Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Adventures in Kyoto

Do you want to know what foreigners would look like in geisha make-up? Are you interested in autumn leaves and temples? How about playing Street Fighter II in a downtown bar? Then, please read on. I have now visited Kyoto three times. I'm sure there will be many more visits to come, as I am now dating an amazing person who happens to live 20 minutes from there... yes, that is pretty far from Hamamatsu. On the shinkansen (bullet train) I can get to him in about 90 minutes, but it will cost me between 6000-7000円 each way. For the slightly cheaper price of 4000円, it takes nearly 4 hours. Still, when you're here to travel and you really want something to work, you don't mind making these trips sometimes.

On my first trip to Kyoto, we visited Nijo Jo (二条城), the samurai castle.

If you are interested in its history, please refer to the Wikipedia article! You take the train to Nijo - behold, a map! It was very pretty, but the main thing that caught me off-guard was the lake and the garden.

The first autumn leaves were just starting to turn red at this point. Near the exit, we saw a massive queue of people waiting to collect some free things. What was it? Well, naturally we made our way over to find out, only to discover that they were lining up for bags of soil. FREE soil. Yes, I used to think that the British would get in line for literally anything, but I'm afraid the Japanese have us beaten hands down. It reminds me of the time that I was in Ueno Zoo and saw a 30-minute-long queue to pet a guinea pig. Honestly.

Also, on this weekend, I discovered that I am dating a DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) freak - now, I used to play it and think that I was good, but he was getting A scores on expert levels. Nobody should be able to co-ordinate their eyes and their legs that quickly... it's just unnatural. Still, we headed on to Sanjo, which is, I believe, the most happening downtown part of Kyoto. Turn left when you come out of the station, and then left again at the first block, and you walk down a lovely street. It may be lined with bars, izakayas and the occasional hostess bar or love hotel, but down the middle runs a little canal, which just adds something special to the atmosphere.

Later, we walked through Gion, the famous geisha district. Suddenly, we were away from the busy streets and bright lights, and in a calm pocket of serenity and beauty. The river was lined with restaurants, which I am guessing were expensive. The photos don't do it justice, although perhaps this picture that I didn't take, from, will give you a better idea. A geisha walked past me at the traffic lights - very exciting!

We had some amazing Indian curry, although I can't remember where. After that, Jeff showed me an awesome bar, which I believe was called Cafe Siesta. Naturally, as soon as 3 white people walked in, the entire place empied out. Ah well... more retro gaming for me. Next to the bar sat a Street Fighter II arcade machine. The small busy cosy hang-out also boasted an old Sega console (with Sonic 2!!!) and a retro Nintendo one.. I'm not sure what the actual consoles were, I hadn't heard of them, but I knew a lot of the games. You were allowed to sit there and play them for free (well, the SF one was 100¥ a pop) - Super Mario and Kirby... you may not know this about me, but I am a bit of a gamer nerd, especially when it comes to retro games. They serve cocktails with interesting names like 1-up and Bonus Stage, although I was too absorbed in reliving my childhood and kicking ass as Chun-Li to pay them much attention. I do NOT recommend their Mojitos. But, if you would like to go there, I found these directions from this very useful blog (a guide to Kyoto, check it out!) - "From Keihan Shijo station, cross the bridge west toward McDonalds. Make a right onto Kiyamachi street, and cross over to the left (far) side of the river on Kiyamachi. Pass club world, and go straight into the alley. Continue straight into the next alley until you see the sign for A Bar on your left. Cafe Siesta is on the first floor. "

Night-time Leaves
This last weekend, I returned to Kyoto. This was a trip that I had actually planned months ago, because I had the Friday off, and a bunch of girls from Hamamatsu were coming, too. The only difference was that I no longer had to fork out any money for a hostel, muhaha! For those of you who don't know, Japan looks beautiful in autumn (or "fall" to some of you), and viewing the red leaves is a popular pastime here, just as cherry blossom viewing is popular in spring. Yes, the Japanese are very fond of gazing at nature, taking photos and exclaiming "kirei, na!!!" (so pretty), and there are plenty of beautiful viewing spots, especially in Kyoto. I found out that some temples had night-time viewing, where they illuminate the trees and create some amazing photo opportunities.

We found Kodaiji Temple (take the train to Gion Shinjo and walk for 5-10 minutes - HERE BE A MAP!). I think it cost 500 or 600円 to get in, but it was worth it. At first, it seemed to be nothing more than a few illuminated trees, but then we reached the lake. The trees - their leaves a contrast of crisp green and brilliant crimson - stood bright and illuminated, their reflections as clear as if there were a second forest lurking in the stillness of that lake, beckoning the weary traveller to abandon their senses and dreamily step into their enchanted submarine clearning... sorry, I got all poetic there, but look at the photos.

Being a Geisha
The next day... we dressed up as geishas!! Sorry, Maiko, the geisha's apprentice. That's right, for only 9,975円 we were dressed up in the full make-up and a kimono of our choosing, given the wigs, and shot in 20 different poses. For that price you get a print-out of all 20 photos, as well as a CD containing digital copies of each one. For a little extra, you can walk around Gion and take some atmospheric photos.

There are loads of these photo studios in Kyoto, but the one that we went to was in Gion. We got very lost and ended up being nearly an hour late, so let me tell you.... cross the Shinjo bridge (by Gion Shinjo station) and keep walking straight. Turn left when you see an orange building on your left (and in front of you should be a shrine/temple, to your right a small, pretty street that looks a lot more traditional). The street that you will turn down looks a little bit dodgy and is peppered with hostess bars, but don't worry. Keep walking more or less straight down it, you will see the sign very clearly. We didn't see it because it was obscured by a massive truck, so... look carefully! The company that we used was called Yumekoubou, and their map isn't very helpful, so... I think it's C, on here! So, ever wondered what foreginers would look like as geisha? Here I am, the blue eyed maiko...

Here is the gang!

And here... this is a photo of me next to my great grandmother, Portia May Ascough (later Foster).

I'm guessing that this photo is around 100 years old. She posed somewhere in Manchester, I'm guessing... so I thought I'd edit my photo a little and put it there, to compare. Wonderful, eh? Even though I never met her, this strange thing links us across time, and a part of her lives in me. Yes... there are a lot of amazing photographs from that side of my family, which I have scanned and enhanced in order to preserve them. One even goes back to 1860, or something... amazing.

More leaves, temples... and MONKEYS!!!

After the photoshoot (which took around 3 hours for all of us) we had lunch and some of us went our seperate ways. I met up with Jeff and he took me to Kiyomizu-dera, another famous temple. Map! It's quite a steep uphill climb, the path littered (of course) with shops full of food and omiyage (souveneirs). I couldn't resist buying a mobile phone charm that depicted Hello Kitty wearing panda skin (she seems to enjoy skinning other animals alive and wearing their skin as a kind of hoody) and bathing in a bowl of ramen. I WAS collecting Kitty straps (well, I had a glowing mushroom from Hachijo-jima and a London bus one) before I lost my phone the other week... I had to pay 7000円 for a new one, but I was able to transfer my number and email address over. Anyway, Kiyomizu-dera is very pretty, too. At the top, we were accosted by some Junior High School boys with good English, who asked "how are you?" and "is she your girlfriend?" (to Jeff, about me, of course) and got excited when he responded in Japanese. We later saw them two more times as we walked away from the temple, so I think that they were stalking us! Here are some photos (of the temple, not the children).

On Sunday we went to Arashiyama. It's a few stops from Kyoto but it doesn't take very long at all. After walking down a crowded but chilled street full of the usual shops and crap, we hit a big river. On either side of the river were traditional looking buildings, surrounded by mountains covered in luscious trees in the process of becoming red. I felt as if I might have been transported back to ancient Japan... if it hadn't been for the cars and the Coca-Cola signs. Still, it was beautiful and serene. The girls had taken the Romantic train ride up into the mountains and were returning on a boat trip, which they claim was amazing... so I might do that next week and let you know how it goes. Jeff showed me a restaurant at the riverside. The drinks were kept cool by the natural waterfall that ran from the mountain into the river, while the cooking was done on a boat just off the shore. We had some yakisoba and drinks and relaxed for a bit. Pretty!

Oh, and I can't forget the most exciting thing of all... MONKEY MOUNTAIN!!! By the side of the river, you will see signs with pictures of monkeys on them. Go up... it's only 550円 if I recall correctly. It's a fair walk up the mountain, perhaps 150m, but... MONKEYS! OK, you may not know this about me, either, but I love monkeys. Even when there are terrifying signs like this on the way up:

Yes, the monkeys seem to have ripped this button off, in rage. Also:

This basically says - when you walk past the monkeys, don't look them in the eye!! At this point, I beleive that we started singing Empty Chairs at Empty Tables from Les Miserables, only we substituted the lyrics for improvised lyrics about monkeys killing everybody because some fool made eye contact with one.

There is a small enclosure at the top of the mountain where you can buy monkey food and feed it to them through the bars. Suddenly, we were a group of humans enclosed in a small room, wire on the windows, handing food to the monkeys through the mesh. The monkeys were on the outside, looking in... and I had the strange sense of what it must feel like to be in a zoo. Every once in a while they would go crazy and leap across the roof, making loads of noise. We could walk around the top of the mountain a bit, and I got to see all these cute baby monkeys. Two of them were play-fighting about 1cm away from my foot. I managed to get some photos:

We didn't stay up there too long because flies had decided to descend and feast upon our flesh. Still, if you like monkeys, this is the place to be. There are monkey quizzes along the way, too. Sure, they're in Japanese, but we managed to work out most of the questions with our (higher beginner?) level... or, at least, we made it up and guessed.

Weekend Three - Golden Temples and Crimson Leaves
I returned again the following weekend. Clearly, I really like red leaves. While most of the weekend was quite chilled, we made a trip to Kinkakuji - the gold painted temple. Kyoto is full of temples, and after seeing a few, I'll openly admit that I'm really not that excited. Still, this one is gold, so I guess it had to be done.

That's all there is to say, there. Oh, and here's an awesome dish that I had in a Thai restaurant in Moriyama (near the station):

1 comment:

  1. 6000-7000 yen is pretty expensive for a 90min train as is 4000 for a slow one. Only costs me between £40-80 to go to Dundee return and thats a 5 1/2hr journey from Manchester. Also hating to lessen your enjoyment of the food photo, but it looks like the owl of the abyss....