Ok, I have finally met my match in misplaced expectations. Maybe it was because of very last minute prep for this trip, or maybe it is finally a spotlight on how my travel tastes are changing, I know not. But Kyoto left me very, very konfused.
Every since I heard of a Japanese temple town with a history of clergy, samurai and emperors in the same breath, I painted a picture of intrigue in my head. One that had the three pillars of society holed up in their respective temples, castles and palaces plotting their next move sitting on tatami mats and sipping green tea (yes, my head is a funny place). I missed an important pillar that’s not mentioned much when one reads about Kyoto as a tourist – the regular people and how they lived through these eras. So in my mind, Kyoto was a quaint town of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines with no one giving them any life at all.
And what life they came to at 9am every morning when the temples opened for business! Hoards of people swarmed the streets leading to major temples and bus loads of Japanese school children tumbled into their midst. Finding a temple/zen rock garden/bamboo grove amidst the sea of heads became an art by itself, one that I was not prepared to excel in. Both mind and body rebelled. Thankfully, the Kyoto Imperial Palace salvaged our first day. HUGE grounds, barely any people, and magnificent structures that we could only see from afar.
We did some emergency research on how to beat the crowds (duh, so much gold on this if I had known where to look before coming), and we called into action our weekday powers of waking up early. It was a no brainer to use this golden hour for Fushimi-Inari Taisha, since there was a Mt.Inari that could be scaled along with the epic Senbon Tori gates. Three hours through the tori and pouring rain to the compact top of Mt.Inari and back was exactly what our souls needed.
We also used a couple of hours in that afternoon to walk around Northern Higashiyama to a few places that no one wanted to see. A tiny Shinto shrine, a grey mossy tori that framed an emperor’s mausoleum and a massive complex of Buddhist temples where all we wanted to do was sit in the Amitabha Buddha’s empty hall. THIS. This is the image of Kyoto I want to carry in my head. This is the image I want to remember when I want to like Kyoto.
I should’ve stopped here and kept this as my last image of Kyoto. Instead, I fell prey to one last big sight and mistakenly believed that the hour before closing would be bearable. Who was I kidding?! Our last sight, the magnificent Kiyomizu-dera and the wonderful Ninnen-zaka and Sannen-zaka streets leading here, was a weekend street market. We scurried out as soon as we scurried in.
The other big draw of Kyoto is Gion, the geisha district and its colourful history. I expected this to be packed with people and cameras, but then, I got whacked again. I spent all three evenings walking different sections here, always expecting crowds. Hanami-koji-dori had a few lazy strollers, the backstreets were just spooky after most places closed super early, and the “prettiest street in Asia” Shirakawa-dori along a canal lined with local style restaurants was very pretty yes, but deserted. So konfusing.
Kan Kyoto Kall Again?!
It’s possible to love Kyoto. I really believe it is. As beautiful as the minor temples are, the big sights are crowded because they are stunning too. All I need is time … the luxury to stay many days so that I can use a few golden hours well. There are so many mountains surrounding Kyoto, surely there must be some trekking to do the rest of the day? Another way is to be ok with the crowds and focus on the object of my affection, which I really used to be good at till now. But it looks like that ship has sailed, at least in Asia. I might still be ok with crowds in Europe (let’s test this soon?), but here I seem to be done.
My first ever high speed train journey, from Kyoto to Hiroshima, reaching 280kmph. Fabulous, just fabulous. The first time is always a charm.
The Hiroshima Horror
can we forget that flash? suddenly 30,000 in the streets disappeared
in the crushed depths of darkness the shrieks of 50,000 died out
By: TŌGE Sankichi, translated by Karen Thornber
I’m lost for words here. A memorial’s role is to be so well done that people remember its object for a long time, and a museum’s purpose is to tell a story well using as many senses as possible. Hiroshima scores on both fronts. The many memorials in the peace park and the haunting A-bomb dome left standing speak volumes with just a few lines of description. From telling the story of what exactly happened on the Pacific Front’s D-Day to detailing the many facets of its chilling effects on everyday citizens, the museum moved us on many different vectors. Yes, a country does not tell the story of its own atrocities and bad decisions (there’s no mention of Japanese aggression in the area), but that I’ve learnt already in Asia.
How powerless we are to the decisions of a few that we have voted to power. Are we still? Or do we con ourselves that the power is with the people?
Yes, I found vegetarian ramen. But my heart lies with T’s Tan Tan in Tokyo. I also found Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, but I think they forgot the salt. Or maybe the taste lies in the pork and squid sauce that’s out of bounds for us. I don’t know. For more trials, read on.
An attempt at conscious travel
I failed quite miserably this time on multiple fronts.
I forgot to take my reusables a couple of times and paid the price. I also discovered oshibori, the wet tissues in plastic covers handed out at the start of every meal which are so easy to unconsciously tear apart and mindlessly use (these used to be actual warm towels till recently). Four pairs of disposable chopsticks, many oshibori, a disposable apron at a ramen meal to please B who rarely wants a photo, a straw, coffee and chips cups at a snack, and meal casualties on trains and planes.
We paid a pretty penny for a shojun-ryuri meal at Tenryu-ji Temple’s Shigetsu, and while I did expect the meal flavours to be hit or miss, I was extremely disappointed that they used disposable chopsticks in plastic covers. I mean, really? The first and probably last time I will ever splurge on a speciality meal when there’s enough novelty going on in other areas on a trip.
I created more food waste than I usually do too. Convenience store ume onigiri (pickled plum rice in seaweed) and inari sushi (rice in deep fried tofu pockets) came highly touted in every vegetarian “emergency food” guide. I wasn’t in ANY emergency but just bought them for novelty, only to realise the hard way that the “emergency” part is true 🙁 Oh, and novelty frozen sake in a glass tumbler that turned out to be so awful that I had to stop half way. I almost didn’t finish a very average gelato as well, but thankfully the cone was fresh enough to plow through. Not my trip for gustatory delights, looks like.
Book re-read on the trip: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, for the third time. Probably the most zen thing on this trip.
Photo courtesy: B