17 September 2008

zomg kyoto! day 11

Day 11 (16 September)

I will no longer check weather reports here. There was an 80% chance of rain with clouds all day. It was sunny all day. Vengeance will be mine! And now for the day's events.

After some trial and lots of error, we successfully plopped down in our reserved seats on a bullet train to Kyoto. Our incredibly uncomfortable seats, I might add. And despite this, we both managed to sleep for most of the trip.

In Tokyo, it is almost trivial to find a bathroom in most buildings. Lots of signs, many of which have arrows. In Kyoto Train Station, well, no one knows where the bathroom is. I asked a police officer where the bathroom is, and after conversing with his partner, he led us to one. Or at least tried to. He ended up asking a third officer where the bathroom might be, but in the end, his best suggestion was to try a department store. Blech.

Since we were quite hungry, as well as in need of the nonexistent bathroom, we headed towards a pile of restaurants. Matt spotted a bathroom, tucked away in a little corner, with the tiniest of signs to mark its existence. Run! With that settled, we chose a Japanese take on Italian food restaurant due to English descriptions on its menu. Just like previous run-ins with Italian restaurants in Japan, it was edible, but nothing special.

Being my hyper self, I practically dragged Matt out of the train station, since it was now after 1300 and we hadn't seen anything interesting yet. Our first destination was Higashi Hongan-Ji, a Buddhist temple. Picture a giant wooden temple. Now make it bigger. Now make it twice the size of that. That would be one of the smaller buildings. Taishi-do, the main building, is one of the world's largest wood buildings. It's currently undergoing restoration, so the entire thing has been encased in a massive steel building that puts many warehouses to shame.

You have to take off your shoes to go inside any of the buildings, but it is worth it. The sheer size and opulence, which are not subject to photography, can't be adequately explained. There are also relics from the rebuilding in the late 1800s, after all the buildings burned down. There are massive sleds that were used to transport logs and a giant coil of rope. Normally, a giant coil of rope wouldn't warrant a mention, but this one was made of human hair. It was volunteered by women, since regular rope of the time was of low quality.

We walked to subway, for trip #1. Hidden behind the Museum of Kyoto is the Kaleidoscope Museum of Kyoto. It is a one room museum that is said to amaze both children and adults. I couldn't tell you for sure since National Old People Day struck again! Since the previous day was a national holiday and the museum is normally closed on Mondays, the museum was closed on Tuesday. Not cool. We had actually planned the trip to be on a Tuesday specifically so the museum would be open. The guide book for Kyoto mentions this Tuesday closing for some places, but not for this museum. Two rather displeased Americans walked back to the subway, for trip #2.

Ninomaru Palace is a 17th century castle full of gorgeous art and defense mechanisms. Just like at the temple, our shoes went in cubbyholes before our bodies went in the castle. The walls have hand-painted trees, birds, and tigers. The ceilings have flowers. The floors have squeaks. So any intruders could be heard, the halls have wooden nightingale floors. After some experimentation, we determined that only way to walk without them squeaking is to slide your feet very slowly. While a ninja would obviously be more than capable of doing this, he would first have to know about it.

To complement the floors, there are hidden compartments throughout. Warriors and bodyguards can hide, but immediately come to the rescue at any sign of trouble. For some reason, they don't let visitors hide in these compartments and scare unsuspecting tour groups.

There is another palace on the grounds, collectively named Nijo Castle, but due to a 1600 closing time, we only had time to go through the one.

Subway trip #3 put us at the Kyoto Imperial Palace. We were too late to actually go inside, but we did wander the garden. The garden was turned into a giant public park, measuring about 600m by 1300m. We started at the northwest corner, walked east about 2/3 across the park, halfway down, then back to the west side. After consulting a map, we discovered that we were about 50m closer to the metro station in the southwest corner than to the one we disembarked from, so we headed to that station.

If you ignore the Japanese gates and buildings, the park itself is highly reminiscent of Central Park. There are tons of people walking their dogs, people going home from work on bicycles, students lying in grass with books. Sadly, we didn't have time to join in the relaxing, as dinner was yelling our names.

You guessed it, subway trip #4, this time to Pontocho. The street is barely 2.5m wide and pedestrians only. Small restaurants line the street, with their signs providing the street lights. We had previously selected Fujino-Ya for our evening repast, since it not only allows non-Japanese, but even has an English menu.

Once again, our shoes waited for us in on a shelf while we sat on straw mats. We were currently the only customers, which was a bit worrisome. We had the table in the far corner of the balcony, with an amazing view of the river and the other restaurants' balconies. Some old-fashioned lamps provided more ambience than light.

There were five courses, throughout which I gave Matt food that I wouldn't eat, and he gave me food that I would. The tempura was amazing, and I tried a piece of eel! It was even quasi-voluntarily. You would be correct to assume that I did not eat more than the little piece I tried.

Then there were morsels that left us guessing, namely white vegetable cubes that were "disturbingly unidentifiable," as Matt put it. The highlight of the meal was the group of Japanese that came about halfway through our meal. Three women, one in a komono, and one man. The man was really excited to see us there, and asked us questions in broken English. They asked us to take a picture of them, which Matt obliged. Then the man surprised us by asking if he could take a picture of us. We shrugged, turned, and smiled. As we were leaving, he returned the favor by taking a picture of us against the rail of the balcony. Then the family was more than happy to pose for a picture for me.

Our of necessity, I ventured to use the bathroom. It was another squat toilet, in a room so small that it made airplane bathrooms look roomy. Somehow I survived, but was left wondering why there wasn't a sink. So I asked. Silly me, I was supposed to use the ladle in the garden fountain. Duh.

Matt was not as brave as I, and declared that he would wait for the train station where a real bathroom was to be had. Subway trip #5, and we were back at the train station. This time we were on a completely different side, which actually had signs leading to the bathrooms! Huzzah! Granite sinks, western toilets, a real bathroom! Then I noticed that there was no toilet paper in any stall I looked in. There weren't even dispensers! Okay, this is weird. By the sinks, I found my answer - "No toilet paper installed." Um, excuse me? BYOP? Thankfully, I found some tissues in my purse. On my way out, I saw a vending machine SELLING TOILET PAPER. The bathroom was downgraded from real bathroom to moral abomination.

After that disaster, we discovered that the next two trains were sold out. Luckily the bullet trains run every 5-10 minutes from early morning to late evening. So we waited about 20 minutes, fell asleep in our uncomfortable seats, and zoomed back to Tokyo.

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