Tuesday, December 31, 2013

To Makinohara

Up early again, drinking tea and packing in our tiny roomed Ibis Styles hotel. It had served us well, however. Leaving our bags in reception, we ended up in the same place for breakfast having coffee, a panini style thing and a little scoop of tasty ice-cream. Then we made our way on foot, a 25 minute walk from the hotel to the Sanjūsangen-dō temple. I had been here before but my second visit with Lorraine the place absolutely blew me away. You enter a massive oblong hall with 1000 life sized golden statues of The Thousand Armed Kannon, it is like an army of Buddhas and quite overwhelming. As well as these there is an enormous thousand armed Kannon as a centrepiece. Additionally there are 28 statues of guardian deities. You are not allowed to take any photographs there,  however some exist on the internet.

This done, we crossed the bridge over the river and arrived back at our Hotel and picked up our cases. The shinkansen part of the station could not have been nearer, we simply crossed the road and we were there. Cross referenced the number of the train with the time and we were fine and sure we were on the right train. We had reserved seats, but one behind the other. And once the train had called at Osaka, it became incredibly full. More struggling with the big case. Felt suddenly very sleepy in the warm train, and had to play music loud in my earphones to keep awake.

Kakegawa station reached we found Hiroko waiting for us in her little new car. Great to see her again, and we crammed our enormous cases and selves into the wee car and sped home to the Bowers English School. A merry evening spent there with Hiroko, Romy and Toby, Eitaro, Romy's sister's boyfriend, and two old women friends of Hiroko's who had dropped in and brought some food and drink with them. One of whom had run a local bar.  There was sushi, a delicious beef stew, salad, carrots and cucumber, toasted bread and lasagne and octopus balls; bits of octopus curled into balls and succulent and tasty. I also drank beers, and bubbly and a glass of Shōchū. We sat about chatting and enjoying the nation's famous Red and White song battle show, a New Year's Eve favourite, before tiredness claimed Lorraine and me and we crept into our floor beds gratefully.

Below a family of Tanukis, in the temple gardens, a flower display outside Kyoto station, Lorraine moving very fast on the Shinkansen

Monday, December 30, 2013

A heavenly and philosophical walk in east Kyoto

Up early having slept long and heavily in our hotel. Gradually got ourselves sorted out and found an italian style cafe in Kyoto Station's vast station building's restaurant zone. Managed to score ourselves two heated panini rolls full of vegetables, and two good cups of damn fine coffee. Thus braced off on our adventure. Caught a cab driven by a gruff old man who took us to Kiyomizo Dera which I particularly wanted Lorraine to see. The whole area crowded and lively with people drawn out by the imminence of the new year, and the stunningly beautiful day.We happily joined the ant lines threading through this majestic place. Everyone snapping away with their cameras or smartphones at the temple complex and the views of Kyoto and the mountains beyond. People queuing to buy their fortunes or to adore Buddhas, or gulp down a draught of health promoting spring water.

From there Lorraine and I took a long walk north, guided by a map from the tourist office. I had done tho same walk on my last visit. The map and reality on the ground were only tenuously connected. But occasionally being a little lost (grateful to the compass feature on iPhone) we walked through a succession of amazing sites as we headed north some of which I had not seen on my first visit. Royzen Kannon was one, a vast shrine for the unknown soldier dominated by a huge looming Buddha, which if you walked around the back you could step into its body. In the gloomy interior were further small Buddhas assigned to particular Chinese horoscope signs, so there was a Buddha for Snakes, Tigers and so on with a list of the relevant birth years. We walked through temple complexes at Chion-in hearing buddhist chanting over a speaker from somewhere. Another discovery was the fabulous Shoren-in Temple which had a beautiful interior full of sliding doors, and a gorgeous elegant garden. All quite chilly though walking about in socked feet in rooms open to the gardens where ice still frosted shadowy corners, and remains of ice floated on still water.

Then we thawed out over a delicious and warming soba noodle soup and cups of hot green tea, in a friendly little restaurant, which produced an English menu. One older man on another table burst out with "Harry Potter!" to one of the waitresses when - I think - she asked him if his food was good. I think they like Harry Potter here.

Then on to find the start of the Philosopher's Walk after some splendidly intuitive map reading from Lorraine. Very popular today, and a very pleasant walk it is too, by the side of a little canal wooded on one side going up to the mountains, and with very upmarket and elegant houses. At last we reached Ginkakuji Temple, also known as The Silver Temple, this also a world heritage site. We reached there at four o'clock and the the sun was low in the sky. Just as stunning as I had remembered. We tried to step aside from the ant line from time to time. Interesting watching a young man come up to a view of one of the masterpieces of human culture take a snap with his phone in half a second and then look away, as if the real experience was captured in the smartphone.

A long walk and grateful for the cab which took us back to Kyoto station, which has the virtue of being incredibly easy for cabs to find and us foreigners to describe. Back to the hotel for a cup of coffee and a watch of the Japanese Record Industry's yearly awards show, which was still on after we had returned from having a fairly decent meal of pork loin, rice, shrimp and other sophisticated Japanese fixin's. Thought we had ordered a beer but we got iced cold tea. This rectified we enjoyed the meal, and our success in ordering too, before sloping home to see an ageing boy band, previous winners called Exile, win the main prize again. Enjoyed seeing the poppets from AKB 48 again. This group seems to be about 48 girls all singing in uninspiring unison and looking cute.

For Lorraine and I an amazing day, and walking home from our meal we felt a little more confident about being strangers in a strange land able to speak only a handful of local words, including a Toby word of the day a few days ago, ganbatte which means persist or keep going, which we did rather well.

And so to bed.

Below scenes from the day...

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Leaving Kayotei Ryokan

Kayotei Ryokan is famed for its Japanese breakfasts which Lorraine, Toby and I opted for this morning. An unbelievable feast. One element kelp leaves, the size and shape of rosemary leaves, but they carried an unbelievably lovely savoury punch, a bit like marmite, and delicious when added to a bowl of rice. There were eggs, and fish and pickles and kipper like fish that were grilled over hot charcoal at the table. Amazing.

After breakfast the slightly sad business of packing. I loved being at this Ryokan. There is a shrine to the poet Basho nearby, and Jiro was kind enough to lend me some wellingtons and took me to it, and showed me a posting box nearby where poets post their haiku which are then judged in a yearly competition and prizes are awarded. The shrine itself was locked but peering in you could make out a small statue of the poet sitting in a Buddha like pose. We also discussed the chrysanthemum poem, and Jiro explained that chrysanthemum tea was something drunk by the Chinese to promote longevity and health. So the poem meant that the baths were so good that you didn't need other remedies.

Chrysanthemum-shunner Lorraine had opted for another dip in the onsen, Toby and Romy were out and about, and I walked along the river at the bottom of the gorge, very picturesque and beautiful. I passed three or four young couples, one particular walking with romantic awkwardness along the snowy path, and I deployed my politest 'konnichiwa's.

Back and bade a farewell to Jiro and his staff. Our bags being walked out to the taxi by ladies in kimonos, and Jiro and his son who is studying in Vancouver.  The taxi took us back to Kagaonsen, with a giant Buddha rising above it. This apparently is a folly built as a memorial, but unfinished and the cost of maintaining it is a sore point in the local community.

Then Toby and Romy headed off to Makinohara, and Lorraine and I set off for Kyoto. We arrived on the platform, and only later realised that we had left a bag in the ticket office. I ran back and it was there untouched. Romy and Toby have been our guides and safety blanket so far, but it was good for us to challenge ourselves and set off alone. But our train arrived exactly on time (they always do here). We had to heft our cases down the train to find a non-reserved coach where we found seats either side of the aisle, and had a pleasant journey through snowy mountainous country. Lorraine and I got out at Kyoto and after finding a map, and realising we were on the wrong side of the tracks, then found our hotel with incredible ease. And we were soon in our little room having a cup of tea before heading out again into Kyoto. We wandered around the streets above the station, where there were two huge temple complexes, we also walked through lots of little back streets, which were very pretty. Near the station there was also an English Pub, full of Japanese men smoking, which of course you cant do in England.

After rubbernecking around Kyoto for a couple of hours we decided to repair to the hotel, and having had no lunch, brought ourselves two rice balls, wrapped in seaweed with some salmony fish in the middle to tide us over. We sat on the bed watching Japanese TV and drank a couple of cans of Asahi, ate the rice balls, and packet of crunchy snacks, which included wee crunchy fish alongside the nuts and crackers, and then, slightly shamefully, fell asleep. Waking again in the evening and not feeling hungry, we simply stayed there and slept like babies.

Below the last of the Kayotei; breakfast fishes; a vase in our room; Basho's shrine; scenes from my morning constitutional.

First afternoon in Kyoto

Below our first afternoon and evening in Kyoto. Captions to come...