Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kyoto: The City of Shrines

Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes. They were received, and appreciated. I woke up at 5am feeling pretty good on my 30th birthday. Dustin, Phil and I were scheduled to catch the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo station at 7am and wanted to give ourselves ample time in case anything were to go not-so-according-to-plan on our way there. Things, it turns out, went not-so-according-to-plan almost right off the bat as we left the hotel to discover all of the auxiliary subway stops were closed at that time of the morning. So we had to hoof it to the main Shinjuku station entrance above ground instead of taking the nice, warm, slightly more direct tunnels. When we got to the station, we could not find the line we planned on taking to Tokyo station, the Marunuchi line. It turns out that line was almost all the way back towards our hotel just inside one of those closed auxiliary entrances. Luckily Phil has become some sort of Tokyo subway samurai, and got us onto another line which got us there in just about the same amount of time it would have taken on the other line. We got to Tokyo station with time to spare and snagged some breakfast at a convenience store while waiting for the train.

The Shinkansen is the fastest train in the world, and visually it accepts the challenge by looking like a gleaming white ground-based space shuttle. The Hidari line runs at an average of 270 kph from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka, and stops for about 1 minute in Kyoto. The ride was a little under 3 hours long, and is a very good length for writing blog entries…

Kyoto, on a large scale, is not as awe-inspiring as Tokyo. It’s sort of a brown city, mixing old style Japanese buildings and Sky rises, without the glamour and bustle of Tokyo. The joy of Kyoto comes from the sheer number of shrines and monuments. These hidden treasures pepper Kyoto but are often difficult to catch from a glance at the skyline.

The two easily spotted landmarks are the Kyoto Tower, an absolutely horrible piece of modern architecture that scars the city line. It looks like the Space Needle in Seattle, only much much uglier. The other noteworthy skyline feature is the To-ji pagoda, the largest in Japan, which we did in fact visit. But more on that later.

Day 1 in Kyoto started with a taxi ride to the north side of Kyoto to see its most spectacular shrine, Kinkaku-ji, the golden shrine. This moniker is not just a flashy title. The shrine at Kinkaku-ji is made of gold. We arrived at the temple with the perfect lighting conditions, and the shrine was glowing from the sunlight, creating a magnificent reflection in the pool below it. We circled the shrine along a path through the manicured grounds (there were at least two monks sweeping the forest at the entrance, I kid you not), then left that temple and caught a taxi back into central Kyoto for our next stop, Nijo-jo.

Nijo-jo is a castle that the Shogunate created in the 17th century when the military and the emperor were rattling sabers at each other. They say in the brochure that it is bigger and better appointed than the actual Imperial Palace at Kyoto, which is not open to the public at any time. It is a very large complex, with intricate gardens, ponds, and is home to various giant koi and some huge king herons, who more or less ignored our presence. The gardens are supposed to be extra impressive during the spring, when the cherry and plum blossoms are fully in bloom.

Unfortunately we picked the wrong day to visit the castle, as the actual interior space of the castle proper, which is supposed to be pretty impressive, was closed for New Years. It was going to be open the next day, but we had already paid admission before we discovered this, and as you’ll see in the next blog post, January 5th was a very long day, even without the castle.

After Nijo castle we walked into downtown Kyoto and checked into our hotel. We’d been carrying our small day-trip bags through the sites thus far, so it was nice to unload our crap and sit for a few minutes before heading out again.

The first stop after our hotel intermission was the Kyoto food market. We managed to stay our wallets and stomachs, knowing that that evening we had a special meal planned, but let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. There was a smorgasbord of food vendors selling everything from mochi cakes to roasted chestnuts to fried tofu on a stick. The crowds were big, but nowhere near the throngs of the Tokyo streets.

As the afternoon progressed we made our way to Gion, the Geisha district, which straddles the Kyoto quay at the river. Gion is representative of the old style of Japanese apartments, and is also the neighborhood where the Geishas used to ply their trade heavily, pre-World War II. Many of the shops were still closed for New Years, but as the sun went down, we managed to get a pretty decent impression of the neighborhood. We even managed to spy one geisha in a tea shop, serving her clients with the traditional demur of her training.

Our last stop of the evening was a restaurant very near Yasaka-jinju, one of the shrines we would visit on the following day. The restaurant specializes in a popular style of Kyoto cuisine called Kaiseki, which is an eighteen course meal that usually accompanies the traditional tea ceremony. It turns out that to experience the true full Kaiseki we needed to make reservations (thanks for dropping the ball on that one, Rough Guides) but we were allowed to have a shortened version that ended up being more food than we could eat anyway. We started the meal by removing our shoes and awkwardly attempting to sit in the kneeling position customary in that style of restaurant. Having not practiced sitting in that way since childhood like the Japanese guests that frequent the restaurant, we were squirming within minutes and had to settle for the less elegant cross-legged alternative. The highlight of the meal came early on, with the restaurants specialty of tea-soaked dried cod and yam. It was profoundly good. The fish had a unique and complex flavor, and the bones were so tender after the drying and reconstituting, that you could eat them along with the fish without even noticing them. The rest of the meal consisted of tempura, tofu sashimi, mocha rolls, three kinds of soups and some other dishes I can’t even remember at this point. It was definitely an unforgettable birthday dinner.

Afterward we bought some sake and beer and waddled back to the hotel room where we rested for the next day, which I would like to call “Shrine-a-thon 2010.”

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