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Kyoto by bullet train. Got settled in at my traditional Japanese
inn, Ryokan Hinomoto, with a little gracious help from the
proprietor, who came down to rescue me from the payphone in front
of the corner store. Then I went to Chishaku-in temple. It was the
first really traditional temple I visited, and I really enjoyed
it. As I've read about, the atmosphere of the old building,
surrounded by its immaculate and beautifully sculpted garden, was
incredibly peaceful. And when I heard the tone of the prayer bell,
it was very moving. Touring the inside of the building I felt like
an intruder. The signs weren't very clear, so I worried about
whether I had wandered off the path into "restricted
territory." But I just tried to keep a low profile, and I
made it out without being scolded.
Chishaku-in temple, with its peaceful garden and pond:
One of the beautiful screen paintings from a prayer room inside
Chris came that evening. Before picking up Chris I tried to use
the Internet, but didn't quite have time. On my way into the
Internet cafe I saw two arcade games I've never seen before.
They're linked together. One is the "play the drums for the
rock band game" (with an actual electronic drum kit)
accompanied by the "play guitar for the rock band game"
(with two detachable fake guitar units). Very Japanese...
We headed out for dinner on Pontochi-dori, a historic street in
the center of town. (On the way we spotted Crab-zilla!) Pontochi-Dori is
a long and very narrow street fronted by traditional wooden
buildings housing many restaurants, bars, and even geisha houses.
We spotted a few geisha on our way, fully made-up in white face
paint, kimono and sandals. For dinner we discovered a great
place--the highlight of the meal was a great serving of sashimi. I
had my first squid and octopus sashimi and did a repeat
performance on sea cucumber. After dinner we dropped by the
Rub-a-Dub, a reggae bar supposed to be a great hang-out joint for
ex-pats and locals.
The night's final adventure came when we returned to the inn and
tried to fit my very big brother up this tiny little staircase:
...and then Chris made himself comfortable on his futon:
...but we didn't go to sleep without checking out Japanese pay TV!
up early to accomplish a lot in Chris's one full day in Kyoto. For
breakfast we hit Starbucks, which I mention only because of this
woman we met there. She was two tables away from us, American or
at least ex-pat of some kind, and reading an English-language
newspaper. I asked her where she got it, but I was really hoping
she would just give it to us when she finished. Indeed she gave it
to us, but then demonstrated a desperate need for some English
conversation. We were very polite even though we had no interest
in hanging out with another American. Still, we gave every
possible polite signal that we weren't up for a big chat, and yet
she stayed with us for ten or fifteen minutes telling us all about
how sick she was of living in Japan and how desperate she was to
get out. I had mentioned that we wanted to see if the Lakers had
played, and she insisted on checking for us in the newspaper she
had given us. (It turned out they hadn't played that day.) This
was to be our first of a number of experiences where we realized
that there's a big demand for English conversation in Japan, from
many sources--lonely ex-pats, girls looking for gaijin husbands or
that wild foreign romance, people wanting to practice their
English for work or school, etc...
Chris was grumpy that morning, but at least he had a cute little
After breakfast we went to Kinkaku-ji, the temple with the golden
pavilion. The neatly groomed sand garden was disturbed only by
The golden pavilion was very beautiful, even though it was
the middle of winter and a dull, gray day. It must be amazing in
the more hospitable months:
You say you want a close-up shot? That's not a rooster on
top--it's a phoenix:
I think Chris was pausing to contemplate the meaning of life, but
he may just have been tired:
Even without the pavilion the garden and the central pond were
Next we visited Ryoan-ji, a temple with a famed zen rock garden.
The garden is composed of white sand or gravel, raked around
fifteen rocks scattered throughout the an area of 30 by 100 feet.
I won't include a picture here, because it would disappoint
on-screen. We spent a few minutes contemplating / staring at the
garden. I thought it was cool and thought-provoking, but Chris was
unimpressed. Before you get to the rock garden, you pass these
artifical ducks. Or... I thought they were artificial (kind of
like lawn flamingoes) until they started moving...
It's almost standard practice for there to be a shinto shrine on
the grounds of each buddhist temple. Ryoan-ji was no exception.
Chris and I paused to ponder why the Japanese put little pebbles
on top of the torii gates leading into shinto shrines. (The shape
of the torii shrine is drawn from the kanji character for
We were also confused by the pink aprons on the little stone gods.
(Doesn't Chris look confused?) Later on I learned that these gods
protect the spirits of children who die from being drowned in the
river by demons. Worshipers keep them dressed in these aprons and
often splash water on them in thanks.
The temple grounds also included what absolutely, positively must
be actual Dr. Seuss Trees!
After that we headed off toward the other side of town to see more
temples. On the way we spotted Sumo-zilla!
And we saw this pretty neighborhood shinto shrine. This was common
all over Japan: even in the middle of busy areas of Tokyo we would
run into little "secret" shrines tucked away between
buildings, and also big park-like shrines covered with trees and
playgrounds. They were a really nice feature of the cityscape.
Our final temple visit this day was Kiyomizu, high on a hill top
over the city with a massive forest of wooden columns support a
big temple floating out over a steep hillside. Compared to the
other temples, Kiyomizu was a bit... commercial. It was overrun
with tourists all buying charms ("successful childbirth
charms," "traffic safety charms," "love
charms," "traffic safety / love combo charms," and
so on) and trying to touch the "Love Stone" that
guarantees romantic success. (Actually, the love stone worked for
The hillside setting was impressive:
On our way in, Chris purified himself at the "dragon spit
The main temple building is absolutely massive and just
hangs straight out off the hillside on those big wooden columns:
Up in the "marketplace" at the top of the shrine, we met
this angry-looking little rabbit god:
The highlight? Why naturally it was the "Love Stone":
Another chance to purify? I guess I approve of any excuse for a
pretty fountain in this mountain setting:
For lunch we had some excellent ten-don (tempura shrimp and eel
over rice) at a restaurant run by a very friendly man who had
studied business for a year in Waco, Texas. He talked us into
eating our shrimp tails (garnished with "tea salt")
which was interesting but not even remotely worth repeating. We
shopped crafts at various stores. The best of the crafts are the
ceramics. They have lots of great plates, cups and other table
ware with beautiful designs and unusual shapes. We also found a
store that sold small cloth squares with beautiful designs on
them-there were two particularly beautiful landscape designs, both
handmade. The proprietor spoke very little English, but eventually
explained to us that we probably didn't want to buy these "fukusa"
because they are used by the Japanese only as traditional holders
for gift money at weddings and funerals.
For dinner we ate at a new-wave-ish version of a Kyo Ryori
restaurant, which is the traditional high-end cuisine of Kyoto.
That was only so-so for us gaijin. One dish seemed to have slime
as a main ingredient. And we mistakenly let them serve our
after-dinner rice topped with lots of little baby fish (ick).
After dinner we went to the Pig and Whistle, also an ex-pat hang
out. Two more English-conversation experiences. First we met two
Japanese girls who were (very aggressively) interested in a little
English conversation. They were so on-the-prowl for ex-pat
boyfriends it was a little spooky. Within twenty minutes they were
telling us what "nice guys" we were (despite the fact
that the conversation had been pretty primitive given our
inability to speak Japanese and their very limited English). At
that point we bailed out, figuring we shouldn't hold them back in
their mission to meet some ex-pats who were actually going to be
in Kyoto for more than two days. Then we hung out a bit longer and
briefly scanned a local ex-pat magazine where we spotted an ad
from an ex-pat looking for stimulating English conversation on any
topic, willing to pay $100/ hour!
It was quite a picture day, but we couldn't resist one more. What
is this place? A parking lot or a ferris wheel?
morning, the Starbucks ex-pat woman gave us a true lesson in
desperation for English conversation. As Chris and I were walking
towards Starbucks (around the same time as the day before), I told
him that if she were really desperate for English conversation,
she'd show up again at the same time hoping for another chat. But
Chris got it right when he said, "No. If she's truly, madly,
deeply desperate she'll show up and know the score of the Lakers
game." You guessed it--we sat in the other part of the cafe
to avoid her, but she tracked us down and started off our chat by
telling us that the Lakers had won. Whoah!
After breakfast we saw Ginkakuji, the silver pavilion temple, in
the morning. Then Chris took off on the shinkansen (after we
grabbed a tasty lunch of pork shu-mai and bao while sitting on the
ground in the train station).
Chris on the way into the grounds of Ginkakuji:
Carefully raked white-sand garden in front of a beautiful wooden
The silver pavilion!:
OK, that last one was from the brochure. One thing true about it
is that, unlike the golden pavilion of Kinkakuji, the silver
pavilion of Ginkakuji is not actually siver-plated. Here's a view
of the carefully shaped main sand garden with the pavilion in the
And a different view across the sculpted sands:
And a view from the top, with Kyoto in the background:
And me! With the temple in the background:
Beautiful flowers bloom in the dead of winter.
Don't I always take you behind the scenes? Here's one of the many
incredibly diligent gardeners and maintenance workers who make
these immaculate gardens possible. We saw them in many places,
picking leaves out of the cedar moss and arranging loose grains of
sand into the right spots.
Is this the third eye of Zen? I hope not, 'cause then
enlightenment means you get to see me taking a picture of you.
The Kyoto bus stops were very cool. They had these
automated bus tracking systems that would show you the status of
the incoming buses for each line. At the top you see that bus 5 is
three stops away, while at the bottom we can see that bus 102 is
one stop away!
That afternoon I walked a long stretch of the Philosopher's Road,
which passes many temples (and many tourist-oriented shops). Saw
Ishin-no-Michi, a monument to samurai killed in historic battles,
but I think also a right-wing site where they honor soldiers from
WWII. It had a very recently installed, small monument (113)
honoring the Indian judge who exonerated many Japanese soldiers of
war crimes. It was also a very ugly monument, with a push button
to activate a long and loud shpiel about the guy in English and
Japanese. Right next door to this site was a temple with a huge
statue of the buddhist goddess of mercy, dedicated to soldiers
killed in WWII. I was starting to get pretty disgusted at all of
this, but it's clearly the case that Japan has a substantial
right-wing, nationalist movement that eats this stuff up, and of
course the rest of the country is still pretty unapologetic about
the rape of Nanking, Pearl Harbor, etc... I guess I was just
caught off guard because I didn't realize what these sites were,
and I entered them thinking they were just traditional temple
grounds. Anyway, I also caught a beautiful view of the city from a
mountain-top shinto shrine. I visited Chion-in temple, with it's
huge gate building where you can enter a temple in the top of the
gate. I dropped by Shoren-in, of which I have no pictures because
I was exhausted at that point. But Shoren-in garden did have the
nicest covering of cedar moss I'd seen anywhere. And I toured many
of the shops, looking for art. I finally found one which had
really beautiful scroll paintings. (It was on the south east
corner of the intersection between the Philosopher's Road tourist
route and Sanjo Dori, which I mention just to be sure I don't
forget it, because I would definitely recommend it to others, and
I would visit it again if I came back to the city.)
This guy loves war criminals. (Ishin-no-Michi temple)
The towering gate of Chion-in temple: