Monday, December 8, 2008

Japan Day 2

On the morning of our second day in Japan we got up pretty early to get the Skinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto (we'd booked ourselves on a tour which got us tickets to and two night's accommodation in Kyoto):

The weather was a bit rubbish, so we didn't get any views of Fuji worth photographing on the way down (we did on the way back though!). As is the way in Japan, we arrived in Kyoto bang on time and set about getting a bit closer to our accommodation, involving a slightly intimidating ticket machine:

and some trams. We deposited our luggage and then set about exploring a bit.

In summary, Kyoto is awesome. It's not so intimidatingly crowded as Tokyo, and has the obvious architectural advantages of not having been flattened twice in the last 85-odd years (by an earthquake in 1923 and again by the allies in WWII).

Much of Kyoto is a mess of crazy little streets and wooden houses.

And some somehow typical Japanese technological over-the-topness:

As well lots and lots of interesting streets to wander around, Kyoto also has bazillions of temples, castles and shrines (well, seriously hundreds, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were 1000). You could spend months exploring them all and we had two days...

Our first tourist destination was the grounds of the Imperial Palace (getting into the palace itself requires booking yourself onto a tour in advance and according to the Lonely Planet isn't worth the bother). The grounds are on a grand scale:

(note the scale Emma by the gate). There are also a few Shinto shrines scattered around the grounds.

There was also a market, where most of the stalls seemed to be selling sweets of one kind or another. We bought some Bento boxes for lunch and some sweets that we think were plum-based. Not knowing quite what you're eating is certainly part of the tourist experience in Japan (it would be horrid if you had allergies).

Also part of the experience is being almost totally confused a good portion of the time, for example by small dogs dressed as samurai:

(to be fair, most of the Japanese seemed pretty amused by this too).

Even though Kyoto doesn't seem to do Tokyo-style masses of humanity, it still gets pretty busy:

I don't even think this isn't even a queue for anything special, it's just people queuing to cross the road.

We then set off to walk to our first UNESCO World Heritage Site of the trip (Kyoto only has 17 to choose from), Nijo Castle. The walk was a bit further than our jetlagged bodies were really prepared for, but at least we saw a cool shop front on the way across:

As far as I could gather, the castle was built by the Shoguns with the main aim being intimidating their subjects, rather than defense. It's not quite as enormously scaled as the Imperial palace (the Shogun was notionally subservient to the Emperor, after all), but it's still pretty awesome.

The only bit you can go inside is the Ninomaru Palace, which was where the Shogun met with his visitors. It had all kinds of cool wall and ceiling decorations and squeaky nightingale floors, but you're not used to allow cameras inside, so I just have this picture of the outside:

After that we wandered about the grounds a bit and were rewarded with a cool view over the city:

Then we jumped on the tram back to our accommodation, which was in the notorious district of Gion.

Notorious because it's the most famous Geisha district and it's where the rich Japanese entertain their friends in invitation only tea houses.

We'd paid a little extra for our tour to stay in a Ryokan, a traditional form of Japanese guest house. There is a certain kind of expected behaviour in Ryokan -- nothing more extreme than in a Western hotel, just different -- which might have been a touch intimidating but, as the tripadvisor page for the place we were staying says, this place was well used to foreigners -- most staff spoke English and they had little booklets explaining what was going on.

Ryokan are very much designed as places to go to to relax. You could spend your entire stay in your room, if that's what you wanted to do. After leaving our outdoor shoes at the door, you leave your hotel slippers outside your room because the floor is covered with tatami (bamboo flooring). Your maid then makes you green tea and leaves you to change into your yukata (dressing gowns, more or less).

Then the maid comes back, and serves your dinner. The first night in the Ryokan we were served kaiseki -- lots of small dishes, some of which we could figure out what they were.

Then the maids clear up dinner, and produce your bed from some magical cupboard.

It's traditional after dinner to have a bath to soak away the days tensions, but we were pretty whacked out my this point (I was crashing particularly hard) so we crawled into bed and slept, getting ready for another full day on the morrow...

No comments: