Kyoto !

The RyoanJi Temple, famous for its Zen stone garden

The next morning, Saturday, we set off very early from the apartment and headed over to the train station with our suitcases for a weekend in Kyoto.  Danielle had never been there before, so there was much expectation on both our parts.  Kyoto, a very ancient city, had once been the country's capital and contains some wonderful Buddhist temples and monasteries and Shinto shrines.  We needed to take the 'bullet train' and there was a station about two-thirds of the way there, in the city of Nagoya, where we would change trains for the final leg into the city of Kyoto.

I remember years and years ago, back in the mid-'60's, there was much talk about this very fast train that Japan had introduced for faster travel throughout the country and it was referred to as The Bullet Train, because of its speed; when first introduced, it travelled at about 200 kilometers per hour, and today I understand that they reach speeds of about 300 kilometers per hour.  It's thought of as the world's first high-speed train.  I never saw reference to any 'bullet train' when I was in Japan; it was called the Shinkansen, and there is a network of Shinkansen lines covering the main island of Japan.  It's interesting that when I was there I asked several people that I met if they were familiar with the term 'bullet train' and not one of them was -- so obviously the term is one that the West has attached to it.

My rail pass allowed me 1st class coach service on all trains.  On the bullet train this was always very comfortable and spacious seating.  The aisle ways were very narrow but the seating was wide and comfy and it seemed, no matter where I was going during the three weeks of my rail pass, there was never a shortage of seats available and the trains ran very frequently.  As a people-mover, it was comfortable, fast, efficient, frequent and constantly on the move.  On the other hand, it was also very very expensive to use.  What I paid in total for the pass was used up in value in less than a week of my being in the country and so, effectively, I travelled free for two weeks -- and I did use the trains extensively.

Shortly after leaving Tokyo, our train was travelling across what seemed an enormous flat plain.  Off in the distance was Mount Fuji, with nothing in the way to blur the view.  It was magnificent, the snow capped mountain rising out the of plain in total majesty of all that it ruled below it.  That's how it seemed.  We were sitting on the right side of the train to peer out the window and this unmistakable world famous view.

We arrived in Kyoto late-morning and followed the little map Danielle had, to get to the ryokan we were to stay at for the next couple of nights.  A ryokan is the traditional Japanese small hotel.  They are more like an over-sized bed and breakfast, usually family owned and operated.  This one was within good walking distance of the train station and we found it without wasting any time by following a couple of streets and then entering a footpath, crossing a small bridge that ran over a creek, down another footpath along the creek's edge and suddenly there it was.

On entering the building there was a flight of stairs immediately in front of us with a small check-in counter in a little room to the left.  Danielle checked us in as I waited at the bottom of the stairs.  We removed our shoes, as you do everywhere, and put on a pair of slippers.  These were placed in small cubbyhole boxes at the edge of the stairs; you replaced the slippers with your shoes and did the same thing, vice versa, on your way out again.  And so, with slippers on our feet, we picked up our suitcases and climbed the stairs to find our room.

Our room was a lovely big bright one with a large window overlooking a small inner courtyard.  The only furniture in the room were two futons on the floor that were made up with the most luxurious looking duvets and large fluffy pillows.  At the other end of the room was the standard large square, but very low, table, with a floor cushion on each side of it.  On the table was a litre-size thermos of boiling water, two cups and saucers, a small basket with tea bags and some sugar.  That was it.  No chairs, no television... and no bathroom.  The floor was covered, wall to wall, with what are called tatami mats.  It is a woven natural fibre that is very soft on the feet with a certain 'give' to it, and very fragile also so that you were to remove your slippers before entering the room.

We used a communal bathroom down the hall.  On the way to the bathroom we passed by a small kitchenette where guests could cook meals if they chose to.  I believe there were four or five guest rooms on this second floor so that, during the tourist season when all places were busy with lots of guests, it would be very nice to use the kitchen and probably get to know some of the other guests staying there also.  However, this being January and most definitely off-season, I think there was just one other room occupied.

The bathroom set-up was similar to Danielle's apartment:  one room for washing and bathing and a separate room for the toilet.

This business with the slippers was all very complicated.  Upon entering the ryokan you removed your shoes and donned slippers to walk up the stairs to your room.  Once at your room, you removed your slippers before entering onto the tatami mats.  If there were slippers outside a door in the hallway, then you knew those guests were 'at home'.  If you need to use the bathroom you exited your room, put on your slippers, walked down the hallway, removed your slippers and put on the toilet room slippers, used the bathroom, exited the toilet room, removed the toilet room slippers, put on your regular slippers, walked down the hallway to your room, removed your slippers and entered the room again!  I carried out that ritual only once and then, thereafter, just walked down the hall barefoot (which was considered dreadfully uncouth) and slipped into the toilet room slippers when I was there -- even then, half the time forgot to remove them when I exited the bathroom until I was halfway down the hall and had to return again to remove the slippers outside the toilet room; as I said, it was all very complicated.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple
After peeking around the place a little, we then left the ryokan and set off on our sightseeing for the afternoon.  Danielle had the plan as she had been looking forward to the trip and read the tour books to see what she wanted to take in.  I was very happy to follow her around because everything was so new and exciting.  Our first visit was to a wonderful Buddhist temple high up a mountain side.  We had to climb a million steps, I'm sure, to reach the top and I thought I was going to expire right then and there.  Danielle was young and full of youthful energy and she walked with purpose.  I was old, overweight and a smoker, as well as having a problem back that wouldn't allow me to move all that quickly.  I had slowed down over the years for more reasons than that too.  I wanted to see, to take into my mind what I was looking at.  Forever I found myself 10 to 15 steps behind Danielle.  I know she would slow down a bit for my sake but soon she was well ahead of me again and I think becoming quite impatient.  Finally, we ended up at this wonderful Buddhist temple overhanging the mountainside with beautiful verandah-like porches overlooking the city of Kyoto below.  It was amazing to see.  There was a lush growth of greenery all around us and the city below was filled with the green of many trees.

As we descended from the mountain side temple, we entered into a very large park area.  There were a lot of deer milling around this park area and they were very tame, approaching any likely looking candidate and nuzzling around looking for snacks.  There were small machines that you put a few coins into and then released little food pellets that you could feed the deer with.

This weekend that we had chosen to visit Kyoto included a national holiday on the Monday and I believe it was called "Adult's Day", when all the youth who had reached the age of 18 during the past year celebrated their adulthood.  And they were everywhere!  Young ladies out in public, for the first time wearing the most beautiful kimonos, high heels and with their beautiful black hair coifed so elegantly and adorned with elaborate combs decorated with mother of pearl and hand painted.  And the young men, all in fresh new black suits.  The atmosphere was very festive, filled with the chatter and beauty of hopeful youth everywhere you looked.

We spent a little time in the park feeding the deer and admiring the young people and then left the park and headed down a street that was known to be filled with many gift shops.  I remember looking through a few of these as the afternoon drew to a close and dusk quickly approached.  We must have stopped for something to eat but I really have no memory of that at all, but we'd had a very busy day and must have been very hungry.

After dark there was a traditional fire burning on a large hill overlooking the town.  It all had to do with this Adult's Day celebrations.  I can't remember now what it was all about but, dotted across this hillside, many straw fires were set.  Perhaps they were burning away the childhood that was now left behind, I really don't know.  But soon the sky was filled with the colour and glory of wonderful fireworks originating out of these dots of fires.  Beautiful display after display was sent skyward to burst open over our heads.  So many of them were going off at once that the ground was like daylight all over again.

Finally, as with all good things, it came to an end and everyone began to filter away from the site.  Apparently the new adults went off to parties.  We stumbled back to our ryokan and very quickly fell into our futon beds on the floor, covered ourselves with the luxurious futons, sunk our heads into the soft down pillows and were out cold till morning.

The next morning when we got up we made some instant coffee, with the water that was still steaming in the thermos, ate some buns or muffins that we had there in the room and headed out for another day of sightseeing.  We visited some more beautiful Buddhist temples; Kyoto is famous for its collection of Buddhist temples.  We also visited a mile-long series of Shinto gates.  Each of these traditional Japanese red shrines is erected in honour of some ancestor.  In Japan both the Shinto and Buddhist religions co-exist side by side and the majority of people follow both traditions, not finding them to conflict at all.

I don't recall the rest of what we did that day but I do remember that, by the end of the day, I was totally exhausted.  Dani returned to Tokyo that evening on the train and I was to stay that night at the ryokan by myself and head off in the morning by bullet train to the south west where Hiroshima is; I wanted to view the memorials there honouring those that died in the A-bombs of World War II.

After Danielle headed off to the train station I settled into the ryokan room with some reading material of the places we'd visited, my tourist book, some coffee and snacks.  I was planning to get to sleep early that night, which would not be difficult at all given the level of exhaustion I was at, and then get an early start in the morning.

All during my trip I found these breaks from touring very necessary.  I felt that everywhere I went I saw nothing familiar.  There is no denying it that, even though we know that all of humanity is one, when you are accustomed to seeing caucasion people surrounding you and suddenly you don't see any at all, it's taxing on your eyes and thinking, just putting everything into its proper place.  The architecture was all very different.  Along with the beauty of the temples, the shrines and pagodas, the basic architecture of the buildings is almost entirely wood and allways painted, or stained, this very dark brown.  I rarely saw a patch of grassy lawn.  All other plants were completely foreign to me and I didn't recognize the majority of them.  I recognized NOTHING that I ate.  The slipper concept was trying on my mind and nerves.  Everywhere I went and heard people speaking, I couldn't understand a word that was said.  I was loving every single moment of it, but I did find that I would experience sensory overload and these little escape times to my room to read and just settle back and think about what I was seeing were very necessary.

Of course, on top of that, every single muscle and bone in my body was aching from all of this sudden walking around everywhere... fast!  Back home I was used to jumping in the car if I was going anywhere and parking as close as I could get to the shops I was visiting.  At home I would go for a hike a couple of times a week for perhaps two hours or so.  But the past two days we had been constantly running from early morning until late in the day.  I was thoroughly and completely exhausted and grateful to think that most of the following day would be spent sitting in a train..

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