Thursday, January 16, 2014

Japan 2013 Travel Log Part 3: Kyoto Day 2 - Ramen and Temples!

We awoke at 11 am, got showered and dressed, and immediately consulted the guy (probably the owner) at the front desk of Haruya Aqua regarding how we might buy tickets for the overnight bus to Tokyo that night. We also made a point of asking him which local sights were close together so that we could cover as much as possible in one day. After determining a route, we hopped on our bikes and headed to a ramen restaurant that the owner had recommended, Kobushi Ramen.

The ramen shop looked rather low-key; it sported a handsome blue and white sign in Japanese kana with a romanized subheading reading "Kobushi." As we entered the restaurant we noticed to our left a bar at which a number of Japanese men were seated, busily devouring their ramen. To our right was a large enough table to accommodate several people, with two Japanese women seated on the other side chatting. We sat down at the table and were immediately approached by a waiter; he looked particularly non-Japanese and spoke excellent though somewhat accented English. We asked him what the signature dish was and he recommended a dish that, sadly, I can't remember the name of.

Biking through the suburbs of Kyoto is as relaxing as it is wondrous. You never know what charming vista you'll encounter next!    
The dish had orange eggs in it and was designed to be eaten in two stages. First you eat half of the dish just like regular old ramen and then at a certain point you crush the eggs and mix everything together so that, as the waiter explained, it would taste like "Italian food" -- I think rose sauce is what he likened it to. In any case, it was quite delicious! I eventually asked the waiter where he came from, and he explained that he was a Spanish student who had transferred from his university in Spain to study in Japan, as he had essentially fallen in love with the country. His Japanese appeared to be impeccable; he was very helpful in explaining the menu, which was entirely in Japanese (seriously, if you're planning a big trip to Japan sometime, learning at least some kana would be advisable).

In the suburbs Kyle happened to spy this group of schoolchildren on their way home from class and thought their colourful backpacks would make for an interesting shot, so I took the liberty.  
After we finished our brunch, we asked a construction worker who was smoking outside how to get to Kyoto Station so that we could reserve overnight bus tickets to Tokyo for that night. After much gesturing and exchanges in my broken Japanese and his broken English, he eventually got us on the right track. Kyoto Station was quite large and bustling. It has a famous bakery that we unfortunately were not able to take advantage of right away, as we were eager to get on the road and see some sights. We secured our tickets using simple English, and once that was out of the way we continued onward.

This little shrine was on the corner of a residential street, surrounded by houses. It was too pretty to pass up. 
We'd had trouble finding a place to lock our bikes and eventually locked them to a fence. I was a bit paranoid because no one else had locked their bikes to anything but bicycle stands, and I was afraid someone would try to remove them while we were buying our tickets. Interestingly enough, though, some people hadn't even locked their bikes! Apparently larceny is relatively uncommon in Japan, so some people apparently don't feel the need to secure their bikes -- I wish I could say the same for my city. After we acquired our tickets we continued on our journey.

My very own photo of the Golden Pavilion from across the pond. 
Our first stop was the famous Rokuan Temple (Rokuanji), which is home to the popular tourist attraction and often photographed Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji). I had seen photographs of the place in all sorts of galleries and sushi restaurants in Toronto, so I'd decided I simply had to see it in person. It took about 40 minutes to bike there from Kyoto Station. As we biked farther and farther out into the suburbs we were charmed by the quaint houses, a mix of traditional Japanese and modern architecture, that lined the streets. Kyoto is indeed a beautiful place to find yourself in.

When we arrived at the entrance to the temple grounds, we found that they were home to several interesting features besides the pavilion itself. The grounds are quite large and offer some truly wonderful spaces in the forms of gardens, ponds, and shrines. In the video I muse about how the Golden Pavilion may have been mentioned in that monumental work of fictional prose Tale of the Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu; later I realized that was impossible, because the temple hadn't been built at the time it was written. I was obviously misquoting -- the importance of research is once again made apparent.

After viewing the pavilion itself we walked around the grounds and eventually happened upon another shrine that many people were gathered around. At this shrine you can buy a candle for a nominal donation and burn it for good fortune in an area of your choice (details in the video above). The candle I chose was for family safety, since my grandmother is in her early nineties (though healthy) and my mother had informed me that my father was trying to keep his blood pressure down. Though I don't consider myself superstitious, I figured a little help from the various Bodhisattvas and Shinto deities couldn't hurt. On the way out of the temple we bought some green tea ice cream to fuel our bike ride, and I picked up two long-life charms from the temple, one of which I gave to Kyle as a gift.

That's the charm as it currently looks, hanging from my messenger bag. According to the charm seller, it is supposed to bring good health and long life. Inside the cloth bag is a wooden talisman that is meant not to be removed. Charms like these may be purchased at all sorts of temples throughout Japan. This one cost me 300 yen (about $3). 
Our next stop was Ryoan Temple (Ryoanji), which was only about a 15- to 20-minute bike ride from Rokuanji. So we hopped on our bikes and set out. Along the way we occasionally got disoriented and had to ask for directions, but we did have a map and the locals were very helpful. Ryoanji is home to a very famous Zen garden that, like the Golden Pavilion, is often photographed and can be seen on countless websites and in countless books around the world. We decided we had to see it, especially since it was so close to where we had just been.

There's Kyle prepping the bikes for our next destination. 
Like Ruokuanji, Ryoanji is situated in a rather large compound that also features several beautiful gardens and shrines. We figured we'd look at these after the Zen garden, so we made a beeline for that. When I paid to get into the temple, the woman at the front desk forgot to give me an actual paper ticket, so I wasn't initially allowed to enter the Zen garden. I had to go back to the ticket hut and have the woman call the people at the garden to let in "a foreigner named Alex." It was kind of embarrassing but everyone was pretty nice about it and finally I was allowed to see the Zen garden itself. In the area overlooking the garden you are not allowed to talk loudly or use your phone, as it is meant to be contemplated in silence. A young couple and a number of older folks were looking on, though there were not many people as it was the end of January. It was very peaceful indeed.

Here's the area overlooking the garden. In the video I refer to it as a "rock garden" on many occasions, but my Edo period urbanization professor would never let me hear the end of it if she heard me calling it that. Zen gardens are quite distinct from simple rock gardens and serve a special purpose. 
After surveying the Zen garden we walked around the grounds and checked out a number of the vistas and shrines in the compound. Again it was quite beautiful and very relaxing. We were quite lucky, because the weather was very nice despite it's being the middle of winter, and because of that there were much fewer tourists about than usual. It was perfect! We spent about an hour or so in the grounds and then we mounted our bikes once more and moved to our final destination, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

This is just a random lantern we saw by the roadside not far from Arashiyama. Just seeing it there made it seem uncanny and mysterious, and I loved the way it looked. 
Arashiyama was quite a long way from the temples we had visited and it took another 30 to 40 minutes to get out there. Much to our delight, the trip took us out into the countryside, and we took a number of detours along some country roads to see what rare sights they had in store for us. Because of that it took quite a bit longer to get where we were going than we had originally planned, but it was well worth it. Both Kyle and I were pleased that we had managed to make it out of the city and see some real nature! However, by the time we made it to the bamboo grove, it was almost dark.

The path through the bamboo grove was unlit, and since the sun had all but set it was delightfully eerie and almost magical. I half expected a Catbus to pull up. The light you see here is from my camera's flash.
It took us quite a while to find the bamboo grove, as it was in a park behind a large temple compound, where we secured our bikes and took the liberty of doing some investigating. Sadly, I have few pictures of the temple because of the lack of decent lighting (my camera is not very high-end). After we walked through the temple compound and as the sun was setting, we came across a riverbank dotted with stalls and a number of locals and a few tourists. We walked along a lit path following the river, surrounded by majestic mountains on either side, and eventually found some stairs leading up to the bamboo grove -- we actually discovered them wholly by accident. The bamboo grove is located in a park and we were afraid that we might be barred entry on account of the time. Fortunately it doesn't actually close, so we were able to walk through the grove as the last bit of sunlight was disappearing. As we walked through the deserted grove, with only the dim blue of the last dwindling sunlight to light our way, I felt as though I was in some sort of fable. It was otherworldly.

The area outside the temple compound is also very quaint and charming. It helped me understand why so many people who visit Japan have nothing but praise for Kyoto's scenery, both manmade and natural. 
After exiting the grove we decided it was time to go back to the hostel, as we needed to return our bicycles and pick up our bags (which the manager was holding for us) by 9 pm, before the manager left his post. We were quite hungry and made sure to have a little snack before the long hour-and-a-half bike ride back to Kyoto proper for dinner. We also had to catch our bus to Tokyo, which wasn't until around 12 am, so we were fine in that respect. The bike ride back to the city was just as fun and charming as the ride out, and though we were quite tired we still enjoyed it tremendously, now that the street lights were lit. We arrived back at the hostel by about 8:40, returned our bikes and picked up our luggage, and began the trek to Kyoto Station, about 20 minutes away on foot. We were absolutely exhausted after a full day of bike riding, and carrying our luggage (about two weeks' worth of clothes and other necessities) was pretty rough. We decided to find a restaurant close to the station and hang out there and relax for a few hours until it was time to catch our bus. We felt like we'd earned it.

After making conversation with these local high school teachers, who barely spoke English, they treated us to some additional sake and food. It was great! The guy in the back is a French dude who was touring the area. It looks like I'm holding that guy's hand there, but it's just the shot -- we weren't that friendly.
We found an izakaya down the street from the bus terminal and decided it would do. Fortunately the owner had spent a great deal of time in the States and spoke English fluently, which was great because we were very tired and hungry and preferred not to play guessing games. We ordered some food (I can't remember what) as well as sake and beer, as we planned to be there a while. Also in the izakaya was a table of Japanese men in suits who were talking animatedly and seemed to be from the area. After a while one of them asked us where we were from, and soon we were plunged into full-scale conversation. We learned that they were local high school teachers. Their English was quite broken and sometimes we clearly could not understand each other, but the owner played translator when we got stuck. In the end, we were able to have a fun and engaging conversation with the teachers. Eventually they insisted on treating us to more sake and some additional dishes, and they informed us that no one is kinder or more generous than the people of Kansai (the region that Kyoto is in), especially Kyoto. When we told them we were going to Tokyo, they jokingly said it was too busy and unfriendly there, so we should just stay in Kyoto . . . and a small part of me wanted to.

Eventually the time came to head to the terminal, so we reluctantly bid our culinary benefactors farewell and set off. It was a fine way to end our first Kyoto experience, and we felt that things could not have gone more smoothly, especially considering that we had planned everything at the last minute. I felt that we were extremely lucky and I decided that Kyoto is a place I will go back to again and again if I have the means. Charming, mysterious, and beautiful -- these are just a few of the words I'd use to describe Kyoto, based on my experiences there.

Next stop, the big city. Tokyo, here we come!

For those of you who are interested, here is the official website for the hostel we stayed at in Kyoto. I highly recommend it!          

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