Japan’s Cultural Capital

We spent 2 days in Kyoto and felt that even with its abundance of temples, we’ve had enough. Like everyone claims, its very easy to overdose on the 100’s of temples that make Kyoto so popular but there are other things to discover apart from the temples as well which I quickly learned.

 
at Shosei-en, a traditional Japanese garden

 We stayed with a couch surfer for the rest of time. He was a very kind Japanese man who let us stay in his ‘guesthouse’ which was pretty much an apartment which he had solely for the purpose of hosting surfers. David and I found it a bit odd but we weren’t going to complain.
The hardest part about Kyoto is choosing which temples to see and which to leave out. About a dozen of the temples and shrines are UNESCO heritage sites but that doesn’t mean the rest aren’t worthy. I only went to 2 that were actual sites and found them ok compared to those that weren’t because naturally you expect more from those that are classified to be more cultural.

 Our first day was spent exploring the Kyoto station area. We visited 2 buddhist temples followed by a quick glimpse of downtown Kyoto and the well known street of Ponto-Cho. Downtown Kyoto reminds me a lot of Manhattan because of the one way streets lines with big, old trees and cobble stone paths. We also had a picnic lunch of bento boxes at a temple garden which we had to pay 500 yen ($5) for admission. The garden was worth it though and everything around the Kyoto station area is calm and peaceful in comparison to downtown.

Our second day was pretty wet since we were amidst a thunderstorm for most of the day. We started the day by visiting the Fushiminari shrine which is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the fox. I wanted to visit this shrine specifically because of the tori gates which again were made famous by the ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ movie. Each gate is put up by a person who has made a wish and you are meant to make a wish as you walk through them. I imagined it to be pretty cool but what it actually was was nothing like I expected. There were hundreds of gates leading into a forest like setting into the hills. We didn’t even have enough time to walk the whole course. This was also my first shinto shrine and I really enjoyed it. At these shrines you toss some coins, ring the bell and clap twice for your wish/prayer to be heard. You can also light incense.
at a tori

The rest of the day was spent doing a Lonely Planet walking tour of south Higashiyama which is well known for many of Kyoto’s main sites. By the way, almost every tourist we saw had a LP in whatever language they spoke, or had a photocopy of it which was interesting because I had never encountered that before. Even with Japan being English friendly, I guess nothing beats having a guide which is something I stand by!

The walking tour took us first to a Buddhist shrine that is on a hill and that’s when the thunder hit. It was actually pretty beautiful to be there in the rain. Next to Kyomizu-dera was Jinga shrine which is dedicated to lovers. There are two love stones which you are meant to walk with your eyes closed and it will predict your love life based on how you walk it.
Walking the historic streets of Kyoto was quite romantic and peaceful. We stopped for some Japanese tea at a tea house/cafe in Ninza dori before visiting a Buddhist temple which has the largest gate in Japan.
Our tour ended in Gion, which is well known for the geishas. As it turned out, we somehow managed to be very lucky and saw FIVE of them as we waited in the rain with other tourists, and taking pictures of them paparazzi-style. Of course, this totally made my day!

a real life geisha!

We ended the day by having some dinner at an urban Japanese restaurant and noticed quickly that Japanese portions are much smaller than the Western. But it was delicious! But with our western bellies, we were not full enough so we had a second dinner at an okinawaki restaurant which is Japanese style pizza that you make yourself. Being tourists though, the Japanese chef made it for us and it again was delicious!!

Like Koreans, Japanese also do not know much English. But they have so far been very kind and helpful. 1 in 5 people we have encountered in Kyoto has been a tourist so I suppose they are used to it. This is the largest amount of foreigners I have encountered since being in Asia and am expecting to see more as we head to Tokyo tomorrow.
 at Kyomizu-dera, amidst the thunderstorm

 I am really enjoying Japan and its very unique culture. One main thing I have noticed is that even though they are genuinely shy and timid, the culture is also highly sexual, which can be clearly understood from the popularity of the manga porn. They sell these in the convenience stores and I have yet to understand what is so attractive about this (then again, I’m a chick!). Even with Kyoto being the cultural capital, there were heaps of ads and places advertising ‘services’ for about 5000 yen ($50) for the first 50 mins. What these services are, I will never know but can only guess. Also, it seems ladies bars are very popular. I can only wonder if this means they are for girls to entertain themselves with boys or not. Then it would be fair. Even the world of geishas cater solely to the rich men of this society. I only hope that there is some poetic explanation to this in good old Japanese fashion.

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