Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Kyoto - Day 6 - Tofuku-Ji, Inari and Gion

I wake up this morning after 10 hrs of uninterrupted sleep. Bliss!!!
As we set out, very early, the sun is out and the sky is a glorious shade of blue. This morning we are visiting the valley of maples and the temple hidden in between the trees.

I am really excited about this morning, I am looking forward to the my first mineral garden. Many - including me at first - make the mistake of calling these Zen gardens, this is because they are most often found at representations of the Zen sects.

We visit the Tofuku-Ji temple first as it's quite small and as soon as the crowds arrive it will be difficult to appreciate the place.
On our way up to it, we are greeted by views over the Japanese maple valley which are breathtaking.

I spend a bit of time trying to take a good photo of the checkerboard sand but the sun is quite low so the light is far from ideal.

Ok, who stepped in the sand after it was raked down ?

Taking our time to stroll through the valley and click away from every possible direction, we are by this time not alone. Although this would annoy me greatly usually, for some reasons the Japanese are so quiet and respectful of the people around them, that is actually adds to the experience to watch them take photos of each other amongst the trees.

Leaving the shades of reds and oranges behind, we once again go back to the station for lunch. The three of us have felt like a nice Big Mac since yesterday so we make sure no one is watching and cross the road to the golden arches.

This is an area sreetmap. Very little road names in Japan, you find your way by finding the person's name on the map, compare the map against the nearest temple and hope for the best. It seems to work for them, but for us it is very confusing.

Next on the menu is Inari, a spectacular Shinto sanctuary. A long orange tunnel is created by the torii bought by corporations and individuals. The torii get smaller and smaller, but the walk up towards the mountain is stunning and the atmosphere is quite unique (if only J-P would shut up for five minutes!). This is our first Shinto site and it really is very different to the Buddhist way of things.

Before heading back down, we stop off at the gift shop - of course - to buy a few talismans for our loved ones and take some time to reads the wishes left by people on wooden fox heads. Some of the boards are decorated with quite some creativity.

We grab a bus to Gion passing by the world famous wooden temple of Kymizu-dera admiring it from afar. This started a huge debate as some were outraged that this temple was not on our list of places to visit.

Nor were we allowed to browse the over populated shopping street leading off from the temple. we were told, again, by J-P that shopping was planned in for the last afternoon of the trip! How frustrating as we rush past the shops spotting perfect gifts and knickknacks.

Two finally win over the guide and rush off to buy a few pieces of pottery they had spotted and really wanted. This gave Sis and I to discover a shop, so stunning in its pinkness we would have bought the whole shop. I grab the first three things I see and rush to hand over my Yen.

Entering into the Gion district, famous for Geisha spotting, we spot two. Click click click and then some. Before being told these are not real geisha and that it's as pretty popular thing for people to be dressed and made up as Geisha as a fun day out! *Groan*

The area is well worth a visit as tea houses are plenty each with their own courtyard garden.

The evening is spent in tourist central, seeing a show actually created for tourists.
Enough said!!!!

Not a total waste though as while wlking back to the hotel we see a few real geisha and we also discover the main shopping street and finally see Japan By Night as you imagine it.
The lights, the sounds, the people... wow.

Fave pics of the day...

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Kyoto - Day 5 - Kōya-san and the Okunoin mausoleum

My mobile phone alarm wakes our floor up this morning, which is really weird.
I managed to get a few hours of sleep towards the early hours of the morning but after an untouched breakfast - totally impossible - we leave the monks and make our way through the village to the Okunoin mausoleum.

It is a 2 km walk among the towering Cypress trees and thousands of tombs, a beautiful stroll and the freezing wind is making sure we are wide awake after our somewhat short night.

Statues of Jizo are everywhere - the guardian of children, particularly children who died before their parents. People place red bibs on these statues and with soo many about it really is quite eerie.

We spot memorials payed for by big corporations to remember their employees.
This is a big thing in Japan.

We get a chance to wander around the few shops in the village after the cemetery and discover with a delight, in a small supermarket, a couple of biscuits we recognise!

They love their anti-smoking campaigns here in Japan, This one I thought was brilliant !!!!

After lunch - bits and bobs bought in the supermarket as small town local food is still not an option - we go back to the monastery to pick up our belongings and meet the bus to begin our 4 hours journey back to Kyoto and our nice warm and private hotel rooms. :)

The Japanese are quite curious about us, I suppose a group of 14 Europeans travelling by train in the countryside is not a regular sight for them, and while usually they will look at us and occasionally ask a question or two - generally leading us to either say we are from France, as not many of them are aware of where Belgium is, or to put our hands up showing France and Germany and placing Belgium above the two hands so they have a rough idea.

During this trip, a bunch of school kids got on the train outside of Osaka and one girl approached me and started up a conversation in broken English. She loves the French - as most of them do - and then started to ask me various words ans phrases in French. I took out my pad and started French - Lesson 1. She would teach me the word in Japanese, I would write it down in English and then in French. It was good fun if not always easy to understand each other. Her mates found this hilarious but she was attentive and really eager to learn. She got off in Osaka with the sheet of paper and a good story to tell her parents when she got home from her 90 minute commute back from school.

The three of us bypass dinner completely top give our systems a chance to recover.

Fave pics of the day...

Monday, 10 November 2008

Kyoto - Day 4 - Nijo, Ninomaru and Higashi Honganji

I woke up starving which is a good sign.
As we are spending tonight in a monastery up in the mountains, after breakfast, we pack our stuff and check out of the hotel.

We head off to Nijo palace. After previous visits ending a tad stressfully for our guide, we are given strict instructions to be back at the entrance by 11am. We all head off around the castle at different speeds, some stay to listen to the interesting commentaries of the guide - this is if you can stay awake and keep your concentration. I decide to wander off at my own pace and marvel at the amazing woodwork and intricate decorations.

In many of these palaces around Japan, the ancient inhabitants had devised a very funky way of detecting intruders... Nightingale floors. Brilliant piece of engineering that uses cramps and spaces underneath the floorboards in the corridors which will squeak when you walk on them.
I think they would drive me mad long term, but it is a very effective alarm system. I wander through the eleven different rooms on show and exit via the tourist trap stalls and foul smelling food stands.

I make a few small purchases and Sis and I walk on - at a brisk pace due to the time constraints - through to the gardens in the grounds. For me, these are not as breathtaking as the previous gardens, but a good chance to capture some hilarious Engrish - or Japlish as it is known here.

We make it to the rendezvous point on time to find ... no one.
Had we stayed with the guide, we would have known his time estimate for this site was grossly underestimated and he had therefore changed the rdv time to allow an extra half an hour. It seems we were not the only ones to not have been aware of this change in the schedule so a couple of us sat on a wall and waited for the group to turn up.

Once all reunited, we stop at a genuine samurai sword shop - cue debilitatingly long commentary again - and a few buy the token miniature sword and stand. No trashy look-alikes for me, I opt for a few ninja stars for my brother!

Higashi Honganji is next on the agenda.
This place displays an amazing contrast between old and new contemporary architecture.

A huge part of the temple is begin restored at the moment, and it will be ongoing until 2012. So a hangar was built around the restoration to protect it. On display, a reduced model of the renovations, the attention to detail is astounding.

A very speedy visit once again, stopping only briefly in the new part to admire the amazing subterranean new build to incorporate an auditorium. It reminds me a bit of Young Sherlock Holmes and the underground pyramid.

Back to Kyoto station for lunch and while the group heads back downstairs for some local chow, Sis, Dad and I go in search for anything but.

After lunch we begin our epic journey to Mount Koya for our traditional monastery retreat.
A metro, a forty minute train to Osaka, another metro ride and a two and a half hour train journey later and we arrive at the base of the mountain. But it is not over yet.

A cable car ride and a bus take us up and finally, after night fall we arrive at our monastery in a stunning location.
(No, not a ghostly presence but a bit of smoke too close to the camera.)

We are invited in for tea served traditional style which is a welcome pleasure as it is freezing up here and needless to say there is no central heating and the walls are all glass or paper.

We are shown to our rooms and a bout of worry follows when all we see as far as bedding goes, are the tatamis on the floor and a few really thin pillows. We later discover futons and blankets hidden away in a closet.

My digestive system is feeling better as we head down for a traditional vegetarian dinner and while my ankles don't thank me for kneeling while eating, I make a good effort with with the food.

After dinner, we are asked if we want a Japanese bath.
Anything warm at this stage is a godsend, so Sis and I decide to forget our hangups and give it a go. The idea of this method of bathing is that you start of scrubbing yourself clean in a shower before rinsing thoroughly and stepping into the tub of very hot water for a soak. This is to allow the bath water to be reused. Tonight it was absolute bliss, even after Sis and I realised that the towels we had schlepped all the way from home to be used at this specific time, were neatly packed away in our backpacks in our room! Useful.
Joined by one other woman in the group, we relax in the steaming hot water until we are well and truly lobster-like. A quick dry off at lightening speed with minute hand towels, on with the kimono and off to bed... or not.

Returning to the room, we discover that our beds... or rather futons had been made up. The room although filled with the intoxicating smell of the kerosene heater, had a very inviting atmosphere.

I won't go into details but what followed was Sis and I spent many an hour trotting down the wooden stairs in our Geta sandals to the communal toilets and back up to bed trying not to wake the whole household. A very cold and not so regenerating night but a few laughs and a great experience.

Fave pics of the day...

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Kyoto - Day 3 - Nara for some, Hotel for others

This morning starts with a bit of drama. It seems it is not only me who is unwell but Sis and Dad aren't feeling great either. A visit to the breakfast room shows that another member of the group is staying in bed today - the Japanese maple expert who is here to help us learn about these magnificent trees.
We all face a dilemma; Nara is one of the nicest gardens and it is a day trip so it would not be easy meeting up with the group half way through the day.

Sis has decided she is well enough to go, Dad feels there is no way he can venture too far from the hotel and Benoit is in no shape to be going anywhere at all. I think about it and as much as I am peeved about missing the day out (our trip isn't that long to begin with) I feel it is wiser to take a day off, rest and let my stomach sort itself out.

We, as a group, discuss this with our oh-so-accommodating tour guide and ask him to possibly switch today's schedule for one of the 5 days we were supposed to be visiting gardens and temples in Kyoto. More for Benoit's benefit than for ours. While insisting on how much of a shame it is that we are going to miss the stunning gardens, J-F will not even entertain the idea of a re plan. So we watch the rest of the group leave and head back to bed.

We decide to reconvene at 12 and decide then if we are well enough to attempt finding the group in Nara.

I wake up at 1.45pm after the most refreshing sleep. Fuuucck. I'm feeling a lot better and would have been up for meeting the group. I imagine the other two have left already but a note under the door tells me otherwise.

So I decide to head down to the lobby and get some coffee and do some writing. I know it is a bit sad that I spent an afternoon on the terrace, but it is a great place to get a nice cuppa, have a smoke and watch the people on their way to where ever it is they are going. I love to people watch but the Japanese are so different that it is great fun and I end up spending a couple of hours outside writing. I wish I had the guts to take photos of the people walking past, but I have never been very good at the kind of thing.

While sipping the Cherry Moka sampler the lovely woman behind the counter has just brought me - urgh... at this stage I can still only just stomach black brewed coffee - I think about how polite people are here. Excessively so, compared to Belgium.

It is quite clear that in Japan, the community takes precedent over the individual. They seem to be conscious of not offending, annoying or anything the people around them. It makes for a very pleasant environment, no shouting, no arguing, no honking...
Although I do wander what place is given to individualism and it seems to me to be a bit over the top and unnatural. I like to imagine that they must let their hair down in spectacular fashion once the doors are closed.

And the stereotype of the Japanese bowing is definitely not exaggerated and I enjoy watching a group of business men, on the porch of the hotel, each in turn nodding lower than the previous person. It becomes one bowing frenzy until finally they turn away and get into the cab.

... Oh yes, and they love, and I mean, love their mobile phones!

The group comes back quite late, exhausted but elated from their day. I decide not to join them for dinner, but get some crackers from the nearby 7/11 and head back up to bed.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Kyoto - Day 2 - Himeji

It was a relatively easy wake up this morning at 7am. The hotel breakfast is pretty complete but watching the Japanese eat brocolli, miso soup and tofu for breakfast is very weird. I'll stick to my croissants and eggs thanks!

We head off to the station for a metro and a train via Osaka/Kobé on our way to Himeji.

While the Japanese people I met had no idea where Belgium was, it seems our famous waffles have made it to Kyoto!

And check out the lotto apron worn by this woman. Loved it.

Our first glimpse of the castle from the road is stunning, through the trees you can get a glimpse of the huge building and it is beautiful.

And off come the shoes! We get indoor sandals as replacements and get to carry our shoes around with us in a plastic bag. Very elegant! Believe it or not, upon exit, the bags are placed in a basket and some poor soul spends all day cleaning the bags for re-use.

Inside the castle...

I notice something while walking through the castle grounds... look familiar to you?

The Japanese are obsessed by the V for Victory sign and will not have a photo taken without it!!!

After visiting the castle, we head over to a very dodgy looking cafeteria for some lunch.
No menu per say, just the traditional evil looking plastic replicas of the dishes in a window at the entrance of the restaurant. The Japanese like doing this, I'm assuming it is more for our (- the tourists) benefit than the locals, but what they fail to realise is that while these plastic dishes can looking quite appetising, if they are cheap and nasty, they look absolutely revolting.

Anyway, most of us opt for a safe, beef and rice dish... BIG MISTAKE!!!!
Not managing to eat more than a couple of mouthfuls, what I did eat then proceeded to make me as sick as a dog and I spent most of that eve and the next day with my head down the oh so technically advanced hotel room toilet.

(I had taken a pic of my dish but as it made me queasy every time I saw it, it was rapidly deleted from my Nikon, however check out the faces of the group, it should give you a good idea.)

Onwards to the Koko-En garden for a stunning walk amongst all shades of green, red and yellow. I was subject to slight uneasiness for the first part of this garden as I seemed to be being followed by a very strange individual with a ridiculously scary pair of dentures!!! Harmless but freaky all the same. There were quite a few people around but them being all Japanese, it didn't really feel out of place.

The weather is not great today, and the light is poor, but I click away in every direction trying in vain to capture the beauty of this place. It is not so warm either and after a somewhat bizarre coffee break in a nearby coffee shop, we wait in the freezing wind for our red bus to take us back to the station. We all enjoy a little shut eye on the train journey back to Kyoto.

Arrival back at the station around dinner time and most of the group are looking for somewhere to eat. We are shown an underground shopping mall and food court in the station and while others look at the ever increasing plastics dishes on offer and licking their lips, I am feeling very queasy and can no longer stand the sight or more importantly smell of food.

This is the thing, the 'smell of Japan' - as I dubbed it - is everywhere. You cannot escape it.
Due mostly to the fact that there are places to eat at every corner, the smell is omnipresent and at this precise point in time, it is making me so unbelievably nauseous.

Sis and I head back to the hotel. I feel I should try and eat something, anything... So we sit on the terrace of Starbucks and have a coffee. It helps - I know it shouldn't but it does. I even feel the desire for a sandwich which I find quite tasty. We go out for a quick stroll and then head off to bed. We have an early start tomorrow.

I hoped for a quiet long night. No such luck. I am up half the night making rush visits to our tiny cabin barfroom.

Fave pics of the day...