Saturday, November 1, 2008

Thoughts on Japan - Part 3 (Kyoto)

Our decisions to make our trip to Japan a linear one in terms of direction of travel was mainly a consideration of time. Ideally, I think we would have liked to have had the luxury of being able to bookend our trip in Tokyo, looping through Kyoto ad Hiroshima and then back to the big city. But, our shortish vacation didn't allow for it, so we decided to fly out from Hiroshima back to Seoul instead.

Ultimately, that saved us a lot of travel time and allowed us to get more actual time in the places we were staying. In retrospect, I would have valued more time in Tokyo, as I feel like neither of us were in the right head space for it at the time. Regardless, we were ready to leave and looking forward to Kyoto. I'd been diving into my guide book to see what we could possibly include on our itinerary without going insane from trying to cram too much in.

I loved the trains. I can't remember which one we rode form Tokyo Station to Kyoto, but it was freaking fast. The JRail pass proved to be the right investment though. For just under $300, a 7-day pass took us exactly where we needed to go and saved us a lot of money in the long run. Without that pass, our rail use would have been nearly double that cost. Again, I really enjoyed boarding the train for somewhere else, hearing yet another foreign language, and watching the countryside move past the window at a pace that was really too fast to notice too many details in the foreground. I was able to see the base of Fuji, but as expected in the late summer time, the summit was completed shrouded in mist. That was almost more cool - I could imagine the size like a giant in the sky.

Kyoto was obviously full of stark differences when compared to Tokyo. I suppose that in a lot of ways it was more tourist friendly. It was easy to get around as the buses were clearly labelled and convenient, and there were a lot of helpful people willing to lend a hand to people like me - a tall, confused tourist who had periodic difficulty stepping out of my map.

If Tokyo was a place where I thought of the future, Kyoto was clearly a place where the past was on my mind. As most guide books will tell you, there are over 2000 temples, shrines, and palaces in Kyoto prefecture alone. That's a lot to put on anyone's itinerary. I'm sure I've related somewhere on this blog the story of my recurring nightmare - the one about me being in Disneyland with a newbie and having only 3 hours to see everything. I know, it's a little pathetic for a nightmare, but let me tell you, it's a stressful situation. Anyway, to a degree, that was Kyoto. Or, at least that was Kyoto as I projected it would be. Actually arriving there was a different story. Getting to our guesthouse (once we were able to find it) woke me up to the fact that we were really no longer in Tokyo. This would not be two days of frantic site-seeing, but rather a comparatively relaxed stroll through a near-ancient city with a lot of calming things to see. We knew we wouldn't be besotted with flashing neon pointing us where to go, but rather with our own maps and ideas of how we could best spend two and a half days in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth.

Realizing this was a blessing. One could easily spend a whole week in Kyoto and not see half of what many people would consider to be "essential" Japanese cultural sites. It was good to know this and we treated our itinerary accordingly. It pained me to cut a few things out of our plan. We weren't able to see the bamboo forest or the lanes of torii gates, but we saw some other very beautiful places that I would try to leave on our itinerary should we ever go back.

Our first day was a bit of a wash-out as we had barely enough time to get to our guest house and eat dinner. Not to mention the fact that most sites close at 5 PM. Still, our guest house happened to be a in a very beautiful and relaxing part of town which we were happy to take advantage of. We went for a stroll recommended to us by the guest house owner and Steph used her uncanny restuarant selecting ability to guide us through a curtain and into a quaint little sushi place. As the only patrons at that time, we were served at the bar by a gracious chef and host and his hostess who served us traditional tea and shyly practiced her English while we flipped through our phrase book trying our best to find the right words. The meal was perfect, if a tad on the expensive side, but then again everything seems expensive when considered alongside Korean cuisine.

Our next day was spend wandering through the northwest area where we saw the Golden Pavillion and other shrines and temples that were equally impressive (again - check out my pictures at the top for more details) and day 3 was spend wandering through the very dense Southern Higashiyama area where there is a temple, garden, or shrine almost every 100 meters.

There's a whole lot of natural beauty there that is hard to describe. But also like Banff, what's most remarkable about Kyoto are the places where people have build upon the land to best take advantage of the beauty of their surroundings. Kyoto is a city with roughly the population of Calgary (around 1 million), but it felt like Banff for the most part. I know that that can mean good and bad things to most people, but to me I saw mostly the positive things. Kyoto was clean, it was easy to get around, and it felt like a place that I needed to see and would have loved to have spent more time in. In nearly every instance of experiencing something new in Kyoto, I also knew that this was a place I would love to take my family someday. Every garden I saw reminded me of my mom and my aunt and I can only imagine my dad's face seeing some of the palaces and temples that were on display in this city.

Perhaps the best way to say it would be to say that perhaps more so than any other place I've been in my life, Kyoto felt like a complete other world. Yes, it is a modern city, but in certain places, it has retained its old world beauty like few places on Earth. To be fair, I'm not a well-traveled guy, but to me, Kyoto was as impressive a place as I can imagine myself going. There's a certain majesty in a 800 year-old wooden temple built up in misty hills that you just can't find in a neon-infused downtown core. To each, his or her own, I suppose. I loved experiencing both, but I felt more together, and in many ways more alive in Kyoto.

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