Sunday, May 07, 2006

Golden Week Vacation Day 1: Shinkansen and Kyoto

I woke up early-ish, say about 9:00, did my morning necessaries and chugged a Red Bull on the way to the station (I'm not used to waking up before 11:00, most days, so the strong stimulus of an energy drink was necessary.) At about 10:00 I met my girlfriend in Machida, then continued on to Shin-Yokohama where we caught the Shinkansen (or, as Westerners who haven't been to Japan call it, the Bullet Train.) We had about an hour to kill before our train left, most of which we spent getting lunch (bento boxes) and (trying to) take pictures of passing trains. God-damn but they're fast ... exactly how fast I found out when my girlfriend prodded me into asking a station-staff (in Japanese) how fast they went (something like, Shinkansen wo, dochira hayai desu ka?) Once he got over his initial shock at a foreigner asking him something in his own language, he replied that it went about 270 km/h.

Our seats were worlds away from the usual cattle-packing of JR trains; it was more like sitting on an airplane (as was only fitting, given the airplane-esque fare of 14,000 yen for a two-hour trip.) I spent the first part of the trip admiring the landscape as it zoomed by, at one point getting a decent view of Mount Fuji in the distance (though sadly, no good pictures.) After an hour or so, the morning Red Bull wearing off and the rolling green mountains flattening into industrial wasteland, the train's steady motion lulled me to sleep ... something that always seems to happen when I'm travelling.

When I woke up, about 1:00 or so, we were in Kyoto. Outside the station we met up with my girlfriend's sister; they immediately began conferring in Japanese - I caught maybe one word in ten - and then turned to me to ask if I was willing to walk to the first shrine, as there was a long line-up for the bus. Of course, I replied, walking was fine. Good excercise and all that, plus a good way to see the city, and I wanted to stretch my legs after two hours on a train.

Kyoto's a much smaller city than Tokyo, in terms of population, area, even building size (it turns out Kyoto has a law restricting the height of buildings to six or seven stories, in order to preserve it's old-time touristy appeal.) Traditionally, it's served a very different function in Japanese life from Tokyo: where Tokyo is the centre of political power, Kyoto is Japan's spiritural capital. It's a city of Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, museums and koi ponds; artists, craftsmen, priests and monks. The closest Western analogue I can think of is Rome, in that most of Kyoto's population seem to make their living off of tourists drawn to the city for religious reasons, and have had centuries to perfect the art of separating tourists from their money by offering them trinkets, food, lodgings, and tours, all only marginally affordable. If I had to pick four words to describe Kyoto, they would be quiet, beautiful, old, and expensive.

After walking for about an hour or so, my girlfriend was getting a bit of a blister so we made a pit-stop at a drug store for some gel bandaids. While I waited outside with her sister, I saw my first passing caravan of real honest-to-God Japanese rightwingers: three, maybe four vehicles, including one almighty big truck, all loaded down with stern-faced men wearing beige or black jumpsuits complete with Nazi-esque armbands, and a megaphone blaring out propaganda. Basically a bunch of chuckleheads who blame all of Japan's problems on foreigners and pine after the glorious days of the pre-War era dictatorship. I'm sure they intended to be very intimidating, but really I thought they were just kind of funny, sort of like, "Ah, ain't that cute! They hate me for the color of my skin!"

We reached our first temple (or shrine, not sure which to be honest) maybe half an hour later, just a small little place were we nipped in to get some takoyaki (octopus fried in some kind of batter, which you pick up, or really attempt to pick up, with a single tootpick. Difficult to eat but quite tasty.) My girlfriend's sister explained something about the temple's guardians that I immediately began to notice everywhere: the one on the right went "Aaaa!", while the one on the left went, "Unnnn!" That is to say, the lips of one were sculpted into something of a yell, while the lips of the other were made to look as though it was growling.

The next place we went to was really the day's chief attraction, a temple called Kiyomizu, or Spring Water.
The temple features a tall tower on the outskirts, visible from quite a distance; in order to get close to it you have to go through what seems like a mile of souveneir shops, selling everything from expensive hand-crafted tea sets and imitation katanas, to cheap plastic 'good luck' cats and keychains (I almost purchased a door-hanging, but was yanked out by my companions who pointed out that the temple closed at 6:00, and it was already 4:30.)

In addition to the tower, the temple contains an ancient Noh theatre stage, one essentially built on the side of a cliff, supported by hundreds of pillars. It sags visibly, but I assume it's entirely safe. The whole complex overlooks Kyoto, giving a quite beautiful view of the city. There was also, as at all temples and shrines, a very beautiful garden to walk through, consisting of trees, ferns, rocks, streams and waterfalls, rather than flowers.

After all that walking about, we were quite tired, and in a mood for food. I was warned in advance that Kyoto food (being descended from the diet of monks - with all the weird dietary restrictions that commonly entails - and the cuisine of rich folk, who care more that their food is priced out of the reach of commoners than that it tastes good) is notable chiefly for being both nasty and expensive, but happily we found a place that was only the latter.

When we'd finished our long meal, my girlfriend and I bade her sister farewell, and found our way to a nearby love hotel, or rabuho, an entirely Japanese innovation whose hospitality is specifically targeted at amorous couples. We decided to go for the love hotel because, a) it was cheaper, b) you don't need a reservation (because they don't allow them) and, c) I'd never been to one before. I won't go into the details of all the various amenities on offer at such establishments; I'll only say that it was every bit as swank as a very decent western hotel, and if anyone imports that particular business model into the West they may well make a killing.

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