Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Colors of Kyoto

I truly didn’t know what to expect as I packed up my things and headed for Hamamatsu to get the Shinkansen to Kyoto. Now, I did have some idea what I was going to see there in terms of touristy sights, but I was staying with a fellow named Simon who used to live down the street when I was roughly 4-9 years old. He was best friends with my younger brother at the time, and I haven’t seen him for over 15 years, regardless of the fact that he claims there was an interim meeting at the Pickle Barrel in Toronto some years back. It never happened, Simon! Have you ever re-acquainted with someone you only knew as a young child? It’s a strange experience to say the least.

The train ride was comfortable and easy; it took only just over one hour to get to Kyoto from where I live. Simon met me at the terminal and we had a moment or two of sizing up and seeing if our expectations fit the bill. To me he looked exactly the same as he did all those years ago, except with a beard and 15 years older. It was fairly late by the time I arrived, so we took the subway back to his house and dropped off my things before heading out for a quick bite and some drinks; we couldn’t do much of anything else by that time. Afterwards we simply relaxed, watched some episodes of the Simpsons and tried to get to sleep relatively early so that we could get out and about early the next day.

After morning rituals were complete we were on our way to the heart of Kyoto and the Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, and there were two unfortunate things here, it began to rain and the Imperial Palace is not much to see. The grounds themselves are quite nice, especially with the autumn foliage, but the palace itself is blocked from view by a surrounding wall. We made a circuit around the wall and then took to the street again to be on our way to somewhere a little more engaging. Making a brief stop for lunch, I phoned Christian and told him to get out of bed and come to Kyoto. After lunch we hopped a bus bound for Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion.

While waiting for the bus, we spoke to a few fellow Canadian sightseers who mentioned going to see Ryoanji temple, whereupon Simon and I decided it might be good to see a few places so close together. We got off the bus with the others and took a stroll into the wooden area that held the temple. Ryoanji is one of those places that are perfectly exemplary of something that I have come to marvel at regarding Japan; it is the juxtaposition of the old and the new, often side by side. We walked off a residential street and into a beautiful treasure of a wood with a lovely old temple that one would never expect having only seen the street. Walking up the various paths was a wonder of color, the trees all shedding their leaves for the impending winter. The temple is somewhat famous for its rock garden, which unfortunately at that time had scaffolding all over its walls, yet was still impressive. The trees surrounding the temple were blazing with reds, oranges, pinks and golds. I took many pictures which you will soon be able to see on my picture site. The grounds were lovely as well, and Simon and I strolled through the paths and the trees, examining the sub-temples and other structures throughout.

Instead of taking a bus back up the street to Kinkakuji we decided to walk. It was a short trip through a little residential district until we got to the gates and the throngs of people. The golden pavilion is a big tourist attraction and so we waded in with the rest of the people until we got to the lake and the pavilion itself, which is very nice, if not a little tacky. I mean, who wants to live in a gold house, even if it is your retirement palace. The grounds were fairly nice, and obviously very highly sculpted and landscaped. After Ryoanji though, Kinkakuji was a bit of a step down in terms of my own enjoyment and wonder. About the time we were finishing up there Christian called and let me know he was coming into Kyoto any minute, so Simon and I hopped on a bus bound for the station so that we could meet him, and meet him we did. By the time this happened it was a little late to do much else, but we had been on our way to Kiyomizudera so we continued on our way, hoping that there might still be some light left by the time we got there for taking pictures. As we ascended the winding street that led to the temple grounds I was surrounded and marveled at the amount of people and shops lining either side. It was raining and so there were umbrellas everywhere, and people constantly raising and lowering them to avoid one another. Every shop along the way sold various souvenirs, some specializing in pottery, especially tea and sake sets, and some sold many different varieties of tea or mochi, which is a kind of chewy rice treat. The three of us gorged ourselves on the free samples as we climbed our way through the street to the temple proper. By the time we got to the top there really wasn’t much to see so we promised to come back the next day and turned around to head back down through the throng. Instead of busing back downtown, we decided to walk through the local area, and what an amazing place it was. This was old Kyoto, and the streets we walked are hundreds and hundreds of years old. The shops and the lay of the place were incredible and inspiring. So many souvenirs! I will have to return there to stock up before leaving Japan.

That night we passed through the famous Gion shopping district on the way back to Simon’s house. We dropped off our stuff at his place and set out for a local Indian restaurant, which was decent if not a mite expensive. Returning to Simon’s apartment we waited there for his friend Peter before heading off to the Sento, which is a public bath house. What a great deal! Less than four dollars a person for as much time as we wanted in the spa. There was one catch, though, and that was the fact that we all had to go completely naked. Yes, that means along with being naked myself I saw my three compadres naked as well. Makes me wish I was in a little better shape, but good thing I wasn’t trying to impress any of these guys. Some of you might think this is a little unnerving, and even others of you might be thinking what’s the big deal? And truly the latter of you would be correct. It’s not a big deal at all. So we sat and soaked in the various baths for at least an hour or two, probably unnerving some of the elderly Japanese gentlemen, especially myself because of my tattoos which are generally a taboo in Japanese culture, although they are gaining more acceptance nowadays. Regardless, this was exactly what we needed after a day of walking around Kyoto. Afterwards we went back to Simon’s place to watch some videos before all four of us curled up on the floor to get what sleep we could before one last day of adventure.

Peter had to leave early in the morning, so we all ended up getting out of bed at around 9:00 a.m. This is a time of day I do not normally see, having a schedule that is so late in the day. But it was alright because we got out and on our way bright and early. We took a stroll down to the Gion shopping district, which was mostly closed at that time in the morning. We found a little place to get some udon noodles for breakfast and then walked the rest of the way through Gion to the entrance to the Kiyomizudera area. First we made our way up the hill to the giant statue of Kennon, a bodhisattva. This thing is amazingly large and epic, sitting in front of a small hill and gazing its grace down upon all who pass. We stopped and took some photos before heading back down the hill to Kiyomizudera proper. We wound our way back up the hill, again sampling mochi along the way, until we reached the top and I finally saw the majesty of the structures at the entrance to the temple. As we got to the gate at the entrance a few snowflakes began to fall, and gazing out across the expanse to downtown Kyoto as they fell seemed like a bit magic. We ascended the steps and entered the temple along with the many other people there and walked around what might be one of the most beautiful scenes to which I have ever been witness. Below the massive structure of the main temple stretches a valley that runs between itself and downtown Kyoto, and at the time it was ripe with the bursting colors of autumn. There were sub-temples and shrines dotted all over the area, with many images and icons of Buddha scattered throughout. The three of us walked all through the grounds and descended to where there is a spring that is said to have magical properties. Three spouts pour water down and there are cups welded on the end of long poles from which to drink. Each of us drank from all three spouts, and I don’t know about the others but I ended up having to pee three times later that day, and they were all mighty excretions indeed. Magical, even. The whole experience of Kiyomizudera was magical, and was amazing for me because it reminded me of why I came to Japan in the first place. Of anywhere in this country where I have been so far I could easily see myself living in Kyoto. The atmosphere and the people there are incredible.

Leaving Kiyomizudera we headed back downtown and again passed through Gion. This time we stopped and shopped. Christian and I picked up a few things there, him especially considering the ease with which he found suitable gifts for family back home. After another day of walking around we decided upon another trip to the Sento before we were all to go our separate ways. Simon took us to a smaller one closer to his apartment which was just as good as the larger one we had gone to the night before. We stayed roughly an hour before returning to Simon’s place to pack our things. When we were all saddled up we took the subway back downtown to the station and ate dinner together before Christian and I bid Simon adieu and boarded our trains.

Thanks again to our gracious host, Simon, for putting Christian and I up for the weekend and being such a wonderful tour guide. He made the entire trip a hilarious ride because he is a unique, smart and hilarious person, unafraid to approach complete strangers and speak to them in English or Japanese. We met many people this way throughout the weekend, and it was wonderful being around someone so uninhibited and direct. Simon, you may have changed in some ways, but you’re still the same old kid I remember from Albertus Ave. all those years ago. Cheers to Simon and to Kyoto!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Jacob; I continue to tell you that you're a wonderful writer. Maybe someday you can pull all of this together and write a column for a newspaper, one episode at a time! I feel as though I'm experiencing Japan with you. Thank you for sharing.

From: a big fan

8:11 AM  
Blogger Mogwai said...


This kind of cracks me up because I just got hired to teach for Peppy Kids Club as well and we will be in the same prefecture but I will be in Fujieda city. It is nice to someone else that teaches for this company, as I have not heard of anyone around here other than me. Hope things go well for you and who knows, maybe we will meet soon.

5:10 PM  

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