Trip Start Feb 22, 2005
12Trip End Ongoing
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My image of Kyoto before visiting was, perhaps, idyllic. The one major Japanese city left standing at the end of WWII, I figured I would somehow be stepping back in time and seeing the "real" Japan. Of course, I do know that such a thing does not really exist. I suppose I was a touch niave in choosing to focus on Kyoto boasting a large share of iconic Japanese images, such as the massive pagoda at the World Heritage-listed Toji temple:
So, upon arrival I was quite disappointed to find that some clown had had the audacity to build a large modern city around the shrines and temples and that people actually lived and worked there. And yet I soon came to realise that living and working in Kyoto did not actually mean the same thing as living and working in Tokyo.
We arrived on the night bus into early morning "rush" hour, but to my utter astonishment, I could actually see daylight in between people. The complete absence of an endless blur of vaguely organised humanity, speeding past to looming ulcers and compulsory sick leave (that they don't actually take), was an unexpected and welcome surprise. You see, for all its excitement, Tokyo is one busy, stressed-out place. But Kyoto was different, it seemed, as people took their time, said hello, perhaps even looked each other in the eye occasionally. This more friendly approach was evident in most people, but was especially noticeable amongst school kids carrying a Let's Talk to Foreigners (I swear) school trip/English homework task. After I had signed my name to about the twentieth workbook, proving to the students' masters how diligent they had been in locating tourists in Kyoto (a task akin to finding trees in a particularly dense forest), I got a strong sense of this kind of dual celebrity/outsider role we gaijin occupy here. I actually very much enjoy this because Japanese people are so interested and welcoming, but it does have a knack of making you feel very, very different.
Anyway, I must admit that Kyoto lived up to expectations. The ancient sites are very liberally spread around the more modern developments, and many are worth the trip from Tokyo alone. In a way, photos don't really serve these places very well as some complexes are vast and impossible to capture with still images. So, in a vain attempt to convey its majesty, please find below the entrance gates...
...and the main section...
...of Kiyomizu Dera, a temple perched on the side of a hill overlooking Kyoto, and one of the city's most justly famous sites.
A shortish train ride from Kyoto led me to Nara, the very first Imperial capital of Japan and a gigantic World Heritage site. I think Nara is much closer to what I had imagined Kyoto would be like, as modern expansion has barely visited the city, and its ancient sites are mostly concentrated in one area of parkland. It is difficult to fathom, therefore, why far fewer visitors seem to bother with Nara. Unless I had misunderstood the dress code and that, in fact, all tourists were required to don a white school uniform, make themselves look like teenagers and complete a Let's Talk to Foreigners task, then I am at a loss as to why the place was not swamped. However, the school kids certainly did make up the numbers (and probably sustained the local economy for the next decade in the process) by arriving in their thousands. Mercifully, most appeared to have completed their English homework before they saw me, unless of course that homework included cackling "HELLO!" and scurrying off giggling. And that was just the boys...
Nara's star attraction, at least in my humble opinion, is the monumental Todai-ji temple complex. The main temple hall (above) is the largest wooden structure in the world, which is quite fitting for a building that houses the world's largest bronze statue. When seen from almost any angle, both are truly massive, and definitely rank among the most impressive sights I have seen in my nearly five months in Japan. The temple itself is the headquarters of a particular sect of Buddhism so, unsurprisingly, the statue is a Diabutsu or 'great Buddha'. A previous entry in this journal detailed the Diabutsu at Kamakura, near Yokohama, which is itself a hugely impressive place to visit. While Nara's great Buddha does not exactly dwarf it's eastern cousin, the sheer size of the thing is breathtaking and well worth a long gawk. A book I was reading claimed that 14 adults could stand on the upturned palm alone. While these adults would probably be especially anorexic supermodels, it does at least help to convey some degree of scale that the picture below cannot really provide.
If Nara was home to the most impressive sights of the trip, then Osaka was certainly the culinary high point. Despite the popular image of Japan as a largely homogenous society, the truth is that strong regional identities and cultures persist in the face of ultra-capitalistic modernity. Indeed, some might say that the Kansai region, centred around Osaka, is postively defiant in asserting its difference from Kanto, in which Tokyo lies. This appears to stretch to food, as many of the more popular Japanese dishes were either created in Osaka or maintain distinctive Osaka styles. Having met up with my old friend from Southampton days, Koichi, a native of Osaka, I managed to try a couple of these under some expert guidance. Okonomiyaki, one of those delights that originated in the city, is basically a mixture of salad and meat/seafood, bound together with an egg and cooked like a thick pancake on a hot plate at your table. Although there is some novelty value in trying to judge when it is solid enough to be flipped, I was grateful that the staff in Osaka actually tended to the cooking (unlike places I have been to in Tokyo) and spared us flying lettuce and fish. Okonomiyaki (below, left) is fantastic. I was also lucky enough to try authentic takoyaki, or octopus balls, from a street vendor in the slightly rough end of town. As a cultural experience, I guess this is a bit like street hot dogs in New York, but I was thankful that Koichi's translation did not, as feared, mean that they were male genitalia of a strange sea creature. Instead, takoyaki (below, right) are bits of octopus tentacle in round batter, with a sweet sauce spread over the top. This description probably does not whet the appetite of many readers, but I am happy to say that I really enjoyed them.
Osaka is a big city, roughly equivalent in size to London, but it did feel a little different to Tokyo (roughly equivalent in size to an average planet). It seemed a bit more laid back, maybe even a little festive. I also got the impression that Kansai was a friendlier place, although that may be a significantly distorted view, given that most people I spoke to seemed intent on completing Let's Talk to Foreigners.
And finally, while the trip began with a less-than-glamourous 8-hour bus journey, it ended on that marvel of Japanese technology and engineering, the Shinkansen 'bullet train'. I really do wonder how I will deal with British transport when I choose to end this adventure in Japan. If anyone reading this has travelled on the Shinkansen, I defy you to find acceptable a heaving Friday afternoon Virgin Trains service from Manchester to London, which has probably been delayed by an hour or so "due to the late arrival of the incoming service", on which the air conditioning and seat reservations computer have almost certainly broken, and whose "restaurant car" selection consists of a soggy microwaved bacon sandwich, coffee whose price suggests it has been imported from St Mark's Square in Venice, and the mother of all insults, Virgin Cola. I can't imagine what Japanese visitors to Britain must think when they attempt even remotely ambitious travel. I just hope they remember their copies of Let's Talk to Foreigners, because it will be a long, hot, hungry journey without them.
PS If anyone is remotely interested, pictures of Kyoto, Nara and Osaka can be found by clicking in this general vicinity
PPS Many thanks to The Scent of Green Bananas blog for the picture of okonomiyaki, and the online menu of a random Japanese restaurant for the picture of takoyaki.