nishi-Hongan-ji (the East and West Hongan Temples).


Thursday was the only other day with a good forecast, and so the day I chose to visit Nara.  Nara was briefly the capital of Japan, and home to some of the oldest temples in the country.  It’s also famous for deer, which seem to get almost as much promotion as the buildings!  As I explored the temple district, I saw the animals all over the place, as well as signs warning us to be mindful of the deer, and carts selling deer crackers.

I started at Kofuku-ji temple, looking around the buildings and the attached museum.  Then I went and saw the Nara National Museum’s collection of religious statues.  The main destination of my visit was Todaiji temple, home to one of the largest bronze statues of Buddha.  It was indeed the most impressive sight I saw that day, though also the most crowded.  I took my time walking around the temple and admiring the bronze statue from different angles, then took a walk down to the quieter and more out-of-the-way Kasuga Taisha shrine.

Only on my way back to the station did I finally succumb and purchase some “shika-sembei”, special crackers made just for the deer.  As soon as I started passing them out, the deer, which up until then had been content to ignore me, started crowding around me, nuzzling, head-butting, and pushing each other aside in order to get at the treats.  I think I liked them better when they didn’t know I existed, but I suppose feeding the deer in Nara is one of those things you just have to do.


Although my visit to Kyoto was mostly devoted to temples and other historical sites, I did manage to make time for one slightly more fun location: Toei Uzumasa Studio Park.  This one wasn’t in my guidebook; it had been recommended to me by another ALT who had visited Kyoto previously.  The place was a bit expensive and difficult to find, but it made a nice break from routine.  It wasn’t a traditional theme-park with rides and cotton candy; it was an outdoor film set designed to look like a Meiji-era town, complete with houses, pubs, shops, and even a red light district.  Apparently it’s the kind of set they use to film period T.V. shows, though whether or not actual filming went on there I wasn’t sure.  There were, however, actors walking around the place dressed as geishas and samurais, and having duels with the visiting children.

It was all wonderfully kitschy, especially the motorised plastic sea monster that would awkwardly elevate its head from the town pond, spout a little steam, then just as awkwardly re-submerge itself.  But it was also fairly interesting, and I took my time wandering from building to building.  The local theatre was showing some kind of play about ninjas.  I didn’t understand any of the dialogue in it, nor could I discern good guys from bad guys, but there was lots of fighting, and that part was fun!  Another interesting performance was a demonstration of fight choreography used in T.V. dramas.  That was fairly easy to follow, as they simply showed the techniques used to make stage fighting look real.

Perhaps the oddest attraction in the park was a gallery displaying prints of all of the Forty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji.  These woodblock prints portray Mt. Fuji at different angles, distances, and times of year, and the most famous of them, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is one of Japan’s most recognisable images.  I’d seen several of the pictures before, but this was my first opportunity to view them all together.

There were lots of other attractions at the park, like a little anime museum and the Japanese movie archives.  When I had finally seen all I wanted, I took a bus up to the northern end of the city for the last must-see location on my Kyoto sight-seeing itinerary: Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion.  This one actually is covered in gold leaf, and in the mid-afternoon sunlight it’s quite a sight – even to someone who’s been all over Japan and seen all number of temples.  It is, however, one of those sights that’s more to be consumed than experienced.  You wait in a long line, jostle to the front for a good view, snap your pictures, and then wander off to the souvenir store.  At least we were able to wander around the pavilion and see it from different angles, although the first one was still the best.

On my way home, I was surprised in the metro station to come across a troupe of folk musicians playing beautiful music with a traditional northern-European sound.  I was so enraptured that I bought their CD right there on the spot!


My last day in Kyoto was rainy again, so I set it aside for indoor activities.  First, I tried to go to the Kyoto National Museum, but it was closed for renovations.  Instead, I crossed the street and visited the Sanjūsangen-dō temple, famed for housing one thousand and one statues of Thousand-Armed Kannon.  I kept dry for forty-five minutes, walking up one side of the hall and down the other.  Then, unable to think of anything else to do, I retired to my bunk for the rest of the afternoon.  In the evening I returned to the Higashiyama for the evening light-up of the temples and view of the city.

And so my time in Kyoto came to an end.  The most famously beautiful of Japanese cities did not charm me the way I hoped it would, though I’m willing to chalk that up to time of year and circumstances rather than deficiencies in the city itself.  I left on Sunday morning, richer in souvenirs and poorer in yen.  But I did not return directly to Sendai, because first I had to make another pilgrimage that I’d been promising myself for the last year.  Before I left Japan, I had to return to the city I’d visited on my way home from Osaka and that had, in less than twenty-four hours, stolen my heart: Kanazawa.


Why I love Kanazawa: I get asked this question a lot, and am always at a loss for a good answer, but here are a few factors that spring to mind.

1. Waterways – The interesting part of the city lies between two rivers, and is criss-crossed by canals, meaning that if you enjoy a leisurely stroll along the waterfront there are plenty of routes to oblige you.
2. Old buildings – As I mentioned on my previous visit, Kanazawa sustained much less damage in the Second World War than bigger Japanese cities, so you see a lot more old-fashioned architecture around.
3. It’s tiny! – Kanazawa is a medium-sized city, but the touristy area is only about four kilometres across, meaning that from Kanazawa Station there’s virtually nowhere you might want to go that you can’t walk to in under half an hour.

I’ll admit that explanation sounds a bit lame, even to me.  I’m met with scepticism whenever I deliver my Kanazawa pitch, and often I feel it myself.  As I walked from the train station to my ryōkan (“guest house”, the same converted kimono shop I’d stayed at last time), I asked myself what on earth I was doing there.  But then I walked from the ryōkan through the samurai district, and I suddenly remembered the answer: Kanazawa is lovely!

I stayed in the city for only three nights, enough, I felt, to see the it properly without getting bored of it.  On the afternoon of my arrival, I walked through the local neighbourhood, admiring the traditional houses once occupied by the samurai class, and toured one of the nicer ones with a particularly striking garden.  Then I took myself out for some of the best okonomiyaki I’ve ever had!

Since Kanazawa is such a small city with so many waterways, I thought the perfect way to explore it would be by bicycle; and, as luck would have it, I could rent one for only $4.00 at my guest house.  So the next morning, after some embarrassing difficulty with the lock and a pit-stop for snacks, I set out bravely for my third bike-riding adventure in almost a decade!

It actually went quite well.  Though I may not have been as fast as expert cyclists, the bike certainly got me around quicker than my feet would.  I kept to the sidewalks, hugged the kerbs, and walked the dangerous-looking bits, and in that way I managed to get myself around without mishap or injury.  Well, sort of.  I actually took a tumble walking through the Nishi Chaya district when I put my foot in a gutter that was missing part of its grating.  I pitched forward onto my face, tearing my jeans, skinning my palms, and cutting my knee.  I sat by the side of the road for five minutes sobbing like a child and trying to mop up the blood with a wet wipe before a friendly worker at the local deaf-people’s centre took pity on me and ran out to help.  By the time she’d gotten me cleaned up and bandaged I was ready to continue my adventure.

And you know what?  It didn’t ruin my day the tiniest bit!  Because Kanazawa is lovely and the weather was perfect.  So I saw the Nishi Chaya (“west tea-house”) district and the temples along Tera-Machi-dori.  Then I cycled across town to the Higashi Chaya (“east tea-house”) district.  I enjoyed a relaxing ride along the river, taking pictures of some of the more interesting bridges; walked around the tea-house district and took a tour of one of the tea-houses; and somehow ended up drinking tea and eating sweets at a temple with the caretaker and his wife.  In the evening I went to a recommended restaurant for my first ever Tongan meal, which again proved quite enjoyable.

Rather than let next day’s rain spoil my mood, I devoted it to museums, visiting first the Museum of Contemporary Art, and then the Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts.  The former unsurprisingly failed to grip me, but the latter was full of beautiful goods traditionally made in the area.  I spent my last evening at the ryōkan, hiding from the rain and sharing Japanese take-away dinners with the other patrons.  I’m deeply grateful I got the chance to visit Kanazawa for a second time, and I am now officially putting it at the top of my list of Favourite Japanese Cities.


My return trip was much better planned than my outbound one, but proved as much an adventure as my post-earthquake journey to Osaka!  When I got to the train station, I found that the strong winds from the previous night had delayed the trains, and there was no telling when I might be able to get to Niigata.  I swallowed my panic, having committed to working the following day, and tried to find an alternative.  It seemed the only bus directly from Kanazawa to Sendai was a night bus, and there were no seats available until the following night.  (Can I just take this opportunity to point out that if you’re only going to run one bus between two cities, it seems unnecessarily sadistic to run it at such a time as to deprive your helpless vacationer of a night’s sleep?!)  Upon making further enquiries, I ascertained that there would be no buses or trains from Kanazawa to any of the stops on my planned route, at least until the trains started running again.  So, rather than submit to a seemingly inevitable fourth night in Kanazawa, I cashed in my ticket and boarded a bus to Toyama in search of better luck.

I’ll spare you the details of my journey.  Suffice it to say that fifteen hours, two buses, three trains, and five cities later, I finally pulled into my own proper station.  I’d never been so happy to see Sendai in my life!  I felt stupefyingly lucky to have made it back within the day, and not a little proud of my own resourcefulness.  I felt even luckier after talking to my Singaporean buddy, who was coming back from Hiroshima on the same day and endured a nightmare journey including an unscheduled stopover in Tokyo.  We both agreed that, as long as we’re calling it “home”, there’s no place like Sendai!


Books I’ve read this fortnight:

Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne – Okay, so technically I listened to the unabridged audio-books rather than reading them.  But if you’re going to be pedantic about these things you could also say that I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until I was eighteen, and never read any of the Shannara books – only listened to my father read them.  In any case, it had been too long since I’d read these books, and I was happy for them to keep me company on my trans-island journey.  They are, just as I remembered, delightful books, full of humour, wisdom, and some of the most loveable characters in children’s literature.  I enjoyed every chapter, and found myself getting tearful at the last one.

The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson – The much-improved sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and incidentally the only novel of the Millennium Trilogy with the same name in Swedish and English!  Like its predecessor, it takes a while to get interesting, but it has an intriguing story and spends much more time on its title character.  Lisbeth Salander is definitely an engaging protagonist, with a good share of both exceptional abilities and character flaws, and an eccentric yet intelligible personality.

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