Thursday, September 27, 2007

Foxes, and foxes, and foxes again.

(Rickshaw Inn, Takayama)

On my last full day in Kyoto I had three goals; the Johnny Hillwalker walking tour, Ni-jo, and Fushimi-Inari Taisha. The walking tour was due to start at 10 outside Kyoto station. One flyer I picked up said the walk was three hours. Another ad said it was four. From his own mouth, it was five. It was going to be tight.

Given I was testing out the buses from my hotel to the station, I left early (still leaving time to screw up). The bus system really is excellent. Kyoto is laid out in a grid pattern, in emulation of the old Chinese cities. As such, it’s pretty straight forward getting from one side of town to the other. The buses are even designed specifically for sightseeing, which coincides with being useful for residents getting about as well. That said, just because a bus travels down one road, it won’t necessarily stop at all the bus stops. Best to check the route maps on each of the bus stops before hopping on.

I had plenty of time at the station, so indulged in breakfast. I know, crazy! When I surfaced, Johnny was already present and handing out maps. He’s a little weathered man, hair more white than black.

While waiting for everyone to turn up, a man from Dallas started chatting up a tiny little chinese woman from New York, who was standing next to me. Standard traveller talk; where are you from, where are you going, where have you been, oh, I’ve done this and this and all this.

The first place Johnny took us was Higashi-hongan-ji, again. It was much better with a knowledgable guide. Turns out, what I thought was general construction was actually a repair of the main hall, the largest wooden building in Japan. Shame. With the main hall out of order, the Amida Hall is being used for services. When we visited, there was a service to state “I am a Buddhist” being performed.

Like the Imperial Palace, this temple has burnt down several times as well. The first couple of times the Shogunate rebuilt it, but the third time not so, as the Shogun lost power. It was rebuilt by the people, by volunteers who went into the mountains looking for elms large enough to be the supporting pillars. They wove rope out of their own hair to haul the lumber down the mountain. The rope is on display, and much larger than you’d believe.

(One of the pillars in question. That's a lot of tree to lug back from the mountains.)

At the new temple, which had very strong church-like overtones, Johnny gave an abbreviated summary of Japanese Buddhism, which is different from Chinese Buddhism, which is different again from Indian Buddhism. The Japanese like the Amida Buddha, who is not popular with the Indians and Chinese, as the Amida Buddha does not deliver wealth or happiness. The Japanese already have their Shinto gods to look after wealth and happiness, and so look to the Amida Buddha for the one thing the Amida Buddha gives; Paradise. Amida only cares if you are alive or dead, and if you are dead, he takes you away.

There was a woman with us, toting around a wheeled backpack with all the zips open. When we took our shoes off to enter the Amida Hall, she left her bag there, despite being told we were putting our shoes on again elsewhere. Of course, when she went back to get her bag, it wasn’t there. Johnny sent us all on to the next stop while locating her bag for her.

Stupid woman. If your bag contains what you need to continue travelling, then don’t be a stupid daft idiot and leave it unattended and out of sight. Not to mention, duh! Security risk, of course it will be taken away.

The next stop was a fan shop, at which we were able to watch fans being made by hand. Interestingly, the fan industry in Kyoto is quite a specialised one; many people work at home, and work at doing one part of the fan making process only. One household might specialise in making paper, another in painting it, another in cutting bamboo, another in making the frames, and so on. The same with many other traditional industries. Johnny said that one kimono can go through up to forty households before being completed. It’s no wonder they cost so much.

The fan making industry is dying out though, due to the cheaper imported fans from China. Seeing as I knew what was before me was hand crafted, I splurged and bought myself a luverly one, which will never be used because it’s too pretty. Back in Tokyo I bought the cheapest, plainest fan I could find, and it’s served me well, and is already banged up as all hell.

From there we visited a Shinto shrine, Ayako-tenmangu. The tenmangu set of Shinto shrines are for ‘better head’, which is intelligence and wisdom related, and as such they’re very popular with students in the throes of exam period.

Here, Johnny explained the rituals of a Shinto shrine. Shinto tends to circulate around purity and cleanliness. The ropes around the shrine are to keep dirtiness and impurity out. Before passing beyond the rope, you must wash your hands and mouth with the water found at all Shinto shrines.

Because Shinto gods are spirits, and zoom around all over the place, it is necessary to get their attention. To do so, you ring the bell and clap your hands before praying.

Kitano-Tenmangu, at which I’d visited the market, is the head tenmangu shrine in Japan, where all donations from all the tenmangu shrines in the country go.

This was followed by a visit to a much smaller Buddhist temple, which housed a Shinto shrine in the corner. As Johnny pointed out, the many buddhas in Buddhism don’t quarrel, and the many gods in Shintoism don’t quarrel, and as such, both are quite happy to be mixed up together. I like these religions.

(The Shinto shrine tucked in the corner of the Buddhish's temple yard, both equally well maintained.)

We visited a grave yard, where the death customs were explained to us. Death anniversaries are marked on the third, seventh, and so on years. I couldn’t quite figure out the exact pattern with the numbers.

Ichihime was another Shinto shrine, this one dedicated to the protection of women.

After that, we strayed into a declining geisha district, and a geisha house was pointed out to us. The area was going down hill, and while there were still geisha operating, there were fewer and fewer each year. Johnny detailed the process girls have to go through in order to become a geisha, which sounds even harder than trying to get into university in this country. The profession appeals largely to those interested in dance and music, and apparently half of the girls who become maiko do not become fully fledged geisha.

(The lantern is the sign of a geisha house. They're were not extravagant buildings, and quiet during the day.)

Kyoto seems to be in decline, at least from Johnny’s point of view. A lot of old crafts are thinning out.

The next stop was something completely unexpected. Many years ago, a company made it big selling picture playing cards. The factory still stands, although it is no longer used, as the company is now busy doing other things.



We were given a piece of inari sushi (you probably know it as the sushi that is rice in a jacket of sweet bean curd) before strolling about the pottery district. The house of one apparently very famous potter had bowls just drying out on the front fence. Apparently these bowls are only available at exhibitions, not in any stores, yet they were just sitting out the front for any of us to steal or knock over.

In a small bakery we were given a cup of tea and a sweet, and from there descended on Toyokuni, a shrine dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Johnny gave a unique perspective on the Toyotomi/Tokugawa feud. The Tokugawa Shogun did unify Japan, but also sealed the country off from the outside world, and generally wasn’t all that nice a guy. When the Shogun finally lost power, they were so afraid of him that they made a shrine to keep the shogunate away using the power of Hideyoshi’s spirit.

Hideyoshi isn’t without his stains; he did some terrible things to the Koreans. But he started something.

While Johnny was telling us this, Mr Dallas and Ms New York were standing next to me. He’d maneuvered himself behind her, and stood with his hands on her waist, and she was not happy with it. I’d seen him getting man-handly with her when crossing roads, taking her by the arm and such. First chance she got, she moved away, to my other side. I tried to subtly ask if she was okay, but she waved me off.

The tour ended shortly after. I stuck close by her, in case she looked like she needed intervention. The two of them left together though, him with his hand on her forearm as they ran across the road. She’d half-attempted to brush him off when he offered to show her around a temple, pointing out he’d already been, but never actually said “no.”

Sometimes, I think being a tiny little pretty thing must suck. I’m glad I’m not. I’m also glad I’m cantankerous enough to tell people when to bugger off. Girl, it’s your holiday. You don’t owe him a thing.

Time was short. Luckily, there was a bus leaving from a stop nearby that went straight to Ni-jo, so I leapt on it. It was a very rushed tour of the castle, built by Tokugawa Ieyasu (I swear, all these guys did was build big things), but very much worth it. It was what I was expecting the Imperial Palace to be. Every room was full of gold paint and the sliding doors were covered in lush beautiful murals. Ever room and corridor was a piece of art.

Best of all was the floors. Ni-jo is full of the famed nightingale floors, and yes I tried to walk across them without making a sound, and only succeeded some of the time. The sound they make is different to what I’d expected. I’d anticipated the creak and grumble of wooden floorboards, but it is the nails themselves that sing, and they’re much sweeter. They’re like the little squeak of mice, or the peep of baby chickens. The passage of feet is pronounced, but not obnoxious.

The sun was setting by the time they kicked me out. I lept on the first bus to the station, and took the JR Nara line to Inari, where the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Temple is located. It is the head Shinto shrine of Inari, the god of rice and favourable business. Foxes are his messenger, and there were fox statues everywhere.

The main drawcard was the paths leading back from the temple up into the hills, where various smaller shrines were housed. Each path was lined thick with great vermillion torii gates. They were thick and tightly-packed. It wasn’t like strolling through the forest at all.

I walked through twisting orange corridors, as the sun set and the crows bickered and the last cicadas of summer buzzed their chorus. Gradually, the lanterns came on, and my corridors were striped with light and shadow.

(I turned around, and was startled to find all gates were carved upon, a stark contrast to their blank faces. Remember - always look behind you.)

(There were temple kitties everywhere. I assume the foxes don't mind their presence.)

There were many branches, and the few maps I encountered were entirely enigmatic, so once I reached the point where I wasn’t sure if I’d remember what route to take to get back, I turned around. I could have spent much longer there, just walking through the torii.

I ducked into the basement of a nearby department store for dinner, as I had to contain the mess in my room and sort myself out for check out. I have to say, while the Japanese excel at presentation, they overpackage. There are wrappings in boxes in wrappings in wrapping paper in bags. It’s an enormous waste. I also, er, got sucked into Tower Records kindofmaybeonpurpose. Look, when the new albums from Iron & Wine AND Jose Gonzalez are released on the same day, you’d do the same. Gonzalez does an excellent cover of Teardrops, you should seek it.

I messed up with Kyoto. I didn’t give myself nearly enough time to poke around, nor did I have my act together and have a coherent idea of what I wanted to do. Next time, I think I’ll give myself at least a week here, for a good rummage.

This morning I slept in, since check out wasn’t until 11. No that I slept, oh no, but just lazing in bed was good enough. A quick trip to the post office to send my latest batch of stuff I didn’t want to carry around back home before hitting up the station. I love the post offices here. They’re useful, unlike most of the ones I encountered in America. I have all my terms memorised, and the process is pretty painless. A newly discovered talent of mine is knowing exactly when I have enough stuff to fill a box snugly.

The shinkansen took me to Nagoya, and from there a limited express train to Takayama. The limited express alarmed me initially, as the first leg of the trip was spent travelling backwards. No way I could travel backwards for over two hours and not hurl my guts up. Thankfully, it was the train equivalent of reversing out of a driveway. The majority of the trip was spent following a river up a deep valley. The water was a fantastic colour, somewhere between blue and green, and so very clear.

Takayama is a little mountain town that has retained most of its traditional Japanese buildings and atmosphere. Just walking from the station to my hotel was enough to win me over.

(There is someone walking down the street, regularly hitting two blocks of wood together. Old school nightwatch man? Dammit, missed them. I’ll have to check again tomorrow.)

The Rickshaw Inn is great. It’s a very small ryokan, but wonderfully decorated and with an elegant feel. My room is yet another tiny tatami mat room, squeezed in behind the kitchen.

I’d intended to visit an arts and crafts museum before it shut, but, er, this town is another of those towns full of fascinating little streets lined with fascinating little shops, and I got so distracted it closed before I made it there.

There is a dead hour in most of the smaller towns, between the shops shutting and the restaurants opening. The river cutting through the centre of town seemed a nice quiet place to chill, so I found a seat and gave home a call.

The path by the river is where the locals take their little dogs to do their evening poo-poo. FYI.

Beef dishes are pushed as a great specialty in Japan, which I think is due to the scarcity of beef itself. Japan doesn’t have the space to have large herds of cows at pasture. To be honest, I’m not that much of a red meat girl back home, so I haven’t made any effort to try the beef here. But I liked Takayama, so I figured I’d try the local Hida beef.

The restaurant I found only had a Japanese menu out front, without roman numeral prices, and looked rather up market and probably wouldn’t appreciate me walking my shabby arse in off the street, so I nearly walked away. Then I slapped myself, and strode in and asked if they had an English menu, which they did. Unfortunately, the really good stuff like shabu-shabu and sukiyaki were two people minimum, which made me sad. I settled for a beef and rice claypot, and because I was feeling slightly out of character, decided to inebriate myself and ordered some hot sake.

You know I can’t drink for shit. I still managed finish half the bottle, which is a good effort by my standards.

I don’t know if they cut their cows differently, but the meat does look different. Instead of there being one concentrated strip of fat, the fat is evenly and thinly distributed through the flesh. It gives it a very creamy texture, and of course tastes nummy.

If I can find some other lone traveller tomorrow, I’ll convince them they need shabu-shabu for dinner.

(ETA: I can tell from reading this I was exhausted at the time of writing. I'm cranky, and my goodness, crappy sentence structure! I have held off from editing any of these though, just...'cause. In case you couldn't tell, I was a bit snap-happy at the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Temple, and spared you most of the photos. Will go back there. WITH A TRIPOD THIS TIME.)

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