Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kyoto and surroundings

So, I realize it's not going to be a particularly popular point of view (downright blasphemy, I suspect, according to the Lonely Planet Japan writers), but I didn't really like Kyoto. There were a couple of reasons for this:
- the city is so amazingly chock-full of tourists (both Japanese and foreign), it constantly feels like you just can't get away from the onslaught of the crowds. Everywhere you look, there's swarms of them, all carrying oversized cameras, often with tripods in tow.
- the city's primary calling card is the myriad of temples scattering all around it. Unfortunately, with all due respect to the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan, they are largely all very, very similar to each other. So, after a fairly brief while going temple-hopping became a litle stale for me. Clearly, plenty of people don't feel the same way - the author that worked on the Kyoto section of my guidebook obviously and deeply loved every last one of them, but me? Not so much... Give me the variety of the Buddhist temples in Bangkok!
- it clearly didn't help that I seemed to be in sort of a bad mood throughout my two days there. This was, of course, exacerbated by the fact that the Lonely Planet (which apparently prides itself on its maps) does not make it any easier to find things in this large and fairly confusing city. Instructions for finding a particular restaurant that include gems like 'look for a display of plastic food in the window' really don't help when every single restaurant in this country has such a display!

Well, all that being said, there are still some beautiful sights in this ancient capital, so, without further ado, this is what we are all really here for - pictures:
One of the reasons there's so many tourists in Kyoto right now is the brightly colored foliage visible, oh, everywhere. Here, providing a nice bright red background at a temple. In fact, I'm not sure I've seen leaves this brightly red ever before Japan. The locals are clearly impressed too, as I'm pretty sure I've seen more photographs being taken of the foliage than of the temples...

I, of course, took plenty myself as well - playing with focus on the camera a little in this one.

And learning how to take the pictures at night a bit - Chion-in Temple (top) and Kiyomizudera Temple (bottom). The crowds, by the way, do not abate at night, still snapping lots of pictures of the pretty leaves. I tried to avoid the crowds a little at one point, taking, what I thought was, a slightly less busy path. Soon, I was walking through a barely lit cemetery on a clear, moon-lit night in Kyoto... Then had to climb over a fence to get out of the cemetery - very un-Japanese of me, the locals are very law abiding.

Kinkabuji Temple - Golden pavilion

Fushiminari-taisha Shrine.

On my second day in Kyoto, I rented a bike to make getting around easier and did manage to find some sights that I thought were interesting and rather unique. The Kinkabuji Temple, a.k.a. Golden pavilion (for obvious reasons) casts a stunning reflection in the perfectly still waters of the lake that surrounds it. And the Fushiminari-taisha Shrine is famous for the long paths turned into virtually enclosed corridors by hundreds of the bright red gates pictured above (the shrine itself is not particularly noteworthy). The bike, by the way, made getting places a lot faster. It did not make places any easier to find, and it clearly endangered the lives of many a pedestrian, as, in Japan, bicycles shared the sidewalks with [lots of] pedestrians and, better yet, my brakes barely worked...

After deciding that Kyoto didn't really merit a third day of exploration, I went off on a couple of side trips nearby. First up was Koyasan mountain, home to a huge collection of temples and a traditionally holy place of Japanese Buddhism. Also houses an absolutely humongous cemetery buried deep in a mountain forest:

Grave stones and Buddha statues, framed by flowers, at the Okunoin cemetery in Koyason.

Also of interest in Koyasan, all the acomodation is in Buddhist temples, where we were up for a 6:30AM service by our resident monk. I didn't comprehend a thing of what was going on (it was also hard to see), but it seemed an interesting experience. Also, a very cold experience - being atop a mountain in Japan in early December means overnight temperatures climb below 0... And I found these guys supporting lanterns in the village:

I was initially planning to do a little more sightseeing in Koyasan in the morning, but the cold finally won out, so I packed up my bags and headed towards the train station (takes a cable car to descend from the mountain) in order to get to the more ancient Japanese capital city of Nara. On the train, I, of course, immediately ran into the couple who had also been staying in my temple in Koyasan. They were in Japan on their honeymoon - Vincent, from Paris, and Anna, now studying in Paris, but from St. Petersburg, Russia originally, so an extra, unexpected chance for some Russian conversation deep in Japan. A few sights in Nara:

Todaji Temple is the largest wooden structure in the world, and this picture really doesn't do justice to how huge it is. Inside, it houses an equally giant Buddha statue. The current temple is apparently a 1790 reconstruction (first erected in 749) and is only two thirds the size of the original structure. Apparently neither Kyoto nor Nara were high priority targets during WWII, so you can actually find some things built prior to 1950. Good luck finding one in Tokyo...

Lots of lanterns adorning the walls around Kasuga-Taisha Shrine, originally built in 768(!), making it one of the oldest in Japan.

And of course, there's plenty more colorful leaves here as well, making for some interesting photos.

Deer were considered messengers of God in ancient Japan, so the animals have some sort of holy status in the country - not quite as holy as cows in India apparently, but they do roam the grounds here in Nara, and this one casually resting reminded me of the cows sleeping in the middle of the road in India.

Unlike India, there's plenty of 'Warning: deer crossing!' signs in Nara.

From here, it's off to Nagoya again tomorrow to make sure all the documents relating to the car having gotten shipped out to Vancouver are in order, then (assuming this doesn't take too long), off to Hokaido up north for a brief snowboarding holiday - I figure I need a break from all the culture. And somewhere along the way, I should probably figure out how and when I'm getting back to the States too...

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