Last year, my cultural trip took two day trips to Kyoto with a guide. I’m never sure why we had her along; she was nice and all, but I think she mostly showed us how to get to where we were going and then went somewhere to wait for us to be done. The first day, we went to an apparently-famous kimono shop and tried on some of their wares and ate lunch at a marvelous table. Then we visited the Golden Pavilion and walked around. The second day, we went to an active Buddhist temple and sat in painful ways before eating an entirely vegetarian lunch. I will say two things about those day trips. One, I hope Ms. Yamashita was paid well, and two, I barely felt like we actually visited Kyoto.
Thus, when I was told we’d be visiting 鞍馬寺 (Kurama-dera), 貴船神社 (Kibune-jinja), 東福寺 (Toufuku-ji), and 清水寺 (Kiyomizu-dera), and would actually be staying in the city as well, I was excited. This time, I’d actually get to see the Kyoto I’d always heard about.
The morning of our first day, I had apparently misunderstood the meeting arrangements, so I was the last to arrive at JR Nagoya. We had plenty of time before our ride — the Shinkansen — so everything seemed to be okay. In addition to everyone from the exchange program (except for Marta, who’d been out with eye problems for a couple weeks), we also had four of the teachers along with us. The Shinkansen put us there in under forty-five minutes, and we emerged into the massive JR Kyoto Station. The place has apparently been designed with accessibility, commerce, and aesthetics in mind, because it doubles as a colossal shopping center and has some unusual architectural choices. From the countless-windowed ceiling to the super-long stairway (which lights up at night and can show moving pictures, I learned later), the place is a marvel. We stayed long enough to double-check our destination, and headed into the city to our hotel. We’d been told we would be dropping our luggage off there, and that’s exactly what we did — I’m guessing our rooms weren’t ready yet, owing to the early hour, because we just dropped our bags in the lobby and left the staff to cover them with some sort of netting.The subway station was about a block away, and we took a series of trains both subterranean and above-ground, passing through the countryside, before arriving at Mt. Kurama. The area is famous for being home to tengu (mountain-dwelling creatures of myth and legend), and their imagery was everywhere; there were masks in the station, as well as a reprint of an old painting, and a gigantic tengu head with an impossibly-long nose just outside. They also sold tengu masks, one of which I bought as a souvenir and wore (on the side of my head, which is traditional) for a while. The approach to the temple requires the systematic climbing of a mountain. There’s a set of main steps, after which you go up a bit more and ride a short cable car up a really steep part of the mountain, then climb another dozen or so staircases before finally arriving at the temple itself. 鞍馬寺 is fairly peaceful, with a wide area in front for prayer, and inside is dark and serene. I bought an ema and moved along with the group as we continued up the mountain. 貴船神社 is only a few hundred meters away on foot… uphill, on winding mountain paths. The deeper into the forest one gets, the more the path becomes crisscrossed by gnarled tree roots, requiring a close eye on the ground. Along the way are smaller shrines, typical for Japan (where you find a temple, you usually find at least one shrine). The top of the mountain has a marvelous area that’s nothing but interwoven tree roots; I imagine it must have seemed holy and/or supernatural to the ancient Japanese. We took a rest at the top so everyone could catch up and catch their breath.
Next came the trip down. While less strenuous, it required a much closer watch to avoid falling. There were stones set into the path that formed rough steps, and the roots weren’t as thick, but it was still worth some caution. However, the scenery on the way down was amazing, so I made sure to look up once in a while. The end of the path put us in a small neighborhood those trade was tourism for the shrine. What set Kibune apart was that it had a stone trough to the side of the stairs with mystical waters. You buy your omikuji (fortune), but it’s blank; when floated on the surface of the water, however, the fortune appears. I got a middle blessing, which I was told wasn’t so great, so I should tie it to the wall of wires so that the fortune wouldn’t stick. They also had ema, and I got a really nice one. From there, we were given free time to walk around and see whatever we liked. The area’s got more than just the shrine; I found two small temples as well, one of which necessitated a walk all the way to the end of the road. I got back in plenty of time, and we all walked down to a local bus stop so we could get back to the train station, and then our hotel.
It was a pretty nice hotel, and probably somewhat expensive, though I imagine we got a group deal (and since there are fewer of us this year, there’s probably more per person via the budget). One of the staff handed out our room keycards and explained the basics, then Abe-sensei explained our curfew: ten o’clock, and the teachers would be checking room to room to be sure we were in. Everyone was put three to a room, but with there being four guys, someone would be getting his own room. That person turned out to be me — somewhat representative of the rest of the trip, really. The room was spacious for a Japanese hotel, but this was more tourist-oriented, rather than for business. The bed was large and comfortable, and there was even a small fridge. The rest of the evening was ours to do with as we liked (provided we made curfew), and we hadn’t yet had dinner, so everyone split into groups and went their separate ways. I somehow didn’t manage to be included in any groups, and for the remainder of the trip, any time there we split up, I was by myself. I suppose that was the excursion’s one drawback.
First off, I wanted to see what Kyoto’s geek sector was like. I enlisted the help of one of the hotel staff, who gave me a small map and marked a couple spots on it with the help of another staffer. Everything was within walking distance, so I started down the street.
The problem with an unfamiliar city at night is that it’s very easy to get lost, or at least miss a turn. I can’t count how many times I couldn’t quite find where I needed to be. Still, it was good to actually walk around in Kyoto. I found a long, long street with shops on both sides, well-lit and bustling, where I ran into a small group from my trip; they were out looking for somewhere to eat (and just exploring, I think). I slipped away once I found where I needed to go. Kyoto has an Animate, as well as a Namco Land and a host of small, independent game centers. I bounced between them all, but couldn’t find a used shop anywhere. A couple guys from one game center recommended a nearby ramen place for dinner, so I tried it out. You placed your basic order at a machine in the lobby, after which a server would seat you in a small room with room enough for six or so people (kind of like sitting at a bar, only with walls between each seat like a library carrel desk). The wall in front faced into the kitchen, but only via a small opening. There was a piece of paper at each seat; you circle how you want your ramen (spiciness, richness, green onion tops or bottom, soft or hard noodles, etc.) and they make it to those specifications. I got a spicy katamen, an I can honestly say that of all the ramen I’ve ever had, that was hands down the best. Another thing of note was that it was Halloween, so here and there were small groups of girls dressed up, especially near purikura machines.
I wanted to get back well before curfew, so I started toward the hotel with plenty of time to spare. The shops were closing, anyway, so there wasn’t much left to see. Sadly, on the way back, I finally found their used-goods shop, but they’d been closed for about half an hour, and I’d be gone the next day. I took a wrong turn or two on the way back, but managed to get to my room with time to spare. Tabata-sensei checked on me and moved on, meaning I was basically free again.
Rather than an onsen, the hotel had a huge hot tub downstairs for each gender. Outside was the standard antechamber with places for your stuff, hair dryers, and mirrors, while past the door was where you washed up and got in. I decided it was definitely worth a visit, so I went down in my yukata and slippers for a soak. I arrived just as the previous group of guests was leaving, which was convenient, though I had the place to myself for no more than five minutes before people began to arrive again. The rectangular tub was filled with hot, bubbling water that soothed my tired feet. After fifteen minutes or so, I got out and washed up again, then padded back to my room much warmer and more relaxed. I realized I didn’t really have anything to eat or drink, and remembered a convenience store less than a block away, so a made a fast trip down and back for a beer and a snack, as well as a Coke Zero for the next day. Despite the cool weather, the room was a little stuffy, so I turned the AC on low and went to bed.