Thursday, December 9, 2010

Kyoto and To-to-tokyo

        We awoke early to head out and get our day started. The hostel sold bus passes, so we grabbed one of those and were on our way. We planned to go to three temples in a row, and then head back towards Gion. Our first stop was Kinkoku-ji. “Ji” means temple. Kinkoku-ji is a temple that is completely made of gold, and appears to be floating on water. I will post photos – but they don’t do it justice. This thing GLOWS. It was beautiful, the water was perfect and still so the temple was reflected beautifully. The entire complex was filled with trees in the midst of changing colors, and I was so excited not to have missed out on all aspects of fall. When we passed through one of the Kami gates to enter the property, leaves were falling and sunlight was coming through them in steams. It was stunning.
        Allie and I saw people in line to ring a gong, so we jumped on the opportunity and did the same. It was so fun :) We kept walking down the path, paid for our tickets and entered the crowded viewing area of the temple. It was hard to get close to because it’s surrounded by water, and there were all sorts of people crowding around for photos. So many peace signs – in Japan, it means prosperity and happiness, which is why they always hold them up in photos. I think it still looks funny. :)
        We took a lot of photos and walked around the temple. There were wishing wells of sorts, but they took the form of rock shrines or small huts where you threw coins on the roof instead. There were also a lot of little good luck charms for sale, which I thought was neat. We walked past a tea ceremony room with matted floors on the way out. The entire place was filled with all-natural stone and bamboo, even the gates were made of bamboo and natural string rather than metal poles nailed together. It felt so much more earthly than visiting something like a cathedral in Europe. There were all-natural irrigation systems set up with bamboo, and ladles made from bamboo at the entrance to rinse your mouth and hands before entering the temple.
        We left, shopped a bit and waited for a bus for a couple hours. Once we realized that it was Sunday and that our bus was not coming, we chose a new route to a new destination. We went down to the Fushimi Inari Shrine in the southern part of the city, and it was dark by the time we got there. Luckily, the shrine is open 24 hours so we were still able to check it out. We met a woman name Angelina from Russia, and the three of us walked around the spooky shrine together. The gates are called “torii.” At the bottom of the hill, there was a large one to pass through to enter the shrine. Each gate is a representation of the entrance to the home of Kami, which are Gods. At this shrine, there are paths lined with over 4,500 torii – creating a little over 3 miles of gates and paths. The paths split to allow shorter or longer prayer times. It was so spooky in the dark, and I feel like we missed a lot of detail – but because the shrine was nearly vacant and so quiet, I also feel like we were lucky to experience it’s natural state without being surrounded by other tourists. The moonlight streamed in between the torii sometimes, creating intricately woven patterns of shadows on the floor. It took about 45 minutes to get through, but was completely worth it. On our way out, we passed two Japanese visitors. We walked by something and they stopped us, when we went back they explained that there was a rock on a podium and that we should try to lift the rock. If the rock seemed heavy to you, then your wish would not come true. If the rock was light and easy to lift, your wish would be granted. I couldn’t lift it at all, unfortunately – but Allie was able to! So maybe her wish came true.
        We left Fushimi Inari and parted ways with Angelina to head back to Gion and grab dinner. After searching for somewhere to eat on the floor (unsuccessfully), we found a tiny little place that served spaghetti and club sandwiches – sold. We entered to realize it was just me, Allie and the man at the bar who prepared our food. It was so delicious. After that we went back to the hostel and called it an early night.
        In the morning we woke up and packed our bags to head out. We went to the Nishiki Market, which was a little ways from the hostel. It is essentially an open market organized along a semi-sheltered street, but is famous for all of it’s great food. Allie got a beautiful painting of cranes, and I got a cool little pair of Vans-like shoes that have a Japanese print on them.  We both picked up little knick knacks and tried all sorts of weird food. I had a DELICIOUS chicken wing (I’ve been craving them for so long, it was amazing). Then I had an octopus-on-a-stick. It was covered in a sweet teriyaki sauce and had a quail egg stuffed into it’s head! (weird.) I ate it anyway, tugging on it’s tentacles with my teeth. I was scared but it turned out to taste great and chewy. Then Allie and I walked by a lady selling the most tiny fish I’ve ever seen. We took a little handful to taste, and Allie said afterwards that she felt like she had fish eyeballs stuck in her teeth. We passed neat fruits and pickled vegetables. Every stand had a taste option with tiny tongs resting on a little bowl full of whatever it was they were trying to sell. I thought that was neat because you could taste different things for free! Allie go this really delicious fried potato thing, and I got a piece of fried onion and beef on a stick. (So healthy, right?) Te market was one of my favorite parts of Kyoto. I loved it.
        We left there and took the bus to check out the Toji Shrine, which has 5 layers and is completely made of wood. Much of Japanese architecture is based on Chinese architecture – it is rarely original. This shrine was no different. The structure was completely made of wood with not one nail used to put it together. Buildings like this are constructed like Lincoln-logs, with divits in the ends that fit into one another and allow flexibility for the building to move with a natural disaster rather than fall from one. Another important thing about these 5 layer pagodas is that each layer represents a force of nature. The Japanese (and sometimes Chinese, too) incorporate metal as a natural force, which is unusual, along with water, wind, fire and earth. A pagoda is technically not a temple, but rather a building to house Buddha relics, meaning that it’s not really a place that you enter – just something to admire from the outside.
        I heard on the ship that Japanese people live in a trusting community, so there are umbrellas outside of every establishment and when it starts to rain, you can grab one and use it for a little while until it stops raining, at which point you return it. This must have been wayyy wrong because Allie and I grabbed some umbrellas outside of KFC, and after we took a few strides got tracked down, reprimanded and were left umbrella-less in the rain. I feel like they really do have a system – we just didn’t know what it was. Anyway we got to Toji Pagoda and it was really neat. Quite overcast, but the colors of the leaves were vibrant nonetheless. We walked around the complex and into one of the Kondos (main prayer temples) to see some Buddhist alters. Then we walked right up to the pagoda to see it up close; it was so tall!
        Running out of time, we left for the train station to go to Himeji. Himeji is a castle complex that was built during the time of Shogun rule and was a big deal for samurai (I think) to have come from there. We got on the train but didn’t get there until 4:45. We were then told at the train station in Himeji that the castle closed at 5, so there was really not point in going as it was already dark out. We got back on the train to head to Kyoto. Once there, we found our way to Kiyomizu-dera. It was not far from where we had stayed, and SO crowded – especially for a Monday night. Kiyomizu-dera is a UNESCO world heritage site. There used to be a myth that your dreams would come true if you could survive the 13-meter jump from the temple’s platform. Out of the 230-something people who jumped, about 85% survived. The entire temple is built with only wood and no nails or metal at all, which is extremely impressive as it has been standing for over 1,200 years and is still in good enough shape to support all of the tourists walking through everyday.
        Allie and I grabbed umbrellas on the trek up this enormous hill. It was crowded with bustling tourists (mostly Japanese) and shops started to pop up along the side of the street to accommodate visitors with food and souvenirs. We got tickets at the top of the hill and walked through the entrance. It was dark out, but some of the buildings were well lit and we could find our way around easily. We kept losing each other because both of us were stopping to take photos of the beautiful views of the city from the temple’s stage. All of Kyoto was lit up, and there was a beam of light coming from behind the temple that met one on the other side of the city in the sky, which I thought was neat. The trees were lit up too because of the changing of the leaves – it’s a big deal in Kyoto.
        The main Buddha shrine featured a westernized Buddha who was really big and fat, but a lot of people were still stopping to pray in front of him and dropping coins into the donation boxes. I bought some luck trinkets and we headed out. Once back at the train station, we found our train to Tokyo and hopped on. It was another Shinkansen (bullet train) and only took a little over 2 hours to get there (wow!). We arrived in Tokyo and had no idea where our hostel was. All public transportation shuts down at midnight there, so we had to hurry because it was 11:30. We were looking lost and confused, and a really nice man who spoke pretty good English asked if we were lost or if he could help. He was with a woman (whose outfit I LOVED) and they decided to take us under their wing. They pulled out an iPhone and typed in the address of our hostel, took the subways with us to get there and walked us down the rainy streets of the Tokyo suburb at midnight just to help us out. So unbelievably hospitable and friendly.. I wish people were more like this in the states.
        We arrived at our hostel and settled in. Bathrooms were down the hall, and we were each in separate rooms that had floors lined with bamboo mats and bamboo-shades on the windows. We’d had to take off our shoes by the front entrance to put them in a cubby, which I liked. In each of our rooms, there was a small trash can, a small tv on an equally tiny stand, and two comforters folded up: one to lay on, and one to lay under. I laid all of my clothes out to dry as they had gotten wet in my bag from the rain, spent a little time on Skype before going to bed. Allie and I planned to go grab a beer after the extremely hectic day we’d had running around Japan, but were too exhausted by the time we’d settled to leave again. Finally in Tokyo – I was so proud of us for finding our way there – we made it!

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