May 20, 2013
Kyoto Hana Hostel
This morning we left Tokyo behind and made our way to Kyoto via the bullet train, aka Jeff’s new favourite mode of transportation. We have 7-day Japan Rail Passes which will end up saving us a few hundred dollars after we use the train to get to Nara, Hiroshima and Osaka. Depending on what your route through Japan is it might make sense to get a pass or it might not. You have to look at each leg of your route and add it all up. Hyperdia.com is a lifesaver when it comes to figuring out the train schedules and the costs.
Tokyo station was bustling when we got there and with tickets in hand we made our way to our departure platform. I swear that station is a maze because it felt like we were going in circles, blindly following the signs directing us to Platform 19. Throughout the public transit in Tokyo almost all of the directional signs are in Kanji with the English spelling in slightly smaller print, making it pretty easy to figure out if you’re in the right spot or not. We did manage to find the right spot and lined up at our assigned car and waited for the doors to open. That’s something that the Japanese tend to favour; politely lining up and waiting their turn. Even on the subways there’s marks on the floor that indicate where the train doors are going to be and everyone just lines up at that spot instead of trying to jockey for best position and then rushing the doors (*ahem*Toronto*ahem*). It’s all so civilized.
Once we got on the train we settled in for the almost 3 hour ride that went by in a blink. Besides the beautiful countryside to keep us occupied…
…we also got bento box lunches from the snack cart, wandered up and down the train to get the lay of the land (ie. find out where the washrooms and vending machines were) and make friends with our Swiss seat mate.
Before we knew it we had arrived in Kyoto, our second city stop and the home to countless temples and shrines. Our hostel was a short walk from Kyoto station and after checking in we surveyed our home for the next three nights. Traditional tatami mat floor and futons = perfection. I love sleeping on the floor and there’s something nice about not having a lot furniture eat up real estate in a room. Jeff’s trying to convince me to redecorate the house in this style, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet.
After checking in we realized we still had a bit of time before some of the temples in the immediate area started to close, and trust me, there are a TON of temples in Kyoto – more than you could ever want to see in one visit. So we decided to take a walk to the closest one, Sanjusandgen-do, and visit the 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon. Yes, 1001 statues. When I read about it in the guidebooks I didn’t think they literally meant 1001 of them but it’s true and they were stunning. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures once inside the hall so this image I found will have to suffice.
I don’t think anything I could ever say could give the statues justice. Each one is hand carved with 11 heads and 40 arms and it took 70 craftsmen over 100 years to make them all. To see them standing at attention in perfect rows, the same height as the average human, was breathtaking. In the centre of this golden army was one huge Kannon, seated and praying on a lotus flower with 28 additional statues placed in a straight line along the front of it all. These statues are the guardian deities and each one was completely unique with severe facial expressions and powerful poses. The scope of it all was astounding and though I’m not a religious practitioner I will admit I was moved.
Once we emerged from the shrine area all photos were fair game again and I snapped this shot that shows the length of the hall itself, all 120 metres of it. If you can imagine, the entire length of the hall is taken up by the 1001 statues. THAT’S how many there are!
The grounds also held a small shrine, temizu basin and ceremonial bell, which sounded just as we were leaving – bidding us farewell.
With the sun slowly setting we decided to check one more thing off our list and made our way to the Gion district hoping to catch a glimpse of what made this area so famous, geishas. I didn’t really expect to see one, so imagine my surprise that we managed to see two! First, when we were walking towards the area, there was a town car pulled to the side of the road, waiting on his fare for the night. There were a young girl, probably 12 or 13, in a pink komono, standing straight and looking ahead, as if waiting for someone. That’s when the geisha emerged, gliding out of the house, she nodded to the driver and slipped into the back seat. As we passed by I saw her smile and nod to the girl. She was beautiful and everything you think of when you hear the word, “geisha”.
The second time I managed to get a quick picture (though not a very good one). Jeff noticed her as we were walking down the main drag in Gion. She moved so quickly and with such purpose that I don’t think many people noticed her at all. I wish I had gotten a better picture of her but I think the reason she was so fast was because she didn’t want her picture taken. I’m sure entertaining tourists is the top of her list every night.
Not believing our luck we wandered around the area a bit more, away from the touristy section and into some of the tiny back streets lined with private restaurants. We were warned not to try to eat in Gion, many places require you to be referred to them from a current patron. Very exclusive.
There’s a certain charm to this neighbourhood, but you have to really look for it. For me it felt very “Disneyland-esque”, the constant shrill of tour guides and the “authentic” souvenir shops tend to overshadow the history and the architecture. However, it was still beautiful and seeing the geishas was a thrill.
On our way out we passed a theatre presenting a Kabuki show. I kicked myself for not thinking ahead and booking tickets. Maybe next time!