Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Kickin it in Kyoto

This morning we woke up at 4 am and took a train to another train to a taxi to meet our hydrofoil boat at 10 am. Now we’re sitting on the Beetle – a high speed boat that goes between Hakata, Japan and Busan, Korea – heading towards the last leg of our journey. Despite the many health issues we had throughout our time in Japan, it was still sad to leave it so soon.

Kyoto is a fairly big city, but is much calmer and more slowly paced than Tokyo. People are okay with riding the escalators all the way up instead of briskly walking up them, and oldsters stroll on the sidewalks with their tiny dogs. Aside from a few taller office buildings, the city seems to be mostly filled with one or two story shops and houses. Also, surprisingly we found that we had slightly fewer communication problems there, and the “I don’t eat pork or shellfish” napkin only had to make a couple appearances (which is good because it’s pretty abused looking at this point). The public transportation in both Tokyo and Kyoto was easy to use and didn’t cause us too much stress. In Tokyo we rode the subways around and in Kyoto we used the busses. Overall this is the country where we’ve used the most public transport – partly because the cabs are so expensive, but also because everything is nicely labeled and there always seems to be a line that will take you exactly where you want to go.

Kyoto is an ancient capital of Japan (after Nara I think?). It doesn’t seem like the city relies on tourism, but there are amazing parks and extremely old temples scattered throughout the city – it seems like almost anywhere you are, you’re within walking distance of something historically significant.

A few days before we got to Kyoto, I found out that my friend Brett from high school, who is in the Marines, is stationed in Japan. Although his base is kind of out of the way, he said he’d never been to Kyoto and decided to come out and meet us there on his day off. I was a little worried that we’d have trouble finding him at the train station, but the fact that he’s about twice as tall as most Japanese people made it pretty easy. Interestingly enough, the Kyoto train station is one of the flashiest sights in Kyoto, so we started out there with a nice Italian lunch. The station has an open air center with stairs and escalators that go up about 11 floors straight in succession. The building is an odd shape that is mostly covered with glass and juts in and out at weird angles. After that we walked over to the To-ji temple to check out a market that only happens on the 21st on every month. Unfortunately, the temple itself was closed, but we saw the outside and walked through the market, picking up some delicious dried mango and some red bean pancakes.

Across from the train station is the Kyoto Tower, which looks like a slightly more cartoonish version of the space needle and comes out of a large office building. We went up to the round observation deck to catch the sunset over the mountains and see the whole city light up in the orange tinted evening light. After the tower, Brett headed back to his base and job building jet engines. It’s crazy to have found so many familiar faces on this side of the world. It was really great to see him - hopefully having some American female company was worth hanging out with two diseased people for an afternoon.

The next morning my eye was still very red, so we decided it was time to go to an eye clinic. I got checked out and given some eye drops and we were about to leave, when Carly wanted to quickly ask the doctor if her eyes looked okay – just in case. What should have been a two minute conversation turned into ten, white clad Japanese nurses giving us a “deer in the headlights” stare, and some very awkward English attempts at telling us not to share eye drops. Finally the doctor took a look at her and declared that she was fine and we were on our way. We bought a day pass for the busses and Carly skillfully navigated our way around the city to the three most popular sights – the Kinkaku-ji, the Ginkaku-ji, and Kiyomizu-dera.

The Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavillion, is a stunning, gold encased building that sits on a small picturesque pond, surrounded by trees and peaceful walkways. The Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Pavillion, was supposed to be covered in silver, but according to our brochure that plan was never realized. It’s currently under construction, and the ponds around it were drained, but there were some cool sand sculptures and designs in the garden around it. It also sits in front of a small hill, which you can climb up and get a nice view of the city. The Kiyomizu-dera was a much larger complex with a number of old wooden Japanese temple buildings scattered on the side of a hill. It seems like a lot of people still go there to worship or make formal visits at least because there were a number of men and women in traditional Japanese dress. After our sightseeing, we went to a famous shopping area called Gion and found a delicious Indian restaurant for dinner. There are tons of sights in Kyoto that we missed, but I think we hit the important ones and we were pretty satisfied with the flavor we got.

The next morning we woke up and took an hour train ride to spend the day in Nara. Nara was the first capital of Japan and now seems to be a small and sleepy city next to its main historical attraction – Nara Park. Nara Park is a large grass and tree covered area full of ancient wooden buildings, gardens, pagodas, shrines and ponds. Also, since deer were considered messengers to the gods, they are now considered national treasures and the park is full of literally thousands of tame deer, who just wander around and get fed and petted by tourists. We were really excited when we walked by Kofuku-ji and saw the deer everywhere, and immediately went up and posed for some pictures with a nice buck. Since we didn’t have any of the little vendor sold deer food pancakes for him, he was not really interested in entertaining us. We thought the deer were very endearing until, as we posed for a picture with the five level pagoda, a national treasure came up and ate our nicely marked map of the park. He literally ripped it out of Carly’s hand, played tug of war with her for a while, and then proceeded to chomp up and swallow the whole thing. After that we tended to avoid the deer and keep our Lonely Planet and other loose items away from them.

The most famous attraction in Nara is the Todai-ji, which houses a very large Buddha. I think we were a bit jaded by the Bronze Buddha in Hong Kong, so it didn’t seem as impressive, but I think it’s a lot older and therefore probably a greater artistic feat for its time. After taking some pictures of the Buddha and some of the angry looking figures who share the temple with him, we headed over to Nigatsu-do for a view of the park from above, and then to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. They were all very beautiful, decorated with intricate lanterns and surrounded by huge, twisty trees that sometimes were supported by wooden props because they had spread so far from their trunks. The whole park was very peaceful and the weather was gorgeous which made the walk around the park and up the twisty pathways very pleasant. Our guide book had warned us against being “those” tourists who buy the deer food pancakes and eat them by accident, so when we bought a red bean pancake as a snack, we inspected it thoroughly and found it hard to convince ourselves that it was people food. The fact that Carly hasn’t been able to taste her food for a few days made it a little more challenging. Regardless, it tasted pretty good to me so I think it was okay.

After our long day of sightseeing, we headed back to Kyoto and tried to find a restaurant that was recommended in my guidebook because it has an English menu. After walking around in circles and deciding that it must have been plowed down and turned into a parking lot, we stopped at a different place. They had a smaller English menu but the descriptions were not very clear so it was still difficult to order. After a long session of pointing and making the “X” sign or the “OK” sign with our hands back and forth with the waitress, we had four dishes picked out. We tried, then, to ask her if that was enough for two people using simple English and hand signals. I said – “four dishes, two people, okay??” pointing from myself to Carly and holding up two fingers. The waitress looked confused for a minute, and then held her stomach and pointed to Carly nodding. Figuring she was getting the fact that we wanted to be “full” I started nodding and then realized she had started making pregnant belly hand motions out from her stomach. Anyway, we ordered another dish, and decided that at least the fact that we were starving and gobbled down the food would be justified to them because they probably thought one or both of us was pregnant. I’d love to hear their interpretation of that conversation. Saying we were vegetarian and then ordering chicken probably didn’t help much either. Crazy Americans.

Our hostel – called K’s Kyoto House – was very nice and clean and our room was much bigger than in Tokyo. It seemed like it was kind of a social place, but we were feeling a bit too tired and diseased to go out and meet people. At least we got to see all the major sights in the short amount of time we had there. I think Japan will definitely have to go on my “revisit in the future list.”

Apparently a few years ago one of these Beetle hydrofoils hit a whale and had to be towed to Busan. Luckily we haven’t hit any whales yet, and should be in Korea soon. We’re getting a little worn out from the constant flow of tourist sights, but I think that after our day in Gyeong Ju, we’ll be able to just enjoy Seoul more as a city than a succession of sights. I can’t believe this trip is coming to an end, and we’re about to go through our last immigration process before going home. There’s never a dull moment though, so I’m anticipating an action packed, exciting last few days.

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