City of the geisha (not that we actually saw one)

Trip Start Jan 31, 2006
Trip End Dec 11, 2006

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Friday, May 12, 2006


I've been told to start this entry with a warning: the first few paragraphs are about the Shinkansen bullet trains and if you are a 'normal' person you may want to skip them and head to the bit about Kyōto itself. Personally, I don't see why Fiona made me put that bit in as I'm sure everyone gets excited about going on trains, don't they?

Anyway, our trip from Ito to Kyōto would be the first time we would get to travel on the Shinkansen bullet trains. As a bloke I've always wanted to go on a bullet train, ever since I saw them on TV when I was young (it was Tomorrow's World or Blue Peter I think...). Here are some geeky facts about them:

1. The trains can be up to sixteen cars long and with each car measuring 82 feet in length, the longest trains are a quarter of a mile long from front to back. Each car has 120 seats allowing the longest trains to carry over 1500 people.

2. The fastest Shinkansen, the 500 Series, can run at a maximum of 320 km/h (198 mph) although they currently only operate at a maximum of 300 km/h (186 mph).

3. Each 500 Series Shinkansen train costs an estimated 5 billion, or over 23 million and due to the price tag only nine have been built.

4. In 2003, Japan Railways Central reported that the Shinkansen's average arrival time was within 6 seconds of the scheduled time. This includes all natural and human accidents and errors and is calculated from all of about 160,000 trips the Shinkansen made.

To get to Kyōto we first took a local train from Ito to Atami where we would pick up the Shinkansen to Kyoto. Atami turned out to be perfect for watching the trains as it is a small station where only some of the Shinkansen stop. The quickest trains, the Nozomi service (which unfortunately our passes weren't valid for), didn't stop at the station but whistled through the station at over 100mph. One of the things that is immediately apparent is that the frequency of the Shinkansen makes them more like tube trains than the intercity trains we have back home - some of the lines have up to 9 trains an hour.

Soon it was time to board our train. It turned up bang on time (naturally) and we easily found our seats. Before coming to Japan we'd debated whether to buy first class tickets on the train but decided not to in the end. Given how much room you get on the trains I'm not sure why anyone would actually pay the extra for first class. Each seat is like a business class seat on a plane, and even with the seat in front of you fully reclined you can still read a book or eat your lunch without feeling at all cramped. Our train was a 300 Series Shinkansen which travels at 'only' 168mph. Once we were underway the main thing you notice is how quiet it is inside the trains - unless you looked out the window it would have been very difficult to tell how quick you were going.

A final word too about the Japan Railways personnel. Each of the ticket collectors was incredibly polite, to the point that they bow and greet the carriage as they enter and bow and thank the carriage as they leave (as well as bowing to each and every person they speak to). The service they give and the obvious pride they have in the JR service is truly amazing.

After our exciting trip on the Shinkansen (Fiona would again like it pointed out here that it was more exciting for some than others...) we arrived in Kyōto. We were staying in the middle of town near to the Imperial Palace at a place called the Kyōto Garden Hotel. We had to take the subway into town from the train station but as with the Tokyo subway, the Kyōto subway was easy to master and we were soon at our hotel and able to dump our luggage. Anxious to get out and explore we headed out into town to have a look around and find somewhere to have dinner. Kyōto is a very pretty town with two rivers running through it, the Kamo-gawa and the Katsura-gawa. We wandered east from our hotel through the main shopping district towards Gion, the Geisha district. Unfortunately, we did not see any Geisha on that first evening, nor did we see any for the rest of our stay. Our attempt to find somewhere to eat was also not going well. We were both tired after the journey from Ito and most of the restaurants we came across were quite traditional in that they had closed fronts and written menus in Japanese only - most Japanese restaurants do not have open windows looking out onto the street and to enter you have to pass under a cloth banner and then slide open the main door. Needless to say that if your Japanese is poor they can be quite intimidating places. Thankfully at the point where tempers were beginning to fray through hunger, aching feet and tiredness we found a lovely cafe right next to one of the smaller waterways in Kyōto. The cafe served Italian food which made ordering easy (spaghetti carbonara is the same in English and Japanese...) and we were able to sit outside next to the water. With a cold beer in our hands we soon forgot our woes and concentrated on the quite painful scene which was unfolding behind us. There was an American man on a first date with a Japanese girl and to say it was going badly was an understatement. He'd picked the restaurant (we weren't sure she was too keen on the food) and had then turned up late (on roller-blades?!). The conversation was extremely stilted (we think he may have been her English teacher) and it was a bit of a relief when we headed back to the hotel and could leave them to their clearly quite awkward evening!

Day two in Kyōto dawned with rain, and lots of it. Undeterred and covered in Gortex (a favourite look of Fiona's as you can imagine...) we headed out into town to do some sightseeing around Kyōto's many temples (there are over 1,600 Buddhist temples, 200 Shinto shrines and 3 Imperial Palaces in and around Kyōto!). We headed back towards Gion to visit Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most well known temples in Kyōto. Kiyomizu-dera is built on a hillside overlooking Kyōto and the main hall is supported by 139 wooden pillars. As well as being a beautiful building in itself, Kiyomizu-dera also affords great views back over downtown Kyōto. Because of the rain the walk up to Kiyomizu-dera was quite a trek and when we got there we found what seemed like half of Japan's schoolchildren already taking in the views. Still, dodging round the children we managed to have a good look round ourselves. We also went down underneath the temple and had a look at the pillars which were quite impressive.

As we walked back down into town the rain was still pouring down and our plan to visit more of Kyōto's temple soon disappeared, replaced by one where we tried to stay as dry as possible for the rest of the day. We therefore had a look around some of the art and craft shops - Kyōto is known as one of the best places in Japan to buy traditional pieces such as pottery, paper and cloth. One of the places we looked into was a gallery selling traditional art. The owner was very accommodating to the wet gaijin he found dripping round his shop and we were soon the proud owners of a Japanese painting which we were told was around 400 years old. Although the rain had held off for a while before we headed into the gallery, it was back with a vengeance once we came out again. We therefore scurried back to the hotel trying to keep our picture dry as best we could. Trudging round in the rain is never that fun so as a pick-me-up we decided to stay warm and dry in the evening and went to the cinema (we'd run out of Will and Grace DVDs by now...) via a burger place. The film was good (the Producers) and thankfully by the time we came out the rain seemed to have stopped for good.

Unfortunately, on our third day in Kyōto Fiona woke up feeling really quite unwell. As if feeling rotten wasn't bad enough, it had also stopped raining and the sun had come out! Having gone out and got some supplies for Fiona (who would be staying in bed to try and recover) I headed out into Kyōto to look around more of the town and see some of the temples we'd missed the day before. I started out at the Imperial Palace which was impressive if a little cold and grand. They were also preparing for one of the annual festivals in Kyōto which meant most of the grounds were taken up with workers, chairs, barriers etc. From there I moved on to the Shoren-in temple which is famous for the painted screens it has from the 15th and 16th centuries. The temple was very picturesque with beautifully painted screens dividing the rooms and tatami mats on the floors (no shoes, of course). A large number of the rooms were set around a lovely garden and a lot of the visitors simply sat and contemplated the views out over the garden.

I spent most of the afternoon looking at the garden myself and the beautifully painted screens before wandering back through town in the sunshine to see how Fiona was doing. Although better Fiona wasn't quite up to more sightseeing. By now I was feeling a bit templed-out so we agreed that I would see an early evening show at the cinema and if Fiona was up to it she would meet me afterwards for dinner. Thankfully Fiona was there after I came out of the cinema and we had another nice dinner at the Italian restaurant we'd visited on the first night (Fiona wasn't feeling up to anything more adventurous than pasta).

Because of how fast and efficient the trains were, added to the fact that they were all free with our passes, taking day trips in Japan couldn't have been easier. Having seen most of Kyōto, for our last day we decided to head to Osaka. We'd chosen Osaka because of its famed castle and its aquarium, said to be the best in Japan. After a quick trip on the train (less than an hour) we arrived in Osaka. We'd decided to visit the aquarium first and then head over to the castle before having a look at the downtown area. After a quick lunch at a cafe we jumped on the metro and headed over to the west of the city to see the aquarium. Osaka's aquarium is the largest in the world by volume of water (over 11,000 tons) and unlike most other aquariums I've been to, is built vertically. You start at the top of the building and then gradually work your way down through the different levels. One of the things this means is that you can see the tanks from different perspectives, for example, there was a tank with seals and sea lions in it which was okay from above - you got to see the animals moving around their pen and diving into the water - but fascinating from below where you could see how they swam and moved underwater. The Japanese fascination with taking photos of everything was also very much in evidence at the aquarium. In front of every tank there were several people taking pictures with their phones (camera phones appear to have replaced real cameras as the weapon of choice for the Japanese when taking photos) deleting and then retaking them endlessly. By dodging through all these David Baileys Fiona and I managed to see all of the tanks including the largest tank dedicated to the Pacific Ocean. This Pacific Ocean tank had an enormous 5m long whale shark inside, although the shark didn't seem the happiest thing in the world (it had the folded over top fin that most captive killer whales seem to have). The tank the whale shark was in was certainly huge by aquarium standards, but the whale shark could only swim in one direction for about 15 seconds before having to turn round and swim back again. There was also a poor sun fish (a huge fish which looks like it has been put together wrongly) which was in a tank sectioned off with nets so it had only a couple of metres in which to swim. Seeing these very large creatures stuck in such small areas was certainly depressing, particularly when Fiona and I had seen so many animals on the trip roaming around their natural habitats. Despite this, one of the exhibits we did enjoy though was the tank of spider crabs. The Japanese spider crab is the world's largest and they are absolutely enormous! The one we saw must have had pincers a good 4ft long with a huge body too. They move incredibly slowly and were fascinating to watch as they speared dead fish off the floor and slowly chew bits off.

After the aquarium we got back on the metro and headed east to see the castle. When the castle was being built the Japanese warrior and statesman who built it, Hideyoshi Toyotomi asked for the feudal lords in the surrounding provinces to show their allegiance by sending the largest stones they could to help build it. The largest stone was sent by Hideyoshi's general, Kiyomasa Kato and measured 19 feet high and 47 feet wide - maybe the most extreme example of sucking up to the boss that I have ever heard of... The Castle itself resembled a very large and solid looking pagoda with huge walls and a moat surrounding it. We strolled around the castle surrounds for a while, including the flower show being held there, before heading back into the centre of Osaka to go on the ferris wheel which sits on the top of one of the city's shopping centres, HEP Five. Finding the ferris wheel was easy (it's not easy to miss a giant red ferris wheel sitting on top of a shopping centre, even for us) and the view from the top was very impressive. By now though we were tired and hungry so we hopped back on the next train to Kyōto.

We'd promised ourselves a curry on our last night in Kyōto as our guidebook had recommended a curry restaurant not too far from where we were staying. In line with everywhere else we'd tried to find using our book the restaurant turned out to be nowhere near the little mark on the map, however, just at the point we were going to give up looking (and when the expletives damning the book were in full flow) we found the restaurant, the Ashoka. The curry turned out to be excellent, as good as any we'd had on the trip so far (Fiona here - even better than the Ashoka in Glasgow!) - they even had Cobra beer which we hadn't had with a curry for absolute ages! Suitably stuffed we wandered back to the hotel to pack up ready to move on the next day to Kōbe.
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