Shinkansen to Kyoto

Trip Start Dec 02, 2008
Trip End Jan 20, 2009

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Sunday, January 11, 2009


I Took the bullet train to Kyoto, it was a cool experience but after riding so many trains in Europe, it was old hat, even in Japanese. Once I arrived I had some issues finding my hostel. There were main cross streets, but there there were streets that were so narrow that one car could barely get down them, like paved alleys. The new look of the Kyoto Tower and modern train station stood out against the traditional look of the rest of the city. My directions said, "go down three streets past the temple." I didn't know if it was three big streets or just three little alley things. I ended up going way past the street and had to walk around with my laptop out looking for a wireless signal so I could find my way. When I arrived at the hostel, the host spoke great English, luckily the place accepted credit cards so I didn't spend any of my precious cash. After checking in the lady at the front desk tried to pick up my bag, I had to jump to stop her as it probably weighed as much as she did. Admiring her intent, I handed her my laptop bag and went upstairs. My room was a simple room with tatami mats, about 7 feet square. there were cubbyholes in the walls to store some of my things and a hot water maker with green tea. In the corner was a folded futon bed. And that was about it.

It was good to get internet and just sit for an afternoon. I touched base with my parents and Karla and really let the events of the last month sink in. Just after dark I went exploring to find something to eat with my credit card. That is a bold statement in Japan and you will know how hard it is when I tell you that I settled for a Cub-O-Noodle and a beer at the Circle-K about a half mile from the hostel!


Kyoto is the old capital of Japan until 1868, and is still the cultural capital in a sense. People in Kyoto embody the qualities and practically define what it means to be Japanese. There are so many temples in the city that you would faint if you tried to see them all in one day and by the end one would be rather shrine-shocked. The city has a very simple subway that runs north to south, and east to west across the heart of the city. A very efficient bus system picks up the slack.

Here is the game I had to play. I have 3000 yen cash to my name, I  I bought a two-day unlimited bus pass, there goes 1000. I need 500 each for the two biggest temples in the city, they are cash only. There goes another 1000. That leaves me with the equivalent of about 8 US dollars to get around for two days on. This task is totally possible, except that I had not checked if the train station in Kyoto took Visa, just because the one in Tokyo took it does NOT mean that the Kyoto one will. I began to sweat, what if I got stuck in Kyoto? I actually formulated a plan to just hop on the Shinkansen without a ticket and pay when I got to Tokyo, the Japanese are so nice, they probably wouldn't even charge me extra. Sometimes I play the "dumb American" card when I travel, but I save it for real emergencies.

The next day I awoke to find that there was about an inch of snow on

the ground. A neat surprise that makes this game even harder to play. My first step was to confirm my fears that there was no way of getting money off of my credit card. I quickly found this to be absolutely true. I would have to really conserve what little cash I had left. I was shivering at the bus stop waiting for the first bus. The #80 bus came down he street. I looked at my map, no #80. oh well, I'll just get on, at least it's going in the right direction. The bus did go the right direction, for exactly 2 blocks, then turned and started going the wrong direction, starting to panic, and at the next stop I attempted to get off, showing my shiny new bus pass to the driver. He made a crossing motion with his forearms and said "city bus" pointing to a little picture of my bus pass with a red X through it. the bus was 220 yen no matter how long you rode it for. So much for conserving my money.

I found the correct bus and it to the Golden Pavilion "Rokuon-Ji" or "Kinkaku-Ji" as it's locally called, located just outside the city. It was very serene and peaceful at the entrance to the temple. The snow on the ground made for the perfect effect to the beautiful gardens. The Pavilion is built on the site of a 11th century When  I walked around the corner and first saw the golden temple reflected in the lake I was speechless for a moment. It really jumps out and grabs you. There have been extensive efforts to keep the gardens exactly as they were hundreds of years ago, you can really feel that when you visit the site. The temple was recovered with gold leaf in 1987 and now it shines as bright as it did when it was first built. I continued around the gardens and saw the tea room, the Shinto shrine, and the temple gift shop. By the time I left most of the mornings snow had lifted, I feel like I  got a very unique photo opportunity, being there when there was snow in the morning.

Without lingering too long I hurried along the streets away from the temple to the CORRECT bus stop so I could make it to the silver temple, just outside the city on the opposite side of town. The Silver Temple, locally called "Ginkakuji", was a 13th cenutry buddhist temple. This is the land where Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eight Muromachi Shogunate, lived out his retired years. I arrived at the silver temple to find that it was under reconstruction and mostly covered with scaffolding. But the other buildings and the Zen Garden were open so I walked around and took pictures, imagining what the temple looked like without scaffolding. When I left the Silver Temple, I started checking off as many free temples as possible, I first walked through Shimogamo-jinie Shrine and the Tadasuno-Mori, This is a heavily wooded park in the peninsula-like space where two rivers converge. It is said that the two rivers converging was symbolic of coming to an agreement and often people will go to that park because that was the place where "the truth could not be concealed." After walking though the park I decided to spend 200 of my remaining 700 yen on a McDonalds Double cheeseburger because DAMN they're so good.

*post note* Many people have tried to tell me how low I am horrible for eating McDonalds when I could be eating sushi. Hang on... for those of you who just scoffed at me, back up one second. At this point, I've been offshore and from home and land for about 75% of the last 6 months! I don't care if they have the best food in Asia, I don't care if Kyoto had the best food in the WORLD, all I wanted at that moment, was a tiny piece of home that I could bite into and not ponder what the ingredients are. Some people get homesick and cry because they want their mommies, I shed a tear of joy when I get a double cheeseburger after coming from offshore. That's just me.

I took the bus around the city and started seeing the East side of the city. I saw a large Pagoda and walked toward it. As I slinked through the narrow streets I saw many girls dressed up in kimono, most with full face masks on. I remembered that I had read in my Lonely Planet book that today was the "day of coming of age" or "Seijin Shiki". A party for all the people who are turning 20 in the following year. Wikipedia said this about it:

The age of majority in Japan is 20. The seijin shiki covers all those who will reach this age during the current school year, which runs between April and the following March. The ceremony is generally held in the morning at local city offices and all young adults who maintain residency in the area are invited to attend. Government officials give speeches, and small presents are handed out to the new adults.

The weather was busy and the streets were bustling with activity. I walked down to the main shopping district and saw the Yakasa Shrine. While walking I found myself behind a line of Buddhist monks. I guess In my mind a buddhist monk was someone who lived in a temple high on a mountian. (But that's as accurate as assuming a devout christian goes crusading around in armor.) The procession stopped at a number of businesses and sang little chants. Then delivered some sort of divine message to the proprieter of the shop, and continued on their way. I thought it was a very unique experience and I decided that THAT reason right there is why I would consider Kyoto the Cultural Capital, and Tokyo the Political Capital of Japan. By this time it was about 3 in the afternoon and the place was bustling with many people, and little saturday market style booths had been set up all along the entrance. Inside the shrine it was a busy scene, people washing, praying, buying small pieces of paper with fortunes on them and tieing them in groups to strings. I don't really understand what the tying was all about, but at the end of the day there were hundereds of these things tied to strings strung between poles located all around the temple. I'll see if I can post a picture, it's hard to describe.

My dogs were killing me! I grabbed some more cup noodles and things at the Credit Card Circle K on the way back to the hostel. Dinner, some tea, and a quick nap and I was good as new, ready to explore Kyoto at night. I made my way down to the Kyoto Tower and the Train station. The Kyoto Train Station was built in 1997 for Kyoto's 1200th anniversiry. It's a very modern structure and was met with praise and hesitation from the Japanese people when it was revealed. It is now the second largest train station in Japan after Nagoya Station.

I was walking through the station looking at the cool design when I walked past a group of kids, talking English! One of them caught my eye and gave me the "whassup" nod. Even though half of them were asian, they were all New York exchange students at the University of Tokyo. They were down in Kyoto for a weekend trip. I said kids, but actually they were college student. 18-20 years old. They invided me to come with them and I joined them at dinner, I only had a tea, there goes 100 more yen, I'm down to just pocket change now. It was just nice to meet some people from the states in a foreign. Normally people who would never associate with each other if they met on the strees in the States, could become friends for a night when traveling abroad. We had nothing more in common but a country and a language. They were business and marketing students. I felt old while I asked them all what they were going to do with their degree when they were done. I HATED when people asked me that! And here I am doing it. I guess when I was in College all I wanted to do was just get done, now that I'm done, I wish I had a better plan. But 'cest la vida. que sera, sera.

We wandered the streets and found a couple cool bars and a night club, they all pitched in their pocket money to get me into a cash-only club, I bought pitchers for the crew in thanks. I had a fun time and I'm sure to remember the evening for a while to come. The funny thing is, not a single one of them sent me an email or found me on facebook, even though they all said they were on facebook. I guess New Yorkers can have one-night friend-stands and not feel like they have to email them in the morning, hehehehe.


I awoke with a Headache, OUCH. Tea, yes, tea, black tea, that will do, almost like coffee... ahhhh I feel human again. I rolled over on the tatami mat in my room and despite feeling like I'd been hit by a truck, I planned my day. No time to dilly-dally when I only had two days here. Plus today's mission was seeing if I was going to be able to get home on my credit card, or if I would have to pull some evasive manuvers.

I stumbled out of the hostel, no snow today, thank god. I had scheduled a tour of the imperial palace for 11:00am and it looked like I would have to wait to go to the JR ticket counter afterward, because I was almost late already.
Nursing a hangover I made my way to the Imperial house where I was screened, passport checked, metal detector, etc. Then I was allowed into a small warming room while we waited for the rest of the tour group to arrive.
My initial impression was that the palace was very nice, but where were all the tall buildings? Why were the streets not paved? For being such an important place, it sure doesn't look very expensive.
Expensive is apparently relative.
The Imperial seat was moved to Kyoto in the 8th century, and stayed that way for 1000 years. The palace I toured was not actually the main palace, but actually the secondary guest palace where the royal family lived when their main palace caught burnt down. This happened surprisingly often when using candles as light.

Looking at the building design and seeing how corridors connected all the buildings, I could see how any small fire could destroy the whole place if not contained quickly.

We walked around the palace and learned about how there were 6 gates around the parimeter and each one was intended for different guests, depending on your status, you may enter through the servents gate, honorable guests gate, guests of the state gate, women's gate, head of state gate or the Emperors gate. We walked by some beautiful buildings with tatami mats and simple japanese paintings on the walls. these wall paintings were painted by a very famous japanese painter and though they are simple, they are considered to be some of the most priceless in Japan. There was a room with cherry blossoms on the walls, one room with cranes on the walls, and a third with painted tigers. The guests social status would determine which room you waitied in. The funny thing about it is that all three rooms were exactly the same size, the only difference was what was painted on the walls and the signifigance, which Is a cool concept that is very eastern to me. Signfigance value is something that Americans have yet to learn alot about because of the relative youth of our country. maybe when we get a few hundered years under our belt will we actuall value pasttimes and traditions.

There were several hundered years of Japanese architechture right next to each other because fires were constatntly burning down parts of the palace, and new styles were usually used to repair or expand the palace.
We walked through beautiful gardens and around to the room of the Emperor. Now, I've seen a lot of royal rooms in europe. But this seemed like the most simplistic royal residence I've seen ever. It's an open air room about 40X80 feet with a futon mat to sleep on, a priceless (but simple) tatami mat to sit on and a W shaped blind to get changed behind. That's about it.
It's definately something completely 180 degrees from Western.
Pretty simplistic, yet priceless to the Japanese people and Kyotoites.

I rode the bus back to the main street and strolled into the JR ticket office. "Crejito Cardo OK?", They smiled and nodded? YESSSS! I felt like I was in a Visa commercial or something. I did a little happy dance and booked my ticket to Narita to pick up Karla. I had won the game! I Made it 72 hours alone in Kyoto with only $30 cash and a Visa card almost nobody would accept. I went next door to the Circle K and bought cup noodles and a beer to celebrate.

The next morning before lunch I walked down to the Higashi Honganji temple, currently under wraps until 2011. The smaller building (the Amida Hall) was open, but the Founders hall at Shinshu Honbyo was completely covered while it underwent renavations.
This is the mother temple for Shin Buddhists, It's founder was Shinran Born in 1173 and died in 1262. And it is one of the largest Buddhist denominations in Japan.
I took off my shoes and walked in the smaller temple.
There were a few people praying or meditating, a small class was in session on one side of the temple. Priceless bronze and gold statues stood on the shrine at the front of the room. The floors were covered with Tatami mats and wood floors bordered the outside.
I walked along the covered pathway over to the founders hall, it was HUGE, and though I couldn't see inside I could imagine that it was as breath taking a structure as it's 12th century christian counterparts.
I walked back to the hostel and picked up my bags, somhow they had gone from heavy bags to ungodly heavy unrealistic obsticles.
"how did this happen" I said to myself as I stopped every 3 blocks to catch my breath. " I didn't have any money, I didn't buy anything, Why are my bags heavier"
It could have possibly been all the maps and brochures and little things that congragated at the bottom of my bag, that stuff adds up.
Finally on the Shinkansen I breathed a sigh of relief. What a crazy few days.
I had a soda and a cup noodle left over for my train ride, I had even done my homework and asked for hot water in Japanese. The cart service girl knew what I was asking for and filled my cup with hot water, I thanked her in Japanese and smiled to myself as complete immersion is starting to work for me.

To anyone going to Kyoto, a few words of advice:
1. Comfy shoes, or you will pay the price.
2. You need at least 2 full days to see the important stuff, but you could easily spend 4-5 days seeing all the sites in the city and surrounding areas.
3. Don't try to see all the temples in Kyoto, that's like trying to visit all the churches in Rome, it's just not possible. Pick the top ten and then see how you feel. After 10 temples in 2 days I was ready to be done with temples.
4. Take Cash Money, Visa is not everywhere you want to be.
5. With respect to #1, see if you can take slip on shoes, because you'll be taking them off and putting them on 100,000 times and it gets old if you have laces.
6. Bus passes = YES totally worth it
7. Subway passes = NO, Not worth it.
8. there are so many nice hostels in Kyoto, Don't stay in an expensive hotel. You won't get a bigger room, you'll just pay more.
9. There is a City bus system, and a bus company in Kyoto. Tickets for one are not good on the other, make sure you know what bus you're getting on, and that your ticket is valid.
10. Lonely planet guide books and phrase books. Don't expect them to know English. Learn to say Good Morning, please and thankyou, and "Can I have _______ please". They will come the rest of the way.

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