Around and about Kyoto

Trip Start Jan 17, 2010
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Thursday, June 24, 2010

We were a little drained when we arrived by the overnight bus in Kyoto - we nearly tore eachother apart finding our hostel in fact - but we arrived safely and hit the communal sofas for a while to regain our composure. Fed and watered (but not yet able to check in to our room) we headed out to the Kyoto International Manga Museum on a rainy but humid first day in Kyoto. The manga museum was a fascinating jamboree of Japanese manga (comic book) history dating from just after the second world war, and we gave ourselves over to it - taking in as we did the fabulous temporary exhibition of the French contribution to the manga canon -  for pretty much the remainder of the daylight hours. Shattered from our sleepless bus journey (that's me actually, Kanan can sleep like a cat anywhere - I think it's an Indian thing) we eschewed sleep in favour of hunting down the famous food market of Nishiki - full, apparently of the weird and wonderful foods of Kyoto cuisine. Several hours later we found it, but not before I had already claimed to have found it masquerading as a mega-department store food court. Only Kanan's determination saved us from massive disappointment. The sight of whole Octopi on casual sale did make us wonder why we'd been quite so keen, but we forgot quickly about those when we stumbled into Aritsugu, quite possibly the worlds best kitchen knife shop. Although the knives were alluringly (alarmingly!) sharp, our senses sadly would no longer oblige and we retired for the day to begin a week of communal self-catering hostel fun, which actually turned out just fine.

For those who don't know, Kyoto is famous as a bastion of Japanese culture; as well as teeming with temples and shrines - which fight a seemingly losing battle for space with with the neon-clad hi-rises and elevated railway lines - it has wonderful old historic quarters and beautiful mountainous surrounds. Not being the biggest fans of temples (I'm an ignoramus and think they all look the same) we went for a mixed itinerary, trying to see as much of the Japanese countryside as possible whilst taking in a few of the must-see sights. This approach took us on a walking tour on our second day in Kyoto around the historic and temple-tastic Higashiyama district. The temples and gardens dotting the hills were rather nice, but the highlight was roaming the preserved old-style hilly backstreets and cobbled lanes, following (and sneakily snapping) the odd Kimono-clad local as we went.

More brazen, more confident (it was dark), and more excitingly we hit the famous network of lanes of Gion later that evening in search of the more-elusive-than-a-tiger Geisha (our guidebook claims there may be as few as 1000 across the whole of japan). It's amazing how your lust for something can increase tenfold when you learn of its scarcity, or maybe it's more to do with the moment (I:d never really given Geishas a moments thought), either way the hunt for Geishas was on. We'd stumbled around what seemed like the most obvious areas - exclusive looking teahouses, Ryokans and other haunts - and had just about admitted defeat when out of nowhere, resplendent in Kimono, white face makeup and tightly pinned back more-effort-than-grooming-a-poodle hair, a Geisha walked straight past keeping the company of an elderly couple with far more money than years left on the clock. Shamefully I reacted like a paparazzi pursuing a royal and fairly chased her down the street. Quickly coming to my sense, I then kept a more respectful distance, but did manage a subtle back-shot )see pics. All quite exhilarating at time; all seemingly a little pointless now. But hey-ho, there are less Geisha in the world than tigers by my reckoning.

Day three in Kyoto saw us escape to Kibune in the Japanese countryside close to the city. Having spent the early morning at the much-touted Tenjin-San Market (the Japanese equivalent of a car-boot sale), we headed to the hills where we planned a short hike, another quick temple, followed by some much-needed Onsen relief for our weary bones (I realise sympathy maybe hard to muster!). The Onsen is, simply put, a hot spring bath, but is a quintessentially Japanese experience. I should be clear about a few things before I go on, for the benefit of the uneducated (which included me, prior to a guidebook crash-course on Onsen etiquette). 1- nakedness is a prerequisite. 2- Most Onsen (including this one) have separate pools for men and women. 3. You need to have a serious wash before you get in the steamy pool. 4. The best ones, as with this one, are outdoors. 5 There's a whole lot of other do's and don't etiquette which I won't go into, suffice to say it's simple enough. So Kanan and I, newly educated, parted ways for a (sacred on this trip!!) time apart.

It was with no little trepidation then, that I entered the onsen; I had committed the cardinal sin beforehand of over-Internet research, discovering as I did the usual various horror stories of multiple faux-pas. I was greeted by the frankly rather disappointing site of a single fellow customer, Japanese, but seemingly equally ill-at-ease cowering by the steaming poolside and coyly hovering a small facecloth-sized towel over his modesty. Emboldened, for some reason, I discarded my towel, took in the wonderful alpine mountain view for a moment, and took the plunge. Within twenty seconds I too had retracted myself from the pool, and sat, stunned by the heat, quivering by the poolside. My Japanese friend then promptly left, leaving me alone with nature and a little time to accustom myself to my surroundings. And so my fellow onsonites came and went; being in the Onsen proved a great way to get to chat to some of the locals who were all very interested in how we had found out about it, where in Japan we had visited etc. It's surprising how quickly one gets used to chatting about the virtues of the Japanese World Cup team (frankly who would want to talk about England's?) whilst letting it all hang out. Definitely one of the highlights of our Japan trip for me! Kanan I think had a more reserved experience, but was grateful nonetheless, no doubt, for some precious, blessed time away from me!

Amongst other activities we also visited many temples (impressive), some beautiful gardens, and Hikone castle (a little on the small side). Despite only having two weeks here in Japan, we seem to have crammed more in than we have anywhere else we've visited on this trip. Our budget had meant we've had to miss out on a few experiences - I really wanted to travel on a bullet train, but had to make do with a play with a toy one (see pics) - but it's definitely focused the mind and made us more productive for it. To Kanan's delight we have managed to find some good vegetarian Japanese food in Kyoto, which means that our self-catering-produced, 4 nights worth pot of vegetable chili (sadly we mistakenly bought sweet Japanese desert Adzuki beans, which were an acquired taste) was happily interspersed with a bit of tasty local fare. I spent a night with a fellow errant husband-cum-traveller wandering the streets of Kyoto at 3am missing the first half of the England world cup match and wishing I'd managed to miss the whole thing.

We've now made our way back to Tokyo, from where tomorrow we'll catch a flight back to Hong Kong and then onwards to Shanghai. With just two weeks in Japan, we feel we've only really managed to sample a taste of what's on offer, and have been amazed by much of what we've seen. From super-loos which wash your bum with one button, play you music to muffle unwholesome sounds with another, and warm the seat whilst you're at it (not to mention auto-flushing the moment you leave it), to beautifully designed mini-hotels - Tokyo has been bursting with the wonders of technology and architecture. It does have its frustrating side and contradictions though. In just two weeks, the constantly style-conscious, trying-so-hard and consume-everything culture has become a little wearing. As have the constant deferential customs of shop assistants fussing over you with incessant greetings, but rarely proving useful when help is actually needed. Then there's the Japanese obsession with the pernickety wrapping and packing of absolutely anything purchased from a shop - this reached new heights yesterday when a dear old lady tried, having boxed up some purchased gifts already, to individually box the labels we'd requested she remove before offering us no less than four carrier bags. This is a frustration further compounded by the almost total absence of dustbins. Having said all this, with a unique blend of the old and cutting-edge-new, of high fashion and of high-culture, lovely people and a stunning landscape, it has been one of our favorite places of the trip!

So roll on China and the last 3 weeks of the trip...

Jo (very tired after another overnight coach journey in an inadequately sized Asian bus, back in Tokyo.) and Kanan (not quite so tire)

PS I was so tired today that I actually fell asleep in public places on no less than 5 occasions, including 3 times on seating at the Tokyo National Museum, although I think that may say as much for the dour exhibits as it does my state!

PPS forgot to mention that we visitied the quite breathtaking bamboo forest at Arashiyama - have a look at the pictures if you get a chance
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