Kyoto #4 Dayscapes

January 31, 2007

Well, I’ve been a total slacker posting lately. But here’s some more pictures of Kyoto from my trip over Christmas. Thanks to Nick “Mr. Poopypants” Carey for reminding me.

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Alive in Baghdad.

January 19, 2007

 

Kyoto #3

January 2, 2007

Christmas Day. I awoke to people singing Christmas Carols in two part harmony. It probably would have upset me if the singing hadn’t been so good, and it was oddly comforting since it was my first Christmas here. I was the last person in the hostel to get up since I stayed out so late the night before, so by time I left, the place was nearly empty. I rented a bike and headed to Northwest Kyoto to Kitano Tenman-gu, a temple which holds a large open air market on the 25th of every month. My guidebook mentioned that it was particularly colorful in December and January, so I thought I’d give it a gander. On the way there I passed through the Imperial Palace grounds and stopped in for a delicious bowl of udon. The ride was really quite longer than I expected and took close to an hour to do. When I arrived I was amazed at the number of people there. The temple grounds were maybe two or three city blocks in size, and aside from the actual temple courtyard the whole area was packed with vendors and throngs of people which extended into the streets at the edges of the wooded grounds. There were quite a few food vendors, but it really felt like a large flea market. The quality of merchandise varied from junk to high dollar (or rather high yen) antiques. I spent several hours here poking around and people watching, and when I left in the mid afternoon I just pointed myself in the right direction and wandered back to the hostel through the heart of Kyoto.

One of my motivations for coming to Kyoto was to attend a couple of Aikido classes with Yoko Okamoto Sensei, who is one of the top female Aikido instructors in the world. She established Portland Aikikai where I last trained in the States. Today’s class was to be held in Tambambashi, a residential district in southern Kyoto. Before going there I visited a large shrine complex called Fushimi-Inari Taisha since it was just a couple of stops north of where the class was. The shrine has been around since the 8th century and is dedicated to Inari, the god of cereal grains. The fox is Inari’s messenger, and there are probably thousands of stone foxes here. The temple is best known for its iconic path of hundreds of consecutive torii gates, which stretches for some four kilometers (I’m trusting the Lonely planet guide that that number is accurate). I spent a little over an hour exploring the grounds before it got too dark to continue. The place was a little creepy in the diminishing light with the graves, shrines and myriad foxes staring menacingly at me from every corner. Supposedly there are monkeys here that prove to be a real menace, but today they were nowhere to be seen.

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By time I arrived in Tambambashi it was completely dark and I had to rely on my memory of a bad map in Japanese to find the place since I’d forgotten to bring the directions with me. I was really worried for a bit that I wouldn’t be able to find it, but luck was on my side and I didn’t make any wrong turns. I arrived early and got to see a good portion of the kids class, during which they had a sumo match! They almost convinced the instructors to sumo wrestle, but they backed out at the last second. The class was I participated in was really great, and there were about as many foreigners in the class as there were Japanese. I’ve been doing a different style of Aikido in Nakamura that’s more rigid and based on kata, so it was really fantastic to get to practice the fluid Aikikai style with such great Aikidoists. After the class I returned to the hostel and took it easy for the rest of the night, chatting and playing cards with the other guests.
Here’s a video from the kids’ class:

Kyoto #2

January 1, 2007

December 24, 2006. After leaving Kyoto station I headed North to Higashi Hongan-ji and Nishi Hongan-ji (or East Hongan Temple and West Hongan Temple, if you prefer). Both were being renovated and all of the safety orange, scaffolding and heavy equipment detracted from the overall appearance. The interiors were impressive, but the lights were dim, and there were people there praying so I didn’t dare take any flash photos. As you can see in the first picture, there is a large white structure next to the temple which contains the main hall. The temple in the photo is immense, and I can only imagine the effect of the temple grounds in its pristine state.

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After the temples I went to Nishiki Market (sorry, no pics) which is a bustling arcade primarily occupied by food vendors. It was Sunday and the lane was packed with people (most of them tourists) gawking at the huge variety of fresh foods. Fruits and vegetables, fish, octopi, seaweed, tea, sweets and huge vats of miso were just a few of the sights and smells that made up the market’s vibrant atmosphere. One of my missions in Kyoto was to finish up my Christmas shopping, and I had a really fun time here squeezing through the crowds and looking for just the right thing.

My next stop was Nijo Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage sight that was built in 1603 for Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first in the long line of the Tokugawa shogunate and one of Japan’s most prominent historical figures. Within the castle walls are two palaces, Ninomaru and Hanmaru. Hanmaru Palace is the upper building which is closed to the public and was built in the mid 1800s to replace the original which was destroyed by fire. The main attraction however is Ninomaru Palace, and I must say it’s quite impressive. From the outside it’s not all that much to look at, but the dimly lit interior is filled with screen paintings, intricate woodwork and beautiful designs painted on the ceilings and walls. The floors in the main passages are ‘nightingale’ floors, designed to squeak and sing with every step. The effect of this with the hundreds of people walking around was a bit eerie in the dark and chilly building. Unfortunately, photos weren’t allowed, so you’ll just have to visit yourself to see what I’m talking about. However, there are some pictures below of the main entrance to the palace, the garden, and of Hanmaru palace.

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Before checking in to the hostel I stayed at I had a bite to eat at a soba shop that had been hand-making their own soba (buckwheat noodles) for over 300 years. They were good, but I’m really no connoisseur, so the steep 1000yen price made the experience a little disappointing.

Later that night I went out with a guy from Taiwan and a South African from the hostel. We wandered around a bit, stopped in for an 850yen (~$8 US) pint of Guinness at a super lame Irish pub, and eventually ran into a couple of English teachers at another bar who gave us the DL on the Christmas Eve nightlife. We ended up heading to a club called ‘Metro’, which was actually in a subway station on the Keihan line. We arrived just as the ‘Reggae Christmas Party’ was getting started. There was a 2000yen cover, which I thought was pretty steep until I realized there were two drink tickets included in the price. I was worried that it would be lame (Japanese reggae?), but much to my relief there was an extremely capable DJ spinning good dancehall reggae and the crowd was super hip and lively. My companions, however, were not. I sat with them for close to an hour in the back of the place trying to no avail to make decent conversation. Luckily, they left pretty quickly and the South African guy, Piter, gave me his drink tickets. I then went down into the thick crowd and danced my ass off until 3am. Around midnight the DJ made way for a live band that did a pretty good job but put on an energetic show and really got the crowd going. The subway had stopped running by time I left, so I had brisk and chilly walk across town back to the hostel where I fumbled as quietly as possible to make my futon in the dark dorm room before plunging into a happy drunk slumber.

New Year’s Eve

January 1, 2007

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Last night was new year’s eve. I went to the B-block for the first time. It’s a bar in town, and is considered the hang for all the foreigners living in the area (i.e. English teachers). There I experienced what I’d heard about Japanese women being attracted to westerners. It’s true! Thank God. The evening began, where else, but at Darumaya. We ate the customary New Year’s Eve soba noodles and spent the first few minutes of 2007 there giving toasts and feeling good. Another Japanese custom is to visit a temple on New Year’s Eve, so the next spot was Ichijo-san, the same temple where there was a festival a couple of months back. It’s apparently the place to go on New Years Eve, and the word was that there were some 2000 people there at one point. We arrived close to one o’clock so the crowd had substantially thinned out. The temple was very nicely lit and there were vendors and a large fire burning on the path leading up to it. I rang the temple bell and said my new years prayer and headed to the fire to warm my hands. There was a large barrell of sake for all to partake in, so Liam and I had another toast out of the common drinking cups (gross!). From there I convinced Liam to go to B-block to see what was going on. We’d encountered some young drunk guys at the temple who really wanted to talk to us about American basketball and they followed us to the place, but decided at the door that they weren’t able to pay the 1000yen cover to get in. Right off the bat I got stuck talking to a really drunk Japanese guy and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying with the loud house music and his slurring in a language I don’t speak. To get away from him I pulled the old bastard switcheroo and introduced him to Liam and walked away. I ended up meeting a bunch of people, including a very nice married couple from a nearby town who spoke a bit of English. The woman, Ryo, upon discovering that I didn’t have a girlfriend proceeded to take me to the front of the dance floor and push me towards the girls dancing there. According to Ryo it doesn’t matter if I don’t speak Japanese, so I danced and was well recieved. I had a great time, and ended up kissing Ryo (oops). I left sometime around 4am and was so drunk that I had a hard time finding my way home. It concerned me that the holidays would be lonely here in Japan, but for both Christmas and New Years I’ve gone out and met great people had a wonderful time. I feel that much of the difficult period getting used to living in a different place and in a different culture has passed, and so far all omens indicate that this will be a good year. Yoi Otoshi O!