The last time I was in Japan I did not leave Tokyo. This time I vowed would be different. Before I left Canada I bought several Japan Rail passes, and I was ready to explore.
After consulting with my peeps over here, and with Simon’s help tracking down a room (it seems autumn is a difficult season to your last minute!) I made plans to spend my first weekend out in Kyoto. Saturday morning I redeemed my first JR pass and boarded the 11:03 Shinkansen (bullet train) on the Osaka Line. I was in Kyoto at 1:44, having enjoyed the train ride even though I was working on a report.
I have stayed in enough ‘western style’ hotels to choke a horse, and the Tokyo Efficiency hotels are way too cramped. I reserved a Ryokan- a very traditional Japanese room, that looks very much like the ones you see in movies depicting the times of the Shogunate. I arrived after a short walk from the train station and was welcomed by the front desk, and a bellhop in traditional Japanese attire carried my bag to my room on the sixth floor. Upon entering the room I removed my shoes in the foyer, and walked into the tatami room. There was a table with a tea service, and that was it. I loved it.
Notice I didn’t say anything about a bed; in a traditional ryokan the maid comes in the evening, moves the table to the side, and sets up your bedding on the tatamis. Spectacular!
Before I left Tokyo I tried to book a number of bus tours, but was informed that I was too late. Oh well, right? Well it turned out to be for the better, because I was able to book the exact same tours at the Kyoto Train Station for much less money. Woot!
The evening tour would involve a very traditional Kyoto Cuisine dinner. They tell me that because Kyoto is surrounded by mountains it was difficult to get fresh seafood in, and because of that the chefs are tasked with creating wonderful dishes that are simpler than you would find in other areas. The chef at our restaurant did a magnificent job – both the presentation and the taste was fabulous!
Our next stop was Gion Corner, where we got to experience seven forms of Japanese art and culture in one sitting. The show is designed to not only expose gaijin (foreigners) to the beauty of Japanese culture, but also to show a generation of Japanese growing up in a modern society their roots.
The show started with the emcee asking the audience for volunteers to experience the Japanese tea ceremony, and my hand shot up. Two of us got to experience it, with the Tea Master and her apprentice working hard to make sure the experience was highly authentic. We were shown how to turn the cup, and how to hold it in both hands.
As we sat in the tea corner, the next two sets of artists took to the main stage: Two women playing an instrument called a koto (a 13-stringed instrument that lies flat and is strummed with the fingers) played, while two other women took turns arranging flowers. It had never occurred to me that flower arrangement could be a performance art, but for a culture that for centuries has revered the beauty in simplicity, I suppose it makes sense. These two pairs worked side by side for the next several minutes.
When this group left the stage the next musical act came on. The gagaku is a style of music that was played exclusively in the ancient imperial court, and as such never gained the widespread popularity of other arts. While the music did not appeal to me, I found the costume of the conductor (who was almost dancing) was amazing, and well worth the show.
Once the Gakaku left the stage we were introduced to a Japanese comedy troupe. It is easy to imagine that there would be a language barrier to understanding, and at first there was. Three men in kimonos came onto the stage in turn, and after a few minutes the language fell away, and their performance triumphed. They were a hilarious hit with the mostly foreign audience!
Next came the Maiko dancers. Apprentice geishas, these dancers are meant to be flawless in their beauty and movements. As you might imagine, I took a couple of pictures… along with the videos!
The last performance was a form of puppetry that I had never imagined before. Three men came onto the stage dressed entirely in black – two of them were hooded as well – in control of a single marionette-cum-Muppet. I confess that I did not follow the story line very well, but I was enthralled by how the three men worked in unison to control this person (and they did such a great job of bringing her to life that I thought of her as a person). She walked across the stage, then climbed the tower, and it was easy to forget that she was made of wood.
The following day I woke at a reasonable hour and after getting breakfast I went on my second tour. We were to visit three temples and shrines, and each was incredible to see.
It struck me as our tour guide spoke (okay, as the translation played in my ear) that nearly every site we were shown was on the World Heritage or National Treasures or some other fancy list. However when you see the spots we visited it is no wonder… Kyoto is absolutely breathtaking.
The picture of me near the Golden Shrine is not the best picture I have taken, and was indeed taken by a fellow Canadian I met from another tour. He and his wife were in from Vancouver, and seeing that I had a good camera as well, they were happy to let me take a picture of them with their camera, and I let them take one of me with mine.
Unlike many parts of Japan, I am told that Kyoto was spare the destructive power of the U.S. Army during World War II. Consequently many of the sites date back to the days of the Shogunates. Unlike tours I took in Tokyo, when they mentioned that a temple had been rebuilt after the original had been destroyed by war, that was was usually hundreds of years ago. It is no wonder that there are so many sites recognized internationally and by the Japanese as Heritage sites.
Ginkaku-ji Shrine was built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a retirement villa in 1982 (ten years before Christopher Columbus set sail for ‘India’). Walking around, you can see that the Shogun (military ruler, and separate from the Emperor) knew how to live.
Our last stop of the tour was the Kiyomizudera Temple, and while it was also a World Heritage muckety-muck, I was more interested in observing the people.
We were there on a Sunday, and it was an absolutely gorgeous day outside. I suppose these factors contributed to a plethora of Japanese visiting the temple for religious reasons. When I think of dressing up for synagogue I always think of putting my best suit on (my Saturday best?). Here they dress up as well, but their outfits are not western. And so there were a plethora of Japanese women (and quite a few men) in their traditional kimonos.
From what I was told, no visit to Kyoto would be complete without experiencing the special and unique sweets they make. Made by hand, they are difficult to describe… other than absolutely heavenly. Depending on the variety they can have macha or sesame or chocolate or any of a dozen other fillings, and the ones I tasted were magical. I brought some back to the office as Omiyage and they were extremely well received… possibly even moreso than the Quebec Maple Candy I brought when I arrived.
All in all I had a wonderful time in Kyoto, and strongly recommend spending a few days there the next time you find yourself in Japan!