I’ll preface this whole thing with a simple summary: I had tons of fun in Kyoto.
The detailed version is as follows:
We’ll start at midnight on Friday. I got on the bus and, not surprisingly, it was a bit of a tight fit. Something about the way the seats were designed, it just seemed like there was never quite enough room. Not enough to lean back well. Too little to lean forward. Not enough space to slouch. Through perseverance, I did get some sleep, but I think adrenaline and excitement played a much greater role in getting me through Saturday.
When I arrived at the station (at least I was pretty sure it was the station, the conductor mumbled horribly) I found myself amongst large city block still sleeping through its Saturday morning. Number one objective: Find the train station. Luckily this was made easy by the sound of trains not too far off. I have found this sound a useful homing device for train stations (電車駅).I need to get a bus pass, so I went to the first, most helpful looking place I saw; “Information.” I thought it would be smooth sailing once I found the information booth. Not so. Language wasn’t a problem; it just seemed that the people knew almost nothing about the station (this was further proven later on). I eventually got the vague direction “Over by the bus terminal.” They were right, but considering the bus terminal was the side of a football field, this wasn’t particularly helpful. Around 7 AM I found the ticket booth which didn’t open until 7:30. Normally this would be an unwelcome delay, but I was hungry, so it became a needed snack time. Prunes and water for breakfast; not particularly decadent, but filling and such. So I ate prunes and got stared at by all the Japanese tourists as I waited for the office to open, and, when it did, I got my bus pass (actually 2, one for each day) like everyone else. Off to the races. So bus map in hand I headed out to what seemed like a nice group of temples. I got off the bus at the closest stop and followed a bunch of kids who I thought might be on a school field trip or something. They weren’t, and they were probably a bit creeped out that a foreigner (外人) followed them all the way up a winding, steep road to their school. I decided that I better use my tablet’s GPS at that point, and it informed me I was about a block off.
(Yes, these are the middle schoolers （中学生） I followed)
It was quite pretty and immaculately clean. I think somewhere on facebook I actually have a picture of a lady sweeping the mossy ground. This was not a unique event; I think all the most prominent gardens had people sweeping off their moss. At first I thought the painstaking effort was absurd, but on second thought it may be what fosters such a covering of moss. The leaves may block too much of the sunlight.
In the US, we often have graveyards behind old churches. No different here. Many of the old temples have graveyards of varying sized and age to accompany them. I wandered into one to find a woman sweeping off the pathways. Maybe the keeper, or maybe just a volunteer, but either way she seemed a little surprised and a bit delighted to see me. This has almost always been the case when I go to smaller temples. The attendants or nearby residents look a bit astonished, but I think they are glad that someone thinks their little shrine is worth the walk and a few pictures. As I wandered through the graveyard I found a crab on the path. This seemed more than a bit odd to me and I suppose she noticed. She came up and started to try to explain to me that they live in the runoffs from the hills. Fresh water, mountain crabs. How cool is that? And that isn’t all, I also found a walking stick like thing, which she was also very glad to come look at with me. As I wandered through the graveyard, I noticed a flute in the distance; the only word that comes to mind is surreal. Strolling through a graveyard in the morning cool, listening to the sound of a flute coming from nowhere to the beat of a broom-sweep, while watching crabs in a mountain stream can be described in no other way. Experiences like that are probably what makes me like the small, more out of the way shrines more. They seem more “authentic,” with people who truly care for them instead of simply being paid to take care of them. Of course, that doesn’t mean the touristy shrines are not without merit, but their merit often springs from their awe inspiring qualities rather than their indescribable atmosphere.
After this I wandered straight down to where there was another shrine. The one with the snake sign and the kids running down the stairs, both of which made great pictures. The most noteworthy thing from here was some sort of funeral ceremony going on. I just sat in the background (a bit out of sight) and listened to the monk do his chants. No idea what he said, but it reminded me a lot of the Gregorian chants at a Catholic church.
From there I did what I do best, got lost. I went off to the west somewhere and ended up at a shrine that led off into a hill. After getting a “Do you have any idea where you are?” look from a couple of teenagers (presumably coming from the school who’s bell I could hear), I decided it was time to pull out the GPS again.
I’ll skip all the fun yet singularly poor story-making walking I did.
Well I got to the shrine I aimed for and it was nice and all with a traditional Buddhist ceremony going on, but again, I ended up on the graveyard. This was not a normal graveyard. I got lost. Again. In a graveyard. The thing was a labyrinth; I knew the direction I needed to go to get out but the path was constantly winding, splitting and sometimes dead ending into a little embankment. I don’t know how you could find anyone in there without exact GPS coordinates, or with them for that matter, having a GPS didn’t help me. A gravestone half buried and I’m sure long forgotten cemented that idea for me.
Next I went somewhere, really have no idea which temple anymore, and found a, what I would guess to be turn of the century, aqueduct. Well I had to follow that as far as I could and the view was worth it. As a rule, always take the random path into the hills.
Kiyomizu temple (清水寺) was the truly large, tourist laden temple I went to that day. As mentioned before, what it lacked in atmosphere it made up in impressive architecture and views. By a nice stroke of luck, I got a guide for this place. She was a student who wants to become a tour guide and was offering to give free tours in exchange for the practice and small critiques of her English. A guide is a wonderful thing when you can’t read any of the signs. So she told me a bit about the temple and a few interesting little facts which is much more than I got from the signs written in high level Japanese. While looking of this temple’s balcony, I noticed that on one of the posts there was a praying mantis. Just sitting atop the post silhouetted in a grey sky. One of the best pictures I took, I think anyway.
The temple had an amazing view; that was what made it worth it. It overlooked the whole valley and, on the second night I returned just to take some pictures of the sun setting over the mountains on the other side. At the end, I wrote a little review of her English and her little group took a picture of us. Unfortunately, I neglected to get this picture and the only other one I have is grainy and dark. So, if you ever stumble across a pic of me and someone you don’t recognized, that might be it :p.
On the way down I bought to small paintings which, although probably not worth what I paid, seemed like they had a chance of being somewhat more unique than the stacks of postcards. With night setting, my hands full, and thunder rolling through the sky, it was time to head to the hotel. I almost got to the bus stop before it started raining. Little did I realized how much time I was going to spend wandering in that rain. I had worked out exactly where to get off by coordinating my bus map and GPS. I had the plan all worked out. I got to the right place, walked down the right street, no hotel. Maybe I was just one street off. Nope. Neither of the adjacent streets. Two streets? Nope. Then I resorted to about an hour of aimless wandering to no avail. Its 6 PM on a rainy Saturday night. Not the best time to be lost. Then I stumbled upon a few people working (upon further thought, I think they were preparing for the festival that I went to the next day). I decided to ask them if they had any idea where that hotel was. They didn’t, but, to my surprise, they just called the operator (or something like that) and found out where it was. At this point I thought I was going to have to try to listen to some long complicated directions for which I was going to be very thankful. I know I was always told not to get in the car with strangers, but I think I’m old enough to be ok now :p. He comes out with his keys and says, “Come, I take you there, just a few minutes.” I was tired, lost, and this guy seemed friendly. Off we went. In that five minutes I found out the he had a daughter studying abroad in London, which probably accounted for some of his sympathy for me. He dropped me off right in front of the hotel and never saw him again, but I should say that it was very nice of him and I hope (as I think he did) that anyone would do the same for his daughter. Being lost is only fun when you’re not feeling hopeless, and you feel a bit hopeless in a new town at 6PM unable to find your hotel.
The hotel was everything it said it would be; private room and bath room, a bed, and internet. On top of that I got a friendly owner who loved his job. I think he had lived there probably all or at least the vast majority of his life. He went on and on about where I should go, who I should see, and all his friends at each of these places. “I assume you’re going to the festival” he said. To which I replied, “What festival?” I lucked out. One of the most important festivals of the year was happening the next day. The Samarai festival (祭り) was Sunday at noon and you got tons of pictures of that.
I intended to do a few things that night. Find my departure place online, work out a plane, and wake up at 6 AM.
I almost got one of those done, waking up at 6:30. Sunday I hit all the big stuff. Kinkakuji (金閣寺), a big garden, Nijo Castle (二条城), the festival, and back to Kiyomizu for some night pictures.
As I have already written a lot, I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking from here. As I said, most of the big sights owe their fame more to their very presence than to the experience of being there, so the pictures speak quite well.
The garden, again, was immaculate. I will have to take you to one of these, mom.
Kinkakuji is kind of like the Vatican; it is almost too gaudy but a must see. The reflection pool was nice though.
Nijo castle was most interesting for its wall paintings, but there was no photography allowed, so you will have to live with the pictures of the outside.
The festival was much like a festival in the US. Full of dance, sounds, and wonderful outfits. It was also my first chance to really use my bigger lens.
After the festival, I headed back to the main bus hub to try to get to one last temple (Fushimi Inari.) It is a bit more out of the way and the buses would only run to that area for another hour so, with the 30-40 commute on top of a bus wait, I was risking getting left if I went. It turned out ok though. I went back to Kiyomizu to watch the sun set over the mountains on the other side. These are some of my favorite pictures.
From there, I had lots of time to waste so I just walked the whole way back to the station at a leisurely pace. I quite like walking now. I’ve done so much that it doesn’t really tire me and the sense of adventure, the time to think, and the people I see make it one of the best ways to spend my time. On the way I got a nice, cold glass of melon soda (which was delicious), and some milk tea at a café. I then spent an hour or so reading for homework at the café and the rest of my time at the train station (still reading for homework).
The bus back was infinitely better than the bus there. The extra 1000 yen ($13) was definitely worth it. If I take other trips, I might just take that one both ways. You could stretch your legs out as far as you wanted, lean way back, and there was even a thing that went over your head to block light. We only spent about 5 hours on the highway, so that was all the sleep I got, but it was good sleep.