57 hours in Kyoto, Japan

It took around ten hours for me to arrive at the hotel in Kyoto last Friday night. Everything was hunky dory until my brain couldn’t wrap itself around the fact that I was on the first floor of Kyoto Station, and the subway line I needed was on the second basement floor. For some reason, no matter how many times I saw the signs telling me where to go, it didn’t compute. I assumed they were wrong.

The Meiji Chocolate Factory as seen from the train between Osaka and Kyoto.

I haven’t had traveler brain in a while, but when it strikes, it’s merciless. Normally my version of traveler brain just has me crying at really stupid things, like when the airplane takes off or when the airport bathroom stall is too small, but this time I went full-on idiot mode. Yes, the signs were in English. They even had pictures and arrows. Didn’t matter. I still waited in line to ask a woman at the ticket counter where to go, and she pointed me to an escalator I’d passed several times not twenty feet away.

You're on a train going approximately 100kph. You pass a second train going the same direction at approximately 90kph. Do you understand how weird it is to be able to make prolonged eye contact with someone in a speeding train not five feet away from you?

I had two full days in Kyoto. Saturday we went to Nijo Castle, where we neglected our cameras due to strict rules and the pouring rain. Sunday was spent seeing Nishi Honganji Temple,

There was a large group praying and chanting inside. I tried not to be a voyeur.

Higashi Honganji (a second temple that used to be connected to the first), and Sanjusangendo Temple.

Nijo Castle is a World Heritage Site, the former home of a shogun, aka someone really important. As we wandered through the guided maze of the castle, I got lost in the pomp. The gilded paintings, the elaborate floorplan, the floorboards that creaked and sounded like singing birds (save for the older sections that sounded like dying mice): what’s the point? I understand the need to demonstrate power and wealth, I suppose, but still.

Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji are two temple complexes close to Kyoto Station.

Part of the moat surrounding the temple grounds, with zero litter floating in the water. Welcome to Japan.

They’re sprawling, manicured clusters of buildings large and small, ancient and modern, where people came to pray, study, and pay respect.

A lantern in the temple with the Kyoto Tower in the background.

It was here, in the midst of the imposing temples and bright blue sky, that I felt a connection to Japan. We quietly walked around and tried to keep out of the way of those coming to the temples to pray.

Mesmerizing architecture. I kept imagining the area blanketed in snow and how peaceful it must look. Then I imagined the fight scene in Kill Bill. I kid you not.

Sanjusangendo Temple boasts 1,000 identical statues of human-sized Kannon, an important figure in Buddhism. These statues, arranged in 10 rows of 100 statues, are guarded by 28 man-sized statues of deities in a line in front of the Kannon. In the center of all the statues is an enormous sitting version of Kannon, where worshipers can pray and offer money and gifts. All these statues are housed in Japan’s longest wooden structure, one built multiple centuries ago.

Inside is a giant, 42-armed, 11-headed statue. Gotta have a lot of space for all those appendages.

Again, thanks to strict temple regulations, we weren’t allowed to take pictures. In fact, cameras were confiscated and pictures deleted if you were merely suspected of photography. The primary reason was because most of the statues are made of wood and are several centuries old, and camera flashes from that many cameras over the years would destroy an ancient treasure.

You could take pictures outside, however, of the orange-walled boundary. I'd never seen this shade of orange on a temple anywhere in Asia. I don't think I've seen this shade on a building ever.

That, and the crowds would never get through. All those people jostling for the perfect picture and posing in front of Kannon and the deities with a peace sign thrown up for good measure? It was crowded enough already.

After visiting the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery in Hong Kong,

'Sup guys?

in which every statue is unique,

Seriously, they were everywhere.

Sanjusangendo Temple was interesting, and the handiwork impressive, but it didn’t have the same wow factor for me.

At least at the monastery we could pose with the gods.

Couple that with the sentiment of “if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all” and… well. I was glad we visited, but the hour we spent on the Sanjusangendo Temple grounds was enough.

I love old streets in Asia. There's always something interesting to look at.

The grand highlight of the weekend was the food: sushi, Indian, and local cuisine. As adventurous eaters, and with my friends’ refined palates, the three of us enjoyed hours-long meals with multiple courses, beer, sake, and great conversation.

Seeing the sights in Kyoto was wonderful, yes; seeing my friends in Kyoto was more important and the far bigger reason for my visit.

Saturday was rainy... until we returned to the hotel, and then it was perfect weather. Sunday was clear skies and crisp temperatures.

Someday I hope to travel to Hiroshima and see more of Japan. Kyoto is a beautiful city, and I fully enjoyed my short time there. Did I see geishas? No. Did I see Mount Fuji? Of course not. Did I see cherry blossoms? A few. But I did experience a lovely country with friendly people that was inviting, fun, and easily navigable? Yes… for the most part.

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