Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tokyo and Kyoto

Ten hours after leaving the Australian winter, the first thing that we noticed stepping off the plane in Tokyo was the heat and humidity. After a couple of trains and a long, lost walk to our hotel, we were already soaked through with sweat. Unfortunately, we were forced to drop our bags and go for another wander before we were allowed to check into the hotel.

However, without this delay, we wouldn't have seen any of the eisa dancing up the road in Shinjuku. Eisa dancing is unique to Okinawa, the island where I lived for three years in high school and to which my family returned for several years when I was at university. Okinawa has always been the poor cousin of the rest of Japan, except as a beach resort destination, so this was really unexpected. The whole time we were in Japan, things seemed familiar, like the big, green telephone boxes, but I was sad that I wasn't actually back in Okinawa. At least the eisa dancing was a small piece of the Okinawan experience.

The next morning, we got up early to catch the bullet train, or skinkasen, to Kyoto. I had delusions of it being cooler up near the mountains, but this was not to be. If you look closely at the pictures from Kyoto, you'll see that my hair is flattened to my head with sweat in most of them.

We visited the three "must see" sights in Kyoto, the Golden Temple (Kinkakuji, actually made of gold), the Silver Temple (Ginkakuji, actually made of wood), and the palace (Kiyomizu). The fact that the Golden Temple was actually covered in gold was impressive, but other than that, it really wasn't that interesting as you could only view it from a distance. The Silver Temple was more interesting, particularly for the view down the hillside into Kyoto and the Philosopher's Walk along a canal of small art studios connecting it to Gion. Kiyomizu is an entire complex with lots to see, including a lover's walk between two stones. You are meant to walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed. If successful, you are destined to find true love. If you already have your true love, he or she can provide guidance by giving directions.

The two highlights of Kyoto for me, though, were our ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, in Gion, the traditional geisha district, and Kodaji temple, just up the street from the ryokan. When we arrived at the Montonago Ryokan, there were several Japanese staff in traditional dress at the door to meet us. One soft-spoken older lady in a kimono took us up to our room, prepared tea, and showed us how to don our yukatas to come down and use the public baths (which we could reserve for private use). After much giggling and a relaxing soak, we decided to take a quick stroll up to the Kodaiji Temple, which the lady at the ryokan had recommended. It's lit up at night, and it was the best temple we visited. There were only a few people there, including some girls in full geisha dress, and it was really serene.

Back in Tokyo, we went to the fish markets, where we were almost run down by carts of heavy sushi bound for the city's restaurants before a nice security guard explained that the area was not open to the public until 9 am. Then we took a stroll around the Ginza and the Imperial Palace Gardens and finally wound up at the Ooedo Onsen in Tokyo Bay. The open spaces of Tokyo Bay allow an American to finally draw a deep breath after the crowds in the city. Tokyo Bay is like some bizarre, futuristic suburb on an industrial port that was built with expectations of a large population flocking to it from the city, but for some reason it never really took off. Perhaps the Tokyo natives just don't like those broad open spaces. Three hours in the public baths, including a 45-minute foot massage, were fantastic after the four-day "we must see everything in Tokyo and Kyoto" death march. Ralf and I also visited Dr Fish, which involves immersing your feet in a shallow pool filled with little black fish who eat dead skin. I'm not sure of the actual health benefits, but I do know that it feels really funny having hundreds of fish swarming and nibbling on your feet. At first it was so ticklish that we could hardly bear it, but then it dissipated to being just plain weird.

We enjoyed our four days in Japan, although our motivation to visit the sights was sapped somewhat by the heat, but it's not somewhere I would ever want to live. People are unfailingly polite, and the food is amazing, but from an outsider's perspective, it's such an unfulfilling, commercial culture. I've never seen so many shops full of electronics and other things no one needs, or bars filled with businessmen who could be home with their families. It just seems like everyone is looking to buy the happiness that their daily lives can't provide. Then again, maybe I was just hot and grouchy...

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