Don't look the monkey in the eye!

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Our train to Kyoto was only 30 minutes so it almost felt like we were cheating on this location change, we were far more used to 24 hour trains in China. Osaka had taught us that we had to lower our expectations as to how much we could fit into our days so we made a list of our priority to-do's.

Given that Japan was so expensive we had been creative with our accommodation and here we had booked a self catering apartment.  Little did we realise what a treat this was going to be. Just 10 minutes from the train station, overlooking one of the most prominent 5 tier pagodas in Kyoto and best of all we had our very own kitchen and washing machine!  It is unbelievable how having your very own washing machine is such a treat, I was like a kid in a sweet shop and washed every item of clothing we owned, even the clothes I had lovingly hand washed only days earlier!  One odd thing about this apartment is that whilst we had a kitchen and a kettle, we had no pans, plates or cutlery.  Luckily though we were directed by the apartment staff to what was soon to become our favourite shop in Japan.  Daiso or 100yen world.  Shelves and shelves of all sorts of excitement and all for less than 1.  So armed with a tiny pan, paper plates, cutlery, spaghetti, a tin of tomatoes, 2 onions, a garlic and some bread and butter I created the first proper home cooked dinner since we left France.  It was not going to win me a spot in Masterchef, but boy did it taste good and felt so good to be in control of my own dinner.  The apartment was not without its oddities, the best was the smallest bath I have ever seen which also happened to have a TV in it.  Also this was a mezzanine apartment so just to lovingly remind us of our nights on trains across China we had to navigate a ladder, not the best for nimble knees but this apartment was so comfortable and such a treat from small hostel rooms it was our favourite stay yet.

So our first outing in Kyoto was to Arashiyama, this a sleepy little town 30 minutes from Kyoto, this quaint little town with a river and tree covered mountains had temples and man powered rickshaws and had the same feel as Yangshuo in China, it even has the same cormorant fisherman in the summer.  Our reason for visiting Arashiyama was for the Monkey Park.  Never one to miss out on an animal encounter this sounded too good to be true. We made our way through the town and we seemed to be the only tourists not heading to the temple.  I knew the monkey park was up a hill as it offers amazing views over Kyoto but I didn’t realise quite how much of a hill.  160 meters above sea level to be precise, but 30 minutes of switchbacks and steps through jungle paths led us there.  As we reached the summit I began to wonder if this was such a good idea.  All the way up there are signs telling you not to look the monkeys in the eye.  That seems easy enough until you are faced with 20 monkeys all sat looking at you.  Luckily we were ushered straight into a big wooden shed.  Basically the humans were caged and the monkeys were running free.  For 1 you could buy a bag of food and the monkeys would cling to the fence and would lean through to gently take the food out of your hand.  Again here it was quite hard not to look the monkeys in the eye and I think I may have upset one as it made some crazy monkey noises and showed me its teeth.  At this point I was so pleased to be in a cage.  One Japanese tourist got caught off-guard holding his bag of monkey food too close to the fence and the monkey with reactions like lightening was off sat eating a bag of apple laughing at the stunned looking tourist.  They were so gentle, just their little fingers gently rubbing yours as they took their treat.  It was amazing to see animals in their own environment free to roam. The humans were also free to roam and it was quite a relief that the monkeys totally leave the humans alone, so we could stand in the midst of them taking in the amazing view over Kyoto.  By pure luck we had timed our visit for feeding time, suddenly music started blarring and all the monkeys closed in on where we were standing.  The staff came out with buckets and started throwing grain and chestnuts on the ground.  I quickly caught on that chestnuts are the monkeys favourites, the problem with chestnuts is that they roll. Therefore when a chestnut rolls towards your feet an excited monkey is not going to be far behind, so funny.  As became the norm with our time in Japan, the lovely sun suddenly vanished and the heavens opened so we said our goodbyes to the 130 macaque monkey friends and descended back down the mountain.

Our next outing we decided to opt for a tour to get as many sights in as possible, so we would spend the morning doing the main attractions in Kyoto and the afternoon we would visit the nearby town of Nara.  The morning tour was nothing much to write home about but this is possibly because we have seen more temples and castles in the last 3 months than most people see in a lifetime and we are probably not really appreciating how amazing they are.  First up was the Nijo Castle, this was built in 1603 and was originally the residence of the Shogun (hereditary military dictators in Japan).  As with most castles, temples and museums there was no photography allowed inside, but we were ushered around at light speed by our tour guide.  The coolest thing about this castle is the floor.  As  you walk around the palace the floor makes the most amazing squeaking noise, a bit like birds chirping which is I think why it is called a Nightingale floor.  The floor is specially designed so that the flooring nails rub on a clamp causing the noise which was used as a security system to ensure that no one was sneaking around the palace.  Next up was the Golden Pavillion, which is a Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha.  The top two floors are coated with gold foil which makes the pavilion gleam.  We were lucky enough to have timed our visit to Japan during one of its best seasons.  Basically it has two, in Spring for one week the cherry blossoms bloom and in Autumn the maple leaves turn amazing shades of yellow, orange and red.  We were there during this change and the leaves were just starting to change colour making the landscape stunning.  Our final stop in Kyoto was the Imperial palace, as with everything in Japan this is a rebuild as everything seemed to get burned to the ground at some point during history.  Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years and housed the Emperor until he relocated to Tokyo in 1869.  The imperial palace has now been preserved as a tourist attraction ever since.

We had a stop for lunch and finally got to try some of the food that we have been looking at in the windows of all the Japanese restaurants and boy are we pleased we got this for free and didn’t spend 20 trying it out.  Other than the rice and tempura vegetables everything tasted a bit like it was made from wax, eugh!

So for the afternoon we were off to visit Nara, the home of the Todai-ji Temple, this is the largest wooden structure in the world and it is the home to the biggest cast broze Buddha in the world.  At 48.9ft tall he is some Buddha.  On new years day the windows in the front of the building are opened so Buddha can look out, which is quite cool.  This temple had a great feel to it, with incense and candles burning it reignited our joy of temples (for a while anyway).  However as cool as the Buddha and big wooden building were this was not our main reason for coming to Nara.  Nara is a town over run with over 1,200 little deers called Sika Deer.  The deer are very tame and were considered divine and sacred, but after WWII their status was reduced to Nation Treasure!  So in the park outside the Big Buddha there are rows of food stalls, not selling food for tourists but selling deer biscuits.  This was a no brainer why would we possibly not spend 1 to feed these amazing animals. They were so tame that you could stroke them and take photos and they were more than happy.  How things change when you introduce deer biscuits into the equation.  I foolishly went full speed ahead and bought two packets, one for Tim and one for me.  Next thing I am surrounded by a heard of small deer all waiting for a biscuit.  I say waiting, it was more like stalking and nuzzling until I threw them.  Tim was laughing from a distance telling me to put them in my pocket, my fear was that the deer would follow them into my pocket so the greedy ones closest to me got all my biscuits.  Once free I finally managed to get Tim his packet of biscuits, not it was my turn to stand on the side lines laughing as he is over run by tiny deers.  His genius idea of putting the biscuits in his pocket was brilliant and left him smeared in deer snot as they tried to nuzzle their way into his pocket, heh heh heh! Sadly it was time to get the bus back to Kyoto, but not without a few more deer strokes.

Our final outing in Kyoto was to Gion, this is the most exclusive Geisha district in Japan, although here they call themselves Geiko which means a woman of the arts.  There are now only around 2,000 practicing Geiko in Japan.  Geisha have been associated with prostitution, but this is not the case in Gion, they perform music, singing or dancing during tea ceremonies.  We didn’t know how to go about having a tea ceremony and very much doubted that we would be able to afford one so instead we took to 'Geiko Hunting’  we basically walked up and down the street of tea rooms in the hope of getting a glimpse.  Having done our homework we knew that between 4pm and 6pm was a good spotting time as it is end of shift and true enough we got a few glimpses of geiko’s hopping out of and into taxi’s.  Once we got our senses honed we worked out that a taxi pulled up outside a tea room meant Geiko collection, so Tim got a spot right behind the taxi and waited, ad waited and waited.  Annoyingly the Geiko took so long by the time they emerged for their taxi a massive crowd had formed, but we still got a glimpse and a photo or two.  It was a bit like being a wildlife photographer waiting for them to emerge, I got so star struck when one popped out in front of me I forgot how to work my camera and just stared in awe.  It is quite cool to have seen them up close even if we did feel a bit like stalkers!

Sadly that’s Kyoto done and I have to leave my kitchen and washing machine and get on the Bullet train to Hiroshima.

Remember – Don’t look the monkey in the eye!
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