Sci goes to Japan, Part the Fourth

Jul 16 2011 Published by under Synaptic Misfires, Uncategorized

We are now at the fourth part in the series in which Sci and Mr. S went to Japan. And I've got more photos, and MOAR weird foods!!

We headed to Kyoto in the morning, using the famous Shinkansen: the bullet train! This is a very good thing. You can take a normal train from Tokyo to Kyoto, but I hope you brought a lot of reading...because it takes 9 hours. But on the bullet train, what took 9 hours now takes THREE.

Also, bullet trains have funny noses.

We checked in to our first Japanese hotel (prior to this we had been staying on base and in an Americanized hotel in Tokyo). More buttons on the toilet than you can count. Also, all the big Japanese hotels do WEDDINGS. BIG WESTERN WEDDINGS. These are apparently in in Japan because they are LESS complicated than organizing a Shinto ceremony, which makes me fear for the poor Japanese brides. But boy do they love their Westernized weddings. Neon lights everywhere, huge light up trees, massive dance floors, and big poufy dresses that put the 80s to shame. It was pretty fabulous, really.

We did lunch at a place we thought to be very authentic (there were grills in the middle of the tables and you had to take off your shoes to go in and sit down, etc), but then we found one of the amusing things about Japanese food. If it says fatty pork, it doesn't lie. It means FATTY. LAYERS OF FAT.

And if it LOOKS like you're getting a pile of mexican rice covered in scrambled eggs which is then topped with ketchup, mayo, and barbeque sauce?

Well, you probably ARE. That lunch wasn't so successful. 🙂

That afternoon we had planned on going to see Ryoan-ji, one of the most important Zen Buddhist temples in the world, but time was not on our side (we hadn't planned on how big Kyoto IS, and the fact that all the bus rides would take almost an hour. Oops). So instead we wandered toward the Gion district, and wandered right into the Sanjusangendo temple, the Temple of 1000 Buddhas. On the map of Kyoto, it's seemingly small, but in reality it takes up a whole city block and contains both beautiful gardens and a huge temple full of...1000 Buddhas. 1000 GOLD Buddhas. About 500 on either side are about human size, and one in the very center dominates the room at easily 4 times that. Each Buddha is done with 1000 arms (ok, you can't fit 1000 arms, they each have 40 arms, each of which saves 25 worlds). It took 70 carvers 100 YEARS to do them all. You can really see the differences, each has a slightly different expression and is holding different things in his 40 hands. There were no pictures permitted, but your jaw dropped when you went inside. Each set of Buddhas is guarded by a set of temple guardians derived from Hindu gods like Indra.

Across the street (Kyoto is called the city of 10,000 temples, and you can see why, there's a temple every two feet, though in reality there are just over 2,000 temples), we ran into a temple and shrine complex that we were actually not allowed to go in. No foreigners (you know this because the person will make an x with their wrists and say 'Gaijin'). I was a little sad as apparently the ceiling tiles still show the blood stains from a fight in the 12th century, but I understand. We wouldn't want tourists tromping all over our sacred spaces all the time either, and while in the big temples (and churches, etc) you expect that, it seems nice to leave at least some of them alone.

We wandered our way back...and ran into a wedding! Everyone was in traditional dress except the bride and groom, who were both in Western dress. The bride looked fabulous and wanted pictures with us! She had the professional photographer get us all in there and pose. Pretty funny as she was all lovely and we were some gross grungy travelers. 🙂

We went with Italian for dinner, as A and C live in Japan full time, they can get pretty tired of traditional fare. But if you're in the Kyoto train station ever, there's a pretty good Italian place. And I had a melon flavored soda. That was delicious.

In Kyoto you notice a lot more people in traditional dress. It's something that people in Japan do when they want to dress for a religious occasion or...just when they feel dressy, I guess. What's most funny is all the American tourists mistaking all of them for geisha.

Day 6(?): Kyoto part TWO.

After a while you start to lose track of the days...

Wanted to go see the biggest Tori gate that is in the ocean, but it turned out to be a three hour train trip in each direction. So instead we headed to the south part of Kyoto to see the Fushimi Inari Shrine. This is a particularly iconic shrine, due to the rows of Tori gates, the big (often orange) gates which separate the human and spiritual world and signify a place in which you can communicate with the spiritual world.

You see them often on calendars, and they have re-created the row once in Washington DC at the cherry blossom festival. The interesting thing here is that it looks like there's only one row. After all, you only ever SEE one row of them. And if you go as a tourist with a big tour, you'll only go to the very bottom set of the shrine, and there's only really one row to see. The reality? There are THOUSANDS of gates that span MILES of different trails going up the mountainside.


(Intrepid Neuron clearly prefers the path less traveled by, but would like to note that those rows of smaller tori gates were freakin' FILLED with spiders)

We climbed a good ways, but the humidity was intense. And when the Japanese are pulling out the wicking gear and sneakers (normally you see Japanese women tripping cheerfully up the mountainsides in heels) you know you're in for something big. And we never did make it to the top.


(You are not yet near the top)

We finally gave up and headed out to see the nearby market. Mystery food: dried kumquats.

Also I ate a dried fish sample. It was an entire stall full of dried things and the guy was intent on stuffing C and I with samples.

We then went to a sake brewery!!! It was actually a tour of sake making, with tasting at the end. They start you out by encouraging you to taste the water from the spring which they use to make the sake, to notice how pure it is. You can also see the great barrels in which the sake is made.

Unfortunately the rest of the tour and museum was in Japanese, and while I can understand small snatches of spoken Japanese (things like "this train is going to...") I can't read. But the tasting was definitely worth it, beautifully smooth sake!!

We broke for lunch (ok, it was after 3pm by now) at a Japanese fast food concept. You order at a machine with buttons (there are no pictures, so...you guess) with prices on them (very cheap), and pay the machine. It gives you a ticket which is given to the waiter, and your food comes out 5 minutes later. Drinks free.

Kind of an odd system, but definitely one of the cheapest options for lunch!!! Japan can be a really expensive trip. Mr. S accidentally ordered udon noodles, which turned out to be a severe challenge to the chopstick impaired. Luckily, holding your bowl right under your chin is considered good manners, and slurping is encouraged!

In the evening we headed to Gion, the area focused on traditional entertainment in Kyoto, and the famous home of the geisha. This is the district where you can still see some of the old style wooden houses (those that haven't yet fallen down due to earthquakes or burned down due to fires. We are coming to expect the phrase "such and such was built in X. It burned down in Y, was rebuilt and burned down again in Z...". You start to understand why those old wooden houses are losing popularity rather rapidly).

Note: geisha are NOT prostitutes. They are entertainers. There are (or were) separate courtesans in Japanese society who provided that kind of entertainment (though some geishas can work as prostitutes, it's apparently not common). A geisha is much more of a skilled conversationalist, artist, and performer. They spend years training in music, dance, singing, serving tea ceremony, etc. And of course they LOOK amazing. People stand at the ends of their streets every evening just to see them come out of their houses and walk to work, in beautiful kimonos, elaborate obis, gorgeous hair, and shoes and gown so high and tightly wrapped that they can only move slowly and gracefully down the street.

The main streets that the geisha live and work on are very pretty, but now very touristy, with authentic dinners and performances on offer. We did buy tickets to see a show of traditional arts, including tea ceremony, flower arranging, traditional instruments, scenes from Noh drama, dancing, and puppetry. It was REALLY touristy, but I think it's a good introduction for people who might find the real deal goes right over their heads.


(preparing tea ceremony)


(trainee geisha dancing. The dancing is very dignified and really doesn't move all that much. The clothing is so restrictive they are basically limited to delicate arm movements and steps. But it's still very beautiful)


(A scene from Noh drama)

Finally, we headed to a shrine which we had been told would be open at night for the weekend. And it was, and beautifully lit.

And then we headed back. A roughly 2 mile walk form the Gion district. While the Gion area still had many things open, the rest of the city shuts down at 5pm, which makes me wonder what people DO at night.

Day 7: Kyoto, Day 3!

For our last day in Kyoto, we wanted to get as much sightseeing in as we could, so we hooked up with a tour for the morning to cover the Golden Pavilion, the Ni-jo Castle, and the Imperial Palace in one fell swoop. This actually made our lives a little easier for the Imperial Palace, which otherwise requires you to show up in advance and present a pile of IDs, some of which we didn't have with us. With the tour they took care of all that.

Of course, hopping a tour for the first time reminded us all of how we don't like tours. Oh well.

We started out at Ni-jo castle, the secondary residence of the Shogun. The Shoguns generally kept residence at the height of their power in Edo (now Tokyo), but the Emperor was still the spiritual head of the country (and in fact was revered as a living god until the end of WWII, when during the surrender the US made him give that up. Not kidding) and resided in Kyoto, and the Shogun was still expected to pay his respects (one can imagine how various Shoguns felt about that). In order to do so, they kept a castle in Kyoto.


(That is the gate the Shogun and his family used. No one else allowed)

The castle had some interesting features, including a "nightingale" floor, which "sings" when you walk on it. It really does sing, it's much more than just musical squeaking. The sound is due to the careful arrangement of nails below the floorboards and is meant to discourage spies and assassins. There were also a bunch of very interesting screen painting of tigers, painted by people who had never SEEN a tiger. The whole castle was surrounded by lovely gardens and ponds. I really think Japanese landscaping is about the best I've ever seen.

We then hopped on to the Golden Pavilon (aka Kinkakuji). This is a temple, a Buddhist temple, covered ENTIRELY in gold leaf (amazingly the lacquer required to keep the gold leaf ON coast way more than the gold leaf itself). It was originally the retirement home of a Shogun turned Zen Buddhist monk (apparently this was a very popular choice amongst the samurai class due to the emphasis on discipline, meditation, etc), who decided the best place to meditate was a house covered entirely in gold leaf. When he died, he donated it all to the Zen Buddhist sect, and they apparently got over any qualms they had about austerity. It's surrounded by lovely gardens (themes in this trip: everything has burned down at least once, and is surrounded by lovely gardens), including a several hundred year old bonsai tree in the shape of a boat!


(A tree shaped like a boat. It's better if your turn your head slightly to the side and squint)

There I had my mystery food for the day: gree tea MILK shaved ice. It was green tea flavored shaved ice, with sweet frozen milk drizzled on top, and these random unsweetened rice balls at the bottom.


(Flavor result: meh)

We ended up at the Imperial palace, with permission in advance. It was HUGE, but very understated. Lots of gravel, neutral tones. The most ornate things by far were the thrones for the emperor and empress, but you couldn't actually SEE those... I liked the three rooms where people got to wait to see the Emperor grouped up by rank: tiger, cranes, and cherry trees. The only things NOT understated about the palace was the sheer size of it all. The crazy thing is that it's not the original palace! No, that one kept burning down (of course it did...) and the Emperor kept having to go to other high ranking people's houses to live while it was rebuilt. After a while he just gave up on rebuilding and moved ino the high ranked aristocrat's house permanently. And now we have the imperial palace.

After a delicious lunch of Japanese-style curry, we hopped a LONG cross town buss for the Ryoan-ji, an extremely famous set of zen gardens. The zen gardens are the ones you've all heard of, with nothing but large rocks and carefully raked gravel, in which you can contemplate eternity through symbols. The garden itself is very small, but it's surrounded by a large pond and landscaping, with lots of beautiful paths.

We spent the evening in a bizarre Japanese mall (the layouts are VERY different), and opted for cheap dining at the food court, where I managed to find pickled plums for my onigiri!!

The next day it was back to Tokyo, for our last two days.

3 responses so far

  • Janne says:

    Two bits of random information: In Japan, the actual marriage is simply registering a document at the local ward office. You don't need any kind of ceremony or event at all (that's all I and my wife did). The ceremony is usually not at the same time as the actual marriage, and can sometimes be six months later or more. As the ceremony and parties are only for the entertainment of the couple and their friends and relatives, you usually hold it when it's convenient for everyone, not when you get married.

    The Western wedding ceremony is, for most people (those who aren't Christian), a bit of fun show. A theme park experience kind of thing. There is in fact a career of sorts for older Western guys like me, working as "priests" for these weddings - actual believing Christians are discouraged or refused, as their faith can put restrictions on what they're willing to do in their role.

    At the same time, religious people (or couples whose relatives are religious) will want to have an actual religious ceremony too. So it's not uncommon for people to have both a Shinto ceremony, then a Western one. After which you have a stately party and dinner for everyone - and after _that_ you have a second, wilder party for your friends and younger, hipper relatives, and then possibly an after-party or two towards dawn... Busy day for the couple.

    Second point: there's plenty of nightlife in Kyoto as in any major city. You do have to go to one of the entertainment and bar districts, though. That's one kind of place it really helps to have someone local along to find the good spots.

  • Sanjusangendo

    What I thought was really cool about that place was seeing all the marks on the long wall from the arrows they used in the olden days for the archery tournaments. Also, there is a Hyatt Regency hotel just a few minutes walk from Sanjusangendo with an oustanding bar in the basement!

    • scicurious says:

      Oh yes, the arrow tradition was AWESOME! We even saw a whole bunch of girls on an archery team practicing. I think they might have been practicing for it, as they were using the long old-style bows as opposed to compounds.

Leave a Reply