The final chapter on our trip to Japan is long overdue. However late, I hate to leave things unfinished. Though the excitement of summer vacation has faded and I have been to the U.S and returned to Taiwan since, I will do my best to recount our final days in Kyoto.
Kyoto, by far, was where we saw the most foreigners. Which as a tourist, is expected but annoying, it takes away the uniqueness of your experience, if every other visitor is doing the same thing. Living and traveling as an expat, we kind of have a general rule of thumb; avoid white people. If you are the only foreigner there it probably means whatever it is has got to be good, at least authentic.
We spent three days in Kyoto, four nights. We stayed at the same guesthouse (except for the first night when we arrived late and had to pay for a fancy hotel because it was the only place open) and didn’t see a single employee the whole time. Even when the Chinese tourists down the hall lit the microwave on fire and the fire trucks came at one in the morning. No guesthouse workers. There were a few instances that left us with a super creepy feeling about the place. Like finding a contact lens in the shower after day two that neither of us were missing, and our bed was damp when we got back that evening. Then the next day just a little perfectly pie-cut sliver of our peanut butter was missing out of the fridge that neither of us touched since we got there. All that in combination with never seeing an actual employee, lead us to conclude that the place was either run by robots or ghosts, or, robot-ghosts.
Aside from it’s robot-ghost run hotels, Kyoto has a lot to offer. The first place we went to visit was the Fushimi Inari-taisha an Inari shrine (technically way more than one shrine, more like a site of a collection of shrines) that is famous for its vermilion torii.
The torii are Shinto shrine gates that are a general indicator of the entrance of a shrine. At Fushimi Inari-taisha there are 4,000 torii, along the 4km walk through the wooded area. Along the main path there are many small trails that branch out into various mazes of stone shrines and fox statues.
The walk is perfect, I don’t think anyone could handle more than 4,000 vermilion gates in one day, especially a hot sunny day as it turned out to be. It is so easy to get to via JR and a great morning or late afternoon activity. The area around the main temple is pretty touristy and you can shop or get food before or after you climb. We finally got to try the octopus balls, takoyaki, the last weird Japanese food we had on our list to try. Bits of octopus cooked in a pancake like batter with corn, topped with shredded bonito flakes and sweet mayonnaise. Despite my description, they were delicious, just one more thing the Japanese do perfectly, even make something as unappetizing sounding as octopus balls taste good.
After, we went to the Ryoan-ji Buddhist temple, which held the most famous zen rock garden in Kyoto. The garden is small, it consists of 15 large rocks arranged in a “sea” of pebbles and raked in orderly rows, surrounded by a clay garden wall and a viewing platform. We went about an hour before it closed so it wasn’t too crowded. You have to take your shoes off, and there is a sign asking politely for you to be quiet and not touch anything. We took our seats on the platform and gazed at the garden trying to soak in the zen. At first I was skeptical, just a bunch of tourists sitting quietly and staring at a bunch of rocks, (sounded like some genius idea to make money off tourists) but I was curious to see what it was all about. So I sat a stared silently. If you let your eyes unfocus, the raked pebbles start to ripple like water. And the rock garden almost seems to look like a pond, and you get a visual sense of how the elements shift, nothing constantly remains, rock to water to wind to… and as I am starting to feel zen…two people behind me decide it’s an appropriate time and place to strike up a conversation (in Chinese of course). So I spent the rest of my minutes there contemplating the polite version of “shut the F up”, instead of zen.
I did really like the garden for the few moments I allowed myself to sink into it. If I were to go back to Kyoto I would look for a less popular one and spend a good deal of time there. The garden surrounding the rock garden itself was beautiful. If you can dodge other tourists Ryoan-ji is definitely on my recommendation list.
We happened upon a Ukiyo-e exhibit at Kyoto JR station, I had seen Ukiyo-e before, but never really understood what it was or that it was it’s own very specific genre. Most westerners would recognize them as Japanese woodblock prints. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, being perhaps the most famous. Which is correct. Ukiyo-e gained popularity in the Edo period when there was a developing middle class (The same time as the impressionist movement in western art which looks soooooo boring by comparison). These prints depicted entertainment based themes like; geisha, sumo wrestlers, kabuki theater actors, or more simple subjects, like scenery or scenes from the average middle class daily life.
The exhibit we saw was specific to ghosts and demons in the ukiyo-e style. There were a lot of famous ukiyo-e artists who specialized in ghosts or gory scenes. There were many famous historical ghost stories that were depicted in these paintings. It seemed like the Japanese (much like the Taiwanese) have a weird obsession with ghosts and death and it is a major part of culture, especially historically.
I was able to secretly take a few pictures. It was the creepiest and coolest art exhibit I have ever been to and it left me with a much deeper appreciation for what I formerly recognized as “Japanese woodblock prints”.
The rest of the time in Kyoto we spent craft beer hunting and even attended a new japan wrestling event.
We returned to Tokyo for our final days in Japan and finished up things we wanted to do. I spent an entire day looking for used books stores, then another almost entire day inside once I found one that had Japanese books printed in English. Where I bought the Tale of Genji (with a readers guide) the first novel in history, which is supposed to be nearly impossible to read because the author didn’t feel the need to name the hundreds of characters he (or she, I’m presuming it’s a he) used. We had dinner in the restaurant that was famous for inspiring the fight scene between Uma Thermon and Lucy Lu (which is probably my favorite scene in the whole movie). It wasn’t as large as the restaurant in the movie, but the same style with the balcony and private room seating, I definitely see where the inspiration came from.
We did some last minute souvenir shopping (which included buying ridiculous amounts of mochi and shochu at the airport duty free) I even found a kimono jacket for the equivalent of $10 USD. By the last day none of us wanted to leave Japan. We went as a group of four, and broke off to do our own thing about half of the time, but among four very different tastes and ideas of vacation, we all found something in Japan that we loved and didn’t want to let go of. Personally I feel like I had a great experience in Japan. I love the culture, the emphasis on simplicity, the efficiency of every function of society, the quiet pride people carry within themselves. The small towns like Fujiyoshida were so tranquil, like you could stay for 100 years and not age a day from the stresses of life. And the mountains. Though it has been over a month now, and I already spent a whole month in America and am now back in Taiwan, I still can see the alps in my mind and the jagged snowy peaks that are calling for me. I feel like there is so much to do and see, we left Japan very unfinished. I know I will be back someday, and I could see myself making a home in Japan, maybe even a life.