Monday, November 5, 2012

Japan Part 3: Kyoto

Old Kyoto
Whew. I can't believe it took me this long to get this last Japan blog out there but well there you go. After 8 days in Japan, having explored Tokyo, Matsumoto, Kamikochi, and Takayama, we hopped on a bullet train for about 2 hours to get to our final destination - Kyoto.

Kyoto is known for it's rich history and cultural significance - plus the fact that it came out virtually unscathed from bombing in WWII means when you spend time in the older parts of Kyoto you really do see how it used to be. And that was a big appeal for coming here.

We found a lovely ryokan right in the heart of Old Kyoto and it was a perfect location get immersed in the rich history. Temples everywhere plus monuments, old streets, parks, wonderful food, and really just heaps of character everywhere. Sure, there is the "modern Kyoto" not far away with skyscrapers and blah buildings and traffic lights. That's to be expected. But the old part is pretty special.

We thought we had walked a crap load in Japan up until this point, be it on concrete or nature trail. But the walking we did in Kyoto blew that all away. There is so much to see that most often walking there was the most practical and interesting, even if it took 20 or 30 minutes just to go to a park or restaurant or temple. Add that up over a few days and one is glad to have good shoes.

While taking the speedy train to Kyoto we heard that a typhoon - actually a SUPER typhoon - was wreaking havoc in Okinawa (way way way south Japan) and was making its way toward mainland Japan. Uh oh. A hurricane was making its way toward us on what would be our first full day in Kyoto. Nertz. But as it turned out it was mostly nothing for us. The day pretty much went like this: cloudy but pleasant morning where we could still walk our butts off seeing things in Old Kyoto, rain showers after lunch, 2 or so hours of wind in mid afternoon (not terrible, but enough to not want to be in driving rain), winds and rain gone just after dinner time, lovely the next day.  Not too shabby!  We felt pretty fortunate about that.

Geisha sighting in Bamboo Grove
Kyoto is known for having more actual working geishas compared to other parts of Japan, especially in the Gion district - which we happened to be adjacent to. So it was pretty interesting to be walking along a street during the day or even at night to suddenly walk past a geisha in full dress and makeup. So lovely - and so unexpected!

And while we were outside the city exploring a lovely area which includes a pretty spectacular bamboo grove - a lovely walkway carved through a dense bamboo forest - we happened to see this one out having some photos taken. As you can imagine, I wasn't the only one who ran over fumbling around with my camera trying to get shots while it lasted without being TOO obvious and invading her space. Not an easy feat. :-)

Another highlight was visiting Nijo-jo castle in the heart of Kyoto. It's not only a big and impressive place, it has a feature Anne had read about in novels and other books that we were both really interested in seeing first hand - "nightingale floors". It's a pretty interesting concept that was invented centuries ago. When they built the wooden floors in the (wooden) castle, they designed them so that they would intentionally squeak when you walked on them. And not quite like how you'd think of a squeaky wooden floor - in fact more like a bird. A nightingale, to be specific. It has to do with the nails. The reason? So that if the enemy were to try and sneak in at night - for an assassination or attack or whatever - you could hear them coming. They couldn't walk inside without being heard. Pretty clever, huh? And sure enough when you walked around the castle all the floors made tiny little chirps with every step. Not terribly loud - but there. Clever.

One of the many lovely temples
Kyoto was a fascinating place. Full of history and culture yet modern. So very walkable yet subways and trains to get you around when walking wasn't practical. Of course, as we learned, being mindful of the teeny little "express" sign on the front of a train will help one avoid getting on and whizzing by your stop 5 minutes down the line and ending up 20 miles up in the mountains. Whoops!

It's hard for to pick a favorite place in Japan of all the places we went - but it would be a close race between Kyoto and Takayama/Japan Alps. It was an amazing trip altogether - much better than I even expected. The challenge is part of what made it fun - the language, food, and culture - but the amazing people, amazing sights, and of course my amazing travel companion - make it a trip to remember. Highly recommended!

We were fortunate to be able to fly home on Air New Zealand from Osaka-Kansai airport (an hour away by train) rather than having to go all the way back to Tokyo. And then finding out we got a complimentary upgrade to business class for the 11 hour overnight return flight made for the perfect ending to the trip. Me likey.

Click here to see more Kyoto photos!