Category Archives: Travel

Last Day in Kyoto

Our last day in Kyoto starts with an early breakfast and consigning our luggage to the care of our hostess for the courier to collect then onto the bikes for a very short jaunt to the nearby Saga Shakado temple which is not particularly remarkable other than we had passed it several times in our toing and froing from the guest house and wished to see inside. It is still early morning and the air is only warm rather than stiflingly hot and we are the only tourists exploring it’s peaceful grounds. Though not the most impressive or famous temple in Kyoto it is unique at least that we can enjoy its simple splendor in peace, far from the madding crowd.
Next is the last of our long stretches by peddle power as we go to Tofukuji in the south of the city. This is another cluster of temples, shrines and pagodas made special by the deep valley they rest beside. Three exquisite little bridges lead over the valley and into the complex affording lovely tranquil views of the valley and the bubbling brook at its bottom.
A short hop up to Kyoto station and we return our trusty steads to the hire shop. I don’t think we could have seen quite so much of the city without them but both of us are more than a little saddle-sore and the prospect of strolling or taking a bus to our last couple of sight-seeing spots spells relief and recovery before the three hour seat on the Shinkansen home to Tokyo later.
And so we take the bus out to Ginkakuji – The Silver Pavilion. This building and surrounding gardens are modeled after Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) but there is no precious metal bespoiling it, instead it is a much simpler and considerably more aesthetic place to visit. The retired shogun who had it built did intend to coat it with silver and the white sand sculpture depicting Mount Fuji in the court yard would have been spectacular in moonlight, had he not died before any silver could be applied. I think Kyoto is better off with it the way it is – where the Golden Pavilion certainly displays value, the Silver Pavilion is of considerably more worth.
For our penultimate endeavor we are, for the first time, really badly led astray by my guide book (Frommer’s Japan) which has to date been a consistant and reliable companion. “For one stop souvenir shopping, your best bet is [the Kyoto Handicraft Center]”.
Bollocks. The place is five floors of expensive (and mostly Chinese manufactured) rubbish and a black-hole tourist trap designed for fat American wallets. The fact that it wasn’t in Natsuko’s japanese guide to the city should have tipped us off, we quickly learned our mistake as we were bustled about by a coach load of Yanks at the entrance and a detailed leaflet on how to reclaim tax on purchases over 10,000 Yen was thrust into my hand by a grinning girl with that haunted dead-eye look I usually associate with disaffected low-grade McJobbers in the UK. The first item I see is a broach I saw in Asakusa for half the price. We get out quick.
Incidentally, the Japanese are always really proud of the place they work and really are dedicated to ensuring their customers are well looked after. I’ve even had McDonalds in Tokyo and not only was it actually really quite tasty and well prepared from fresh ingredients (and I am using a green grocer’s “fresh” rather than a UK McDonald’s “fresh”) but the staff were genuinely delightful. Extraordinary.
After a bit of lunch (not McDonalds) and a bit of a wander we wind up in Gion. Unless you are a multi-millionaire with a multi-millionaire friend who is already a member of the club, you are unlikely to actually see a Geisha at all let alone performing any of the traditional arts they have been trained in since early childhood, and indeed we don’t see one nor even a Maiko walking the streets although this was perhaps made all the less likely by the onset of some pretty heavy rain.
Gion has wide streets and low wooden buildings and larger stone affairs behind high walls hiding expansive gardens. The little shops sell wares of artisans who spend months on a kimono or hairpin using techniques handed down over centuries and there are prices to match. It’s star as an entertainment district is waning as modern entertainments eclipse the traditional arts practiced for the rich and famous but it would be unfair to leave an impression that it is now no more than a playground for the upper class, its heritage is more important than that and this can still be seen shining through.
The Gion district is bordered on one side by a busy main road that leads us to the subway we take back to Kyoto station. On the other side of the road are ramshackle, cramped houses surrounding alleys too narrow for anything wider than a moped and darkened by the knots of TV antennae and power lines twisting around and between the buildings. The apartments must be tiny, even by Tokyo’s standards. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a rich district and such a poor one stand quite so close together with such a clear demarcation in any city anywhere. Just another peculiarity of one of the most extraordinary places on the planet.
Three days has not been enough time here, three months might make me feel I could really begin to get a fingernail under the surface. If you are coming to Japan, Kyoto is its shining jewel and you should plan your whole trip around your visit here.

A Side Trip to Kyoto – Day 2

Breakfast is at 8 but despite having slept soundly for ten hours already we have a further nap afterwards until, at 10:30, the mistress of the house reminds us we are supposed to be out of the room by 9 so she can clean it. By 11 we are therefore back on the bikes and heading for the first of three locations that are fairly close to each other here in the north west of the city where our accommodation is situated.
The first is Ninnanji of which I wish I could remember more but as we arrive at the time the sun was reaching her zenith and poor little ginger-headed folk like me simply can not think straight, my recollection is sketchy. This was the residence of the first cloistered monastic emperor and is a gorgeous sprawl of wooden buildings connected by covered gangways surrounding an exquisite landscape garden and pond whose tranquility and grace are deeply refreshing as we see it from one of the blissfully shaded gangways.
The usual station stop ritual of consuming a fresh litre of water to replenish the half kilo of body weight lost to sweat and a new layer of sun cream they could coat a space suit with liberally applied and we continue on up the hill to the absolute highlight of my time in Kyoto, the Zen Buddhist temple of Rioanji.
The path winds its way up to the temple proper past an ornamental lake which is itself a place of pilgrimage as it is a representation of heaven, with lillys and lotus flowers floating on the still water reflecting the shade giving trees and azure sky. Buddha sits on these lotus flowers and casts spider threads down into the water, the world below, to allow the worthy to climb up and join him.
The temple itself houses a Zen rock garden of fifteen differently sized stones in four clusters scattered across a raked sand bed of geometrically straight lines meeting circular ripples emanating from the islands of stone. It represents the whole of nature though there is not a single plant or tree in the garden. We patiently wait our turn to be able to sit at the very edge of the platform and see the garden uninterrupted by bobing heads and opened guide pamphlets.
We know, intellectually, that there are fifteen rocks in the garden but cleverly one can not see all fifteen at once from any one vantage point. I see various people counting; one, two three… ichi, ni, san… up to fourteen and scratch their heads and count again then beam and smile once they move away and spot which ever rock was their missing number fifteen, perhaps without noticing that another has disappeared off of their map and they can still only see fourteen.
Here is the whole of nature represented by fifteen rocks. One, two, three… fourteen. Here is the whole of the universe and everything in it. One, two, three… fourteen. I gaze for a long time and, without moving, I suddenly see where the fifteenth rock is. The trick is to be careful what you count as number one.
I come away from the garden in a trance like state of serenity wondering if, just maybe, I caught the edge of the coat tails of enlightenment.
On the other side of the building from the garden is another most curious object. A circular tablet of stone with a square hole in the centre, a bamboo pipe pours water into the basin it forms and there is a ladle for ceremonially washing your hands and drinking the water (which a note advises you not to actually do – you may wash but drinking is not recommended). The stone itself is a symbol that represents man and inscribed at the four compass points are chinese characters that read “I learn only to be contented”.
As we leave I buy a calligraphy piece representing the basin made by the previous abbot of the temple. I will treasure it for ever.
Next on our mini tour of the city’s north west is Kinkakuji – the Golden Pavilion. This is a place that does exactly what it says on the tin – a Pavilion of three stories topped by a bronze phoenix and bedecked with gold leaf. It was the oppulent retirement villa of a Shogun who lived in splendid luxury while the country around him suffered a series of disasters from plague to famine and earthquakes. This is a reconstruction of the 1390s original as a monk burned the first to the ground in 1950.
It is an awe inspiring site that glimmers in the sun and reflects off of the calm, carp filled, pond that surrounds it, dazzling the eyes. After the simple serenity of Rioanji though there is something quite grotesque about the audacity of this display of wealth.
The last stop of the day takes us back into the centre of Kyoto and Nijo Castle. We arrive late in the day and have to rush around the splendid Ninomara Palace at the centre which was Tokugawa’s Kyoto home and since one can not easily see the Imperial Palace in Tokyo with any great ease, this is a worth while visit. The wood carvings and paintings on the panels of wood, silk or paper are intriguing following the classic Japanese style and the layout of the palace itself is fascinating with hidden rooms for body guards and the fact that the floorboards all, quite deliberately, creak as you walk across them to warn the Shogun (here represented by a mannequin kneeling before his assembled Samurai in the main meeting room) of approaching persons, be they friend or foe.
This evening the cycle back to our guest house is considerably less arduous without baggage attached and a light rain is actually a blessed relief. Another bath and fine home cooked meal from our hostess, who has arranged in the meantime for our luggage to be collected and delivered to the station tomorrow, and it is time for another long and contented nights sleep.

A Side Trip to Kyoto – Day 1

Six o’clock in the morning is a freakishly early hour to have to arise at the best of times. Trying to do it when you’ve been on holiday for nearly a week already after sinking a couple of pints late the previous evening (having been to the cinema to see Tarintino’s Grindhouse film Deathproof – Tokyo being one of the few places it has had a release and is still being shown in the original edit) is doubly so. The reason being that today I take the Shinkansen – the famous bullet train – to the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto.
The Shinkansen is everything it is reported to be: absolutely punctual, clean, efficient and very very fast. The chairs are large and comfortable and can be put back without invading anyone else’s knee space. In many ways it is like flying BA Club Class but without the two hours of pissing around at the airport and a bento box instead of a shrink-wrapped chicken ceasar salad.
A little under two and a half hours later and we are being whisked into Kyoto some 250 odd miles away from where we started, as the crow flies.
This is the city the Japanese love to visit. When we mentioned to Natsuko’s friend Yuko that we were going, her eyes lit up. She’d been there a couple of weeks previously and gave us a list of her favourite spots to see. Truth be told one could easily spend two weeks here and not get enough of it – writing this retrospectively on the Shinkansen en route back to Tokyo, three days was not nearly enough.
Just as Tokyo has more people per square kilometer than almost anywhere else in the world, Kyoto must have more temples and shrines per square kilometer. Many of them ancient, all of them unique one of them grotesque (of which more tomorrow) but all without shadow of a doubt completely worth seeing.
The first temple one sees is a very modern one – the space age station that the Shinkansen glides into. A gargantuan structure of steel and glass who’s scale would put the Crystal Palace to shame. Like many other places in Japan it is a place of worship – the worship of commerce with a bewildering array of department stores, curio shops and souvenir boutiques selling an astonishing assortment of seaweed and green tea based sweets.
What we in fact really needed was a luggage strap or some string, in order to attach our case to one of the hired bikes but nowhere in this palace of shops were such humble things to be found. Hot tip for future reference: trundly suitcases are great for getting around on foot but if you plan to use a bicycle, a rucksack is far more practical. A courier company obligingly provided us with a few meters of string making the evening journey to our guest house possible.
Before that though, with the luggage stowed in a locker, we had plenty of time to squeeze in our first couple of shrines and temples. Hired bike is the only way to get around Kyoto, incidentally, though one should book ahead, we were lucky to get the last two cancellation bikes available. The city is laid out in a north-south by east-west grid and has been since the founding of the place – a practice imported from China long before America or it’s megacities were a twinkle in Leaf Erikson’s eye – and therefore very easy to navigate, at least when one’s luggage is not tied to the front basket which can make weaving between pedestrians a little tricky.
Our first port of call is Sanjusangendo – the temple of 1001 Buddhas. This is not an exaggeration, by the way, 1001 identical statues, each of which with 1000 arms holding 1000 religiously significant items, from lotus flowers to sets of beads, are ranked in a great array surrounding the central statue of the Buddha himself and marshaled along the front by twenty eight guardian gods – each of which is a National Treasure and unique in being a complete and original set. The temple that houses them is a single long building of wood which, as becomes a feature of such visits, one must remove one’s shoes to walk through – this is a house containing 1030 gods after all. A calvinist woud have kittens, the sheer idolatry is stunning but the whole facad one of undeniable holiness, power and beauty.
A couple of litres of water and a fresh application of sunblock later and we are back on the bikes and heading for Kiyomizu. Like the shrines and temples in Asakusa, this is a cluster of holy places but set on a climbing hillside of breathtaking natural beauty. Among the temples are a short walk picked through absolute darkness to find the sacred stone of the goddess of luck and birth – once you find it you turn the huge stone and can make any wish you like of the goddess. I wish for better tolerance to the heat. There is also the Jishu shrine, to which all young couples must make a pilgrimage, being sacred to the god of love. If one can walk with one’s eyes closed from one sacred stone to the other, set thirty meters apart, one’s wishes for love shall surely come true. This is not an easy task. Thirty meters is a long way through bustling crowds in relentless sunshine but I manage it with Natsuko’s help: “…left a bit. Left a bit more. You’re going right! Step to the left…”
Back to the station, luggage collected and attached to my bike with the Providence provided string and we wind our way out to the Saga Giku guest house where we are to stay as evening falls. It is much further away than we think but the owner is a middle aged lady who is lovely not at all put out by our repeated phone call requests for further directions nor unexpectedly late arrival. She is, of course, slightly worried on finding that I may not like the Japanese food she is preparing to serve us. Luckily I’m an omnivore and happily devour everything put in front of me with great relish, I haven’t cycled as much since I was a teenager.
Living is a traditional Japanese home for a couple of days is a cultural experience in itself. Straw mats, floor level tables and a bathroom you first shower in then soak in the spa-sized bath and the aforementioned home cooked Japanses food. It is all quite lovely.
Early to bed futon and I sleep like a log, there are many more temples to be seen in the morning!