Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Family Visit: The Temples & Karaoke of Kyoto

On our second day in Kyoto we wanted to see the places we'd seen photos of in guidebooks, on the internet and just generally thought would be nice sights.

This is the view of Kyoto station and the city from our hotel room. The great thing about Kyoto is that you can look in any direction and see hills and mountains, whereas in Tokyo you look in any direction and see grey buildings!

After a late start where we lazed in the hotel, we left to get the bus for Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavillion). There are loads of bus stops outside Kyoto station, and it took us a while to find the right one, but we asked an attendant and he was very helpful.

We bought 5 tickets for a reduced price from a ticket machine near the stop. The buses were set-fare so you can pay Y220 (I think) and go as far as the bus goes. When the bus arrived, we got on at the back door, and it took about 30 minutes to get to Kinkakuji. The exit was at the front of the bus, and you put your ticket into the machine by the driver.

We went into the temple grounds, a short walk from the bus stop. On the way, we stopped at a convenience store to buy lunch, and we sat outside a shrine in the warm sun. It was about 19C and the sky was very bright. It was lovely. My youngest brother got lots of stares from Japanese girls, which of course he loved.

The entrance fee for Kinkakuji wasn't expensive at all, and we got beautiful tickets with kanji on them.

Now, I don't often conform to the gaijin stereotype, but when I saw the temple appear through the trees I couldn't help pointing and calling out 'There it is!' Afterwards I thought, 'Did I really just point and shout?' but never mind, it was amazing to see it.

One of the bonuses of travelling with other people is that they can take photos of you!

The most surprising thing about Kyoto was how uncrowded the major sights were. I don't know if we were just lucky, but everywhere we went it wasn't swarming with people, even though the sakura were in full bloom, and the weather was wonderful. The only thing I can think of is that it was because we were there during the week, not the busier weekends.

The path took us round the lake, behind the temple, and past other smaller temples and into the hills behind.

After Kinkakuji, we took two taxis (big taxis for more than four passengers don't seem to exist) to Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavillion). We knew it would be closed as it was 5pm but we had other plans.
Ginkakuji lies at the north end of the Philosopher's Walk (Tetsugaku no Michi). I don't know how famous this is out of Japan, but I've wanted to visit here for a long time.
The walk follows a cherry-tree lined canal south from Ginkakuji to Nanzenji, and lasts about one kilometre. It was really beautiful, and I think it's something that you shouldn't miss if you do go to Kyoto.

The different houses and areas near the walk were worth exploring too.

Once we reached the end of the walk, we took a bus into Gion. Gion is Kyoto's traditional entertainment district. It's where a lot of Memoirs of a Geisha was set.
This is the central shrine in Gion, Yasaka Shrine.

We wandered through Gion, and looked for somewhere to eat dinner. We stumbled upon an area overflowing with blossom.

It was near here that I turned to ask my dad a question on the road, and came face-to-face with a real geisha. It was so strange that my breath was actually taken away, and I completely forgot what I was about to say.
There was something incredibly elegant and beautiful about the way she moved on her high wooden shoes, wearing a flowing colourful kimono, with a white face and shocking red lips. She even had the exotic stripes of bare skin on the back of her neck.
She was moving so quickly that there wasn't time to get my camera out or anything, so you'll have to make do with imagination, I'm afraid. That was the only geisha I saw on the trip, but I'm just glad that I could see one.

Just for some juxtaposition, we found a pachinko parlour in the evening, and went in just to see what the pinball machine-style arcade was like. The noise, as you might be able to tell from this video, was industrial-level and we couldn't stay in there for long.

On the way home we stopped at a convenience store to buy some things for breakfast the next day (the breakfast at the hotel was ridiculously expensive) and there were about ten members of staff all calling out 'Irasshaimaseee. Konbanwaaa!' whenever anyone entered, and 'Arigatou gozaimaaaasu' whenever someone left the shop. The noise was crazy!

We went back to the hotel by bus (buses seem to be more convenient than trains in Kyoto as they go everywhere, like the subway in Tokyo).
My mum was very tired, so she went back to the hotel to go to sleep. But the rest of us were still a little hungry, so we went searching for something to eat. We really fancied teriyaki (skewered meat) so we searched for a nice looking place and found a great little restaurant near the station, which served a wide variety of dishes. We kept ordering more and more and had a great time trying out different types of Japanese food.
Then we decided to try our hand at karaoke! As you can't go to Japan, and not experience real Japanese karaoke!
We found a small bar, which had about 4 people inside, and watched them sing for a bit while we poured over the massive volumes of songs that we could choose. The variety of English songs was incredible. There was just so much!
It took me a while to drink enough beer until I felt ready, 2 bottles was enough though, as I was keen to have the experience. The first song I sang was Smile by Lily Allen, and then Irreplaceable by Beyonce. I was very nervous as I was singing in front of people, but I really enjoyed it. I didn't get into the flow of it like I did on my birthday the following week but everyone was really supportive and it was a very fun atmosphere.
We all had a go and had a great time. The owner of the place even did a duet of Hey Jude by the Beatles with my Dad! She was very nice, and said my Japanese was "subarashii" (excellent). My brother thought she was scary but I just thought she was a friendly Japanese woman.
After my first experience of karaoke ever (and it was in Japan!!), we headed back to the hotel. It was gone midnight and we were very tired, but it was a great end to a great day.
This video shows our hotel room, and Kyoto by night.

It was a wonderful day, but throughout the sightseeing, singing, and enjoying seeing my family, I kept getting struck by waves of sadness that soon they'd be going home, and I tried to push those feelings away, as I knew we still had two days, but it was very hard. I loved spending time with them, in a country that I had come to love.

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