Kyoto: Lost in an Ancient World

18 Jul

In order to fully take advantage of my Japan Rail Pass – my 14-day bullet train ticket to pretty much anywhere – I had to hit at least one more big city before I left. Kyoto seemed as good a choice as any to me, and Kurisu-chan made a point of insisting that it was unmissable. As usual, he was right.

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Our noble steeds, rented for the day. We sure as sushi put them through their paces.

Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Asia, and the former capital of Japan under imperial rule. Like the rest of the country, it’s an intoxicating fusion of old and new, with ancient temples snuggled up to bustling shopping districts. We focused on the older half, and devised a clockwise route across the city that would take us and our rented bikes to the most beautiful things I was to see during my time here. I’d already visited Nagoya Castle and gotten a taste of what “old Japan” had to offer, but nothing I’d seen was anything like the temples, shrines, and streets of Kyoto. For example:

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This is Hongwanji Temple, the birthplace of Jodu Shinshu (translated as “The True Essence of Pure Land Buddhist Teaching”). There are regular religious services held here, but we found it during a quiet period, and we were nearly the only ones inside the massive compound. Shoes must be removed at the steps of the temple, so we padded around in our socks, mindful of the stillness and quiet, careful to keep our voices low. It struck me that we were whispering even when nobody was nearby praying – a testament to the palpable divinity of the temple, and a sign of things to come.

The very popular Nijo Castle (or Nijo-jo) was next, and was by far one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. And when I say cool, I mean it was brutally, savagely hot both outside and in. But man was it fascinating.

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There were signs everywhere prohibiting the taking of photographs inside the castle but I’M A REBEL YO. Plus it’s just so they can charge you for official photos later. Jerks.

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The elaborate paintings adorning the walls and sliding paper doors have been preserved since their creation in the Edo period, and were almost all done by members of the Kano school of art, most of whom were members of the actual Kano family.

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Creepy wax figures depict a historical meeting between the shogun and visiting feudal lords. Note their uncomfortable crouching pose – now imagine remaining stock-still in that position, without movement or complaint, until your shogun was ready to grace you with his presence. Shoguns don’t exactly rush from place to place, you know? He may have stopped to eat, or paint, or…ahem…make use of one of his concubines. You’re still crouched there like a jackass for four hours. Respect. They got it.

Nijo-jo was completed at the turn of the 17th century, or Edo period – 1603, to be exact – and was the residence of the first Tokugawa shogun (or lord of feudal lords, reporting only to the Emperor himself). The preservation of his palace is immaculate, and it’s full of the kind of rich historical detail that makes me all weak at the knee. For example: the floors of the castle are called “nightingale floors”, so named for the chirping and squeaking they make when you walk over them. They’re deliberately designed this way as a sort of security system, preventing anyone from approaching the Shogun or his family without being heard first. I MEAN HOW COOL IS THAT? Of course, part of the reason ninjas were kind of badass (and shoguns still managed to get themselves assassinated) is that they found ways around that sort of thing; namely, clambering silently along the walls, columns, and ceilings. God Japan is awesome.

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Luckily, what this picture doesn’t convey is the frankly vulgar amount of sweat pouring off my skin. I was parting the crowd like Moses at the beach.

More awesomeness awaited us at Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, which rests at the foot of a mountain. Getting to the actual mountain was a Herculean challenge, considering it was all uphill and were were being assaulted by fifty thousand degree heat. Look I know I’m complaining a lot about the heat, but until y’all been to Asia in July you don’t even know. You don’t even know. And I run hot at the best of times. But it was worth it.

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For you aurophiles out there, yes: that’s real gold. The whole thing.

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Despite the massive crowd of tourists to push through, Kinkaku-ji was a truly serene experience. The feeling of reverence I experienced at Hongwanji returned in full force; I was reaching out and touching every tree and rock and bamboo sprout I could, hoping that by physically touching the place I could be more closely connected to its elusive magic. There really was a spirituality here, a potent marriage of nature and human history. It sounds cliché, but the idea of a place being “holy” didn’t really carry any meaning for me until I walked the forest paths of Kinkaku-ji.

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I lit some incense at a shrine to celebrate my newfound spirituality, and promptly coughed my ass off in the choking cloud that ensued. Thanks, universe.

Of course, this is where the “lost” part of the title comes in. Our next stop was what Chris called a “chopstick museum” in the famous shopping district of Gion, on the other side of the city. It’s a huge district but we managed to miss it by making several key mistakes in our route planning, and we ended up biking pretty much all across Kyoto. This was unfortunate in terms of timing – our bikes needed to be returned by 7 pm – but turned out to be one of the most valuable parts of my trip, providing an intimate look at the pulse and rhythm of this amazing city.

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I hadn’t really ridden a bike for years before this day trip, and had never ridden a bike in a sprawling urban area – nevermind one in a foreign country, where street directions are reversed and riding on the sidewalk is commonplace, and absolutely never one so packed with people. I had two choices: become a master cyclist in a matter of minutes, or perish in a horrible accident involving elderly pedestrians and any of a thousand motorized vehicles. Thank Buddha I’m a quick learner.

We were lucky to be visiting on a very special day in Kyoto, the Gion Matsuri (or Gion Festival), which is famous for its massive parade. Three days of celebration and closed-off streets lead up to the climactic parade, and we managed to catch a tiny bit of it:

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Celebrants dressed in robes of obviously deep significance carry a tree adorned with paper which represent…something.

Once we stumbled upon Gion it was a simple matter to find Chris’ chopstick museum, if you don’t count the eight near-death experiences I survived while trying to navigate the milling pedestrian horde on a rickety rental bike in pursuit of a ginger madman.

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More of a store than a museum, really. But LOOKIT ALL DEM CHOPSTICKS!

I had my name inscribed in both English and katakana on an austere, urbane pair of black chopsticks (ten inches, rosewood, dragon heartstring). Then it was time to get our bikes back to the rental place near the shinkansen station – but the clock was ticking, and it was halfway across town.

Never in my life have I gone so fast on a bicycle before. We avoided the main streets, favouring narrow one-way alleyways and passing speed cyclists like they were standing still. At one point a truck was looming up behind us in an impossibly tight alley and I heard Chris yell, “WE’VE GOT TO OUTRUN IT,” so instead of trying to stop and squeeze out of its way as it passed, we stomped on the throttle.

We made it to the rental place with almost exactly one minute to spare. Gion to South Kyoto in thirteen minutes. You can Google Maps it or whatever but trust me – that’s super fast.

Each day I spend in Japan manages to surpass the one preceding it. I don’t know if that’s due to my excellent host or a function of the country’s inherent exponential awesomeness scale, but it really blows my mind that it’s still getting better and better. Which is good, because I leave tomorrow, and it’s always smart to end on a high note.

Things I’ve Learned So Far

  • If I could have lived in the Edo period in Kyoto, I would. Except for the feudal system, meaning I’d probably be some dirt-poor brokeback serf. And the whole honour thing. It’s cool, but, you know. Not really willing to plunge a knife into my own gut because my daughter slept with the wrong dude.
  • I can actually ride a bike pretty capably after an afternoon spent in the most terrifying biking environment possible.
  • Also, protip: if you rent a bicycle in a foreign country, be sure you write down the lock combination. I didn’t actually have any trouble with that, but I’m sure it would have sucked if I did.
  • If you really want to get to know a place, get lost. It sounds like Tourism 101 (and it probably is), but I’m just now learning that you have to be willing to make mistakes and roll with it. It’s cool if you don’t manage to make it to the chopstick museum, because every single thing you see, hear, smell, and feel along the way is the real, actual experience. This country is a cannonade of stimuli fired right at your face and all you have to do to have an incredible time is notice it.
  • Japan’s still really hot, you guys. Still super humid out here. Just checking in.
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3 Responses to “Kyoto: Lost in an Ancient World”

  1. Sarah July 18, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    This was excellent! I especially enjoyed your brand of chopstick; mine would have unicorn hair in it.

    • jcdynamite July 18, 2013 at 6:05 am #

      Thanks! It really was like Ollivander’s in there. I didn’t really choose my chopsticks – I felt like they chose me, y’know?

  2. jamescummings July 28, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Okay, this is excellent, and funny!

    “Celebrants dressed in robes of obviously deep significance carry a tree adorned with paper which represent…something.
    Once we stumbled upon Gion it was a simple matter to find Chris’ chopstick museum, if you don’t count the eight near-death experiences I survived while trying to navigate the milling pedestrian horde on a rickety rental bike in pursuit of a ginger madman.”

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