Monday, July 19, 2010

Kyoto in 48 hours

48 hours that’s all the time we had to cover what should take at minimum 4 days. Our destination was Kyoto and we’d done our research. We had the target temples and shrines grouped according to area and we were prepared to step off the bullet train ready to hit the ground running. This is not how I would recommend traveling to this beautiful city but we were making a big loop hitting Miya Jima Island and Hiroshima after Kyoto and we only had so many days we could take the kids out of school. We were also traveling with Jeff’s brother and his family – a party of nine in all – and had to coordinate two work schedules. It was a miracle we were getting together at all but it came together and ended up being our favorite trip here in Japan so far.

We were taking the Shin as it’s called here (a.k.a. the Shinkansen or the Bullet train) and arriving in Kyoto around noon on a Saturday. But first we had to get on the darn train. I have learned since moving here to always, always, always allow extra time when traveling – get places early because you never know what’s going to happen. Thank goodness we followed our own guidelines that day because as we got off the train at Yokohama to transfer to the Shinkansen, which we couldn’t find and there would be a darn good reason for that. I quickly popped into the Information booth and the helpful Japanese clerk informed us that well … “you’re at the wrong train station.” I thought I would loose it right there but with the extra time allocated we managed to get ourselves to the correct station – that would be Shin-Yokohama. Ahhh.

Standing on the platform watching the bullet trains pull in and out with Japanese efficiency is like watching a well choreographed dance. I cannot possibly imagine what a Japanese National thinks if they visit our country and plan to take the train. I loved riding Amtrak to NYC or down to Richmond to see my grandparents … but efficient? Amtrak efficiency is an oxymoron. We were warned by our travel agent – she had highlighted this information – that we would have less than 3 minutes to get on and off the train. They would not wait for Americans struggling to get their gear on board. This led to us shipping off our luggage ahead of us by Black Cat.

Black Cat
If you ride on the trains or fly within Japan you rarely see Japanese with luggage. I’ve seen foreigners trying to lug their suitcases onto a crowded train during rush hour but never have I seen a Japanese do this. There’s a good reason – they ship their luggage ahead. All over Japan you see signs with a black cat on them. I guess a very loose equivalent would be Mail Boxes Etc or something similar – only here they arrive at your door and pick up your luggage and ship it to your hotel within 24 hours. Seriously. So for roughly $80 we had our luggage sent ahead of us (which was already placed inside our hotel room when we arrived in Kyoto) and I am in love with this service! All suitcases were packed and gone the day before, aside from the last minute screw up with the train stations that had to have been one of the easiest ways to leave for a trip. No one running around the night before scrambling to find things (I won’t name names), no throwing in one more load of laundry late the night before because “I have to have this on the trip.” It was awesome – I’m a Black Cat convert and thank goodness, because we breezed onto the train, found our seats, shortly a hostess came down the aisle and offered us beverages. Jeff decides he doesn’t care it’s 10 in the morning he’s on vacation (it's 5 o'clock somewhere) and he’ll have a beer and I think that sounds like a brilliant idea and join him. One beer and I’m out (my UGA Dawg Days are looooonnng gone) – I wake up just as the train is pulling into Kyoto.

The Kyoto train station is HUGE. Probably somewhere around the size of Grand Central Station in NYC. There are multiple train lines that come into the station, stores restaurants, and people everywhere. The thing we were probably struck by the most were all the school groups, hundreds of them, all in their school uniforms. And they’re so organized – not like a group of U.S. high schooler’s milling around – these kids are lined up in rows waiting for the signal to move out. My Japanese students had warned me that this was school group season and they weren’t kidding. The closest I could equate this to is being in D.C. during Spring Break on steroids.

Trying to connect with Jeff’s brother and family in Kyoto station sounded like a good plan but was a bit more challenging to execute but we finally were all together, reunited – it had been a year since the kids and I have seen family – and we were off to see Kyoto.

I took over 500 photos and ran out of room on my memory card, with so much to see it was hard not to take photos. It has taken me weeks to edit the photos down to a reasonable size and try to gather my thoughts about our trip. I will break my entries down by day and try not to bore you to death – I should have 5 entries (Kyoto, Kyoto, Kyoto, Miya Jima and Hiroshima) – this one is the first.

We began our Kyoto adventure in the Aryishama area with the Togetsu Bridge which crosses the Katsura River. The name translates as “Moon-Crossing Bridge,” and has been celebrated in poetry, song and woodblock prints (one week later Jeff and I saw an antique woodblock print at one of the bazaars here on base – tempting, but I chose a lovely print with an Ikebana scene instead). We enjoyed watching the numerous blue row boats on the river, most of which ended up being swept to the edge of a small damn – one after another being pulled away by a motorboat.

Tenryu-ji (Temple of the Heavenly Dragon) is known for it’s beautiful pond circling garden and uses the principle of ‘borrowed landscape’ (shakkei) to draw upon the wider landscape. It is one of the oldest gardens in Kyoto that uses the borrowed landscape design. There is a significant Chinese-inspired rock arrangement featuring a grouping of seven rocks positioned near the shore at the rear of the pond. The vertical placement of the rocks are arranged in such a way as to be beautifully composed from any point in the garden. This group of stones consists of a cluster of rocks suggesting a mountainous island, a three-slab stone bridge established along the shore line, a succession of peninsulas (dejima) carries the eye toward the tree-planted island at the eastern end.

I have my maps, my notes, my guidebooks in hand (relying heavily on A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto). I’m reading out loud trying to get my family to appreciate why we are hear but no one seems to care … my voice trails off into silence. I stand there and try to take it all in, making mental notes, hoping one day I can bring part of Japan to my country and enjoy the beauty of shakkei with the Shenandoah Mountains as the backdrop.

From the temple we walked through the Sagano Bamboo Grove which was a nice contrast to the temple garden. The bamboo soaring overhead, bamboo leaves rustling in the wind as we walked through, it was quite peaceful and lovely. We were making our way towards the small Nison-in Temple, along the way there were rice paddies, little shops, tree-lined fields … it was all very picturesque. As I was waiting for members of our group who had ducked into a little shop, I kept hearing a clonking sound at a regular beat. I tried to get near the source but the sound was coming from a traditional Japanese home tucked back from the road and while I couldn’t see it I recognized the distinctive “tonk” of a Shishi-odoshi or “animal-scarer.” A bamboo pipe fills with water and then swings down to release the water, when it returns to its original position the bamboo strikes a stone, making the “tonk” sound and begins to fill with water again. This is a common element in a classical Japanese garden because of the serene sound it makes and as I grabbed my family to wait patiently for the sound we all decided that this would have to be included in our garden when we return to the U.S..

Further down the road we came to Koto-en, a shigaraki ware ceramic shop that has a hundred or so ceramic tanuki lining its courtyard. The wily tanuki are able to transform themselves from beautiful maidens into ugly old hags … these magical creatures are not to be trusted. With a special place in my heart (or wallet) for Japanese pottery I stepped inside the shop. It looked as though they were preparing for guests, a traditional Japanese table was laid out for tea and the smell of green tea wafted through the air. Since I had to lug my purchase through Kyoto, I was looking for something rather small and found a charming bud vase with maple leaves on it, it nestled into my camera bag perfectly and we were off and running again to our next stop. Unfortunately the Nison-in temple closes early and the gentleman at the entrance was nice enough to point out we would have little time to enjoy the grounds, so I will have to return to Kyoto on another trip to see this small temple.

We made a very circuitous way back to the train station and headed toward Gion in the hopes of spotting a Maiko or Geisha but with nine hungry members we decided to try our luck at dropping into a local restaurant first … down a side street. The key selling point? “We have English menus.” Sold! It was quite delicious, our bellies full of soba or udon noodles (patrons choice) and sake (adults only of course) we walked the streets of Gion but on this evening we had no luck spotting the beautiful Geishas. We made our way to our hotel (Hotel Monterey which was lovely) and called it a night … the next day was going to be a long one with two different areas of Kyoto to see and five different temples. Till next time, sayonara.

For more information on Tenryu-ji go to: or

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