She says: Kyoto – Japan’s cultural heart
Another day, another shinkansen journey – yay! From Hiroshima to Kyoto took us a little over 2 hours, with lots of scenery to enjoy on the way. We had a relatively slow start to the day and didn’t even get on the train until 9:45am. Thank goodness we slept in, because when we got here to Kyoto the mama-san that runs the ryokan (translation = traditional Japanese guest house) we are staying in is VERY strict about her curfews: you have to be out of your room by 10:00am (so they can be cleaned), you cannot re-enter your room until 3:00pm, and doors close for the night at 11:00pm – no exceptions! We arrived at midday and were able to leave our backpacks here, but couldn’t get into our rooms until 3:00pm. No problem – off exploring we went!
We started our sightseeing in Shimogy-ku district, one of Kyoto’s many scenic, historical districts. Kyoto was Japan’s capital city for almost 1000 years, from 794AD until 1869AD when Emperor Meiji moved the capital to Tokyo. With such a long history as the centre of Japanese culture and high arts, it is no surprise that Kyoto is still to this day a city of refined culture, fine food and rich traditions. There are so many Buddhist temples, palaces and majestic gardens spread throughout the city that we don’t have a hope of seeing them in all in the 4 days we are here. We’ll give it a damn good go though!
Starting first and foremost with the Hongan-ji temples: Nishi-Hongan-ji (translation: western Hongan-ji temple) and Higashi-Hongan-ji (translation: eastern Hongan-ji temple). These temples were built around 1600AD on opposite sides of the central avenue by opposing Buddhists sects and seem to be trying to out-do each other in terms of size and majesty. Not that different to how things were done in Europe really: “Hey look, my church is bigger than your church!” and all that. Reading about the involvement of various religious sects in ancient Japanese politics reminds me a lot of European history too – seems human beings everywhere have found a way to use religion as an excuse to make a grab for power and wealth. Not so much today, but one could say that our modern version of these “religious sects” are the multi-national corporations we all worship at the church of “The Mall”.
In regards to the temples, my vote for supremacy went to Nishi-Hongan-ji temple, not for its momentous size, but for the 400 year old ginkgo tree growing in its courtyard. Ginkgo trees grow so slowly that seeing one this large was truly epic. The fruits of these tress have long been held in regard for their ability to promote wisdom and longevity, so having one within temple grounds seems fitting.
Once our sightseeing was done we went back to our ryokan to check-in and fell in love with Kyoto and Ryokan Kyo-raku. Kyoto streets really are like something straight form the movies: narrow lanes that barely fit a car, lined with townhouses and wooden-fronted shops and paved in stone. We saw a number of people walking streets, going about their daily business, wearing traditional Japanese geta (translation = wooden sandals, worn over socks), with yakatas(translation = informal version of a kimono). The ryokan we are staying at fits perfectly into this setting – it is a narrow, 3 storey wooden building with 15 traditional Japanese-style rooms (ie: where you sleep on futon mattresses laid out on tatami mats), some with their own private bathrooms, most with access to a shared traditional Japanese bathroom (including ours). It’s just soooo cute!
A note on Japanese bathrooms: Much has been written about the fabled modern Japanese toilet, with its in-built seat warmer and bidet facility, but be warned, dear prospective visitor to Japan, that this marvel of modern toiletry is not the traditional Japanese toilet. No, a TRADITIONAL Japanese toilet is in fact a squat toilet. And I have been put to shame people, as I struggle to get into that position, whilst 90 year old Japanese grandmothers manage it with ease. I’m starting to think that squat toilets are part of this country’s secret to longevity – eat lots of fish and vegetables, cycle or walk everywhere, and squat every day, at least twice per day. There is no better recipe for maintaing your flexibility and fitness I think! As well as a squat toilet, a traditional Japanese bathroom includes a deep, communal bath filled with hot water, beside which sits a stool, a hose and some washing apparatus. The idea being you sit on the stool, lather yourself up and clean yourself, then rinse yourself off before going into the bath to soak. All very hygienic and healthy, but very different to what we’re used to. Fortunately for us here the bathrooms are gender-segregated – often they aren’t!
To finish off our first day in Kyoto we went searching for a traditional Japanese dining experience. Did we find it? Oh yes! We found this great little tepanyaki bar where the chef cooked our gyoza (translation = Japanese dumplings), yaki–tori (translation = grilled chicken on a skewer) and okonomi–yaki (translation = Japanese omelette thingy) on a hot grill right in front of us. It was everything you could want from a Japanese restaurant: friendly, fun, smokey and yummy!