Japan has always been high on our list of countries to visit in this part of the world but we have postponed it until now as it's a very expensive destination. In fact we were planning to visit Vietnam this Easter but Catherine was selected to a attend a training course in movie criticism in Tokyo, with travel and hotel expenses paid. The time had finally come for us to head to the land of the rising sun...
Travel to Japan must be carefully planned in advance and Catherine's thorough research led to our choosing Nara, the first capital of Japan, and Kyoto, the subsequent capital, as our destination cities. I had only a week in Japan, but the French school has a longer holiday and as I write this Catherine is enjoying a quiet week by herself in Tokyo and the mountain resort of Nara.
A three hour flight took us to Kansai International Airport, built on land reclaimed from the ocean off Osaka. The airport is very attractive but perhaps not the model of efficiency that we would have expected in Japan. We found ourselves having to walk quite a lot in the airport, and we had some trouble figuring out which train we should catch for Kyoto. This was partly due to a lack of explanations in English - all through our vacation we were surprised at how little information is available in English, whether it be tours and guides to tourist sites or the level of English of most Japanese people. My Japanese is non-existent, of course, so perhaps I have no right to criticize, but isn't the Japanese education system supposed to be a pressure-cooker of hard work and intense competition and the basis of Japan's (until recent) economic success? How can their English be so limited?
One of our guide books offered an answer to this question... it seems that there is extensive scientific evidence that Japanese brains develop differently to Western ones. Vowels are very important in the Japanese language and this has had the effect of concentrating the processing of language in the left side of Japanese brains whereas both sides of the Western brain process language. It's been suggested that this difference is the reason that Japanese people have such difficulty mastering English!
We took a regular express train to Kyoto (not a bullet train or 'shinkansen') and got to Kyoto an hour later. (I wish I had got a photo of the Japan Railways employee at the airport adding up the cost of our train tickets ... on an abacus! So much for high tech Japan!)
Our first evening in Kyoto was a disaster. We had made a reservation at a 'ryokan' (Japanese-style inn) recommended by our trusty Fodor guide. We've been using Fodor guides for years and they have never let us down ... until now. The ryokan was described as a 'secret treasure of an inn' in the Fodor guide, and had received a special recommendation. We're sure the Fodor agent who visited the hotel didn't visit all the rooms for our 'western-style' room was shabby and depressing. We weren't allowed to open the frosted glass windows but if we had we would have looked out onto an ugly street. The communal bathroom was almost as dirty as the bedding in our room. And because it was a western-style room it had none of the minimalist charm of Japanese style rooms with their 'tatamis' (woven rice-straw mats), paper screens, and no-shoes-allowed elegance. The one good thing about a 'western-style' room is that it should include a comfortable bed, but our room didn't have that either - only a Japanese style roll-out mattress. Our guidebooks had led us to believe that we could expect to be welcomed with a pot of green tea - in reality our hostess welcomed us with a threat that if we didn't like the room and decided to leave then we would have to pay a cancellation fee for every one of the seven nights that we had reserved there.
There was no way we were going to spend even one night in this place but finding another place to stay in Kyoto in the exact week when the Japanese flood to this city to see the cherry trees in full bloom was a daunting task - we had to make dozens of calls before we found a room in the ANA Hotel at a cool 20000 yen per night, double what the ryokan would have cost us. What do you get for that kind of money in Japan? The ANA hotel (and the other hotels that we stayed in, all about the same price) was comfortable enough but really nothing special - the same standard of room would be half the price or less just about anywhere else in the world. Anyway, shaken as we were by our horrible experiences of that evening, we managed to sleep alright and woke to find the sun shining and inviting us to explore.... KYOTO...
Kyoto is the sixth biggest city in Japan, with a population of 1.5 million, and it's a top tourist destination, with 1600 Buddhist temples and several hundred Shinto shrines (Shinto is the homegrown Japanese religion). Like Nara, Kyoto is located in the Kansai region of Honchu island, the biggest of Japan's 2000 islands. Kyoto was first settled in the seventh century and from the beginning it was laid out on a grid system that copied the Chinese city of Xi'an and anticipated the same grid system, so boring and practical, now common in American cities. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, from 794 until 1868, when Tokyo became the capital. Much of modern day Kyoto dates from the Edo period (1600-1867) and the city was fortunate to have been spared the American bombing that flattened so many large Japanese cities during the second world war. Did you know that it was a FRENCH person who persuaded the American High Command not to bomb Kyoto, in order to preserve all the priceless national treasures kept there? This is indeed the case, according to my wife's FRENCH guide book...
Since Kyoto was not bombed during the war, the Japanese have little excuse for the ugly architecture of most modern Kyoto buildings. A hotch-potch of small shoebox houses and very plain commercial buildings occupy most of the city - even the two rivers running down the west and east sides of the city are unattractive. Only the oldest buildings, as well as the gardens, canals and the surrounding mountains, have any beauty and charm. Well, maybe I'm being a little harsh, for there are cherry trees everywhere in Kyoto and they are really spectacular in April as they explode into pink and white blossoms. Do you know WHY cherry trees are so popular in Japan? The cherry trees drop their blossoms while they are in full bloom and Japanese see this as a symbol of their willingness to lay down their lives for their country, should the need arise. Did you know that despite having millions of cherry trees, Japan has to import cherries from abroad, for their own trees don't actually produce any cherries!?
The ANA hotel is located right in the middle of Kyoto, just opposite the Nijo Castle. Our first stop, then, was the castle which was built in 1603 by a shogun called Ieyasu. The shoguns (military generals) wielded more power than the emperor at the time the castle was built and the castle is an impressive structure designed to put the emperor to shame. Impressive it may be but well fortified it was not, for the shogun did not fear the emperor. He did fear betrayal by his own court, however, and this is evidenced by the 'squeaky floorboard' system used in Nijo and many other buildings in Japan - it is impossible to move around with any degree of secrecy.
On that Sunday we were lucky enough to see many young women in traditional clothes strolling through the grounds of Nijo Castle.
It seems to be a real thrill to Japanese women to hold a western child - more than once we saw western women ask if they could 'borrow' a western baby just long enough for a photograph. Very strange.
So many picturesque corners in Kyoto. It's a photographer's dream.
The first of many Buddhas we saw - this one was only about a foot tall.
Below left: Kyoto by night - this is the Gion area, famous for its geisha residents. Kyoto has about 140 geishas.
Below right: Japan has mastered the art of mouth-wateringly realistic plastic food - almost every restaurant has a display like this. In a country where English menus are not normally available, these displays are a godsend for the foreign tourist - just point and eat.
There are many 'parlors' in Kyoto where you can try your luck with these strange machines. A cross between a pinball machine and a slot machine, the object here is to amass as many ball bearings as possible, and then exchange them for prizes (gambling for money is illegal).
Below left: Lanterns hanging over a canal.
Below right: a pizza shop.
Our tour of the Imperial Palace was a spectacular example of poor accommodation for foreign tourists. The tour was supposed to be with an English-speaking guide but she had no megaphone to address the crowd of more than one hundred visitors and even the half dozen people close enough to hear her voice would have had trouble understanding her heavy accent. This must be one of the top tourist attractions of the country but do you think any brochure was available in English?
Most of Kyoto's architecture is quite ugly - here's a typical view from our room at the International Hotel.
Geishas or maikos (apprentice geishas) perform every evening at the International Hotel.
Geishas are not prostitutes as some people like to believe. They are highly trained singers and dancers whose services can be rented by anyone for an evening, at a price (because of their intensive and ongoing training, they're not cheap!).
There are about 140 geishas in Kyoto, mostly in the Gion quarter.*
Japanese cuisine is a real treat. The presentation is always beautiful and there are so many dishes to try, almost always based on fish, rice and noodles.
Most modern buildings in Kyoto are plain, ugly or just plain ugly. There are a few exceptions such as this in the Gion quarter.
Below right: We found this label on some clothes in a Kyoto shopping mall - I don't know if this is a popular brand in Japan but I don't thing it's going to be taking America by storm any time soon.
Below left: A modest canal runs along the "Path of the Philosophers" where monks used to walk and meditate. Not only the trees, but the ground and even the waters of the canal were white with cherry blossoms when we passed by...
Below right: A geisha out for a stroll along the Path of the Philosophers.
The most beautiful tree in the world? It must be, judging by the dozens of photographers who gather every evening to photograph this huge cherry tree in the center of Maruyama Park*
These lanterns were hanging in some kind of shrine in Marayuma Park near the Gion district in east Kyoto.
Let's focus on Kyoto's temples. Happy birthday, Buddha! Yes, it was Buddha's birthday while we were in Kyoto and Catherine paid tribute by pouring holy water over this tiny statue and tasting the sweet tea that the monks were serving. Below right: Strange to see a statue with spectacles!
We often saw statues dressed in robes like this but we don't know the significance...
This is the Golden Pavilion, an important Buddhist temple on the north-west edge of Kyoto. It's covered with real gold!
Everywhere, there are little drinking fountains like these where one can drink the purifying waters.
In a grounds of a temple on the east side of Kyoto, this perfectly formed cone of gravel is meant to represent a rather famous Japanese mountain (you know the one).
This is the most famous Zen 'dry garden' of them all. The fifteen carefully placed rocks, like islands in an ocean, are the subject of vast admiration and contemplation by Buddhists throughout Japan.
Some of dozens of school children who were admiring the garden above.
In this temple, as in many others, shoes are forbidden.
Maybe we'll go back to Kyoto one day, in the autumn. The colors must be spectacular.
The lake near the Golden Pavilion.*
Just before catching our train for Nara, we visited the Kiyomizu-dera temple on the east side of Kyoto, famous for it's location on a steep hill with correspondingly fine views of the city. First built in 798, the present buildings date from 1633. This large verandah overlooks the Otawa waterfall.
Below left: this is the view south from the temple. You can see the top of a pagoda if you look hard enough.
This is one of a pair of "love stones" at the Jishu shrine in the grounds of Kiyomizu Temple. If you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes shut (about 20 meters) it's supposed to bring you happiness in marriage...
The Otawa waterfall. Reach out and catch some falling water with the cup on its 1.5 meter handle then drink a few drops to benefit from the water's therapeutic properties. The Japanese seem to be just as superstitious as the Chinese!
We didn't see many pagodas - this one was near the Otawa waterfall. Unlike Chinese pagodas, Japanese pagodas can't be climbed - they don't have any stairs. Marvels of seismic engineering, many pagodas have stood for hundreds of years while modern buildings around them crumble. Anti-seismic features include loosely joined levels that kind slide over one another and a tree trunk-like pendulum hanging down the center - it swings during an earthquake and absorbs energy by bumping into the different levels.*
With smoke drifting over the trees, this picture of the lake near the Golden Pavilion is a brilliant example of the photographer's art. Well done, Catherine!
Below: your tireless reporter, videotaping an elegant structure near the Golden Pavilion.*
We spent a couple of nights in Nara, Japan's first capital city (from 710 to 785). It's a 90 minute train ride south east of Kyoto. Nara was strongly recommended in our guidebooks but we found it much less interesting that Kyoto and cut short our stay here. Most of the sites are conveniently grouped in Nara Park on the east side of the city.
The Daibutsuden (Hall of the Great Buddha) is purportedly the largest wooden structure in the world (157 ft high, 187 ft long). The original, which was destroyed by a fire, was 50% bigger than this.*
The Daibutsuden houses the Daibutsu, a 53 foot bronze Buddha which is probably the most famous site in Nara. A monk in the foreground helps give the scale.
Below: A samurai stands threateningly in the Great Hall.
Below: Japanese tourists queue for the chance to squeeze through the hole in the base of this pillar ... for good luck, of course!
Below: Just outside the Daibatsuden is this Buddha statue - rub your hand against it and then against a part of your body that is making you suffer and it will be instantly cured...
Below: Nara is famous for its abundance of wild deer which roam freely through Nara Park. Only one deer, however, has so far gone into the tourist business, selling inflatable deer.*
Below: There are carp everywhere in the Japanese gardens - they represent good fortune.*
Below: In the Nara Park, the skyline is quite different from that in Hong Kong...*
In an unexpected and thus magical moment, we came across this Buddhist monk carrying out a ceremonial offering in a shrine. It was peaceful here, in sharp contrast to the bustle of tourists close by.
Below left: A monk enters one of the temples in Nara Park.
Below right: In one corner of Nara Park are one thousand stone lanterns like these. They are only lit on one night each year
We came across this young woman modeling for a hundred or so photographers while an old man shook a nearby cherry tree to shower her with blossoms.
One of the aforementioned photographers sitting by a cherry blossom-saturated pond.
On the train back to Kyoto these Japanese schoolgirls asked if they could have their photograph taken holding the French baby.
Waiting for my plane back to Hong Kong in Kansai International Airport (Kyoto), where torrential rain was falling.