Japan 2015 - Kyoto

This post was written a day late because, shockingly, the airport where I'm currently sitting is more comfortable and has better wifi than where I was staying last night. After my fun evening out in Himeji, I set off early in the morning to get to Kyoto as soon as I could. It was set to be a long journey, and I was anxious to be there for as long as possible. Kyoto is famous for its beauty and abundance of historical and traditional features. A fellow traveller I met in Himeji had told me that even though he'd spent three days there he wished it could have been longer. I'd seen pictures of its famous rows of torii gates, they've featured in anime and films and I couldn't wait to find them and soak up their serene presence. One of my favourite tracks from the band AIR is called Alone in Kyoto, I urge you to look it up, and was written for the film 'Lost in Translation' as the protagonist wonders around the quiet streets. So, with all that in mind, I was well ready for a great day, so long as I could fit it all in. I was prepared to return the day after if need be, but that would be tight. On my way through Himeji, bright and early, it was lightly misty, the sakura trees were dropping pink petals everywhere, and I saw a couple of interesting things. A heron landed on a tree ahead of me on a path, and I managed to snap it flying away as I approached:
And, being Monday, there were loads of school children, from 6 to 16, walking to their schools. Japanese schools have really smart uniforms and they were all walking on their own, from the train station where they'd alighted to their schools. It's so different to our schools!
After about two and a half hours on the trains, I arrived in Kyoto. In Japan, every train station has coin lockers where you can store luggage all day for 300 yen (£1.80); this has been really useful for me. I packed everything in a big backpack I borrowed from my sister, and it's naturally pretty heavy. I brought a second, lighter, backpack purely because I thought I might check the bigger one on the way home and use the smaller one as hand luggage, allowing me to bring back souvenirs. But as it happens that also let me carry only the bare essentials with me every day on my explorations! So, Kyoto. I was expecting everything I'd described above. A quiet, scenic, contemplative town. Sights like this waiting for those who knew the right places to go:
Well, when I first got out of the train station I was surprised to find myself in a pretty normal-looking modern town. There were wide roads with heavy traffic, tourists everywhere - and not the chinese tourists of Nara Park, but westerners looking very western.
There's an easter egg in that picture, by the way. A holy shrine for a different kind of person, someone more like me :P Keep reading if you can't spot it by yourself! When I followed the directions I'd prepared in advance to find some shrines and temples, I eventually found - sat amongst all the shops and busy roads and itself filled with stalls offering snacks and souvenirs for tourists - a sort of microcosm of the variety of places I'd seen already. Everything was surrounded by tourism, you were never out of eye-sight of modern shops, or signs written in English offering takoyaki (seems that's the quintessential must-try weird Japanese food, easily knocked up and served at a stall), or renovations, and the inescapable crowds. There's a little district - two streets really - which have been kept in a traditional style, but it was nothing I hadn't already seen at Mount Yoshino and was worse for the crowds. The shops were selling good tourist wares of a wide variety, and I did do a little shopping.
Past those streets I reached 'Kiyomizu Temple', which was one of the many attractions. It was like Todaiji but smaller. It was like Yoshino but less remote. It was like Shosha but less atmospheric. So I walked swiftly through the crowds, skipped the line to take your shoes off and gawk at the strange statues on display in a dimly lit room, and just snapped a couple of shots before moving on.
A short subway ride later, I made my way to Fushimi Inari, the famous row of dozens of bright orange torii gates. Now, I'd seen plenty of torii gates at this point, even some in long rows down paths, but I was still looking forward to this iconic site. Remember that picture of it above? There's a reason it's to the side. There's no way you're getting a picture down the length of the path without tourists getting in the way. This is what it's really like to be there:
So, another illusion shattered. It's right in the middle of another tourist trap, I think you had to pay to get to it, and there's simply no way anyone ever wandered past it on an idle stroll, or retreated to it as a quiet place away from the crowds in town or any of the silly pictures I had of it in my head. It was an interesting place, but I wasn't in the right frame of mind to enjoy it like other places I'd been. Moving on, I had a little side-mission to accomplish before heading to the next recommended site. A bit of a lengthy walk, away from the shrines and temples and into the thick of Kyoto town, walking along main roads, where no tourist should be, and I came upon my own personal holy place. I hadn't realised it until I stumbled across the fact, and I would never have guessed it with my naive picture of the place, but Kyoto is actually the town where a certain Japanese company was founded, and whose main headquarters are still located. Apart from the name on the building, there's nothing to show it - no shops or museums or anything for a pilgrim like me to enjoy, but still I was able to stand right outside the building where so many of my favourite video games have been, and continue to be, made.
So with a thrill at the thought that somewhere in that building the next Zelda game is being developed, Mewtwo is being made ready for release on Smash Bros, and who knows what other secret projects are being worked on for me to enjoy later on, I went off to find some lunch. Tonkatsu today! I've had something different every day so far. This was pretty 'basic' fare, my brother Matthew could probably have done better, but it was nice, and the price of a McDonald's. I like how every meal has all these bits to go with it, miso soup, green tea, a small side or two of some weird vegetable!
After lunch it was getting late and I contemplated heading back to Osaka. My final planned stop in Kyoto was going to be a bit of a challenge to get to, trains and then buses, and it would be getting dark soon. But I figured, what the hell, I'm here so I'll go. And I'm really glad I did! I got there 10 minutes before it shut, and in those 10 minutes got the experience I'd been missing all day. A unique, interesting, and properly presented (as in, not surrounded by crap) historical treasure. It had real presence, and even though I only had 15 minutes to go round, it was enough to soak it up and get some good pictures. Behold Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple!
So with Kyoto over on a high, I was happy travelling back to Osaka to find my final accommodation. I got back quite late and took a little while to find and come to terms with(!) where I'd be sleeping that night. I'd seen the pictures of the room online and they looked fine, but the building and the corridor were properly like sleeping in a prison! The doors were like cell doors, metal things that clanged firmly shut like they had to keep in violent murderers! I was happy to have my own room though, and did some internetting. It was in the middle of Osaka city, so I could pop out into the pouring rain and find a place to grab a late dinner a quick trip on the subway away. CHIKIN KA-RE (chicken curry), cheap and simple and filling.
All in all, I think Kyoto is a great place for people wanting to get as much 'Japan' as they can in as short a time as possible; it's tourist-friendly with Japanese food and souvenirs, and offers a variety of iconic sights. But for me, it offered nothing new and was less palatable for its popularity.

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