Friday, May 7, 2010

Kyoto: The Temple Remix

"If you go Kyoto, you gonna be sick of temples!"
--Hiro, a staff member at Hostel K's House Tokyo Oasis.

Me at Kinkakuji (a.k.a. Golden Pavilion)

Me and Steven at Ryoanji Zen Rock Garden

Me at Fushimi Inari Shrine

I was struggling to get that perfect shot. I couldn't get a good photo with the Silver Pavilion! I'd spent half an hour asking passing Japanese tourists to take a photo of me, with the pavilion in the background. Every time, the resulting photo was awful. The framing was off, I'd be too small to be recognized, or something else would be wrong.

In the book Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, the author mentions a study of how Japanese and Americans take photos differently. Two groups of students--American and Japanese--were given cameras. Their assignment: take pictures of your best friend. The Americans would shoot close-ups, emphasizing the individual's identity. In the Japanese photos, the best friend would be tiny, with the background more dominant. Environment over the individual.

Back to me at the pavilion. I was on the verge of giving up. No matter how many times I tried to be a director, the shots wouldn't come out right. Time to quit.

Then I noticed a Japanese girl in a kimono. She'd been waiting for me to see her. She held out a digital camera, gesturing for me to take a picture of her and her friends.

If I can't get a good picture, I'll help someone else get one, I reasoned. I aimed the camera. I waved my hand for the girls to move closer together. They shuffled toward the center. Slowly, I moved forward, filling the frame with their beautiful kimono-clad figures. Tapped the shutter button.

Kimono girls at Silver Pavilion

With a flourish, I showed the camera screen to the girls. Their smiles of delight made it all worthwhile. Then they huddled together and discussed something. A decision was reached. One girl beckoned me to stand with them.

I couldn't believe my luck! I gave my camera to a woman standing nearby. Before she could start backing away (and making us shrink in the photo), I told her to take the picture from where she was already standing. She did. Success!

Me with kimono girls

We bowed to each other and parted ways. It wasn't until I left that this thought occurred to me: why didn't she ask one of the other guys hanging around to take her photo?

The fleeting friendships are one of the sadder parts of travel. I'll meet someone cool, then they'll be gone the next day. This happens a lot in "transit" cities like Hong Kong, which people use as gateways to somewhere else. And if it's an expensive gateway city without signature sights, it's even more serious. In Tokyo, I had new hostel roommates every night!

Luckily, Kyoto was filled with things to see. For many travelers Kyoto is Old Japan. So my new roommates were there for a whole week, the same as me. What a big break!

Steven, Christian, and Ken at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant

Christian was of Indonesian Chinese origin, but grew up in the states. I cheered up when Ken and Steven said they were Taiwanese-American. I love Taiwan! We spent the most of the first night chatting about partying in Taipei.

We ended up eating our way through Kyoto together. It was basically a crash course in Japanese cuisine.

Breakfast: Noodles

Paying the noodle lady

Soba noodles with a side order of inari

Lunch: Sushi

100-yen sushi. Gotta grab those bargains!

Ordering sushi via touchscreen

Ken ponders his sushi plate.

Dinner: Yakitori

Various kinds of chicken yakitori and Asahi beer

Me chowing down on yakitori

Snack: Giant rice crackers

Giant cracker vendor

Choose your flavor.

It's a cliché to say that foods are better when eaten in the original country. Like how Chinese food in China is better than a Chinatown in the West. This is blasphemy for me to say, but I have had good Chinese food outside of China. I actually think the Chinese food in Malaysia is even better, because they use Southeast Asian spices and Indian curries.

However, the Japanese food in Japan is on a whole other level above what's served anywhere else. Everything is just so much better: the rice, the noodles, the seaweed, even the soy sauce is amazing.

The noodle joints are really basic. An old woman will boil a pack of noodles for under a minute, scoop the noodles into a bowl, add some broth, and it's done. So simple, yet the food is so fantastic.

When people talk about how expensive Japan is, the first thing that springs to my mind isn't the $100 Kobe beef steaks. It's a steamed bun I ate in Kyoto.

The 400-yen steamed bun.

It cost 400 yen (US$4.25). In China, you can get a steamed bun (包子) for less than 1 yuan (US$0.15). The Japan price is outrageous! According to my calculations, you could buy about 28 Chinese steamed buns for that. Curiosity got the better of me. I just had to know what a 400-yen steamed bun tasted like. The verdict: good, but not that good.

To avoid bombarding you guys with every temple I saw, I'll just write about my favorite one: the Kiyomizudera Temple. Temples in Kyoto are surprisingly small and ornate. Quite a contrast from their giant, flamboyant counterparts in Beijing or even Nikko.

The Kiyomizudera was big and had lots of nooks and crannies to explore. Best of all, it's cheaper than the more famous temples. The admission fee was 300 yen (US$3.19), about half the price of other temples in Kyoto.

Girls washing hands before entering the temple.

Guys ringing bells.

The main building was a huge wooden structure against a mountain. Along the main balcony, people crowded the rails to get their photos taken with the vast backdrop.

Kiyomizudera main balcony

Pagoda with city in background

In that complex is the Jishu Shrine, where there are two "love stones," placed 18 meters apart. The saying is, if you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, you will find true love.

Girl trying to find the stone with eyes closed

Instead of doing that, I relied on the good old hostel magic.

Jumi played bass guitar in a rock band. She had also studied abroad in Melbourne, so she spoke English with a fun Australian accent.

Jumi and me at Sandal Wood hostel

Trusting Jumi's excellent fashion sense, I asked her where I could buy a cheap kimono. I thought that would be the ultimate Japanese souvenir, having a kimono to use as a bed robe.

She suggested I hit the Kobo-san Market, which was held on the 21st of every month at the Toji Temple. Jumi said it was a famous shopping area for antiques and traditional Japanese crafts. She said a lot of people sold secondhand goods at low prices.

Toji Temple and moat

The scheduling was tight, since I was supposed to move to Osaka on that day. Had to do some last-minute improvising. I checked out of the hostel in the morning, stashed my backpack in a locker at Kyoto train station, then went to the Kobo-san Market. My new plan was to go to Osaka after visiting the market.

Usually I hate disrupting my plans, but I'm glad I made an exception this time. Kobo-san Market was my favorite attraction in Kyoto! It was full of local color and local people. If you're going to visit Kyoto, I highly recommend timing your visit so that you can be there on the 21st of the month.

This woman vendor was really loud and aggressive! Surprising for a Japanese.

Scene from Kobo-san Market

Ceremonial dolls

Vendors cooking okonomiyaki

I kept my eyes open for any kimonos. The first stall I went to had some cool kimonos, but they cost 3,500 yen (US$37). I decided not to rush and buy something right away. I've done that at other markets in the past. Later I'd see the same product at another stall for a cheaper price. Then I'd kick myself for being impulsive.

In the back of the market, I finally found what I was looking for. A table piled high with secondhand kimonos selling for only 1,000 yen (US$10.55)!

Secondhand kimonos for sale

I dove right in, picking out the coolest designs I could find. Narrowed it down to three finalists. I tried them all on. They all fit okay. Then I took a deep breath and forced myself not to get excited and buy them all immediately. I closely examined each kimono, looking for holes, loose threads, etc.

Only one passed my inspection. That's the one I bought. Ah, I couldn't wait to get home and wear my new samurai pajamas!

Inside Information

Where to stay

I stayed at the Sandal Wood Hostel. The owners are super-friendly and play in a rock band. The hostel itself is comfortable and homey, it feels like staying at a friends apartment. The common area is spacious, but the rooms are small and just okay.

Backpacker Hostel K's House Kyoto is the most famous branch of this chain. Other travelers have reported that it's really nice. The big advantage is that it's close to the main train station. Book early, as they're often full.

Getting around

The best way to get around the city is by bus. The subway system isn't as extensive as the bus network. Kyoto train station is the central bus stop. Pick up a bus map from the Tourist Information Center on the second floor of the train station.

It's best to buy stored-value cards from machines at the train station. Then you'll avoid fumbling for exact change to pay for bus fares.

These three buses go to most of the famous attractions. Source: Kyoto Prefectural Government Welcome to Kyoto site.

100 RAKU Bus
To Higashiyama, Heian Shrine, Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion)

(East route): From Kyoto Station the bus goes to the Higashiyama area such as Sanjusangen-do Temple, Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Yasaka-jinja Shrine. Then, it goes to the Okazaki area such as Heian-jingu Shrine, Eikan-do Temple and Nazen-ji Temple and goes to Ginkaku-ji Temple. Then it comes back to Kyoto Station.

101 RAKU Bus
To Nijo Castle, Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine, Kinakaku-ji Temple

(Central route): From Kyoto Station the bus goes to Nijo Castle, Horikawa Imadegawa where Nishijin Textile Center is located, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kinakaku-ji Temple and Daikoku-ji Temple. It finally goes to Kitano Tenman- gu Shrine, Kinkaku-ji Temple and Daitoku-ji Temple. It finally goes to Kitao-ji Bus Terminal and then comes back to Kyoto Station. At Kitano Hakubai-cho, Bus Route 101 connects to the Keifuku Railway bound for Arashiyama.

102 RAKU Bus
To Ginkaku-ji-Kinkaku-ji Temple (Silver and Gold Pavilions), Daitoku-ji Temple

(North route) From Ginkakuji-michi the bus goes along Imadegawa Street to Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nishijin Textile Center, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kinkaku-ji Temple. It finally goes to Daitoku-ji Temple and then comes back. At Kitano Hakubai-cho, The bus connects to the Keifuku Railway bound for Arashiyama. At Demachiyanagi-eki- mae, it connects to the Eizan Rilway bound for Kurama.

What to buy

It's really worth arranging your schedule to be in Kyoto for one of its temple markets. Temple markets are great places to get cheap kimonos and other fun traditional items as souvenirs.

The most famous is the Kobo-san market at To-ji Temple, held on the 21st of each month.


Lisa said...

-The photo with you and the girls in kimonos is classic! Great shot.
-The study they did about Japanese and US and how we photograph people/landscapes is fascinating!
-Inari sushi is my absolute favorite! I can't wait to go to Japan to experience the food there.
-You have to post a photo of you in your new kimono!!

Janin said...

Hi Marcus,
I love your pictures!! Thanks for sharing this site with people so they can see all the beauty the world has to offer, and the people.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful. Thank you.

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