Mysterious Kyoto

Trip Start Aug 08, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kyoto is a lot less bloopy than Osaka and Tokyo. The tune that announces the subway is this terrible bone-disintegrating serious of chords that make you feel as if the train of incomprehensible horror is approaching, or perhaps a giant centipede from hell. Shudder.

It’s not all bad though, underneath Kyoto’s low-key exterior is the serene beauty of ancient Japanese culture.  For me, Japan is a two sided coin. One side is the crazy neon pokemon side and the other is the ancient bonsai tree side. In Kyoto, the Japanese coin flips and we can experience the slower side of Japan, the one that evokes images of Sakura blossoms, Mt Fuji and neatly raked zen gardens. 

We were staying by the railway station in a neighborhood of geometric brown and grey houses. The streets were narrow and quiet. In the evening, I went for a walk and noticed little shrines every three to four houses. Each had a little bell and places to put flowers and incense. I thought it was wonderful to be in such a deeply spiritual place.

 As well as the shrines there were vending machines on every block. Apparently there are more vending machines per capita in Japan than anywhere else in the world. This isn’t difficult to believe as they really are everywhere! I’m sure you’ve heard that they sell all sorts of things too, but the strangest one I’ve seen was selling hot meals and that was on the boat over here. They mostly sell drinks - both hot and cold. 

In New Zealand, we couldn’t possibly have this many vending machines as they always wind up getting vandalized. I still think it’s some sort of small miracle that they don’t all get destroyed here in Japan as well. But that’s the thing; Japanese people are not that mindless. There are even machines that sell beer and cigarettes. Can you imagine how that would work anywhere else but here!? It really goes to show the privileges you can enjoy when everyone behaves themselves. I’m sure the privileges go deeper than just vending machines too!

However, while I’m on the subject of well behaved people, we have noticed a little of the underbelly of Japan while here in Kyoto. 

We had arrived at the station and Vinh was on his smartphone figuring out what station we wanted to go to to get to the Nishiki Food Market. A large scruffy lady came up to him with the sweetest smile (but the worst teeth) and helped him. As this was Japan, Vinh graciously accepted her help, even though he didn’t need it. Thats when things turned weird. As Vinh bought the tickets, the lady asked if him for the change as payment for her help.

“No, sorry” said Vinh with his most sympathetic smile. “We need this money”. 

Vinh continued putting away his money while his mum and I watched with a strange mixture of concern, horror and guilt as the women wrapped her arms around her stomach and began to cry pathetically.

“Oh no Vinh!” we both cried.

Vinh had seen the ladies behavior but continued as if nothing had happened. He turned to her.

“Arigato” he said apologetically.

No self pitying drama would sway him. The lady realised this and her true colours began to show. She let out an angry yell and swiped at Vinh as he walked away. It was all very strange. Don’t think we’re heartless either. When you travel you are faced with poverty all the time. You can’t give your money to everyone, as hard as that may be.

During our time in Kyoto we did notice this lady a few times by the ticket machines. It must be her regular gig.   Also, in Kyoto I saw this very, very old man buying a very, very filthy magazine at the 7-11. It was quite funny. (And  may I just say, busted old man! It’s on the internet now!) Anyway, not everyone’s well behaved in Japan, they’re just very polite about it. 

So, anyway we went to Nishiki Food Market which is often referred to as Kyoto’s Kitchen. It’s a long narrow street that stretches for about four blocks that is filled with the most amazing food shops selling everything from pickled vegetables, fresh fish, spices, confectionary and everything in between. We spent a long time sampling various offerings from the vendors and “oohing and aahing” over the amazing things they had to offer. Vinh’s mum bought some spices and a wee dangly fish thing.

From there, we walked up to the street famed for it’s Geishas. The work of a Geisha is mostly behind closed doors. They are basically extremely high class and educated entertainers and escorts. People who enjoy the services of Geishas are usually extremely powerful business men although, the Gion district does have public performances. Vinh told me that to visit a Giesha you normally need to be introduced. Therefore you’d need to be a pretty privileged position for that to happen in the first place.

 There is nothing much to this street except for the distinct Japanese style buildings with discrete entrances. We did see a few of the Maiko (apprentice Gieshas) though, which were quite exciting to photograph in their beautiful kimonos but I had to be quick to catch them and my photos are a little blurry.

With tired legs, we made our way back to our apartment. It was a wonderful day where Kyoto unfolded for us and let us share some of it’s mysteries. We also managed to avoid the rain that threatened all day. 

The rain came the day after, but we still persevered with our original plan. Vinh had managed to find Inari temple which did not charge 600 yen to enter so we decided to head there. This temple is well known and you may have seen in it pictures. The path up the mountain behind it is underneath hundreds, if not thousands of bright, almost iridescent, orangey red Torii (japanese archways) which have been donated over the years by businesses because, Inari, the god prevailing over this temple is the god of rice and business. The effect of all these Torii is spectacular, and something very unique.  We followed this bright and winding path through the thick wet bush for a while, stopping at moss covered shrines and avoiding the huge spiders that lurked between the posts. By the time we got down the rain had been clear for a while and the tourists were beginning to arrive. But just our luck! The heavens opened up again! We had timed it perfectly to enjoy the temple without the crowds or the rain.

The following day was sunny, and it was also an open day at the Heian temple gardens so we decided to go there for a bit of tranquility. As I mentioned in my post on Shanghai, one of our favourite things to to when we travel is to just walk around and let the day arrange itself. We had a lovely walk to the gardens along a stream that wound it’s way through some old looking houses that were built right on the edge of it. There was a narrow bridge over this stream and we crossed it to walk under the graceful green trees on the opposite bank that drooped their leaves over the sparkling water.  A man was bathing his sausage dog in the stream and we stopped to marvel at it. Vinh and I have a particular fondness for sausage dogs. Anyway our amazement at this dog attracted the attention of a lovely old couple who were also going to the temple to enjoy a free walk around the gardens.

The Gardens were lovely, but not worth 600 yen in our opinion. Despite the crowds it was very peaceful and just the sort of place I enjoy with narrow paths entwining with small glistening streams. Soft green leaves provided a canopy over everything, sheltering us from the harsh mid-day sun. At the end of the walk we stopped at a bridge and looked at the large grey fish and turtles that swam around the posts. We bought some very dry crusty bread rolls that were for feeding the fish. I gave most of mine to an old man who seemed to really enjoy the turtles and fish competing with each other for a morsel.

That was our last day in Kyoto. Just like the rest of Japan I’d love the time and money to explore it further. We returned to Osaka and I went for a long walk along the river to take it all in one last time. I lay on the grass drinking purple Fanta and watched some youths practice their pakour skills. I thought about what a wonderful country this is. No wonder so many people want to come here! No wonder it’s pop culture is imitated and worshipped all over the world! 

Japanese people seem to have modernized in their own way, which is why Japan is so unique and preserves it’s ancient culture so well.  In Japan we’ve enjoyed technological toilets,  TV’s in the shower, and the most incredible hospitality. We won a pokemon on a skill machine too! We’ve eaten incredible food and sampled some bizarre candy. We’ve had a glimpse into Japans old, spiritual culture as well as experiencing its full on modernness. It’s the most dynamic place I have ever been.

For those of you who may be put off by the expense, don’t worry. If you can afford to live in NZ or Australia then the prices will not shock you. Sadder still, are the people who are too scared to go visit because of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis. Really, there is nothing to worry about. When we were in Tokyo earlier in the year, we felt one small earthquake. It was fine. Maybe people think they can visit later, but Japan needs money from tourism to help it rebuild. Visit Japan. Or at least put it on the bucket list. It’s a one of a kind place and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

We’re catching the cruise boat back to Korea. For those who are interested in the cruise, I just thought I’d mention that there is a shuttle bus that takes you to and from the terminal  to Cosmosquare station so you can get the subway into the center of Osaka. This service is free, but strangely not advertised on the booking confirmation or anywhere else. Anyway I’m sitting on the ferry as I write. Such a great way to travel. I’m in the lobby where the nightly entertainment is on. The saxophonist is back, playing some kind of rhumba tune this time. Lights are flashing and the audience is very enthusiastic. There was also a flamenco dancer and Vinh’s mum mentioned that last time there was a magician. They really do put on a good cruise for just an overnight thing. 

I’m looking forward to being back in Korea. We have three days left with Vinh’s mum to show her around before she goes and does a tour of Seoul. Vinh and I have a couple of days to catch up with our wonderful friends in Ulsan. Then we fly out to Nepal.

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