Monday, April 23, 2012

The Japan Trip - Day 09

The last day in Kyoto was reserved for sightseeing. Bryan had "the plan" and we discussed it quite thoroughly the night before, and we were all prepared for whatever the day could throw at us. What we didn't prepare for, however, was what we could throw at ourselves. I woke up late. Well, at least later than usual. Everyone was ready to leave, so I quickly grabbed a quick breakfast from the naerby konbini (yakisoba-pan, or fried soba in a bun, which is rich in both carbs and novelty).

To get to our first sightseeing location, we needed to take the local train. It's very similar to our MRT, except for the fact that they still use tickets, which you buy from a very primitive-looking machine, and slot into the turnstile. Hilariously, XM didn't know you had to collect your ticket after you were through the gate, so he had to go back to get it. Luckily, it was still there.

Not pictured: the ticket-eating machine. Nom nom nom.

We first got to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, located in the southern district of Kyoto. It's got a huge temple in lovely shades of red and orange. At this point I'd like to highlight the beautiful architecture of the Japanese shrines and temples, the huge gates and high walls and the ornate roofs. It's all very nice.

I don't know if I pointed it out before this, but one thing we noticed is that almost everywher we've been or gone to in these first two weeks are swarming with school children on a field trip. They're easily recognisable: if they're primary school kids they're really tiny and have brightly coloured caps with a chin-strap; if they're in secondary school they're a bit bigger and in school uniform; if they're in high school they're very attractive (the girls at least).

The combination of architecture and cute schoolgirls is quite alluring.
I guess it makes sense that in a country with such a deep history and ancient culture, you get a lot of schools organising field trips to all these heritage sites and national monuments to learn stuff. I was a bit jealous that they got to go to such awesome places - I mean, why couldn't I, as a student, be brought to Japan to learn about awesome monuments?

Anyway, I made true my promise to follow the local traditions as much as I could, so I went up to the main shrine with the bells and pulled it and bowed twice and clapped twice then bowed again. I didn't know what to wish for, and I didn't think the gods would have listened to me anyways, so I asked for a Japanese girlfriend. I mean, it couldn't hurt right?

My current situation proves gods do not exist.
I didn't know at the time, but apparently the shrine's dedicated to the Inari Okami, goddess of rice, fertility, agriculture and foxes. It's also the taisha, which means it's the head shrine of this deity. Not that we knew anything about that when we were there; the main attraction for us was the large number of orange torii gates, disappearing into the distance up the mountain. They were all painted bright orange, and they all had a short string of caligraphy on them, possibly (we theorised) noting the date the gate was installed, and who had donated to the installation of aforesaid gate. There were also a number of stone torii, interspersed every, oh, say thirty to forty orange ones, and I presume they're the original torii that were there before the wooden ones were installed.

Bollywood torii.
It was like walking through a long, orange tunnel. There were so many! I thought I could count them on the way up. I gave up after about two hundred. And that was half an hour before we reached a mid point on the mountainside, and had to come back down because we had to get to the next stop. Thousands! And all beautifully and arbitrarily orange! A sweeper we met midway told us that there were about ten thousand torii in total, according to XM's translation, which is a pretty impressive number.

You're welcome to count them yourself.
As it was a shrine, our trek downwards brought us through many stone carvings and statues. There was also a small graveyard. There were also a couple of two very lazy cats dozing in the mid-morning sun. I purchased a small wooden replica of a torii as a souvenir.
It's like a little napkin to keep themselves clean while devouring your soul.

That's where they go after sitting on cashier tops and waving at customers all day.

We took a quick train to Arashiyama, the western district of Kyoto, to visit the Arashiyama bamboo forest, which is famous for being the place where a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed. After being surrounded by a claustrophobic pillars of orange, being surrouned by thinly sparse green pillars was not as majestic. It was still very beautiful, and once again it's a testament to the dynamicity of the flora in a temperate climate. It was very humid, but cool, and also a bit surreal.

You can't see the tigers and dragons for the bamboo.

There was a toppling bamboo shaft, which slid at is base at about thirty to forty degrees across the road, and we (obviously) had to stop to take a photo of us pushing it back into place. It was supposed to be a parody of the Iwo Jima Memorial, but of course it's very hard to parody a statue, especially when you're not wearing the right clothing.

"Put some backbone into it!"

Also, in the absence of anyone doing any crazy kungfu stunts, we naturally had to take some of our own, and we found a quite side road with a nice background to take some Street Fighter-esque shots. I vaguely remember some big shot driving past once in a very expensive car and a number of bodyguards, and we were guessing that maybe he's a movie star or something, but from Bollywood, because he clearly looked Indian.

Rebel One... Fighto!
"Low kick- ah, dammit!"
Obligatory jump shot!
The walk through Arashiyama took us through some of the local-ish neighbourhoods, which promised us "beautiful traditional and historic architecture" but broke it. We headed for the famous Togetsukyo Bridge, which Bryan says is famous for being in the Top 100 of something but he couldn't remember what it was. 

This retiree was painting in watercolours. Try as we might, we couldn't identify the two mountains in his picture.
The river was relatively empty, but I only say that because there were islands of land spaced between the streams - it could just be really shallow. The Japanese like to string ribbons of reflective material across them; I suspect as a type of charm, but I'm not sure what for. I also identified a side channel, made of stone, used to divert a portion of the water downstream, after the bridge, to ease some of the river's force and reduce the erosion. Brilliant.

Looks like they didn't... give a dam. AWWWWW YEEAAAAAA
Lunch was nearby, at a small restaurant with normal priced food. It became a bit of a running joke for the trip, since Bryan kept assuring us that around 1000 yen was the "normal" price for a meal in Japan, and so to not keep looking for "cheap" food because it'd be hard to find. 

The most creative menu display I have seen so far.
I had a tempura udon, which was decent; the prawn itself wasn't very fresh, but that's apparently because the best prawns don't get made into tempura. It was decent though, and the soup was invigorating. But it was a really hot and clear day, like maybe 30 degrees in direct sunlight, so I went to try, for the first time, an ice cream from a vending machine. It was refreshing on such a hot day, to bite into a cheap ice cream which was really good for its price.

Also: Kimono shot!

Arashiyama is also known for being a geisha district, but we never saw a single one until we were coming back across the bridge, when we spotted two coming across with an umbrella. They were being stopped by various tourists along their way, and of course Bryan immediately wanted a photo. One of them was really camera shy but the other was alright with photos, and Bryan got his "uniquely Japan" shot.

Not something you want to see on Fatal Frame.

The tram station we had to get to to travel to our next area was oddly familiar when we arrived there at first. I was wondering where I had seen it before, and then I remembered: in a Chinese lifestyle show about Japan, and they visited this very station. There apparently was a hot spring where you can soothe your legs while you wait for your tram, but I didn't see it; or maybe I had got it confused with another location.

"It's a foot towel! (Laughter.)"

We went to visit one of those Buddhist shines (Note: find out name and insert here) and went to take a look at the Zen garden. And there again was one of those beautiful things in the world which I don't know enough about to appreciate. There was a couple of large rocks, set on islands of perfectly manicured grass in the middle of a gentle sea of pebbles, raked in concentric circles and intricate patterns, like waves on the surface of the ocean. It was very pretty, and must have taken someone quite a lot of time to set up, but I couldn't see the point of it besides its aesthetic value. Apparently it's supposed to help you relax and reach that state of mind where you can ponder the meanings of the universe, but all we could think about was, "What if a bird crash lands into the middle and ploughs a trench in the pebbles?"

This would be an awesome location for a table-top battle.
A bus was taken to the next and final stop of the day, the famous golden temple itself, Kinkaku-ji Temple. I have to make a note here about Japanese public buses - the entrance is at the middle of the bus, and you exit at the front, where you pay your fare where the driver can see you. It was a flat fee for this bus, so we trundled along the winding roads and dropped off behind the Ritsumeikan University, where Yumiko-san and Inoue-san study.

The temple grounds were swarming with people, tourists and tour groups and a lot of locals as well. There was an admission fee, probably to buy more gold to maintain and upkeep the temple itself. We didn't mind it much, though, because the ticket was beautiful, caligraphy printed on a thick parchment, which in and of itself was pretty much worth at least half the entrance fee.

You gotta love Japanese fashion.

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion, was technically not completely golden. It was certainly gold-plated, on the second and third levels, and there was a large golden phoenix perched on the roof like the world's most expensive lightning rod, but the ground level was prominently wooden and didn't reflect the afternoon sun. I bought a small keychain replica, which had the nerve to be completely golden.

It's like Midas went crazy with the interior decor.

We took a bus back to our hostel and had an early dinner. Xi Min was craving curry, and JX had spotted a curry restaurant nearby on his morning walk (he wakes up unnaturally early, that one) and it was cheap too, so we were sold. It was a homely place, but it was playing Spanish or Mexican music, or at least that genre, but with Japanese lyrics, or something. We ordered our curry, and it was fantastic. There is something about Japanese curry that I prefer over our local Indian varieties - it's not spicy. The large puddle of sweet, savory sauce mixed with the traditional sticky rice is simply one of the best dishes in the world.

Food of the gods.

We dropped by a shop selling second hand CDs and stuff on the way back to the hostel. I was quite surprised that they were still quite expensive even though they were second hand - I guess they'll still be quite worth it if they are of quality.

They also have a selection of really old game cartriges.

At the hostel we were prepared to mingle with the other guests, so we trouped up to the common room and broke out the Monopoly Deal that I had brought, in the hopes of attacting a curious foreigner. It failed, because we (and everyone else) were all focused on the large television, which was showing The Last Samurai, which I found very ironic, especially when subtitles appeared for the English parts but not the Japanese ones. The actor who played Peter Pettigrew was there in one of the scenes, and I distinctly remember making a reference to Harry Potter, and the Hungarian girl sitting in the beanbag chair in front of us gave a chuckle. Bryan later mildly pissed her off, though, because he made some comment about how stupid the Japanese people were, charging to their deaths like that, and she said it was about honour and chivalry.

I enjoyed staying in the hostel, and I think I should mention some of the dramatis persona during our stay there. There was this Japanese guy, sleeping below Bryan, who apparently had a very strong smell hanging about him. He also seemed to drift in and out at all times of the day, and looked like one of those indie artists with his bedraggled hair. There was also a student from Hong Kong, whom we didn't talk to much (but apparently JX did, of course).

*All pictures in this post courtesy of Bryan.

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