The Kyoto Daytrip

      Kyoto is the spiritual capital of Japan and has been since the 8th century (i think). In the 17th century the city was split into Kyo and To and then the To was put first to create Tokyo. Well kind of. The ancient capitals of proto-Japan (known as Yamato) were Osaka, Asuka and Nara. The capital changed with each King. Nara became the first capital city while Osaka remained the premiere port. The Buddhist priests caused too much problems so the Emperor (called so because the Japanese believed their leader should be equal to China's and China had an Emperor) got up and moved to Kyoto. Then when the Shogun became supreme military leader of Japan he moved from the Emperor (still in Kyoto) and took his court to Edo (later renamed Tokyo) which was the most populated area. During the Meiji period the government tried to focus the entire country on Tokyo culture leaving Kyoto and Osaka as a bit of a joke.

      That said, Kyoto and Osaka (in the region called Kansai) are the beating hearts of Japan. The language is informal and it must be said, more fun. The region loves its food like Takoyaki (Octopus Balls - mind out of the gutter please) and okonomiyaki. Most of Japan's culture comes from this region from the expensive Bizen-yaki pottery to Kabuki theatre via Bunraku puppetry and my favourite author, Haruki Murakami. It is the origin of Japan and its beating heart, if Tokyo is the cold mind and controller. If we think of Japan trying to be one organism rather than a collection of individuals, which some may argue, then this analogy holds though i feel sorry for whichever region or city ends up being the arsehole.

     A winter holiday mostly spent at home, with the glorious exception of Kanazawa (i need to write the blog i know) was enlivened at the end with another roadtrip. This time as you would have guessed it was to Kyoto, more specifically the Eastern Mountains (Higashiyama) to see two of the more important temples and some of the older, more traditional styled streets. These places show you what Japan could be because it is the Japan we see from afar. To many who see Japanese cities for the first time feel despondent. Beauty here is not omnipresent but is more of a rose petal laying on a concrete slab. Kyoto is one of the petals but it too has its own fair share of concrete.

     The day began early with a car trip to the bank and petrol station before finding the highway to Kyoto. We got a bit unstuck at a change over and ended up on the normal roads for a bit. Its a bit tough on a toll road with no u-turns to rectify a mistake such as missing a turn-off. A similar feat on the way home found us in Kobe instead of South Osaka. Then we were on. The junction off into Kyoto city was grim to the north but full of brightly lit neon Love Hotels to the south. Once parked in Higashiyama next to the Heian Jingu shrine, which, boasts a massive Torii entrance gate (see photo of the big red gate).

     From the shrine we followed a road along the base of the mountains to the famous Yasaka Jinja. This temple sits at the end of shijo dori and is the main temple of the Gion area. Gion being the most famous area for Geisha in Japan. I've seen a fair few Geisha and Maiko (Trainees) in my time. They should always be respected and left alone, sure look and marvel at the make-up, dream of what it must be like to be entertained by such a person but don't mob them like the American tourist groups seem to (at least 3 times i've seen them do it). Yasaka was busy beyond its big red and white entrance gate. There were many festival stalls selling giant sausages, fortune papers (omikuji), takoyaki and other goods including children's toys.

     Then came the religious stuff. First Natsumi went to the beauty shrine to pray for beauty in the coming year. She also bought good beauty charms for 2008, one for herself and one for her mother. Then we saw the big queues for the main shrine and thought against making a prayer there so we checked the unlucky numbers. Each year certain birth years (always different) are deemed to be unlucky years. 2008 seems to be a bad year for men in their 40s. Beware.

      Next up came Kiyomizu-dera. This is an ultra-famous temple and is in every guidebook and photo collection about Japan (of course i exagerrate). But its really famous. The temple lays further south and is reached by several lovely streets full of old buildings and gift shops. More gift shops selling stuff from t-shirts and sweets to traditional (if cheap) pottery. One includes the Jack Sparrow shop. It is just a normal shop and the name is my own invention as poor as it is. The kanji for the shop looks like the Hammerhead Pirate from the movie plus the other one looks like the ship's steering wheel.

      The temple lays further up the mountain. Last time I tried to go there my brother and I found it closed so we went back towards the river to look at a pottery festival and ended up in an argument with a vendour. Despite repeated questions in Japanese about the pottery he maintained he could not speak English and therefore could not understand us. A counting lesson in Japanese soon sorted him out.

           The temple was marked by another red and white gateway. Inside were the two budhist demon-kings. To be honest I do not know their significance. Further on we paid our entrance fee and made the short walk to the temple proper. The temple is famous mostly because it is surrounded by nature and also because its been built up on stone foundations with large balconies on wooden stilts. From the balconies is a 20 meter drop to the path below. This has made for many a scenic photograph. Dotted around are other temples and shrines as well as a distant pagoda that offers good views of the temple itself. We enjoyed walking around and taking some nice photos as you can see here. Then it was the drive home.

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