Slow Dancing

Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
Trip End Aug 27, 2010

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Sunday, April 11, 2010

It's just a short hop by Shinkansen from Nagoya to Kyoto. You may have heard of Kyoto in the context of the environmental agreement signed here, but that’s not our focus since as Japan’s cultural centre, and its ex-capital Kyoto has a lot to offer its visitors. However, back in Nagoya, we almost missed our shuttle from the Hilton as a result of a fascination with the bathroom in the executive lounge…. specifically it’s entry in the high tech toilet stakes! This one had a whole panel of controls on the wall; buttons to raise and lower the lid and/or seat, heat control for the seat, music selection, the usual options for washing one’s rear end, but this one even had an option for blow drying!

We’re getting pretty slick through the complex railway stations now and so in no time at all we were checking into our first Ryokan - a type of traditional Japanese guest house where the single room serves the dual purpose of bedroom and living/tea room. We were shown to our room which by Japanese standards was very large. It was already set up for bed, and so the table and mats had been set to one end behind sliding paper doors and four futons with pillows and comforters were laid in a row upon the tatami mat floor. We had a private toilet and wash basin but no shower or bath, since in a traditional ryokan bathing is done communally. With a little trepidation, dressed in nothing but our futana and slippers, we headed to the basement for our first experience with Japanese baths. Upon entering the appropriate changing area, one strips down before heading through the door to the bathing area. This is a large room lined on two sides with washing "stations" with most of the remainder occupied by a large steaming bath. Each wash station consists of a mirror, small stool, wash bowl, faucet and hand held shower head. Of course, being Japanese there is a protocol to be followed; sit down at a wash station and wash oneself thoroughly; soak in the bath for a while with washcloth on head(!?!); return to wash station, soap up and rinse thoroughly; return for second soak in the bath; wring out wash cloth and towel off with damp cloth before exiting to change area. We discovered a poster showing these instructions after leaving the bath….however, we weren’t too far off the mark and so hopefully managed to avoid causing any offence.

The futon/bath combination seemed to do the trick leaving us feeling bright and refreshed as we made our way to the Imperial Palace. The Imperial Palace gardens are open year round, but the palace itself is only opened to the public for one week a year during the Cherry Blossom festivals. Consequently we weren’t the only ones planning to visit the Palace on Saturday…..there were hordes of people passing through the Palace, but this is Japan and so of course even tourist management is a process….everybody flows in the same direction, stops to take the same 20 pictures and then moves on to the next thing…. This was somewhat reassuring to see, given the international view of Japanese tourists, and it had been somewhat unnerving in Tokyo to be surrounded by locals not taking pictures. The Imperial Palace itself was as one would expect, very grand, formal and quite impressive, although most of the structures are replicas of the originals, something quite common in Japan.

We left the Imperial Palace and decided to try our luck with the bus system and hopped on a bus bound for the North East of town, hoping to walk the “Philosophers Path”, noted for its cherry blossoms. Disembarking from the bus, we headed off in the direction of the temple marking the start of the path, or so we thought. After walking and walking through various backstreets and restudying maps, it dawned on us that we had gotten off at the wrong bus stop and were never going to make our way around the requisite hill as it was not the hill at all but an escarpment that went for miles! We retraced our steps back to the bus stop and from there to the start of the Philosophers Path, a 3km trail running alongside an old canal with Cherry Trees growing on the banks most of the way. It was a beautiful, quaint area of town and made for a pleasant stroll despite the masses of people, tea shops and souvenir stands. The cherry blossoms were again quite outstanding and we consider ourselves very lucky to have been able to time our trip to see them. We were also fortunate enough to see several geishas; though whether these were real geishas or tourists made up as geishas we’ll never know.

Near the end of the path there was an opportunity to explore some picturesque temples before walking back through town. The kids have really been quite outstanding at times on this trip and today was one of those…..including our unintended detours, we must have walked at least 10km only stopping to rest on the bus, and not once did they complain about the walking or being tired.

Eating out here can be expensive, so often we buy lunch or dinner from the grocery stores and eat in the hotel (even the grocery store sushi is pretty damn good), however we decided that tonight we’d try some local fare. We found our way to a small restaurant recommended by our ryokan; the signage was all in Kanji as was the menu and we were a little concerned that we may be in trouble. Luckily though, one of the staff spoke a little English and was happy to help us order pop, beer and sake! Rather than a menu, she gave us a magazine article that had been written about the restaurant in English and had listed the main dishes with prices! We managed to order some tempura (Kyoto speciality), sashimi and yakitori which came as set meals and it was all fantastic…I have a feeling we may come back when we return to Kyoto in a few days time.

The main reason we had come to Kyoto for the weekend was for the many cherry blossom festivals and celebrations and so we were up early on Sunday to find our way to the “Golden Temple”. It was resplendent in its lavish gold leaf and set in even more beautiful gardens. Lots of photos (we’re in Japan after all) and a pleasant stroll later we were done with the Golden Temple and setting off toward the next temple for another festival.

We soon arrived at Imamiya Shrine, home of three goddesses (believed to be gods of the plague). In order to protect Emperor Ichijo from the plague the spirits were consulted and worshipped from the shrine. On the second Sunday of April the Yasurai Festival is held beneath the blooming cherry blossoms to prevent illness. We arrived in good time and waited for the procession to arrive and the dancing to begin. There are many shrines within the temple and once the procession arrived (having paraded from another temple in Kyoto) they slowly circled each shrine three times, playing music as they did so. The finale was a series of lethargic dances and more music - it was all a little bizarre and for a culture that is so streamlined and organized the whole parade and performance seemed to be surprisingly ad hoc.

With no time to waste on our whirlwind tour of Central Japan (the downside of having a JR pass is the impulse to take full advantage of it) we headed off to the station for a fast train to Hiroshima…
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David Cole on

moshie..moshie Derek san...gengki desuka? kireii ne!!!

delsar on

Itterasshai kiotsukete... Jaa ne

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