City of the geisha (not that we actually saw one)
Trip Start Jan 31, 2006
101Trip End Dec 11, 2006
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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:
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
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
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
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
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'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.