Autumnal Kyoto

A touristy travel entry in a blog supposedly by a long-term resident of Japan? Indeed. It doesn’t take much these days for me to feel disgusted with myself but my constant failure to go out and see a bit of Japan is certainly one bugbear I have failed to resolve with any satisfaction. Always working and feeling tired is no excuse, really, so when the opportunity came around for me to show my visiting parents round Kyoto I had no choice. After six years this was the very first time I had ever been there, and I felt like a complete tourist, which, to be honest, was kind of nice.

The bullet-train ride was pleasantly uneventful. It’s worth paying the 18,000 Yen, one-way, ticket for first class for the comfort and subservient conductors. From Tokyo it only takes roughly two to two and a half hours to speed all the way to Kyoto, and strangely you do not feel a sense of speed at all. The rubber wheels make for a very quiet and comfortable ride.
We arrived in a night-time Kyoto and immediately managed to embarrass the information desk clerk with our English. I decided I wouldn’t be able to pretend to be a complete newb and let him off the hook by speaking Japanese. On this and the many occasions following the sense of relief and gratitude was palpable. The taxi driver was keen to point out the many interesting points about Kyoto: the streets are very straight and grid-based, the temple on the hill is lit up between 6 and 9 o’clock of the evening, etc. Kyoto, being in a valley, was a few degrees colder than Tokyo, so a winter coat and long sleeves were an absolute necessity!


As it was the arse-end of the autumn tourist season we still managed to view the many coloured leaves that drive millions of Japanese to visit the area. It cannot be overstated how beautiful it all looks. The usual drab and grey image of Japan’s countryside is suddenly transformed for a few weeks with incredibly vivid yellows and reds. The Saturday morning we walked up the hill towards Kiyomizu temple, a vast complex that commands spectacular views of the surrounding mountainous countryside and the city of Kyoto lying below. They are rightly proud to attract a lot of visitors during the spring (cherry blossom) and autumn seasons and the main temple building, tagged onto the side of a hill with huge and tall struts supporting the overhang, looks out over a lovely garden path that visitors can follow and which eventually leads past a natural spring endowed with good luck and back to the entrance.


From there we followed a narrow stone-paved street with arts and crafts shops on either side. The products were all a tad touristy but interesting nonetheless. The street eventually winds down past Yasaka Pagoda, a very old and badly kept building that seemed a little too expensive to enter and which was desecrated with a thick electric cable running down its side. Continuing on we passed Japan’s first ever coffee shop and a continuation of the cobbled street with Kodai-ji Temple and Entoku-in Temple on either side. Both were extremely nice to visit though thick socks are recommended; when entering the buildings your shoes must be removed and carried around in a plastic bag. On wintry days like last Saturday that can be a little trying. The grounds were littered with bright trees and nice rock formations and the buildings displayed ancient kimonos and elegantly painted screens. Quite a few girls in full geisha-outfit, resplendent with full facial make-up and hair, walked the streets and caused quite a stir amongst the many foreigners. In one courtyard a photo shoot was in progress with two of the girls posing in front of a bright temple and a small army of foreigners, us included, standing near the gate taking our own photographs.
Next door and stuck rather unceremoniously behind the car park was the Ryozen-Kannon Temple, easily identifiable by the massive Buddha on its roof. I believe this is the Japanese equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but our stomachs were grumbling so I didn’t spend enough time there to find out the details. The carp in the pond were incredibly inquisitive. At this early point in the trip I realized I should have purchased a bigger memory card for my camera.

A quick lunch in Kyoto’s most gaudy, quasi-English townhouse decorated lunchroom later we made our way through the park and yet another temple complex, this one awash with stalls for trinkets and fried squid balls, we escaped the throng near the Shijo bridge, crossing which lead us to the central Kyoto shopping area. The atmosphere is distinctly different from Tokyo’s and had more than a little of the Camden/Oxford Street about it, with its smattering of department stores and many low shops with two arcades. It was now around 2 in the afternoon and despite a nagging feeling of cynicism I tried a single electronics store to see if the Nintendo Wii, which was launched on this day, was available. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t. My initial thought of maybe Nintendo’s home turf having a dearth of them available were as naïve and idiotic as I had suspected. Thus ended my quest for the Wii as Kyoto has many more interesting sights to see without wasting time trawling through shopping centers in search for a toy. I’ll get me one when they are in more plentiful supply.

After a bit more shopping we arrived back at the ryoukan style hotel at around 4 and had a much needed rest before the bountiful dinner a little later on in the evening. Though usually ryoukans offer dinner in the bedroom this one didn’t, which was probably best as the self-fried meat would have stunk up the room as happened on previous trips elsewhere. Sleeping on tatami and futons is very comfortable so we partook of that pleasure pretty early. The route we walked is a good full day’s worth of sightseeing.

The next day we foolishly decided to walk to Nijo Castle. One of the maps we found was deceivingly simplistic and the brisk walk we expected quickly turned into a two hour slog through surprisingly chilly winds. We walked along streets amazingly wide, at least 8 lanes, which isn’t something you see much in Tokyo. When we finally arrived at the castle we followed the signboarded walking route around and through the many buildings and onto the walls and foundations. Ancient Japanese architecture is always a splendid sight but they do have a different way of looking at historical things. Whereas in the west a building is only as ancient as its bricks and mortar in Japan they rebuild things often but, as long as there is something original in there, like thousand-year old soup, it is still considered ancient. Inside the shogun’s quarters were sill many old screens and fantastically designed squeaky floorboards, to detect creeping and uninvited guests, but occasionally some obviously new wood or freshly painted walls broke the illusion somewhat. Do not be put off by this as the effect is still amazing. Especially the intricate gardens were a delight with the many precisely placed boulders and little bridges, but also the vast lawns by this time covered with fallen yellow Ginko leaves.


Though we had picked up a better map from a local guest house, we foolishly followed our badly designed map to find the Nishijin Textile Center (sic). After another two hours walk we gave up and decided to have a coffee at the café that advertised its whereabouts with a tiny road sign, which just happened to be located within the Nishijin Textile Center. As we arrived a kimono fashion show was winding down with a throng of bussed-in Chinese taking photographs.
Because we didn’t quite fancy a three hour walk back we took a taxi to Kyoto station which, in daylight, proved to be surprisingly large and modern. I guess we should have known this but we had lazily decided not to do a jot of research or planning before going to Kyoto, but there it is. There is a huge underground mall there and the post office there had the only foreign card ATM we managed to find. Visitors are recommended to take all he money they need from these as we wasted some time looking around for others.

Here there are also many shops to buy your omiyage, the boxes of local delicatessen every Japanese office worker must buy to present to his co-workers. A bit of an annoying task when it’s yours, but a rather nice tradition if you’re on the receiving end. Periods after holidays are always marked by boxes of sweets near the company’s coffee machine.
The late afternoon was spent relaxing in the hotel room drinking the green tea and eating the sweets freely provided. Dinner, again, was in the hotel’s dining rooms and consisted of boiled crab, roasted crab, crab salad, crab rice and a piece of fish.As the old biddy told us “it’s crab tonight” and she wasn’t kidding!


The next morning was bright and clear again so we decided to walk back to Kyoto station and jump on the next available bullet train back to Tokyo. On the way we had a clear view of Mount Fuji which is so mind bogglingly huge it is no surprise the Japanese are so fond of it and depict it in a lot of their art-work. This day especially it was an awesome sight with heavy clouds straddling its mid-section and its perennially snow-covered peak sticking majestically out above it. At these points it isn’t just the foreigners who lean towards the windows to catch a glimpse; the Japanese too put down their papers and glance a few moments in awe.

Kyoto is a fine place, especially to visit during the tourist seasons in spring and autumn. It is vastly different from Tokyo. I am sure the Kyoto-ites and those foreigners living there will try to convince you people in Kansai are more open and friendly, which may well be the case, but apart from my commute I have no grumbles about Tokyo in that area either. There were a surprising amount of stray cats around, the origin of which still eludes me somewhat. I have certainly seen more cats in front of one local temple than I have ever seen in Tokyo in total.
If you are anything like me you will be too tired and lazy to make the effort to sightsee around Japan. When you first come over and before you start your job you should make every effort to travel and act the tourist as opportunities become rare once you’re in the rut of work and commuting. It is definitely worth it! But be aware that a single long weekend is not enough time to view all the splendour of Kyoto by far.

7 comments:

  1. I've been to Japan once and was able to visit Kyoto for literally just one full day. I managed to hit most of the places you mentioned in your blog post and it was certainly quite beautiful. I'm glad for the experience (even though it was in Feburary and didn't include all of those nice fall colors!).

    I thought my legs were going to literally fall off from the amount of walking in that one day - seriously, I was injured after that day of walking many miles... muscle pulls and all. It's worth seeing but follow his advice, don't try to cram it in too short a time!

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  2. You swine! I live in Kyoto and was out hunting autumn leaves this weekend. I went down to toufukuji (is that right? don't remember) to see the trees there and it was bloody freezing but also beautiful.

    Those little streets you went down to reach Kyoumizudera... don't try it on new years day. Seriously.

    I work 5 minutes walk from Nijo castle too. I could have bought you that/those beer/s if you had just said ;)

    YMLL

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  3. YMLL, I probably wouldn't have had the time or energy for those beers you "owe" me. Besides, I had the aged Rs to look after. I'm sure I'll be in Kyoto again one day, as I'm sure you'll be in Tokyo before too long too.

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  4. I'm glad you got to go see Kyoto!

    If you're looking for some other good places to be a culturual tourist, I had a blast in the mountain town of Hida Takayama. I want to go in spring to see that uber cherry tree blooming.

    The train and tram rides from Odawara to go to Hakone is something everyone should try to experience. At one stop, there's a sulfur spring people boil eggs in. The shells turn black and the eggs get this strangely plesant flavor to them.

    Hakone is full of museums from glass crafts to...gads, what else.

    My family is from a touristy region of Japan, the Izu Pinninsual of the Shizuoka prefecture. If you like tea, hie thine arse to Shizuoka, as it's the best tea producing region in the country(that's right Uji, suck it! :P)

    Hope you get to enjoy more of the country!

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  5. I can absolutely recommend Hakone. A short ride away from Tokyo, lovely mountains, great onsen (naturally hot volcanic spring water baths) and indeed those lovely onsen eggs. Tokyo is, like any great city, a good place to live but only if you occasionally escape and drink in the fresh smell of nature.

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  6. Yeah, Hakone is ace, I especially like the hot then cold baths ;) Even the boat across the lake, the view of Fuji-san is fab from the lake too!

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