Posted tagged ‘Japan’

Visiting Kyoto, Japan.

October 4, 2009

Let’s jump straight to the basics, shall we? Kyoto is one helluva fun city to explore, whether you’re wandering through the narrow older streets and soaking up on the local ambiance or if you’re joining the throngs of tourists crowding together to see the most famous local monuments, you’re sure to see things that will amaze and enjoy an experience quite unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the world.

Being a popularly touristy destination Kyoto has all the infrastructure you’ll need to kick back, relax, and enjoy your stay. It’s also one of the most bilingual cities in Japan, meaning finding your way about town and asking for help (If you need to, not that I ever did, never!) is a breeze. Hotels are plentiful, the food is delicious, the views are spectacular and the people are nice, what more could you ask?

Downtown Kyoto is your typical Japanese skyscraper haven with tall buildings and crowded busy streets. Not particularly beautiful in any way unless you’ve a thing for monolithic grey office buildings, although I confess the Kyoto Train station; a massive gleaming thing of strange angles and shimmering glass, is an interesting sight. But if you’re the type who loves to see Japan at its most modern and technologically savvy (Quite a few people I met were, which surprised me as I’ve always been a more historic and natural fan myself.) you’re not likely to enjoy Kyoto much. Not really. At least from what I saw. Although I’m sure there are all sorts of pleasant cafe to relax at and specialty shops which will offer your every whimsical desire.

No, I found that the farther from central civilization I got the more I found myself enthralled with this beautiful and strange city. And to do that there’s only one means of transportation: The bicycle. You can rent these things in near any city in Japan easily enough, but it’s in Kyoto where you really find the need for them. Too big to properly wander on foot, without the all-encompassing transit system of Tokyo, and both cheaper and easier than taking the bus (Especially those tour ones!). Bicycling is perfect for Kyoto, allowing you to sail through the smooth clean streets and enjoy the ambiance all while still getting to see all the much spread-out sights every self-respecting tourist absolutely must see. Rented one for the day from my surprisingly cheap yet fancy hotel for 1000 yen, the equivalent of around 12 Canadian dollar at the time. Wasn’t a particularly majestic bike, creaky and plain as it was, but worked! And for 12 dollars I ask no more.

There’s the Golden Pavilion for one, also known as  Kinkakuji Temple. This is by far the most crowded of the temples in Kyoto, the most famous, and the one you’ve likely already seen pictures of before and will go “Ooooh, *that* place!” after looking at the picture in which I am about to link to. LINK.

Pretty isn’t it? It’s even more impressive in person. A gleaming golden shrine standing out sharply in contrast to the stunningly well designed and picturesque garden surrounding it. Were it not for the steady blurb of your fellow tourists and sight-seers it would be quite the dramatic experience to see. But as it is while making for fantastic photographs and a great ‘see where I’ve been’ story, I quickly found there are much much more interesting places (Mostly temples.) to see in Kyoto. Near to the site of the Golden Pavilion for example is the Ryoanji Temple, one of the first Zen Temples in Japan and which I’ve only now discovered (Thanks Wikipedia) is also known as The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon. Catchy!

Again a crowded tourist destination, Ryoanji is most famous for its rock garden. You know the ones; massive field of carefully raked white pebbles with the occasional noteworthy rock or plant sticking out. This particular one was designed some six hundred years ago, I kid you not, and has been maintained ever since. An interesting sight really, I must have spent a solid ten or twenty minutes staring at it trying to puzzle out the design. An act which itself proves the gardens ‘zen’ effectiveness (Or my own terrible curiosity, not sure which!) .  One person told me I was supposed to see a tiger, but honestly I never managed to pick out any particular images from the jumble of rock and pebble. What I most enjoyed however were the antique buildings and the style in which they were built as well as the tranquil gardens. The gardens here much more heavily forested and with a talent for strangely shaped plants. There’s just such a sense of serenity and wonder walking down those well-tread path, and being forested as well as less crowded than the temple I mentioned above, it’s a much more personal experience.

Nearby is the misleadingly titled Myoshinji Temple, misleadingly because rather than a simple temple you’ll quickly find yourself wandering the small, vehicle free streets of a small community. Here is where finally we break free of the constraints of tourism and get to see people in their more natural environment rather than posing for the camera of a hundred anonymous visitors. I recall while wandering along one paved street, walls to either side sheltering the small houses and minor shrine within, I was greeted by an elder Japanese man asking if he could have a conversation with me in order to practice his dwindling English. Not unusual really, but this conversation was particularly interesting as I quickly learned the man had once been a wanderer himself having traveled to America among other many long years ago. He also had a particular love of crickets, and I recall him saying memorably “In America, the crickets chirp mathematically while in Japan, they chirp in sadness!”. He asked what the crickets in Canada chirped like, and I responded as best I could and he smiled and said thank you numerous times before wishing me well and ambling off.

Funny sort of encounter, the type I most love and cherish.

On the other side of Kyoto, past the Imperial Palace which while sounding grand is actually not all that impressive from the outside and tricky to get into the inside, you’ll find Ginkaku-ji Temple, or the Silver Pavilion as it’s better known. Unlike its spectacular brother the Golden pavilion, the silver one is not in fact coated with silver, although it was originally supposed to be. For this reason among others the Silver Pavilion is much less crowded than it’s more touristy brethren, and as a result I actually enjoyed it much more. The garden is more scenic with better view and more dramatic vista, the ambiance much more relaxed, and the experience in general more pleasant. I highly recommend it! Ginkakuji also makes for a perfect starting point from which to bicycle beside or walk along the ‘Philosopher’s walk’ as it is called. Dramatic sounding, I know, but in truth it is little more than a simple stone pathway which follows along the twists and turns of a small canal and through the back-streets of urban Kyoto. Although much less dramatic than it sounds it is nevertheless something I think any visitor to Kyoto oughta do and something I myself found so relaxing I can understand why, so long ago, the Philosopher Kitaro Nishida was said to walk its length every day, thus the name.

Wandering across the sturdy wooden bridges covered in prayer scroll and down streets where it seems every few steps you are stumbling across another shrine or temple, you really begin to appreciate Kyoto in a way you can’t most other cities, whether Japanese or otherwise. Many other Japanese cities have been so modernized that for a wanderer in search of that historical culture and beliefs which I crave to understand, they are ultimately disappointing. Vast concrete shells built over the paved remains of the peoples local history. It’s sad really, I can imagine even moreso for those raised in such places.

Kyoto does not have that problem, it is rich with its heritage and history. One of the reasons, I think, that it has become such a popular tourist destination as people such as myself come from afar to try and understand just a tiny bit more the confusing jumble that is Japan.

Eventually, wandering south from The Silver Pavilion you’ll find Kiyomizudera Temple, another location which I highly recommend to fellow wanderers. Built in such a way that it is a series of temple built along the curve of the hillside you’ll go from standing atop a wooden platform high above the ground, staring outward towards a stunning vista view of Kyoto, to wandering along a tree-lined pathway and through dusty, spiritual building till standing before a large stone fountain from which anywhere from dozens to hundreds of pious (Or simply curious!) stand waiting for their turn to drink the springs water as it cascades down in three small waterfall and into a picture-perfect pond. It’s… well, it’s fantastic. By the by, I was told that to drink from the waters bestow good luck, but to drink from all three falling streams was greedy and thus bad luck. I love these little details!

However, all said and done, perhaps my favorite location in Kyoto was a shrine called Fushimi Inari-taisha, annoying as hell to try and type (It’s even spelt wrong on my tourist map I’m using to remember the names of all these things! Hah! And this is the one I got in Kyoto!) and I’m not even going to try and pronounce it, but for me, to finally see it, was such a sight I was left breathless. It was also a complete unknown to me and so visiting this site in Japan I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that *this* was the front cover of a National Geographic years ago, I’ve no clue whether it was recent or long ago, but the image of this path completely enclosed by seemingly unending row after row of these orange wooden arches, twisting and turning, it stuck with me. Probably you too if you’ve ever seen pictures of it. And to not only see this remarkable sight in person but to walk its length, well, it was incredible.

What I didn’t know was that this path actually twisted up and around a large hill, its length surprisingly long and the sheer number of steps you have to climb if you wish to see even half of the pathway. Even I, in pretty good shape and used to hiking and walking long distances with a backpack, found myself panting for breath before long. But the view… damn, the view! Climbing steadily upwards, always those arches, or Torii as they are properly called, ascending to either side of you till finally you find yourself atop a platform looking down upon the city from afar and you realize how far you’ve walked and that despite the aching limbs, every single step was completely worth the experience for the wonderful panoramic landscape you see before you. If you choose to continue further the experience only grows more surreal as the Torii slowly begin to dwindle in numbers till you’re stumbling along a wild forested path, likely alone as I myself was, not another tourist to be seen or heard, while stopping occasionally at the numerous shrines and small tea-houses that dot the paths twisting journey. Finally finding yourself entering a familiar clearing and realizing you’ve walked a full circle round this hill, and although exhausted, you smile to yourself and wonder where the time has gone…

And that’s Kyoto, or so it was for me. There are other things to see more numerous that I can’t even count them all, but it would take years if not a lifetime to enjoy all the sights and sounds there are to see in Kyoto. Those simply the sights and experience which stood out most strongly for me.

Kyoto is a wonderful city and I really wish I had more time to explore its wonders. Anyone with any remote interest in Japan should visit this city, I really can’t stress this enough. It’s easily one of the most stunning locations in Japan, if not the world.

(On a more functional note, many but not all of the locations listed above do have a small entrance fee. Never much, but it should be considered. Also most of central Kyoto is based on a grid layout and so it’s an easy city to navigate by bicycle, which I really do suggest you do. It’s only on the outer reaches of town where the streets become a bit more meandering as they shape to the contour of the surrounding hills. I’ll admit I got turned around more than a few times along stretches like that, but it’s all a part of the experience and never was I terribly lost in any sense. All in all Kyoto is one of the nicer cities to wander.)

The city of the future: Tokyo

July 18, 2009

(I’ve never done this before, never had the chance, but I’m writting this during my latest trip from my hotel room. Normally my rule is to try and cut myself off from technology for a bit while I wander, makes things more interesting both while I’m gone and when I get back. Iuse internet cafe and the like to stay in touch with family and friends. But in this case I had the opportunity to rent a laptop for the evening from my hotel along with internet access, so I’m taking the opportunity to bend my rule some and get some typing done while things are fresh in my mind. I doubt I’ll be getting another similar chance for awhile, so regular updates are still a ways off for when I’m home and unhurried, but this is a chance I’d be a fool to pass up and considering I’m *at* the place I’m writing about this time, I’d say my memories are fresh. All that said, here it is, a writeup on Tokyo, Japan.)

This is the future. This city, right here, is the future of the world if things continue the way they are going and populations world wide continue to rise at such an increased rate. Tokyo. A city of over 35 millionpeople producing a GPD of over a trillion dollars. To sum that all up nicely, this relatively little city (Size wise Tokyo isn’t terribly big, go figure!)not only has more people living in it than all of Canada, a country… let’s do some quick guess math here; You could fit roughly 16078 (holy shit) cities of Tokyo into. Not only that, but probably makes more money too! It’s insane!

So with that said you’ll be unsurprised to hear Tokyo is a very crowded city. Everywhere you go there are crowds, people, noise and disturbances. This city is alive in a way no other city I’ve ever been to is, the city *thrives*, hums, and moves in such a way that after having spent a fair while here, I begin to suspect the city itself is alive. Some giant, massive beast beneath the earth slowly awakening and bursting to life. I’ve gotten this impression before: London reminded me of some grand slumbering beast. But unlike London, Tokyo is awake! There’s no other way to describe it. To see these giant throngs of people moving to and fro beneath the glare of mammoth neon lights and to hear that constant thrum of life; it’s the blood-flow, the eyes and deep, earth-shaking breaths of the beast. Tokyo is alive and awake!

It is also very, very confusing. Not the subway mind you, although the Tokyo metro is indeed one of the more troublesome I’ve met. No, it’s just the way a city presents itself to you is usually very clear. A specific vibe that this particular city likes to show off and be remembered by. Tokyo however has no single ‘vibe’, it’s instead a mishmash of various styles and times, places and beliefs that defies any simple description. There are two reasons for this really, one and most simple is just because Tokyo is so damned big. Another reason, the second, is because Tokyo has been destroyed and rebuilt twice in relatively recent times, once by a massive earthquake, and the other time by the bombs of World War 2. This has resulted in not much of the history and past of Tokyo to have remained over time and for the city and its inhabitants to have had to re-imagine and rebuild time after time. Add to that the influx of foreign influences and you’ve got a city with an identity crisis.

The result is a city where at one train station you’ll find yourself emerging into the glare of titan TV screens and huge crowds flowing between these glass towers, the noise deafening and the pace frantic. And yet at another train stop not even too far away you’ll find yourself emerging into the simple sunlit daylight, a few passerby walking along the sidewalk and a pleasant breeze in the air causing a rustling among the trees of a nearby garden. While this can be disorienting, it can also make for an extremely memorable and fun experience. No matter what you’re looking for, what kind of city or what kind of experience, there’s likely somewhere in Tokyo where your wishes will be fulfilled.

Me, I like the quieter districts. Or if not quiet, the more traditional. While I have plenty of interest in electronics, I didn’t come here to go shopping, and I’ve no interest really in ‘anime’, or Japanese cartoons, comics and the like. All of which are extremely popular here as well in other parts of the world I’m assured, although it’s not to my particular tastes. No, I came to Japan because I wanted to visit a culture different from my own, alien, and to explore their history and traditions. To immerse myself in something different than the European cultures I’m so familiar with. For example I’ve seen many of the most grand cathedral and church in the world, more Notre Dame than I can count, and yet till just recently I’d never before explored a shrine or temple.

But now I have, in Tokyo is where you’ll find among other more modest holy buildings, the Senso-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple in the heart of Tokyo which unlike the cathedral and church mentioned above, is in truth a series of buildings and shrines built and designed as one grand whole to appeal to every facet and personal belief of this religion. Or so it seems to me, an admitted outsider. The original buildings, as with most things in Tokyo, were destroyed a fair time ago but the recreation remains true to the original and it’s the people and their beliefs and traditions which matter here, and those remain untouched with the passing of time, war and cataclysm which has destroyed so much before. Which is not to say those buildings are unimpressive, they are anything but. Massive painted gateway holding up high these carefully crafted and intricately carves roof. The massive pagoda, a strange inconceivable tower reaching upwards into the sky, painted brightly and shimmering with golden trim and hand-painted patterns.  And amidst these huge, towering structures a range of smaller, equally skillfully crafted shrines and gardens each representing some other facet of the faith. All this to the smells of sweet incense that blows through the air and the sights and sounds of hundreds of followers of this belief following their rituals, bowing and praying… it can be overwhelming. Completely different, and yet in certain ways so alike, the giant stone Cathedrals of the western world!

Senso-ji however represents only one of many temples within this city and far from all the various faiths you’ll find here, Shinto for example is another great belief you’ll find common. But I write this not to debate faiths or compare religions, as fun as that is, but to describe the great city of Tokyo. Religion is only one of the many facets of the traditional ways within this city. Exploring some of the more historic districts would prove another. Near the Nippori train station remain a collection of buildings which have survived the passage of time, and to walk amidst them, to hear the locals chatter and to wander the nearby market streets and taste the foods being sold there is a joy unto itself and another experience unique to this part of the world. Small, tight streets crowded with the sights and smells of vendors selling their wares, people and bicycles crowding together to walk between the stalls. I’m not one to enjoy crowds, but things like that… it’s enjoyable to be a part of something even if I am painfully obviously just a passing traveller.

Tokyo is not unkind to travellers however. I’ve been to places that hated visitors and Tokyo is not among them thankfully. The people are people, and no matter where you go on this great globe of ours you’ll find the same types of people. But for the most part Tokyo citizens are a friendly lot, much moreso than you’d expect perhaps for a city this size. It’s surprising in a nice way to be approached by a man and asked if you have any questions, clearly he’s not a guide, but you ask your questions and that leads to idle chatter and you soon discover he simply wished to practice his english and you’d looked like you could use a few helpful words. Something I had happen to me twice. No, Tokyo’s greatest bane towards travellers is not the locals but the city itself and among other things weather. The city I say because exploring a city of this size is always a task not taken lightly, and the weather I mention because as a Canadian I find it ridiculously hot and muggy at times. Not too bad mind you, not like some places, and in Tokyo at least a drink is never far away in the form of the legion of vending machine that dot every street and corner of the city. Well maintained and stocked machines dispensing cool relief to sweaty tourists like myself and local alike. The things are incredible, one of my two favorite things about Tokyo. The other?

The gardens. The Japanese have a love of gardens and gardening in a sort of way you’ll not encounter anywhere else in the world, and Tokyo boasts a couple spectacular gardens and parks you’ll never forget. Crammed among the skyscrapers and condo you’ll find these gardens, usually walled and *always* with a history behind them. The Imperial Palace (Guests only allowed in twice a year and I’ve no intention of waiting around long enough to be in Tokyo during one of em!) is surrounded by gardens as well as any other royal structure, some open to the public others not. Many temples and shrines will have a small garden to walk around in. And then there are the few others which stand alone. My favorite of which is the amazing Korakuen Garden, located in the middle of a busy city with a theme park and coliseum nearby, you’d never guess that it would be such a calming and beautiful place to walk, so much so the honking of horns and screams of people riding the nearby roller coaster are simply forgotten. This particular park I enjoy because not only does it have a history (Signs marked ‘the __ shogun enjoyed sitting on this rock’ or ‘this monument was dedicated to __ shogun’s favorite eagle’ among others.) but the part itself is designed as a landscape in miniature, every crevice and stream representing part of a greater whole, and it all forms together into this spectacularly calming experience where one step is crossing miles and every tree a forest. A much needed oasis of tranquility and relaxation in Tokyo.

And now, once again, I find myself wondering what to type about next. The city is just so big, so vast and diverse that to focus on any one facet is to ignore a million others. I spend a paragraph talking about gardens and in so doing ignore the cities monuments to the future. The skyscrapers, built like giant glass cathedral which ascend toward the sky and leave your mind in wonder. The exhibition halls, the huge glass domes and the wonderful electronics you’ll find everywhere. And having typed that, I am once again reminded that Tokyo is a city of the future. I enjoy the remnants of the past, but it is the future the city sets its eyes upon. Not only does Tokyo seem to embrace other cultures and ideas, it takes those ideas and engulfs them, making them a part of itself and then setting itself to surpass the source from which those ideas came from. Paris has a giant tower? So does Tokyo, and it’s actually bigger in size… but here is also where I, personally, find flaw in Tokyo’s thinking as a city and I’ll use this tower as an example. The Eiffel tower is not simply a big metal radio tower, but it in many ways it is a symbol. It wasn’t just built to be the tallest, but it was designed to be a metallic work of art, you see this when you look closely at how it was built. The tower is a sort of french ideal, a wonder, that’s why not even in World War 2 could the axis bring themselves to destroy it. Building a bigger tower is impressive, yes, but it hasn’t the same effect nor the impact. Tokyo does it bigger, does it better likely, and yet somehow it’s still just not right. It’s the same with much of the ‘new’ Tokyo, and you’ll forgive me I hope if this seems harsh, but it’s shallow. That’s why I so enjoy delving into Tokyo’s past rather than face the future, glorious although it may be.

But that’s simply me, my personal opinion on the city and its peoples and ideals. As mentioned many a time, Tokyo is too big to really classify. Impossible to give a proper title to. And at the rate the world is advancing it’s only a matter of time till we find that Tokyo is the trendsetter and we, these other cities, copying it and creating our own little shallow copies of its glories. Whether or not this is a good or a bad thing I cannot say, but it is the future and not as far away as some might think. Tokyo is like a murky mirror into what every city could be given the time and people, a glimpse into the future. It is an Alpha-world-city, one of few in the world.

It is a city of the future.

(I’ll add links to pictures like I normally do when I’m home again, which could be awhile but who knows? Not me!)