The next day we left for Kyoto, another short train ride away. On arriving at the station, we stumbled upon the tourist information office and were furnished with free maps, bus timetables, recommendations for places to visit and routes to take by quite possibly the most helpful tourist info lady I have ever come across. We were to be couchsurfing again, but were not due to meet our host until that evening, so we put our rucksacks in the station lockers and spent a few hours walking around the centre. Saying we ‘put our rucksacks in the lockers’ really does not do justice to the time this took. Being cheapskates, we were determined to fit both of our huge rucksacks in one locker, and the resulting collage of rucksacks and their contents was a feat of tessellation worthy of a Tetris master.
We seem to have fallen into a sort of pattern whereby we get hungrier and hungrier, then start to look for somewhere to eat and somehow none of the restaurants fit our idea of the perfect restaurant for the moment (too expensive, not local food, too empty, too bright…). Thus we wandered, with hunger gnawing at our bellies, past dozens of what were probably perfectly passable eating establishments. As the rumbling increases, so the desire to find a delicious, filling, paragon of Japanese cuisine heightens, whilst the ability of restaurants in the area to satisfy your now unreasonable expectations lessens. We ended up in a Korean barbecue all you can eat restaurant. Not Japanese, but you can’t beat an all you can eat when you are ravenous!
We spent our 90 minutes of allotted time contentedly grilling strips of meat and vegetables on our table top barbecue, dipping them in spicy sauces, slurping soup, gobbling sticky rice and munching on kimchi. We weren’t, however, a match for the couple next to us. They were slight, but their frames belied their gargantuan appetites. Dish after dish came out and disappeared. They were still grilling meat when their dessert arrived. Two chocolate ice cream sundaes. Followed by two more. Followed by three bowls of ice cream. We left feeling nicely full, but somehow felt we hadn’t quite got our money’s worth!
After dinner, we prised our bags out of the locker (which thankfully hadn’t exploded in our absence) and caught the bus to the outskirts of town to meet our couchsurfing host. Van is a lovely, bubbly, enthusiastic Vietnamese girl, who is studying for an MBA (master of business administration) here. Her room was in student accommodation and I shared her bed, whilst Luke slept on the floor. We had a nice chat before turning in and she told us about her family and Vietnam. Hopefully we will be able to stay in touch and get some tips for when we visit there next year.
In the morning, we shared a breakfast of toast, omelette and noodle soup. Luke was in charge of grilling the toast, but Van didn’t seem to think he could be trusted and when she spotted the bread was a bit brown (Luke prefers it well done), she cried, ‘Luke can’t cook, right?’. Luke looked mortally offended by this, and responded, ‘I’m a GOOD cook!’, to which I said, in a somewhat non-committal way, ‘yes, he can cook’. Afterwards I explained that I would be lying if I said he was a GOOD cook (we had planned to make her dinner that night, and I got the impression her standards might be high after our conversations about Vietnamese cooking, so I didn’t want to inflate our abilities), but that he was a perfectly passable one. Having never really shown much interest in cooking other than as a means to an end (i.e. to provide fuel for a few hours), I was somewhat baffled by his desire to be acknowledged as a wonderful cook! This could work in my favour…
Kyoto is one of Japan’s ancient capitals and has more temples than you can shake a stick at. We really were spoilt for choice and a little overwhelmed by the options, but luckily the flat was close to some of Kyoto’s best temples, so first of all we walked to Ginkakuji. It was built in 1482 by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was the eighth Muromachi Shogunate. He spent a good part of his life building and perfecting the relaxing villa where he could spend a peaceful retirement, and it was subsequently converted into a Zen temple. It is a world cultural heritage site, and the Japanese style garden is famed for its beauty. As we walked in we were confronted by an enormous, perfectly sculpted sandcastle. I think it may have represented Mount Fuji, with its fat, conical structure and flattened top. Or possibly one of the many other volcanoes in Japan! The sloping sides were impeccably smooth and the sand at the base had been raked in concentric circles, so there was no evidence of the person that had made it. Nearby, there was another, larger sand area which had been raked into diagonal lines. Now this is all very well and good and rather impressive, but is it peaceful? What person in their right mind could sit in calm contemplation when they are surrounded by so much sand? The temptation to run through it was quite high, but we filed past demurely with all the other tourists.
We had, unfortunately, hit peak season when it came to visiting Kyoto, so the temples were heaving with tourists (mainly Japanese) eager to document the autumn foliage at its best. The temple gardens are an ideal place to do this, with the maple trees that arch gracefully over the ponds, waving their little fire-tipped fingers in the breeze, the whimsical wooden bridges and winding paths that entice you into hidden corners and up little hillocks where you can look out at the view below. You will all have heard of ‘feng shui’, and here it was in action; or perhaps one should say harmonious inaction! Japanese gardens are truly a work of art; so much time is devoted to achieving a perfect balance between the elements and they maintain their elegance throughout the year through careful choices of plants and trees. Personally though, I like a bit more disorder in my life, which no doubt will come as a surprise to many of you. Charming as they are, I think I would feel happier in a space with a bit more wilderness and fewer boundaries. However, as a spot for quiet meditation, I imagine they would score pretty highly. Had we arrived at a time when there were fewer tourists, I believe I would have appreciated the gardens more. However, we had to shuffle round in a line ducking out of photos as people stopped to take snaps. It does detract from the restful atmosphere somewhat!
We wandered on from here trying to find a quieter spot and were surprised to come a across a red brick aqueduct, just outside Nanzen-ji temple. It used to carry water and goods to Kyoto from Lake Biwa in the neighbouring county. For a moment I felt a little like I was back in the industrial north of England, but the effect soon wore off once we entered the temple grounds!
We visited Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple in the afternoon, but this time we had company. As we were contemplating our options, two students approached us – a boy of 18, named Ren and a girl of 19, named Saki. They told us they were studying English and asked if we would mind if they gave us a free tour. They were very sweet and polite, so we said yes. As they were only in their first year, they weren’t yet fluent, but they still managed to explain the purpose of the many shrines and rituals that are performed there, of course peppered with a few moments of mutual confusion. They showed us a platform from which people used to hurl themselves in order to have their wish granted. If you survived the 13m drop, your wish would come true! Around 85% of people that did this survive, but as you might expect, the practice has now been banned! In this same part, there were two very heavy metal posts, which stood upright and were supported by a wooden table. If you were able to lift the post with one hand (the larger pole for men, the smaller for women), you were destined to be rich. Luke managed to lift the ladies’ one with one hand, but the biggest post was impossible to shift.
There was a famous shrine dedicated to love and matchmaking, and there were stalls selling small wooden prayer cards, on which you could write your heart’s desire, which you then tied to a fence. You could also pay for charms that would assure a good marriage, fertility, luck in love… the list goes on. I think this is what could be classed as temple kitsch. There was a pair of love stones set 6m apart that you had to walk between with your eyes closed. If you reached the far stone without peeping or having any assistance, then you would find true love. If you found it with some assistance, you would find true love if you have someone else to guide you. If you missed completely, you might as well go to the aforementioned platform now. I managed to find it with some audio guiding courtesy of Ren and Saki, and Luke was standing at the end, so I think I’m okay.
Probably the best part of this temple was the entrance into the womb! We paid a small fee and took off our shoes. Then we descended some steps, holding onto the handrail. As we followed the rail around, it got darker and darker, until it was so inky black we couldn’t see a thing. In this sort of perfect darkness you feel vulnerable, and whilst you know it is probably safe to march straight on as long as you keep your hand on the guide, some uncertainty holds you back. We rounded a corner, and there on a pedestal, glowing as if with a light of its own, was a large, grey, egg-like stone that was engraved with writing. When we reached the stone, we laid our hands on it and made a wish, before navigating our way back out, blinking in the light of day as we emerged from the womb, born afresh!
After this primal experience, we were way overdue some refreshments, so we took Ren and Saki to a nearby café. Luke and I had missed our lunch, but we had promised Van we would cook for her that evening at around 7.30pm and it was now almost 5pm. We settled for half a meal each, which took the edge off. We then merrily bid goodbye to our helpful guides and boarded a bus back towards the apartment. We spent about half an hour dithering over food in the supermarket, then when it came to paying realised we were out of cash and they didn’t accept cards! I duly headed out to find an ATM, whilst Luke guarded our groceries. Half an hour later, I returned, having tried 3 separate machines at different banks, all of which had declined my card. I discovered on reading our guide to Japan, that the only ATMs that accept foreign cards are those at the post offices, Citibank Japan and in the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores – none of which were in our immediate vicinity. Luckily we had bought a one day bus pass, so we were able to catch a bus into the town centre where Luke had remembered seeing a 7-Eleven shop. Time was creeping on and our hopes for cooking a delicious meal for our kind hostess were dwindling. By about 9.30pm we had finally managed to establish contact and ascertained that she had already eaten. Now only having ourselves to feed, we headed for an area we knew was full of restaurants to grab something quickly. Restaurant after restaurant turned us down – all were full. The only place we could find that could feed us was a Japanese equivalent of McDonald’s! Sadly, but hungrily, we tucked into our processed burgers and French fries… then found we had missed the last bus. Thankfully, it wasn’t too difficult to find our way via a different part of town and we were able to stop at the original supermarket to pick up some breakfast things instead! The best laid plans…
The following morning, we introduced Van to croissants, which she liked very much, so hopefully that made up for the lack of dinner the previous evening! We took our bags to the station, hoping for a quick drop off so we could enjoy our last day in Kyoto and found that every single locker was full. We followed the signs for the luggage storage room and encountered a huge queue, snaking around the building, discovering to our dismay that this was the queue for left luggage. However, the Japanese are fantastic at organising things, so what seemed like it was going to take half a day, in reality only took about half an hour, as they split the queue into sections and marshalled people to separate areas.
Feeling slightly jaded, we took a trip up the escalators to seek out the restaurants on the eighth floor. Kyoto JR station is probably the swankiest railway station I have ever been in. Architecturally it is an attraction itself, a swooping steel and glass structure with fantastic views of the city from the rooftop garden. This was our first experience with ordering a full meal via a vending machine. There was a maze of small ramen restaurants inside, with people lined up on benches outside each booth. We chose one that seemed popular. After observing other customers, we approached the vending machine. On it was an array of buttons, each with a picture of a different meal and the price. We fed our money into the slots and punched in our meal options. The machine printed out some coupons and spat out our change. We then gave the tickets to a member of staff and joined the queue of people on the benches. Not long after, our order was ready and we were called through to sit down. It was quite fun, and very efficient!
Feeling restored, we caught a bus to Arashiyama, where there were more temples, but most importantly for us, a famed bamboo forest. The bus was packed and the closer we got to our destination, the slower the bus became as the traffic got heavier and heavier. Eventually we decided it would be quicker to get out and walk. At first it was, but soon we were in the press of tourists being born along by the tide through the pretty streets without really being able to appreciate them. I don’t remember being in a crowd like that since jostling at the front of Britpop gigs as a teenager! It was pretty horrible, I’m glad I don’t suffer from claustrophobia. Once we reached the main attractions, the crowds thinned a little as people dispersed in different directions. We entered a temple, Tenyru-ji and walked through the pretty grounds to the south gate, from where we found ourselves in the thick of the bamboo forest. Even with all the people, it was still impressive. A path wound through the grove, with woven walls on either side. The bamboo plants were as thick as my calves, tall and straight, reaching high above our heads before their leaves spread out to form a vivid green canopy that was lit by sunlight. When you looked to the left and right you saw elegant stripes of green silently clustered together, stretching into the distance. It was quite a magical place, and I imagine would be even more so if you arrived at sunrise. Apparently they filmed part of the film, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ here. The bamboo forest makes you feel very small; it’s probably the closest you could get to feeling like an ant in a field of grass!
That evening, we caught the train for a short journey to Nara, another ancient capital. We were looking forward to it very much, as we were to be staying in a deer park!