Geishas, temples and Chuu-hai
11.11.2008 - 15.11.2008 21 °C
Our train to Kyoto wasn't the Nozomi, the fastest of the Shinkansen bullet trains, but boy was it speedy. It was very busy, which made the train quite stuffy and travelling at speed, our ears popped a few times. We half expected the skin on our faces to be pushed back in a ripple effect, like astronauts, but suspected we weren't really going that fast. We arrived at our next hostel a bit tired after travelling for a good few hours, but perked up when we saw the facilities and rooms. This was our first time in a shared dorm and as we went to check out the room we met a chap called Ash, who was staying in the same dorm. Nice easy going guy from Weston (Super-Mare), who we hung out with for the next couple of days. We went for a bite to eat, which consisted of more raw egg, but as they had an English menu, we felt comforted. It was a chain of restaurants, where you have to select what you want from a vending machine near the door, pay there and then take the ticket to the counter. It seemed for us they were quite happy to take the full order at the counter. The bar in the hostel was really nice, so we spent the first night just chilling there.
The Shinkansen Train that took us from Yokohama to Kyoto
K's House Hostel Bar
The next day we had a (fairly) early start and headed off to Kinkakuji - the golden temple. This was our first temple visit, we hadn't been in too much of a hurry as we gather this will be one of the themes of the trip due to every country boasting several that "must not be missed". This was also our first taste of the dreaded tour groups, which we'd read can be quite intrusive. The golden temple is amazing, it has to be said, and commercially very cleverly placed so you can take loads of good looking photos without any tourists blocking the view, even though it was pretty packed, (but we assume this wasn't the motive when it was built). It was serene, even with the gift shops and school children, and we finished the walk with a nice green-tea ice cream.
The Golden Temple - Kyoto
We caught a bus to the area which supposedly has scores of Geishas just milling about. We found out later that you're more likely to see Geishas in training or tourists wearing the traditional garb than the real deal. It didn't really matter to us whether there were bone fide, they certainly looked very pretty and the dresses were amazing. Whilst in Japan we've seen plenty of ladies wearing kimono, and it seems for some it's just normal daily attire. The socks and wooden flip-flops do look precarious, but no less so than 6 inch high heels; besides there are escalators or lifts in every building.
Geisha in Kyoto
We stumbled on another temple (not marked on our map) and this and the surrounding gardens were almost deserted, and therefore very peaceful. This turned out to be a complete contrast with Tenjyuan park and the temple we visited next, and although very spectacular, the tour groups were back, following a man waving a stick in the air. There was an annoying and slightly bizarre American guy singing country and western songs on a guitar in the park, which didn't at all fit in with the surroundings and because he used an amplifier the noise seemed to follow us for a good while. The Chinese tourists seemed to love him though. We had a quick look around another temple called Nanzenji Temple then made our way back to the hostel, where we ended up in the bar yet again.
Nanzenji Temple - Kyoto
Ash - showcasing a favorite Japanese photo pose
Nara was the destination for the following day, as it holds the largest wooden structure in the world, a Buddhist temple known as Gion-in. We had heard mention of deer in the adjoining park, and assumed it would be a set up much like Richmond Park, with small groups of deer to be seen in the distance. In reality the deer were as tame as goats in a petting zoo, which was brilliant. There are loads of temples in Nara, but at a risk of getting templed out, we only really saw a couple. We started with the Five Story Pagoda, the name leaving little to the imagination. As the tour groups were hotting up we headed to the main temple we had come to see and that's when we stumbled across our first deer. We were amazed at the first deer we saw not running away and soon found that they were all that tame. We became bolder the more we came across and soon were stroking them, and Anna even went in for a hug. Who could resist hugging a real life Bambi? The deer were everywhere, even on the pavement, and if they decided to cross the road, the traffic warden would stop the cars so they could meander across. Brads bought some deer food and was nearly butted to the floor in the ensuing frenzy!
Anna hugging a deer
The temple, Gion-in, was amazing. The structure itself was awe inspiring, and even more so with the knowledge that this was just two-thirds of the size of original structure, due to fire some time ago. A huge Buddha was housed inside with a warrior / guardian statue either side. Even the school groups and man with the megaphone permanently attached to his mouth couldn't break the joyous feeling felt by both of us as we stood silent and awe-struck by our surroundings. There is a hole in supporting column which, legend has it, only the enlightened ones are able to crawl through. While school kids had their friends push and pull them through the hole, Brads slid through with ease, while groups of old ladies looked on, highly impressed. We had a stroll and found somewhere for lunch, with the first proper Japanese meal (Katsudon - breaded pork on rice with all the trimmings) that we really enjoyed rather than endured. It was dusk as we caught the train back to Kyoto and needless to say, we ended up in the hostel bar yet again.
Gion-in Temple - Kyoto
Brads - 'The Enlightened One'
The next day was Friday and Ash returned to Tokyo, so we decided to visit Arashiyama. Only a short train ride away, we were soon in the most touristy place we'd been so far. This didn't detract from the quaintness of the place, especially as the highlight for us, the Monkey Park, was pretty much deserted. After a steep climb through very pretty woodland, we reached the peak and came to an open space with an enclosure. Rather than the monkeys being housed here, we entered this in order to buy food to feed them. You wouldn't want to try and feed them from outside the enclosure, as they were pretty aggressive when they wanted to be. They hung on the outside reaching in with their hands looking as cute as possible. The larger ones would hang back and wait for the little ones to be fed and then just come and snatch the food off them. We bought a couple of bags of different types of food. We found it highly amusing that their favourite food by far was the monkey nuts.
Monkey Park - Arashiyama
Brads feeding a monkey
Before we went home we popped into the Zen garden of Tenryu-ji Temple. We didn't have a huge amount of time to casually stroll around, so we had a quick tour, agreed that it was very Zen like (but not quite to the degree that Brads has expected) and then went to catch the train. We decided against the hostel bar, and that night spent a very enjoyable evening in the hostel common room with Christine, a Scottish girl who currently lives in Oz, and Steve who was soon heading off to New Zealand.
And so, our time in Kyoto came to an end. We really enjoyed our time there, but we were pleased to be returning to Tokyo. It's difficult for us to compare the two cities, as we hadn't really spent enough time in each to warrant a fair comparison. I felt we had spent enough time in Kyoto and didn't wish that we were there for longer, but if we had booked for more days, we certainly wouldn't have run out of things to do.