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!

3 Replies to “A Side Trip to Kyoto – Day 1”

  1. Hi Jamie,

    I don’t have anything intelligent to say, but I’m really enjoying these posts. Sounds like you’re having a great time!