Photo stories 3

Kyoto — Japan’s most tourist-filled city


Gakushuin’s summer holiday is drawing to a close, and I’ve been off travelling for quite a lot of it. Kyoto isn’t the first place I went, but it’s the place it’ll be easiest to write about, so here goes.

I went alone, which I like doing occasionally simply because it gives me a chance to take hundreds of photos without worrying about inconveniencing anyone else, so when I said “write” before, I meant “throw photos together with minimal captioning”. But I think that’s the best way for you to get a feel for the place anyway.

But a small diversion before we get to Kyoto: I ended up staying with my girlfriend and her parents for a night before leaving, and happened to arrive on the day of their town’s summer festival. It was surprisingly similar to the annual Santa Parade in New Zealand cities, with stalls lining the streets, various buskers and other street performers, and an army parade.

This is … some sort of traditional dance
Surprisingly, it’s cheaper to fly to Kyoto and back than to take the shinkansen

I planned to go and see a famous castle upon arrival, but by the time I found my hotel (time which included getting lost twice …) it was close to closing time. Instead I went to Heian shrine — not something I’d planned to do, but still an interesting first place to visit.

Every shrine has a torii (red gate) some distance in front of it. This one is particularly large and impressive
Flocks of these prayer-papers were tied to trees all over the shrine
The building itself is one of the most ornate examples of traditional architecture I’ve seen

I was still feeling tired from the Aikido club camp (I’ll do an article about that as soon as I can get photos off the club camera) so I went to bed early and planned for an early start. Unfortunately I completely forgot to set an alarm, so I started considerably later than planned, but I at least got up in time to see part of the morning.

My first destination was Kiyomizudera, a famous Buddhist temple
There are some idyllic spots inside, if you can find anywhere that isn’t full of tourists
I’d love to know what these statues represent— and why they have multicoloured bibs on
This is just too many tourists for me to enjoy the place …

I rather suspect I was put off by the crowds before seeing the best parts of the temple, but Kiyomizudera didn’t live up to my expectations (which were admittedly very high after glowing recommendations from several friends). I hoped the other places I planned to see were more impressive and less busy, and thankfully I was right.

This is Fushimi-Inari shrine. Yes, it looks similar to other shrines, but it does have distinctive features …
The shrine is dedicated to a god who uses foxes as messengers, so there are many imposing statues of foxes holding scrolls and suchlike
The truly unique feature of this shrine is the line of 1000+ torii gates, which form a winding corridor around the hill beside
Being inside the gates can be quite spooky …
… but it allows for fun photos like this one!

Feeling much happier, despite the continued crowds, I set off for what turned out to be my favourite destination: Arashiyama. It’s a mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto which, in addition to more shrines and temples, contains a monkey park and a bamboo forest, both of which I enjoyed immensely.

The selling point of the monkey park is that the monkeys are wild — they wander around without cages or barriers.

People are told to stay more than 3 metres away from the monkeys, but apparently no one told the animals that — they’ll quite happily amble around and over your feet!

You’re not allowed to feed the monkeys outside, but if you go into a specially designed hut you can feed them peanuts or apple pieces. They take the food with surprisingly delicate and human-like movements
You can also get some pretty stunning views of Kyoto from the mountain
It’s very hard to take photos of the bamboo forest, but it feels just like something out of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” …

That was the end of the second day; I’d planned to spend the third with a friend in Osaka but in the end she wasn’t free, so I was able to spend an extra day exploring Kyoto (and explore at a leisurely pace rather than the whirlwind tour I had planned). My first stop on the following day was the castle that I had planned to visit on arrival: Nijoh-joh. It was built in 1626 as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shoguns, so it’s a bit like Windsor Castle in the UK (the “country house” of the royal family).

Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos inside, but it really is a splendid place

I was particularly looking forward to walking on the nightingale floors that are one of the distinguishing features of the castle, but unfortunately the sounds are quite hard to hear with noisy tourists everywhere! I guess they would be much more effective on a silent and moonless night as a ninja, dressed in dark blue (not black — ninjas never wore black) stalks toward the shogun …

It was also interesting seeing the different audience rooms, for the shogun to meet various classes of people. These ranged from a small simple one (for minor nobles) to a large ornate one (for important daimyo lords) to one decorated in reverse (for meeting the emperor or his messengers, the only time the shogun wouldn’t be the most important person in the room). All the rooms had specially designed screens and annexes to conceal the shogun’s bodyguards, and it was interesting to note that the shogun would always be closer to his bodyguards than the people he was meeting.

I was also pleasantly surprised how much of the Japanese explanation I could puzzle out — although kanji characters are hard to learn, you can figure out a lot of unknown words if you know the meanings of the characters they’re made up of.

Lastly, since I still wasn’t tired of visiting temples, I visited Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) and Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion).

Ginkakuji is famous for its beautiful Japanese garden. Which, for some reason, has a big pile of gravel as its centrepiece
I love the wiggly trees you get in Japan
Kinkakuji, on the other hand, somehow looks like a toy; it doesn’t look possible that a building can be that, well, gold

All of that made for a busy few days, but I’m glad I went. The sheer number of tourists actually made me a lot more determined to speak Japanese; I felt I had to show I wasn’t an ordinary foreign visitor. I’d like to try visiting Nara next time though — I’ve heard it has a similarly large collection of temples and suchlike but isn’t quite so tourist-filled.

Weird things

  • I find it surprising that despite visiting countless temples, shrines and other religious sites during the holidays, no one ever tried to convert me or even tell me about Shinto or Buddhism. Which, oddly enough, actually made me want to learn more about the monks’ beliefs
  • Japanese people buy an astonishing number and variety of charms and talismans compared to people in Western countries—you can get premade charms for all sorts of things including exams, work, love, pregnancy and general “domestic affairs”