Kyoto is located in the central part of the Island of Honshu Japan. It was the capital of Japan until the capital was moved to Tokyo (Edo) during the Meji restoration in the late 1800’s. Kyoto has a number of well preserved temples in and around the centre as well as an intact Geisha district called Gion.
Eliot was excited about staying in Kyoto. He envisioned tea ceremony’s with Geisha’s and multiple course Sakei dinners. Eliot’s excitement evaporated when he realized we were staying at the Utano Youth Hostel in the north end of the City and eating in a dining room surrounded by members of a visiting Norwegian youth orchestra. Luckily, I booked a private room or this blog would have to be renamed. I blame this gaff on inter-continental sticker shock. The $250/night cost for a centrally located mediocre hotel room in Kyoto was unfathomable to me after paying $80/night for 4 star hotels in Peru. Eliot’s reaction to the youth hostel helped me get over the sticker shock very quickly. He complained that we were staying in the Surrey of Kyoto and it was no consolation to indicate that it was more like West Van. Eliot was right, for our 2 day stay in the thousand-year capital I had booked us in the vilde riches (boon docks) with a crowd that looked like the extras call for a remake of the Sound of Music.
To Eliot’s credit, he made the best of it. We bathed in the onsen, drank cheap wine and watched sumo wrestling and Japanese dubbed re-runs of Downton Abbey on TV while booking nicer hotels for Tokyo and Hong Kong.
On our first day, we wandered Kyoto visiting elaborate wooden temples, markets and the Gion district which was packed with crowds of tourists streaming into the narrow streets. There were police keeping order and a sign telling people not to throw out garbage, sit on the monuments or paw the Geishas. We saw a Geisha or apprentice walk by a group of women in spring kimonos and realized why the sign had to be up.
On our second day, we rented bikes at the hostel and explored the temples in the district. We saw bamboo forests and ancient buddha stones where I took a short video of bell tolling. We sat in the back of an old temple as monks prayed. It was oddly reminiscent of prayers at an orthodox synagogue with this responsive chanting in which the young monk would sing and rock and the others would respond. With the bikes, we were able to cover a lot of ground. It was also nice to see the almost rural areas of Kyoto. The ancient temples were mostly understated and uncluttered. However, amidst all of that space there were these strange ceramic figurines with large balls. Again kitch mixed with elegant simplistic style.
Eliot likes this figure that was almost everywhere we went
We stopped at a place specializing in tofu and wolfed down a couple of tofu skin balls with vegetables. There were many Japanese patrons who contemplated their tofu balls before taking delicate bites. The Japanese are artisans at heart and you will see many shops that specialize in one item that they do very well, be it clothing or furniture or food. In these shops, you see Japanese obsessive attention to detail and history whether the product is a kimono, a ceramic bowl or a mochi ball. I appreciate craftsmanship tradition and pedigree in things like knives and watches but for a sweetened rice ball with fermented bean filling?
That evening we went to see the giant illuminated lanterns, flower arrangements and lit up temples. There were gardens with rocks lit up in just the right places. Nothing was gaudy or Vegas like. There was just the right amount of light and colour. Even the giant lantern shaped like a monster had an elegance about it. I guess the obsessiveness that produces the perfect mochi ball also produces this beautiful aesthetic. We travelled by city bus which was a treat. Every 12 minutes a bus would arrive with a white gloved driver who would announce stations in this stylized almost gremlin like voice.
Here is a sample of the bus driver sounds Kyoto Bus Sample
On our way back, we saw a Geisha or apprentice with white face make up on who came out of 7-11 and run across the street with a bag. Hmm, I thought, the Geisha had a craving for a cappuccino and some octopus snacks. I wish I had gotten a picture of her, because in that moment she summed up two sides of Japan we kept seeing on our trip- tradition and modernity including the kitch variety. This theme would reappear in our travels as we left Kyoto heading south to Onomishi for a bike trip across the Inland sea.