Monday, January 16, 2006

Kyoto, Part I

While talking to him over the holidays, my Uncle Mike told me that I was writing this blog faster than he could read it. I hope the last two weeks have given you all a chance to catch up (really, I just hope you're still with me). I'm trying to do a more detailed write-up of Maureen's and my trip to Kyoto and Tokyo during the first week of January. Today I finished the first installment. Hopefully the rest will follow in short order.


The flight from Sapporo to Osaka is just under two hours, and there are six flights daily. We had specially-priced New Year’s Day tickets, offered to increase ridership on a holiday when most Japanese stay at home with their families. I was expecting to make the trip in a half-full, medium-sized airliner. Instead, we found ourselves in the middle of a crowded 747 (capacity: 416 passengers).

I still don’t enjoy air travel, but a 2-hour flight seemed a lot less daunting when my most recent previous experience had lasted 12-1/2 hours. The trip was also improved by the novelty of watching our take-off and landing on the cabin’s video screens, broadcast live from a nose-mounted camera. From my seat in the plane’s midsection, I could steal glances out the windows on either side of me, giving a three-way view as the golden-afternoon streets, waterways and buildings of Osaka rose to meet us on our final approach. Mo was sleeping, and witnessed our touchdown only because I woke her for it. Were the riders of the Revelation making their Apocalyptic trek across the sky while she was napping, I think Mo would need someone to wake her in time to hear the seventh trumpet blast.

There were no trumpet blasts when we landed in Osaka, and indeed, once the passengers of our flight had claimed their bags and dispersed, the airport was rather deserted. Outside the sun was shining in a clear, blue sky on a balmy (compared to Hokkaido) afternoon of 10 degrees Celius. I had read that the Kyoto eki (train station) offered good locations for photographing the myriad of arriving and departing locals, expresses and shinkansen (bullet trains). I was anxious to get there in time for sunset light, making me a little impatient while Mo stopped to get food and drink, and call the proprietor of our lodging in Kyoto. Then it turned out that getting from the Osaka airport to Kyoto was no straightforward matter. We had to take a monorail to a subway to the JR (Japan Rail) station where we could catch a train for Kyoto. Maybe I wouldn’t make it in time for sunset, afterall.

The monorail soared over the rooftops of several Osaka neighborhoods, offering the perfect way to take in both modern and traditional Japanese architecture from above. We exited into a warm, sun-drenched outdoor mall feeling very overdressed in our heavy winter coats and still wearing our long underwear. Beneath the mall we found the subway, and from it, the JR Shin-Osaka station where we bought Y540 tickets for the 40-minute ride by local train to Kyoto, passing up the Y1400 fare for the 15-minute ride by shinkansen.

As the sun dipped towards a layer of clouds near the western horizon, I finally gave up hope for a sunset in Kyoto. Determined to make the most of the situation, I joined two camera-wielding Japanese in photographing trains from the Shin-Osaka platform while Mo looked bemusedly on.

Our local pulled in and we climbed aboard the front car where a fabulous site awaited me. The driver’s compartment was partitioned off only by glass, offering a perfect view down the tracks before us through two immaculately clean windows. The minute hand of clock on the adjacent platform snapped forward to the time of our departure, the attendant blew his whistle, the doors closed, the driver notched back the throttle and we eased out of the station, quickly accelerating to 95 km/hr. Even though he was the only crewman on board, the driver meticulously pointed, with military precision, at every green signal and passing train as we sped down the four-track mainline. The overhead catenary poles, carrying the 1500 VDC that keep the trains moving, stretched out before us, glowing like a tunnel of silvery gold in the low sunlight. Expresses roared past on the outside track, while both locals and expresses flashed by in the opposite direction on the two right-hand tracks, one time two at once. Our route came parallel with the shinkansen line and I caught a glimpse of a white blur streaking between the gray concrete buildings. Nor was I the only passenger enthralled by the view out the front. Several other passengers, at intervals, stood by the windows to watch, including a mother with her two captivated children.

We exited the train into a basement level of Kyoto station that contained a shopping mall. An escalator brought us to another basement level, with more shopping mall. After stashing our bags in a locker, we took another escalator that finally brought us to the massive open-air lobby on the ground floor. Eleven stories above, black steel girders soared back and forth and curved across into the roof. Flights of stairs, with escalators, spanning the entire width of the lobby rose on either side as if reaching for the heavens. In truth, they extended to roof top gardens on the 11th floor. I never found the promised views of the tracks, though. There were some nice views of the city, but always through glass, limiting the photographic potential. I needn’t have rushed for that sunset shot.

Our explorations brought us into the ninth floor restaurant level of yet another shopping mall, still part of the station complex.

“Rah-mah-uhn.” Mo sounded out the kana characters above a ramen restaurant. “That place looks like it serves ramen, too,” she remarked as we continued down the floor’s central corridor. “And so does that one. I wonder if this is the ramen floor?”

On the bilingual mall map outside, we found the answer: “Ninth floor, ramen level.”

We both like ramen a great deal, but being in a large city and around lots of restaurants, thought it best to take advantage of the variety. And since we’ve already been in Asia for several months, taking advantage of the variety means looking for any food that isn’t Asian. We found an Italian restaurant specializing in pizza with a nice view on the 10th floor where we ordered Caesar salad and a pie for Y2140. The pizza came out piping hot, about as big around as what I’d call a “medium,” … and on a paper-thin crust. They weren’t exactly liberal with the toppings and sauce, either. It was gone in five minutes.

“See, if this was the U.S.,” Mo began, “that would have been our appetizer, and we’d now be waiting for the main course.”

“I was wondering when they were going to bring that out.” My stomach barely felt like I’d put anything in it.

“Well, while we are here, by golly,” Mo thumped the table for emphasis, “we are just going to look until we find good, cheap food that fills us up!” (that last bit said with a particular nod in my direction)

We found reinforcements in one of the basement malls, a French bakery chain called “Vie de France.” We picked out a “chicken dog” consisting of bread, chicken and lots of cheese, a bread pocket filled with spinach and cheese, and raisin bread filled with cream cheese. For balance, I added a cinnamon-sugar bun filled with sweet beans (no cheese). We paid Y736 and left the table satisfied.

“Sweetie,” I said, as we prepared to go, “I think you may want to append your earlier statement. We need to find good, cheap food that fills us up and won’t give us coronaries before we turn 30!”

It was dark. The sunset was long gone, we had explored the station from bottom to top and back to bottom, and now we were full and standing on the periphery of a shopping mall. I was completely out of reasons to keep Mo out of its stores. Shoulders drooping, I followed along as she led me from one rack of fuzzy, frilly sweaters to the next.

As she dragged me through the hordes of young women in miniskirts and knee-high, spike-heeled leather boots and salesladies beckoning customers with their shrill, ear splitting cries, a sobering thought flitted through my mind. I wondered whether she had the same feeling of bored uselessness when accompanying me on a photo shoot. When she held up another sweater, I tried to offer an honest opinion.

“The color is perfect for your complexion, but I don’t care for the way the neck is cut.”

A little later we find a good candidate, but Mo didn’t want to commit until seeing the offerings of a few other malls. She asked the saleswoman if the store can hold it until the next evening. A discussion ensued between the saleswoman and her manager. I couldn’t understand the words, but from the tone it sounded very much like they did not want to put any merchandise on hold. But this is Japan, and they finally agreed.

We were a few steps out of the store when the saleswoman came running up behind us.

“I didn’t give you the ‘hold’ slip.” She handed it to Mo.

We continued across the station and just finished buying tickets when she came running up again.

“I didn’t take down your phone number!”

Mo wrote it on a slip of paper and we headed for our train.

A budget trip to an expensive country like Japan, even in the backpacker-friendly city of Kyoto, naturally required lodging at Kyoto’s cheapest inn. We found just that at the aptly named “Kyoto Cheapest Inn.” For Y1200/night each, we got space on a tatami mat to roll out our own sleeping bags. By positioning myself diagonally on the mat from one corner to its opposite, I could just about stretch out. I didn’t complain, though. The Kyoto Cheapest Inn was just as it was advertised on its website, and included some welcomed amenities, like a shower with plenty of hot water from a nozzle that was actually high enough for me, a communal kitchen, internet access, and a wonderful deck on its 6th story roof where Mo and I sat talking long into the night.

My 7:00 alarm came much too early, so we switched it off and rolled back over for another hour and a half before waking to face a gray morning. We had purchased granola, hot cocoa mix and milk from a nearby “convenie” and so prepared breakfast in the ground floor kitchen, located in back of the garage. Another western couple sat down at the table while we were eating. They returned Mo’s welcoming smile with don’t-you-dare-speak-to-me scowls. Outside, the sky threatened of rain. At least doing our dishes provided some amusement, where a laminated sign on the wall beside the sink admonished that “The thing toweled after it washes it after you use it is necessary for it.”

Nijo-jo, one of the more impressive castles in Japan, was only a few blocks away, so we made it our first stop. The castle dates from 1603 and was built for Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun. Supposedly, the buildings were constructed with specially designed squeaky floors to thwart intruders. We didn’t get to find out, though, as the interior palace buildings were closed for New Year’s, but we were still able to wander the castle grounds with lots of Japanese tourists for Y400 each. Something in the combination of being in the gray weather and among the crowds moving quickly along the marked path, snapping away with their digicams and cell phones, gave me the helpless, inadequate feeling of being just another tourist. That’s a feeling that I am neither comfortable with nor accustomed to. The most “touristy” thing I did in all my 82 days in China was to hike 10 kilometers over a gruelingly steep section of the Great Wall that I later learned was closed to the public. I had my camera, but in the glum weather and in this place visited daily by masses from the most photographic nation in the world, I had little hope of capturing any photos of lasting value.

In the middle of the castle we stopped in front of a map at an intersection of pathways. The steady stream of Japanese rolled on past us, across the bridge and into an inner courtyard directly in front of us.

“Let’s go see that garden over there,” Mo suggested, pointing to our right.

“But we’d be deviating from the prescribed path,” I replied in mock horror.

“That’s right!” She grinned.

We toured the garden and doubled back to the main entrance, where we would begin a second circuit of the grounds. Our detour enabled us to catch the tail end of a sword fighting demonstration, complete with an audience hostage situation. I was able to laugh out loud and applaud with the rest of the crowd, finally realizing that I was no longer an intrepid, independent photojournalist covering the end of steam in remote China. I was a tourist, and I was on vacation, in Kyoto, with my fiancé, the woman I love.

A short subway ride brought us to Higashiyama, a neighborhood at the foot of the mountains on Kyoto’s eastern edge. We found lunch at a curry restaurant for Y750 each, but were disappointed we didn’t first find the food vendors at the street fair just beyond it. Until we saw their prices. Mo approached a stand offering roasted ears of corn on a stick and asked for one to share with me. She held out a couple 100-yen coins and inquired of the price. The vendor shook his head violently and said, “Go hyaku yen.” Y500. We walked away without any corn.

The street fair led us to Heian-jingu, a shrine of replica buildings built in 1895, based on architecture of the Heian period (A.D. 794-1195), to celebrate Kyoto’s 1100th anniversary. The spacious shrine grounds were swarming with tourists and Shinto worshippers, come to celebrate the New Year. They took photos, purified themselves at the fountain, took photos, cast small coins into boxes at the main offering hall, took photos, and tied omikuji, slips of paper with fortunes written on them, around every tree branch and railing in sight. And took photos. The omikuji are purchased, at random, from vendors selling them. Tying them to something at the shrine is supposed to make good fortunes come true and keep bad fortunes from happening.

Just beyond the gates of the shrine was a public park offering some quiet relief. We found an empty bench facing the distant, fog-shrouded mountains that form Kyoto’s eastern boundary. To them we looked, silently, while the unending tide of homage-payers flowed in and out behind us. It was in this already perfect moment that the sun found a gap in the broken, gray clouds and everything became a little warmer.

Mo rested her head on my shoulder while I held her close and rested my head on hers. “There’s no place in the world I’d rather be right now,” she told me.

Finally, and yet all too soon, we rose to leave. I consulted the map of the walking tour we had planned for the afternoon, which started from our current location. It ended, a few kilometers later, at a temple called Kiyomizu-dera.

“Kiyomizu-dera?” asked Mo excitedly. “I know that name! Several people told me it’s one of the best temples in Kyoto.”

“Well then, let’s go straight for it!”

In Kyoto it would seem that every building, every street, every grand gate and unassuming doorway calls to the independent traveler with an individually entreating voice. In a lifetime it would not be possible to heed each one. In three days, all but a very few must go ignored entirely. Roaming freely then, each turn, indeed, each step, becomes a decision of what sights will be seen, of which secrets will be discovered. . . . and which ones will never even enter the consciousness.

Many times in my life I have stepped forth into a new day with some plan or desire or specific goal in mind. Invariably, as that day unfolds the allure of the unexpected tempts me to stray from my chosen path. To acknowledge temptation is to invite uncertainty. Once cognizant of having made a decision, I can always wonder whether I made the best one. Woe then to the traveler wandering through Kyoto with the goal in mind of this temple or that shrine. To stay the course is to pass by the secrets of a thousand hidden gardens and ten thousand back alleys whose hanging lanterns glow a soft, inviting red in the blue dusk of evening. To give in to just one may require letting go entirely of the original goal.

What was I to do then, when the warm light of late afternoon splashed yellow-gold across a bamboo grove and through the side gate of an unknown temple along our path to Kiyomizu-dera?

I stopped. “Mo, look at this.”

She kept walking, giving a quick glance over her shoulder. “Looks nice.”

“No,” I entreated. “Look at this.”

“Scott,” she said, turning and stopping. “It’s probably beautiful in there, but I’m sure Kiyomizu-dera is beautiful. It’s already getting late, and most places close at 4:00 or 4:30. I really want to see Kiyomizu-dera.”

Already across the street and starting up the steps I called back, “I do, too, but right now I really want to see this.”

“We’re in Kyoto,” she replied, getting a little huffy. “This city is full of beautiful, fascinating temples. We don’t have time to stop at all of them.”

She turned back and resumed walking. I re-crossed the street and joined her.

“I don’t like this,” I said. “I know we can’t stop everywhere, but I really need a little flexibility.”

“I need to use the bathroom,” she replied.

When she walked back out, her face was set. “Okay,” she said resolutely, “let’s go,” pointing not down the road, but across the street. I led her back to the narrow stone steps of the side entrance where the sun still danced between the bamboo trunks.

The original Chion-in temple was built in 1234. Kyoto was spared the heavy Allied bombing of the Second World War that leveled many Japanese cities, and so holds onto much of its history, indeed holds onto much of the history of Japan. But that hold is tenuous. Wood was the favored construction material in heavily-forested Japan and fires are unavoidable. Chion-in’s current buildings date from the 1600s. Nearly every historic site we visited in Kyoto included reconstructions of older buildings that had been destroyed by fire.

When we finished climbing the steep, winding, stone staircase of the side entrance, we knew none of that. We didn’t even know the name of the temple we had just entered, though it was beginning to dawn on us that we hadn’t taken the “main” entrance – very un-Japanese!

The sprawling grounds were crowded but not packed. We ducked under a low wooden overpass connecting the high porches of two buildings above the stone path and entered the main courtyard. Nearly all of the visitors were Japanese Buddhists, come to offer prayers and meditations for the New Year. Incense burned at small kiosks where they filed by, each pausing a moment to inhale the smoke before approaching the main hall. At the base of the steep wooden steps that surrounded the two-story building, they removed their shoes, ascended and entered the hall. While Mo set off for another building, I unlaced my hiking boots and joined the throng inside.

Despite the number of people and the commotion outside, it was reverently quiet in the main hall. Most filed in, knelt on tatami mats to pray and meditate, made offerings of small coins to the stone Buddhas, and filed back out. A few lingered in deeper thoughts along the outer walls. Beyond in the far side of the room, beyond a divider with several offering bins and statues, bald monks in long robes moved about in some manner of ceremony. I went back out onto the “porch” to encircle the hall in my sock feet and have a better look through the side windows.

As I sat on the bottom step putting on my shoes, I paused to consider what had just happened. I had passed through a holy place of worship at a special time of year. I was free to observe or even participate as I saw fit. Despite the Japanese fascination with order and group similarity, what I found inside was a very personal, individual religion. There were no songs or sayings to memorize or recite, no one giving instructions on when to stand or when to kneel, no one forcing people to leave or compelling them to stay. No one approached me about converting or handing me any pamphlets. In fact, no one paid much attention to me at all, one way or another. They were all engaged in their own prayers, meditations and offerings.

I found Mo across the courtyard in the temple’s gift shop. Nowhere, no where in Japan can we escape the postcards, handcrafts, souvenirs and sickeningly cute knick-knacks whose manufacture and trade must surely comprise a hefty portion of the national economy. At least at Chion-in there was only one gift shop, and it set far enough back from the rest of the grounds to be a strictly optional part of any tour or pilgrimage.

“I like being here right now,” I told Mo, “during New Year’s.”

“Why is that?”

“I imagine it’s one of the most crowded times of the year, but these crowds have a very participatory feel to them. We’re not here with a bunch of other tourists, but with people practicing their religion. These buildings are being used, and not merely viewed.”

“I can feel that, too.”

We wandered further into the grounds, beyond the main hall and away from the crowds. At every break in the trees, another set of steps led further up the hillside, one to a quiet garden, another to a small shrine, another to a cemetery, yet another to the nearly 400-year old cast bell, weighing in at 74 metric tonnes and requiring 17 monks to pound out the 108 rings that issue in each new year. We left with some of the grounds still unexplored, descending by the main staircase through the main entrance of the towering San-mon gate.

“I’m glad we stopped here,” I told Mo.

“So am I. I enjoyed this.” Then she added, “But tomorrow we have to see Kiyomizo-dera!”

“We can go there first thing.”

We returned to the carnival-like atmosphere of the street, passing the entrance to Maruyama-koen, a hillside park beside the temple that offered the prospect of some refuge from the crowds and possibly even a view to the west over Kyoto. I lingered by the entrance, but Mo pulled me onwards, through the vendors, across the swarming lines of traffic and down a steep alley that descended toward Kamo-gawa, the more eastern of two north-south rivers whose valleys Kyoto has sprawled out to fill. Near the river we found Gion, a place of entertainment packed with restaurants, dessert and coffee shops, bars, clubs and the traditional teahouses where Kyoto’s dwindling population of white-faced geisha and maiko (geisha-in-training) still perform. Early evening is supposedly a good time for catching glimpses of maiko rushing from one appointment to another, but with the late afternoon sun still shining, we decided we were a bit early.

I led Mo back to the entrance to Maruyama-koen that had drawn me earlier.

“I thought you wanted to go in here,” she said. “I guess this is my day to protest everything you want to do.”

“That’s okay, tomorrow can be my day to protest everything you want to do!”

Inside we found a quiet bench near a stream away from the crowds where we passed some peaceful moments. We were disturbed, however, at the discarded paper cups and wrappers accumulated in the stream and throughout much of the park. It was the first place in Japan I had seen much in the way of litter. Then Mo noted the scarcity of trashcans and recycling containers, and I realized that one of the reasons the litter was so noticeable was because it occurred in a few concentrated areas, rather than being scattered all about the park. Leave it to the Japanese to even be orderly in their littering.

“Since these vendors are only here for a few days a year,” postulated Mo, “maybe the city doesn’t want to detract from the park’s appearance with too many permanent garbage cans.”

“And maybe,” I returned, “picking up New Year’s litter is a good way to create jobs in a country with so many people.”

Back at the park entrance we joined a crowd gathered around a juggler. With the help of an assistant, the young man balanced on a plank on top of a ball on top of a table while juggling three flaming torches.

Beside the park I found a hillside cemetery that promised the view over Kyoto that we could not find in Maruyama-koen. The sun was dropping fast behind the distant mountains to the west, and I raced it up the steep stairs, camera at the ready, while Mo waited at the entrance, her energy flagging after a long day of walking. The race ended in a draw, but the view over the city was wonderful, even more so as the sky faded and the lights winked on in the buildings below.

Speakers were already announcing the cemetary’s imminent 5:00 closing when I found Mo on a bench by the entrance.

“I know you’re tired, but this is worth seeing.”

I took her tired hand and led her back up the stairs where we gazed together into the dawn of night.

Gion was picturesque side streets and quaint shops by day. By night, under the soft glow of ten thousand lanterns, it was a magical place where every alley, every turn seemed to hold a thousand secrets. Down the main streets the people rolled in a surge, and those side streets and back alleys filled like the moats of sandcastles in high tide. We were looking for a place to eat, but even more we were looking for the mysterious geisha and maiko. The number of geisha in modern Japan is rapidly declining. Wikipedia reports less than 1000 left in the entire country, down from more than 80,000 in the 1920s. The Lonely Planet indicates less than 200 geisha and maiko left in Kyoto. We would need quite a bit of luck to catch a glimpse of any among the flowing throngs in Gion’s darkening alleys.

“Where do you come from?” Mo turned in surprise toward the female voice beckoning her.

In front of a small restaurant in one of those alleys stood a woman trying to attract potential diners. She spoke a little English and, upon spotting us, gave into her curiosity and called out. I was used to that in China, but among the shy, tentative Japanese, it is quite rare. The woman spoke enough English and Maureen enough Japanese that they were able to chat for a few minutes. When Mo told her we were hoping to see a geisha, the woman’s expression turned to one of apology.

“They have yasumi (holiday) right now. Maybe in two or three days you can see them.”

“Yasumi! Ohhh, okay,” Maureen replied in disappointment. “We will only be here for two more days.”

She turned to me as we walked away. “Well, I’m disappointed, but I know from reading Memoirs of a Geisha that they work very hard. They deserve yasumi, too.”

“This is a perfect example of when I wished I could speak better Japanese,” she continued. “That lady really reached out to us. I wish so much that I could talk with her more.”

We found dinner in a corner ramen shop with red lanterns hanging on the awnings. At the table we studied the guidebook to plan our next day’s itinery and added up our expenses for the day.

“Not bad,” Mo said when I gave her the total. “We’re a little under budget. Want to have some chah-koah kay-key from that coffee shop we passed?”

We found a delicious looking piece of chocolate cake (chah-koah kay-key to the Japanese) in the display case for Y420. The price was a tad high considering the size, but seemed within reason. Mo ordered a piece for us to share.

“It is part of a set-o,” the woman at the register replied.

“A set?” Mo asked. “All we want is a piece of cake.”

“Oh, but it comes with coffee or tea,” the woman smiled.

“We’ll take tea, then,” Mo replied.

“Chah-koah kay-key set-o, 820 yen.”

With our cake (which was delicious, by the way), came a small cup of tea. We added cream and sugar to make sure we got all of our 400 yen’s worth. It tasted no better than the 10 oz. cans of milk tea (to which I am addicted) sold in the vending machines outside for Y120.

1 comment:

autumn said...

Wonderful blog Scott. I've been to both China and Japan and love reading about your exploits, similar to so many ways to my own. Your readers hope to hear from you soon!