When trying to describe what my trip to Kyoto was like, the first thing that comes to mind is Disney World – 928345729357 things to do but not enough time to do even a third of them. Because of this frustrating phenomenon, I have made the only logical decision one could make in my position. I have vowed to return! I don’t care if it’s in three week or twenty years – I WILL be returning to Kyoto!
My travel companions this week consisted of two girls and two boys – Fanny, Lorena, Stephan, and Beppino. Fanny is from the western part of France and is currently working on her master’s degree in theoretical chemistry. If you recall from one of my earlier posts, she is the first international student that I met on this trip and since then we have made an almost daily ritual of going to Mermaid Cafe at three o’ clock to talk about girly things and duke out our cultural differences…such as the fact that penguins are birds that live at the South Pole and cannot fly, not flying birds that live at the North Pole. Sorry France, but I’ve gotten Spain, Italy, and Honduras to back America up on that one. You may think that you have us Americans beat with your superior food quality, but you will NEVER beat us in animal classification!!!
Stephan is from Germany, also has his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and is now working on his master’s degree in sustainable development. Beppino is in the same master’s program as Stephan, but has his bachelor’s in physics and is from Austria. Finally, Lorena is working on her economics degree at Hiroshima University. She is originally from Paraguay but has lived in both Wisconsin and Japan and is fluent in all three languages.
Our trip began when Fanny, Stephan, Beppino, and I (Lorena was supposed to meet up with us later) arrived at Saijo Station at 11:00 PM to take an all night bus we had priorly reserved to Kyoto. However, only minutes before the bus was supposed to arrive, we got a phone call stating that the bus was delayed and would actually be arriving around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Not wanting to pay the bus fare to return to the university, we decided to wait for the overnight bus and bum around Saijo for the next three to four hours. To my surprise, the delay turned out to be rather enjoyable as my travel mates and I really started to get to know each another – and each other’s cultures. Over the course of the weekend we basically hit every subject from religion to politics and everything in between, and Thursday night was no exception. A favorite recurring topic turned out to be the differences in pronunciation and root words in our languages. Fanny about died when she heard my pronunciation of “Notre Dame” in reference to the American university, Stephan about died when he heard my pronunciation of “orangutan”, and I about died when I learned about the German language’s lack of euphemisms. I was also interested to discover that “race” and “ethnicity” hold very different meanings in Germany and how the former is never used in polite society. Finally, I found it rather funny how intrigued Fanny, Stephan, and Beppino were by the Greek system at American universities. Apparently, there is no analogous system in Europe, so I had a lot of fun talking about rush, swap parties, and the like.
Returning back to my Thursday night, the overnight bus finally showed up and we arrived at Kyoto Station sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 AM the next morning. I found Kyoto Station to be very different from Tokyo Station, but really liked the aesthetic.
We also stumbled upon some adorable school children taking a tour . . . and probably got a little overzealous in our picture taking of such an ordinary event.
After taking a morning nap, we biked half an hour to Arashiyama, a small city filled with bamboo forests, temples, and gardens.
Although it had begun drizzling at this point, we decided to risk staying outdoors a little longer and visited Tenryu-ji Temple. Not only were the temples and garden extremely peaceful,
but it was equally fun people watching. There were a number of Japanese couples that had come to tour the temple in their traditional dress, and we took the liberty of taking pictures.
After stopping to get a bite to eat at a little shop in Arashiyama (green tea ice cream for me!), we walked outside only to realize that it was pouring. I was a little nervous about biking back in the rain because, at this point in the trip, my biking skills were still sorely inadequate. Looking back, however, I can’t think of anything that helped my bike riding more than that ride in the rain. Because I was so focused on the rain itself, I barely thought about maneuvering and controlling my bike which actually made me a much better driver.
When we finally reached the hostel
we took yet another nap before getting dressed and leaving for Gion.
Gion was so much fun. The district is known for Geishas (called Geikos in Kyoto) and Maikos (Geisha apprentices), and we got to see at least six on their way to evening engagements. Sadly, we were not allowed to take pictures because they were working, but hopefully the picture below attests to how much fun we had in the city.
The next morning, after looking outside and seeing cute little boys in their baseball uniforms going to practice, I was inspired to go ahead, wake up, and explore one of the historic sites near by. Only a block away stood Nijo Castle, the perfect candidate for my morning adventure.
It also happens to be one of the few castles in Kyoto in which you can actually take a tour of the inside, so I took advantage of the opportunity and stealthily joined an English speaking group that had already begun their tour. The most interesting tidbit I took from the tour was that some women actually had tremendous political power in the days of the shoguns. These women were in charge of the concubines, and, when those concubines bore children, it was these women who chose the next shogun. Also, the night before, my friends and I had been debating over the reason that the Geiko and Maiko’s faces were painted white. Luckily, my tour dispelled all mystery surrounding that question and I learned that important women’s faces were painted white merely so that they could be seen in the sparsely lit interiors of the castles and other buildings.
After returning to the hostel, everyone (minus Fanny, who was still asleep) regrouped and decided to make a quick stop at Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion.
It was so enchanting, and I really liked the touristy atmosphere. After picking up Fanny, we decided to make our way to Sanjusangendo Hall, my favorite stop of the entire visit.
The hall is dedicated to Kannon and contains 1000 human sized statues of Kannon, each with eleven heads and forty arms. In front stand statues of the guardians who protect Kannon, each meticulously carved from stone. At the end of the hall stands an incredibly large statue of Kannon, sculpted and covered in gold leaf in the 1200’s. Alas, for the third time this trip, we were not allowed to take pictures, but I don’t think that I will easily forget such an awe-inspiring site. If you ever come to Japan, you must go there.
But I have almost left out the most exciting part of the day! I originally had the wrong directions to Sanjusangendo Hall and we ended up at this place instead
where a middle school-aged boy and girl asked to take a picture with me because I was from America. That’s not the exciting part though. On the way to this erroneously labeled building on Google Maps, we were stopped at an intersection and told by a policeman to get off of our bikes. Confused, we had Lorena ask the policeman why we were stopped and he announced that the emperor would be shortly driving through the streets on his way to a temple to pray. Naturally, we began freaking out and, a minute or so later when the emperor actually began making his way down the street, we began waving like crazy. The only non-Japanese people on the rather uncrowded street, we were definitely a sight and the emperor actually turned our way, waving at us and laughing a little.
Although less exciting than the day before, our final excursion to Iwatayama Park was equally as delightful as its predecessor. Though biking through the city Friday and Saturday had been an excellent decision, showing us more of the city than we would have ever seen otherwise, we were a little tired of Google Maps telling us to bike through shopping malls and the like and opted to take the bus instead. The area itself was gorgeous and filled with culture,
but we had heard that there was a monkey park located nearby, and who needs culture when there are monkeys?!
Overall, Kyoto was a wonderful, freeing experience, and this blog post barely scratches the surface of all that was talked about and seen. The city quickly gained a special place in my heart, the memories built there even more so.