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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Holiday Days 4 & 5: Kyoto

In an attempt to bring a bit of variety to the Daily Mumble, today’s story comes to you not from a train in the Japanese outback, but rather from the front seat of the upper deck of a rather sexy JR bus that has just left Kyoto on an 8-hour trek across Japan, destination: Tokyo.


In addition to the fantastic view of Honshu, we get a complimentary pair of slippers (good job too as I’ve run out of clean socks and the ones I wore yesterday are absolutely honking), and an at-seat telephone for making important business calls. Or for speaking to the driver in case of emergency. Bit of o a case of overkill that I feel, I mean, it may be a big bus, but the driver isn’t all that far away. Perhaps it’s the influence of youth culture, which now sees mother communicating with their children by text message when in the same house. “Supper’s ready” / “What is it?” / “Rice” / “Ok”. It’s not all that uncommon, especially what with text messaging (via email) being virtually free in Japan. One could put it down to the education system, which produces children who are unable to communicate their own thoughts and feelings effectively with others. It’s much easier to hide behind a ubiquitous mask conveniently mass-produced by a society that has taken the isolation of individuals to a new level.


And all that from an at-seat telephone. You can imagine what I’m like in class.

So, day 4 of our holiday was somewhat more laid back than those that had gone before. The previous evening had been spent under the kotatsu (heated table), talking about this and that with Twinkle’s mum, with whom a good relationship has now been established. In the morning we were up fairly late, slowly getting ourselves prepared for the trip to Kobe, our destination that day.

I’ve been to Kobe several times now, although never for more than a few hours. I quite like the city; it sports some interesting architecture that sprang up following the devastating earthquake of 1995 in which 6000 people died. Thinking about that, it seems a bit unreal that in such a modern country as Japan a natural disaster could have such horrendous consequences. One tends to assume that they must have everything under control – it only goes to show who’s the boss at the end of the day – and it isn't us. I wonder when the big one will hit Tokyo? It’s long-overdue now. It doesn’t concern me all that much, although I can’t help but take it into consideration when thinking about where I, or my friends, live. I feel quite secure in our current home as it’s brand new, and not very tall. I do wonder how trains cope with earthquakes. Do they get shaken off their tracks? I don’t recall hearing any stories of mass-deaths due to such incidents in ’95.

Anyhow, back to our holiday (I think the constantly changing scenery in front of me is making my mind wander…). Twinkle, her mother and I had been invited round for lunch at a friend’s house, that friend being the brother (and his wife and child) of my good mate Will back in Sheffield. The food was delicious; I also had quite a lot of fun playing with their 1-year-old child, making quacking noises and so on. Recently I’ve started to like little children (although I couldn’t eat another whole one!) (Boom Boom!); Twinkle was saying how she felt the same, although we’ll still hold off on that one for a few years. As the evening wore on so talk turned to Sheffield Japan Society – it was through that that Chris and Kayo (our hosts) first met.

Yesterday morning, following a good night’s sleep in Kobe, Twinkle and I took the train to Kyoto, a city with which we are both familiar to a certain extent, Twinkle having attended uni there, and I having been there several times in the last few years as a tourist. I still can’t quite get over how monstrous Kyoto station is. Here we have Japan’s ancient capital, spared from the wartime bombing by the US, and thus host to some of Japan’s most beautiful temples and shrines, with a gateway that is, put simply, a great big jumble of steel, stone, and escalators, lacking in any form of artistic grace or balance. I can’t help but think of better uses to which that money might have been put. Why no traditional architecture to match the beauty of the temples in the north of the city?

Such is the number of historical sights in Kyoto that it takes several days to see to them all. Thus, despite my trips there in 2000, 2002 and 2003, there were still places of great beauty that were new to me. Our first stop was Kiyomizu Temple, famous for the way it is perched upon a steep hill side, supported by huge timbers that are specially grown for that very purpose.



What with it being a Sunday, the place was pretty crowded. Mind you, I swear that half the tourists were Chinese, a phenomena that no doubt will continue to grow in the years to come as the Chinese middle class population swells. It would be nice to go to Kiyomizu again, on a weekday morning perhaps, in a couple of weeks when the maples are exploding with colour, or in the spring, when the huge collection of cherry trees is in full bloom. Whether or not global warming is to blame I don’t know, but autumn is extremely late this year – it’s now November but the leaves are only just starting to turn!

Leaving the shrine we wandered down an old street packed with little shops selling all kinds of traditional Japanese products. Fans, kimono, and lots of food! My favourite shop was that specialising in Yatsuhashu, Kyoto’s famous sweet made from a sort of mochi (soft, supple pastry-like substance made from rice powder, which is folded into little triangular parcels and then filled with various flavoured pastes, such as that made from sweet beans, persimmons or walnuts). We were given a free cup of green tea as we entered, and then left to ‘taste’ all the different varieties of Yatsuhashu on offer. In a bid to save money on lunch, I spent ages walking up and down the shop chomping away, trying to look like a different person each time so as not to be thought of as being a cheeky monkey.

A little further own we came upon a beautiful Japanese garden, where, in a little hut , a tea ceremony was being performed. It was, I must say, all rather groovy.


Reaching Yasaka Jinja, our attention was immediately caught by a wedding ceremony being held in the main temple. I’ve only ever seen photos of Japanese-style weddings before – usually those of the parents’ of friends – never the actual event itself, and never anything so grand. To get married in Kyoto’s main temple is quite something, a million miles from the (comparitively) ‘fake’ western style weddings, with the Western vicar that is actually just a foreign exchange student who’s been hired for the day, that are now so much in vogue.




There were also a few children there who had been brought to mark their 3rd (in the case of girls) or 5th (in the case of boys) birthdays, another old Japanese tradition that to the delight of photographers continues to be observed to this day.


Another tradition, this one particularly associated with Kyoto (in the same way that standing on the right rather than the left when on an escalator is an Osaka thing); young couples sitting almost equidistantly along the banks of the river.


Feeling the need for a dose of modern pop culture, we turned down a shopping mall that was packed with younguns. Surely, it was time for some PuriKura action again (as described a couple of days ago).


Ice cream anyone? It’ll only set you back £16.50.


The shop next door would have been more at home next to a temple. It was full of traditional foods, carved bamboo antiquities – and this T-shirt.


One really does wonder what the shop owner, a granny in her 60s, thinks it means.


No Rickshaws.


Feeling refreshed we turned our attention to Nijo-Jo (Nijo Castle), which I had no idea existed until my beautiful guide (that’s Twinkle by the way) took me there. Since studying a bit of Japanese history at Sheffield, my interest in castle-esque buildings has increased dramatically, mainly as the names of the fellas who lived I them actually means something to me now. This particular castle was especially significant, as it contains the very room in which it was announced, in 1868, that power would be restored to the Emperor Meiji, ending a couple of hundred years of isolation, and thus marking the entry of Japan into world affairs. The castle does not share the style of those such as Osaka-Jo, Himeji-Jo, Nagoya-Jo, which are, erm, I’m sure there’s a technical term for it, basically about 5 floors high, square-ish, tiered, painted white. Rather, Nijo-Jo is a single-storey building, with paper screens and wooden shutters making up all the walls, unpainted. It has the most fabulous Nightingale flooring I’ve ever come across – these Nightingales really sing when you walk! Until yesterday I assumed it was the way the wooden floorboards were positioned against one another that made them squeak when trodden upon (so as to warn of intruders), but not so. Rather, each plank has a number of steel latches on their undersides that are attached with nails. The squeak comes from the friction between the latch and the nail when the boards are depressed. Their use was phased out in 1765 following the famous incident involving the Ninja who came armed with a bottle of Prozac (groan….!)


Something else I was really impressed by was the screen paintings that made up the interior walls. On the whole screens don't really do it for me; sure, they’re pretty, but a museum full of ancient wallpaper just isn’t my idea of fun, no matter how cute the courtesans. Still, there was something about those at Nijo that had me spellbound. The idea that these same pictures adorned the walls of these same rooms when those ancient warlords ruled the land, great stuff. One final feature that caught my attention was the hidden room behind the screens right next to the Shogun (feudal lord)’s cushion. In there, his elite samurai protectors would wait, ready to burst out and cut down any man who dared approach their leader in anger. I guess they had a CCTV system installed so they could keep an eye on proceedings even with the doors shut.

It's a shame that photos weren’t allowed inside the castle, although I suppose hundreds of flash-bulbs wouldn’t do the paintwork much good. Beautiful gardens though.


The final stop for the day was Doshisha University, where Twinkle studied for 4 years. By coincidence, it was “Homecoming Day”, a sort of reunion type thing. However, as it was now 5pm everyone had actually gone home, thus the place was deserted. Nice campus though. Sort of university-like, funnily enough.


Our resting place last night was a superb little business hotel, the Chatelet Inn, which was only 3500yen pp. When making the reservation, Twinkle had requested a ‘room with a view’, as one of the guests was an overseas tourist (that’s me). Thus, we were delighted to find that looking out of our 9th floor window, we did indeed have a superb view …of the TOTO toilet showroom opposite.


Turning our attention to the TV guide, we found that there wasn’t all that much on except “Blow Job Bonanza” and “Mariko gets fucked” – thus I turned my laptop on, hooked up to some random wireless network and tuned into Classic FM. Soundtrack provided, we took care of the rest ourselves…

Dinner was a superb Sushi feast, washed down with a can of premium beer and a litre of organic carrot juice, followed by the most delicious cakes to have ever been produced by Kobe’s famous cake shop, naturally enough located in Kyoto.

It has been, I must say, the most fantastic holiday. I can’t quite believe we’ve done so much in the past week – its been such fun!

This bus journey is proving to be really inspirational. From Osaka to Tokyo there are two main routes – one, the Tokaido, takes you along the southern coast of the main island of Honshu. It’s relatively built up all the way along, following the flats and playing host to the Shinkansen (bullet train) line. The other route, and that that we are following today, veers off to the north, going right through the heart of the southern body of Honshu. We’ve climbed a fair bit, and the motorway, almost deserted apart from the construction workers (who seem to outnumber the white lines down the middle of the road) , is surrounded on both sides by mountains that have a beautiful coat of autumnal shades. It reminds me that it really is true, 80% of Japan IS mountainous (and therefore relatively uninhabitable).


The urban areas are the exception, not the rule. It's only too easy to forget this when living in a city that hosts almost 25% of the population of Japan. When I say “I couldn’t live in Japan, it’s just too crowded”, I’m forgetting the beauty of the byways. The peace and quiet of the forests, the patches of persimmon trees that break up the rice paddies. It’s true, the majority of Japanese rivers have been concreted along at least some part of their course, but I’ve seen many this past week that have genuinely taken me by surprise. They wouldn’t look that out of place in a national park in England!



It’s astonishing how travel can affect one’s thinking, one’s relationship with one’s surroundings. This trip really has shown me how a little over 2 years, the time I have spent in Japan thus far, really is nothing, and there is a lot more about the place that I am yet to learn.

Thanks for coming on holiday with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip!


Joseph


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