Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Welcome to the year 2005!

Happy New Year, everyone!! I got back on Sunday night from western Japan. I went with Ana and Damien to visit Kyoto, the old Imperial center and spiritual home of Japan, for 5 days of crazy fun and temple-viewing. Kyoto has a huge number of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. We also visited the Geisha district of the city, and saw a famous teahouse where the geisha still sometimes entertain exclusive guests, like European royalty. We paid a visit to Nara and Osaka, also. New Year's was spent meandering around Chion-in temple to watch monks ring a huge bell, then to another few temples to see smaller ceremonies.

Japan, as Ana has pointed out, is a land of extremes. We saw the largest wooden building in the world in Nara (Todaiji Temple, which is only 2/3 the size of the original structure), the tallest extant pagoda in the world (Toji Temple), the longest wooden structure in the world (Sanjusangen-do Temple, which houses 1,028 statues dedicated to the Kannon, the goddess of mercy), the largest temple gate and the largest bell in Japan (both at Chion-in Temple; the bell requires 17 monks to ring it 108 times for the new year), as well as the largest lake in Japan (Biwa-ko). All of these are located in Kyoto, with the exception of Todaiji Temple in Nara, and all or most of them are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (except the lake, which I'm told is about as polluted as Lake Michigan).

Travelling in Japan is pretty expensive. For the cost of a flight or Shinkansen (bullet train) ticket to the other side of the country, you could fly to Korea or Guam sometimes. But during the New Year's holiday Japan Railways offers a cheap alternative. Kind of a Eurail deal, you get 5 free days of riding trains over the course of about a month for about 11,000 yen, half the price of a roundtrip ticket to Kyoto. Unfortunately, you don't get to ride comfy, cushy trains, and everyone else is doing it, so it's crowded. It took about 8 1/2 hours to get to Kyoto, using about 5 different trains. And we didn't get to sit down the whole way, either, which was a pain.

The three of us stayed in a Japanese style hostel. We had the standard thin futons and comforter that you have to fold up during the day. The room was about the same size as my bedroom, and we pretty much occupied all the space to sleep. Our bathroom was a full bath shoehorned into a typical American half-bath-sized room. It was tiny, and cramped, but I liked it; the owners were very friendly, giving us travel tips and oranges for New Year's.

The 1st day was spent travelling, we got in in the early afternoon. We checked out the Gion district, which is the birthplace of Kabuki theater, and is the extremely famous Geisha district. We hunted around the backstreets hoping to glimpse a geisha, and Ana was lucky enough to spot one riding in a taxi, probably on the way to a gig. We ate in a rather pricey traditional Japanese restaurant, but the food was good overall, though I didn't care much for plain, cold, boiled eggplant.

The 2nd day was our daytrip to Nara and Osaka, which form a triangle with Kyoto that's not more than 45 minutes by local train in any direction. Nara was an ancient capital of Japan, back in the 8th century AD, but now it's a rather quiet city that has a major deer problem. We'd heard that the place was famous for deer, which are seen as messengers from the gods or something like that. What they are now is a menace. But they're a great tourist draw. You can buy a packet of deer food for 150 yen. Somehow they know not to bother the vendors for food, but once that little packet gets into your hand, they swarm. I bought one and was immediately surrounded by hungry deer tugging at my jacket with their teeth, and butting me with their heads. One little girl sat on her dad's shoulders crying "Scary!" as her dad tried to fend them off without losing his balance. Other parents bought the food for their kids, only to have their kids be chased around by ravenous, mangy deer. The main road to the Todaiji Temple is covered with deer and vendors selling T-shirts with pious sayings like, "No Fucking." (I had to buy one of those shirts.) Todaiji Temple, you recall, is a huge building, built to house a huge statue of Buddha. It's so big that his palm can hold 5 or 8 standing monks. He was built using revolutionary techniques in casting (well, revolutionary for the 8th century). One of the support posts has a hole cut through it in the bottom that's roughly the size of the Buddha's nostril. It's said that if you can fit through it, you'll have good fortune. Of course, I had to try, and miraculously fit through to the applause of all the Japanese who thought the big, silly gaijin would get stuck.

After wedging all of us through the nostril-hole, we trekked on to Osaka for some more modern experiences. The only real sight we visited was Osaka castle, a famous example of the huge castles built by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Like nearly every castle, it's a 20th century remake, but it was still pretty to see, and it made for a good picture. I almost forgot, we saw the largest stone used in a castle defensive wall in Japan. I believe someone named it the "Octopus Stone," though I can't imagine why. The main reason to go to Osaka is for the modern pleasures in life, such as eating, karaoke, and LOTS of neon lights. We ate at a nice Thai restaurant, which you can't find in Hiratsuka, and meandered about the main shopping and going-out district, Dotonbori. Nighttime was back to Kyoto in time to crash early for a very long last day of the year.

Day 3 was New Year's Eve. This day was our main temple-viewing day. It was also pretty foul weather. It'd been nice, clear skies up until then, although a bit cold. Saturday was rainy and cold, so not very fun. We made it to Kinkaku-ji (the Temple of the Golden Pavilion), and saw one of the most famous temples in Japan. Just after was saw it and were down the path to head out, the rain turned to sleet and then snow. They say the Kinkaku-ji is very pretty in snow, and we had to turn around and check it out. The sight was amazing, and it made me stop caring for a while how bad the weather was. The next stop was Kiyomizu-dera, another Kyoto staple. The temple is set up on a hill, with a magnificent view of the city. It'd stopped raining/snowing by then, so we were able to see snow-sprinkled houses with their beautiful Japanese tile roofs. There temple's known for a spring there that pours out sacred water. 200 yen gets you a commemorative plastic cup to drink with. We met up with an American co-worker of Ana's to go out for New Year's Eve. That's when we went to Chion-in Temple and stood in a huge, long line in order to file slowly past and watch 17 monks ring a giant bell. Eastern bells aren't the same as the ones we're used to in the States. The bell is rung by pulling a large log back and thrusting it forward to collide with the bell and make the noise. There's no clapper or anything inside. The tone is much lower, since the bells are much larger than Western bells. The bell's rung 108 times, once for every sin Man is prone to commit, according to Buddhist lore. We thought that the ringing would start at midnight, like any Western ceremony. But it started about 11:20 and we were through the line in 10 or 20 minutes, leaving us with lots of time til midnight. We wandered up to a smaller temple where the priests were allowing patrons to come up and ring the bell. The onlookers stood around one of several fire rings to stay warm. I think for the Japanese, New Year's is more about the whole night and the next day, rather than the countdown to the new year. So when the new year came, it was only when one person did a 3 second countdown from the middle of the crowd, not much else.

Day 4 was a slow day to recover from the night before. We saw Sanjusangen-do, a really cool but really chilly temple with 1,001 statues of Kannon, the 1,000-armed goddess of mercy. It was pretty cool to see. Each statue is slightly different in face and clothing, so they say that everyone can find one that resembles themselves. Pretty neat, although I didn't find mine. There's a famous archery contest there every year. Historically, they talk about a famous archer who competed in a 24-hour endurance contest. He supposedly shot 15,000 arrows over that time, or about one every 9 seconds. People do strange things.

We also visited the Inari shrine, dedicated to the fox gods that are supposed to protect the harvests. There are thousands of them all over the country, but this one is the main shrine. It has a path winding through it with torii gates placed every foot or so. So you end up walking through a vermillion forest, wondering when it will end. The Inari shrine does have some of the coolest shrine offerings around. You can buy miniature torii gates to put in your home shrines or have some sort of prayer or invocation painted on and then place it on the graves of your ancestors.

Day 5 was time to see Nijo Castle, a famous castle built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who started the 400-year reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Then it was time to head home. It was just as long and exhausting as the trip to Kyoto, but in reverse. I'm glad to be home, even though I loved visiting Kyoto and have to go to work tomorrow.

PS - I took a few hundred photos, so I have to sort through them before posting, so it may be a little while.

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