Thursday, October 8, 2009

1 Kyoto, Japan

Temples, shrines, and more temples. Kyoto, with the reputation of being Japan's cultural center, is absolutely brimming with them. We stayed a whole six nights in the same city--a record for us on this trip--to take in as much as possible.

Our first taste was a walking tour of Eastern Kyoto beginning with Chion-in. You know how they say everything is bigger in Texas? Well Chion-in is the Texas of the neighborhood, with both the largest temple gate and bell in Japan. We were lucky enough to come when a prayer service was taking place, so we removed our shoes (thank goodness there was lots of incense to mask the odor) and found a seat on the tatami mats of the temple to watch and listen to the chanting chorus of some fifty Buddhist monks. From there we continued on to colorful Yasaka-jinja shrine and the lovely grounds of Kodai-ji, which is also home to two much celebrated tea houses. Nearby in the district of Gion we were thrilled to spot a few geisha scurry by on their way to appointments! The neighborhood quickly turns ultra-touristy on the walk to Kiyomizu-dera temple, though, and the streets become wall-to-wall souvenir shops. On the plus side, many are handing out free samples of Japanese sweets, which made a great mid-afternoon snack! Honestly, many of the temples start running together after a while. Luckily Sanjusangen-do is a nice change of pace; the main hall is lined with 1,001 statues that represent incarnations of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Neatly and somewhat eerily organized in 20 rows of 50 across, the statues surround a huge statue of Kannon herself with 1,000 arms holding different tools to aid her earthy followers' quests for enlightment. Everything there has been made from wood and it's amazing that it is so well preserved for being some 700 years old.

In Northwestern Kyoto we visited the Zen complex of Daitoku-ji with its many historically important subtemples and beautiful dry gardens. And when we say dry we don't mean you can't drink alcohol in the garden, we mean lots of rocks, like the little, neatly raked zen gardens on people's desks. On second thought, the adjective dry probably could apply to alcohol as well; we didn't see too many monks tossing back Sapporos on the grounds. About a kilometer up the road is Kinkaku-ji, also known as the "Golden Temple", where we took in the mesmerizing sight of the three story gold-leafed temple, with its quivering reflection in the pond below, surrounded by an audience of trees tinged with a hint of autumn.

Believe it or not, we actually found some non-temple or shrine sites in Kyoto. We loved walking down the historic halls of Nijo-jo palace and were excited to find out that it's possible to tour the Kyoto Imperial Palace that was home to Japanese Emporers for a thousand years. We filled out applications, showed our passports, and were expecting quite an exclusive show but were instead led around on a cattle run with one hundred other tourists only seeing sites of note at a distance that can be best described as far. For a more exhaustive regal exploration we took a day trip to Himeji to visit the best-preserved of all Japanese castles. Here we got to go in, around, up, and down six floors of the towering, fort-like structure. There were gun racks, stone throwing holes, and hidden rooms. It was pretty awesome. On our way home we stopped in Kobe for what else--beef! We went to a Japanese BBQ joint where the deal was to pay a flat fee for all you can eat, all you can drink for two hours. Sligthly smokey, and even more tipsy, we pretty much had to be rolled out of there when our time was up.

We took another easy day trip from Kyoto to the first "permanent" imperial capital of Nara. Here we visited Daibutsu-den Hall which is the largest wooden building in the world and houses a Buddha statue made of 437 tons bronze and 130 kg gold. That's a big Buddha. There is a hole in one of the building's wooden posts that is exactly the size of one of the Buddha's nostrils and the story goes that all who are able to climb through it are guaranteed enlightenment. Despite the fact that the average age of those waiting in line to try was probably eight, Katrina decided to give it a go. It took her a little longer than the toddler in line ahead of her, and she might have looked pretty ridiculous, but she squeezed on through to a higher state of being.

The main draw to Nara may be Daibutsu-den, but a close second are the deer. The creatures are everywhere! You can buy deer treats at every corner and apparently people have been feeding them for decades, so they have zero inhibitions around humans. In fact, they are rather pushy. Patrick was finally persuaded by a pair of doe eyes to give her a snack, but the love he got in return was short-lived. When he ran dry of donut and started to walk away he got a firm headbutt in the butt. No wonder those kids in Nara keep feeding the deer.

The fastest and coolest way to travel between our previous stop Tokyo and Kyoto is by "Shinkansen" bullet train. They travel at 180 miles per hour; it's a bit unnerving at first watching the world whiz by at that speed. We hopped on in downtown Tokyo and two and a half hours later we were in Kyoto. That was easy! Unfortunately it was not so easy to find a hotel. We spent three hours wandering the streets in search of a hotel, inn...anything that would cost us less than the going rate of $120 USD per night. Worn out and exhausted, we finally settled on the Kyoto Tower Hotel's offer of $100 for a "Japanese-style" room. We figured we'd be sleeping on futons and have a Japanese style toilet, but our jaws dropped when the concierge showed us to the room. Wall-to-wall rice paper screens adorned the massive space, with sliding doors carving out a foyer, dining room, bedroom, and even our very own shrine. We were blown away by the futons--thick mattresses with luxurious blankets were laid out for us along with some cotton robes. And the one non-Japanese concession was ideal: a Western-style toilet!Since we planned to use Kyoto as a home base for almost a week, Kyoto Tower was devastatingly out of our budget. We set out the next morning very refreshed to resume our search, beginning with the recommendation from our Lonely Planet guidebook that had appeared closed the night before. In the light of day it was much easier to figure out the somewhat confusing system of calling the owner, and we arranged to stay in a private room at Uno House for half the cost of Kyoto Tower. It served it's purpose but we spent as little time there as possible. Keep in mind the guidebook we'd been using was the 2000 edition; we have since seen that this recommendation has been removed from the more current publications. Moral of the story, if you heed the advice of a 10 year old guidebook you might end up at a place that smells a little too much like urine.

View more pictures from Kyoto here.

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