Thursday, April 10, 2008

Japan II

This was the post I lost ... boo ...


I spent a little extra money to sign up for a full, charter bused tour of Kyoto, mostly because I thought it would be the most efficient and easiest way to see as much as I could all at once (I was really, really excited!). Turns out the walking tour would have been good too, but the people who went on the bus tour were cool and it was really easy.

My roommate and I were up at 5:30 a.m. I had no intention of getting up that early, but jet lag works in mysterious ways. We were on the 12th floor, overlooking the adjacent train station (which was not loud at all), and we got to see the view in daylight. Modern buildings everywhere, with an odd pagoda sticking up. Since we were both up, we decided to try out the buffet breakfast.

They had some American-style breakfast things - and I stayed away from every single one, except for the blueberry danish. Rice, salmon (uncooked), noodles, miso soup, pickled vegetables; I came to the sad realization that I wasn't going to lose weight on this trip at all. After breakfast, I met up with my group and we walked to the neighboring hotel to get picked up by the tour.

First stop was Nijo castle. When Kyoto was the capital of Japan, the shogun would stay at Nijo castle when he visited the emperor. The grounds are expansive, right in the middle of the city. Inside, there are no shoes allowed, and the tour guide warned us that the floors would be very squeaky. They were designed that way, so that ninjas (for real) couldn't sneak in at night and attack. It turns out that the "nightingale" floors make a really pretty tweeting noise, that isn't like the creaky old floorboards they kept telling us about. It was a cool morning, and inside was pretty chilly and drafty, especially with no shoes on! All of the walls were covered with beautiful silk-screened tapestries, and wood panels between rooms close to the ceiling were carved 3-d reliefs with different carvings on each side in each room, out of a block of wood 1' deep. Most of the rooms we saw had a step in the middle, and two levels - the shogun was always higher than whoever came to see him, except the emperor's messenger. Also, next to the shogun's raised platform, were very small doors where his bodyguards would hang out all the time. Not a cool job, if you ask me. After we picked up our shoes, we got to see the gardens a little. They weren't quite as green and pretty as I would expect gardens to be, but then again it's not like there were flowers everywhere. Then, back on the bus to Kitano Tenmugu shrine.

Kitano Tenmugu is a Shinto shrine that's popular with students, because the patron was said to be very smart. Exams were over when we went, but there were still plenty of wooden tiles with students' wishes hanging. We were also too early for cherry blossoms, but the plum blossoms at the shrine were just starting to bloom. On the walkway up to the shrine were tons of stone lanterns and street vendors selling food that smelled fantastic! I had a pancake in the shape of a fish that was filled with bean curd for about $1 - I wish they sold food like that in the US!

The last stop before lunch was the Golden Pavilion. Literally, a building made of gold that sits in a small pond. Unfortunately you can't go inside, but the grounds were much like Nijo castle. Our tour guide was sort of obsessed with a 400 year old banzai tree; not that it's not incredible, it was just a little odd. The tree is groomed into the shape of a sailboat, because the shogun wanted to sail to the promised land after death in a sailboat. The tree is groomed only once a year. I wish we didn't have to rush through, because there was so much to explore in the forest and the little shrines set up all over. There are a few shops on the way out from the shrine, and I bought good health and long life good luck charms for souvenirs. But we got back on the bus to head over to the Kyoto Handicraft Center for lunch and the rest of the tour to Nara.

The Kyoto Handicraft Center, apparently, is a Japanese-style, five story, tourist trap. Our tour included a buffet lunch (where once again the Japanese food was fantastic, and the American food... not so much). The other four floors are dedicated to independent vendor stalls where you can buy souvenirs. I ended up falling in to the mother of all tourist traps: I bought a cherry blossom printed "kimono." In actuality, real kimonos are made of silk and cost thousands of dollars. But, in most tourist places, they sell much cheaper polyester "happy coats." And, it really was pretty.

After lunch we got back on the bus for the hour drive to Nara. The drive was long not so much for the distance but the traffic, since it was Sunday and the weather was nice. Deer Park is just outside the Todaiji temple, and you can buy food and pet the deer in the park. Since it was mid-afternoon by the time we got there, the deer were pretty full and laying down, but very docile and sweet. Here, again, the walkway to the temple was lined with vendors (and deer!). There were huge gates to go through to get to the temple, which is the largest wooden structure in the world, housing the largest bronze Buddha statue. Inside, I expected a big statue. But I couldn't see it right away - I realized I was looking at only one petal on the lotus that the Buddha statue sits in. To its left and right are smaller statues, but by smaller, I mean smaller than the middle! Altogether, they were really beautiful. I've never been in a Buddhist temple before. I'm sure they're not all like that, but what a first impression.

The last stop on the tour was Kasuga shrine, only minutes away. It has hundreds upon hundreds of stone lanterns lining the walkways, and inside the shrine are tons of hanging lanterns, paid for by donations from patrons. The deer here were much friendlier and hungrier! I gave in and got my fortune read, although I was really worried it would come out badly. To read your fortune, you shake a wooden tube until a thin stick with a number comes out, and the number corresponds to your fortune (they offered fortunes written in English). If you get a bad fortune, you tie it to a tree at the shrine and pray for the gods to lift the bad fortune. Mine came out to be "good fortune in the end," and the details didn't seem like it was that bad of a fortune... so far, things have been OK!

On the bus ride back a couple of people suggested we to go a geisha show, but most of us were too pooped to venture out into the city. We got back to the hotel almost an hour and a half later than expected, so a small group of us ventured to the sushi restaurant next to the hotel. Although you could order off the menu, each table was seated around a covered conveyor belt. When you saw a plate that you liked, usually with just a couple of rolls on it, you could lift the cover and pull it off. The plates had different patters, and the price of each plate corresponded to the patterns. Probably the best

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