Sunday, September 5, 2010

Japan, There I was: Kyoto Part Two

After taking in the sights all day, James and I doubled back to A-Yado to regroup. Though it had dormitory-style beds, I liked it better than J-Hoppers for three reasons: 1. awesome location (right in the Gion district) 2. nice, new, and well kept (just opened last year), and 3. the perks included computers with free internet in the room, blasting air conditioning, and bread for breakfast.

Grabbing a sampling of Japanese beers that included different varieties of Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi, James and I went up to the common room/kitchen area to poke through the travel guide library to find a good place to eat. Many other guests were hanging out up there and we got talking to some Dutch dudes (a big perk of the hostel scene - you inevitably meet other people). We decided to tag along with them for another helping of ramen. This time, I went with a red bean paste variety. While it was a bit on the salty side, it was lovely and worth the second go.

Furthest down the table to nearest: Ruben, Lars and Rob. The boys were on a month-long vacation around Japan during their summer break from school. I was surprised to learn they were only around 19 years old.

They represented another example of a phenomenon that struck me: there are a whole lot of Europeans traveling around Japan. At J-Hoppers, James and I had had a lovely conversation with a French lady named Julie (she helped raise our consciousness of the many French words used in English language, such as enclave that James used to describe how wae-gooks cluster in Korea). While hostels like the ones we were staying at are generally full of people from all corners of the globe, we saw many more Europeans out and about than you would expect to find even in Seoul.

After the meal, we wandered to the Kamo river (Kamo-gawa) to find hundreds of Japanese youth having an epic riverside hang-session. Thinking it wise not to shell out seven bucks a pint at a pub, we joined.
It was cool to talk to the Dutch guys more and get their impressions of Japan. They also seemed interested to hear about Korea.

In something straight of of the movie "Lost in Translation," Rob's mother kept sending him picture texts on his iPhone of wallpaper samples for his bedroom. Soon after, we acquired a small bottle of Suntory whiskey to more fully capture the despair felt by Bill Murray's character Bob Harris. For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
Later on, two Japanese girls sat down next to James and I. It was a little obvious they'd indulged. One of them almost immediately passed out. James and I tried to strike up conversation with the other, but she didn't speak a word of English. We got off on the wrong foot by saying "hi," (how would you react if without warning, a foreigner said nothing but "yes" to you?) but recovered once we realized she wasn't paying much attention to what we were saying so much as how we were saying it. She couldn't speak English and we didn't know any Japanese, but we carried on something of a conversation. There are fewer barriers to a chat than you think. When she spoke with a tone that hinted she was asking a question, we gave an answer. When we asked her questions, she did the same (I remember asking if she knew Bob Harris). Was anything communicated? Nope. Did we feel like we kind of got to know each other? Sure. Cool indeed.

To cap the night, James and I bravely removed our shoes and waded ankle-deep to the other side of the Kamo-gawa and back hand-in-hand. We'd like to take credit for the idea, but we watched a Japanese couple do it earlier and decided it safe enough to attempt:


Renting bikes in Kyoto was one of the best things we did. There really is no better means of fitting in all the sights in a country as bike-friendly as Japan. Without straining ourselves, we made the most of our day, taking in each site we visited to contentment, and making it full across town and back with time to spare before our rentals were due. Some highlights:
Nijo Castle, constructed in 1603. One of the many UNESCO World heritage sites in Kyoto. The interior was very dimly lit and featured original decorative paintings. It also felt kind of homey to walk through because you had to take your shoes off.

With a quick Google search, I discovered there's also a Nijo Castle in Newark. I was immensely disappointed to learn that it was neither a castle (it's a restaurant) nor in New Jersey (in Newark, California).
The castle grounds.
Yet another kimono on the street! The aesthetic! It's everywhere! People are living it! It's alive! It's a damn shame James and I didn't attempt to ride our bikes wearing one.
One of the most famous sites in all of Japan - The Golden Pavilion. It certainly stood out for me, and not because it was completely covered IN PURE GOLD. In the midst of hundreds of other tourists noisily elbowing and rushing around I felt a profound sense of peace and calm. I also decided it has the potential to be the site of the coolest pool party in human history.
Leaving the Golden Pavilion, we had our longest stretch of open road. It took us through some beautiful sleepy suburban neighborhoods, rice farms, and lakes. The downhills were liberating. There's something about biking stretches of open road in foreign countries. I was filled with same sense of adventure I felt with Domhnall in the Czech countryside.
Tenryu-ji Temple, home of this awesome zen rock garden and bonzai tree:
Walking through the beautiful gardens of Tenryu-ji temple, we finally reached the Bamboo Forest, a symbol of Kyoto's mystical landscape:
It was very quiet, perhaps too quiet in the Bamboo Forest. The stalks were impressive in size; I'd never seen bamboo that thick. Had I made a comment to that effect while we were there, James no doubt would have been quick with a dirty joke.
Our last stop included a few temples we hadn't planned to visit well off to the northeast of Kyoto. We found them while searching for a sake brewery. After 45 minutes of walking around the neighborhood, we found it, only to discover it was nothing more than a dusty museum exhibit with no sake whatsoever. Blast.
On our ride back across town, James stopped in front of a suspiciously pink-orange building covered with flashing neon lights and anime cartoons. After all the historic sightseeing of the day, we found the Kyoto too has its modern side. Feeling curious, we went inside.
The place turned out to be a pachinko joint. Pachinko is something like pinball meets slots with an enhanced Asian arcade twist. James and I entered to the deafening roar of thousands of metal balls moving through the machines and the haze of cigarette smoke hanging above rows upon rows of machines. I couldn't hear a word James said to me the whole time we were there. We opted not to play.

After a rigorous day of cycling, we were starving. Following a tip, we went for some impossibly light tempura, fried to perfection. Still recovering from our earlier defeat at the "museum," we fit in a large order of sake.
That last night was a relaxed one. We took a bit of sake down to the Kamo Gawa so that we could admire the beautifully lit buildings and hanging lanterns. It was the perfect setting for a relaxed chat.

Walking back to A-Yado, we witnessed something quite unexpected. As we rounded a corner, I saw a white kimono-clad figure shuffle out of sight a block up. I pointed, and James and I started to run.

A geisha! A geisha!

Gion is known for sightings; it's one of the few reliable places in Japan you can hope to spot one by chance. Until now, we'd made no special effort. But now, with a little sake courage, I demanded the camera from James to attempt a picture. We eased our pace into a jog and soon caught up.

We felt both fascinated and immensely shy - this figure we chased looked like more of a doll than a human. Completely covered in ghost-white makeup and elegantly dressed, she was like an apparition.

She was also either in one hell of rush to get somewhere or she wanted nothing to do with us. Both possibilities rendered a "hey do you mind if we take photos with you?" style photo-op unlikely. Thus, I present my best shot, something I can't help but compare to photographic evidence of a Big Foot sighting (just do a Google search if you want to see a geisha, I promise, they're real).
Peace out, Kyoto.