Posts Tagged ‘kyoto’

Moon Over Kyoto

My best experience in Kyoto was unplanned. I had contacted one of the several Welcome Guide groups in the city, to be told that no guide was available for my dates. But, the emailer said, although the guides usually went off duty at 5:00 pm, she planned to attend a Moon Viewing Ceremony – would I be interested in going along?

The evening started out cloudy

Of course I would! We arranged a date and time – she would meet me at my hotel. Then I sprained my ankle, but when I asked if she wanted to go alone, she said no. Instead of canceling, she checked with the front desk at the hotel for the best bus route, so I wouldn’t have to cope with stairs at the train station. I took my hiking stick (yet to duty as such on this trip) along to use as a cane.

We were headed for Arashiyama and the Daikakuji temple, originally a “detached” Imperial palace, and with plenty of chrysanthemum blossom decorations (hiding nail heads, for instance), to prove it. After we bought our tickets I bought us both bento boxes for dinner, and we spent some time sitting on benches (that looked more like tables to me) outside one of the halls, listening to music. As we sat down, a violinist in a long western evening gown took over, even playing, at one point, Moon River!

Most of the people there wore western dress (I saw few other foreigners), but a handful of women were in kimono.  Apparently the event had been very crowded the previous year, but bad weather during the day had kept the numbers down. We hoped for a clear night.

One of the boats

The Buddhist ceremony started at 6:30 pm, and right on time the clouds parted to show a perfect white moon, equally perfectly reflected in the lotus pond behind the celebrants. Afterwards we rode a dragon boat round the pond, eating a sweet cake and drinking the bitter tea ceremony tea. Then my Welcome Guide walked me round the imperial buildings, and we traded moon myths – green cheese for white rabbits

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A Little Kyoto

Kyoto is a very big city, with very bad traffic. Getting around takes time, unless you can use one of the two subway lines, which doesn’t happen very often. My hotel was on the older north-south line, but north of the station. The lone elevator was at the south end, which gave me a choice of a long limp or nearly 60 stairs.

The entrance to Nijo Castle

In fact, the Palace Side’s location turned out a lot worse than I expected, at least for someone with mobility problems. The nearest main bus line was down by the subway station, and the whole neighborhood shut down mid-afternoon, leaving few eating options.

The neighborhood did have a hospital, the Daini Nisseki, but they wanted a 5,250 yen new patient exam before they’d look at my ankle, and warned me of a long wait. Kind posters on Fodors.com tried to help me with other suggestions, but nothing worked out. And then my medical insurance would only cover me for a visit to an emergency room. Except they don’t have emergency rooms in Japanese hospitals…

A kimono model

I also spent a fair amount of time at the station. None of the three ticket offices I tried wanted to sell me tickets for other parts of Japan, and none would sell me the 115 yen Seishun Juhachi Kippu, good for five days of rail travel, available in Tokyo, claiming it had been discontinued several days earlier. I guess no one told Shinagawa station in Tokyo. I managed to buy the tickets from the Nippon Travel Agency instead.

The station was a good place for lunch – one tempura set on the department store side, and one Chinese fried rice on the “Cube” side. The second meal came with a great view north over the city.

I did manage some sightseeing, starting with Nijo Castle, which was so different from the English castles I grew up visiting I had a hard time registering it as a military site – until I took a good look at the massive stone walls. I was less impressed with the nearby Nishijin Textile Center. The kimono parade was interesting, but the demonstrations I tracked down on the third floor were winding down, and it mostly seemed to be a shopping op.

A glimpse of Koto-In

I visited just a handful of Kyoto’s many temples, unfortunately in the wrong order, with the best first. That was Koto-In, in the Daitokuji temple complex. Koto-In was founded by Hosokawa Tadaoki, and he and his wife, Lady Gracia  (both the basis for characters in Clavell’s “Shogun”) are buried at the temple, which is approached down a long, shaded avenue.  I thoroughly enjoyed the serenity I had been missing in modern Kyoto, sitting on the verandah and admiring the mossy ground, the feathery bamboo, and the trees showing the first hints of fall color.

More of Koto-In

Another peaceful place I’d be happy to revisit, Eikan-do, even had a brand-new elevator to get me up to the most important building. The elevstor was housed in its own raw-wood tower, with sprays of delicate maple leaves etched on the metal doors.  The main building housed an unusual Buddha Glancing Backward statue.

Nice and peaceful

My visit to the famed Ginkaku-ji was much less successful. To start with, it was a long trek from the bus stop, uphill, and through a gauntlet of souvenir shops and cafes (luckily I found a more peaceful route back, through residential streets). Second, the place was overrun by hordes of fellow-tourists. Finally, the buildings and grounds just didn’t seem that exciting. I should have gone back to Daitokuji instead.

Typical sight on the approach to Ginkaku-ji

The pavilion and "mountain" at Ginkaku-ji

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Limping to Kyoto

After a bizarre breakfast – tasteless pasta with a few canned mushroom pieces and tomato dice, wth fruit and ice cream – we landed at Narita airport in a driving rainstorm. Not a problem for people – we used the jetway. But after having my fingerprints and photo taken by the immigration officer, and answering several questions, I retrieved my big pack from the carousel to find it soaking wet! Is it really too much to expect Japan Airlines to put a tarp over the bags in a rainstorm?

My pack does have a built-in cover I use when I travel in the rain, but it’s not suitable for flights, and only covers the side that stayed dry. That, of course, is the side with the plastic I put between the clothes and the toiletries. Fortunately, I also bag the books and papers, and footwear, in plastic, but quite a few of my clothes were wet, and my silk sleep sack was totally soaked. My room at the Toyoko Inn Shinagawa would have been plenty big enough under normal circumstances, but with the entire contents of my pack spread around, in various stages of drying, it was decidedly cramped.

Getting to Shinagawa was pretty straightforward: free trolleys in the airport, a Citibank ATM for cash (after I figured out the exchange rate and asked for a reasonable amount), my Visa card bought me a ticket on the N’EX airport express, and I spotted a sign for the Prince Hotel, next door to the Toyoko, in the station. Dinner, back at the station, was easy too. I picked a restaurant based on the pictures outside, and enjoyed remarkably tender and tasty pork slices fried in ginger, with miso soup, rice and pickles. I was no better or worse with the chopsticks than on previous trips – adequate but not expert.

Central hall in Kyoto station

My original plan had been to take advantage of jet lag and visit the fish market, but with a bad ankle it seemed more sensible to go straight on to Kyoto. The Toyoko put on a  better breakfast than JAL, with unlimited orange juice and coffee, and so-so croissants, but I was puzzled by what appeared to be tuna fish sandwiches, and potato salad, which had also appeared the night before. Again, I had no trouble using a credit card (although I hear that MasterCard might be a different matter) to buy a ticket on the shinkansen to Kyoto.

The bullet train proved a bit disappointing – not as blindingly fast as I had expected – not noticeably faster than a French ICE. And on a hazy day, with an aisle seat, I didn’t get much of a view. What countryside I did see attracted me – lots of steep, shaggy hills – and contrasted strongly with the crowded cities. My room at the Palace Side in Kyoto was bigger but shabbier than the one in the Toyoko in Tokyo, and the garden view not worth the extra I was paying – all I could see were the trees along the outer wall. The location proved poor too – the area shut down almost completely late afternoon, and it wasn’t on a main bus route.

I spent the afternoon asleep, hoping to cure jet lag and my bad ankle at the same time. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for my ankle, and as I limped slowly to a nearby izakaya for an informal dinner of things (mostly chicken livers) on sticks I started feeling really worried.

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