Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Finally, Kyoto

The first five days of my trip here were all pretty completely taken up with work. I was able to squeeze in some wandering here and there, and a dinner at a pretty spot looking over the river, but I never managed to shake free in time to see the major sights. But all that changed on Saturday evening, when the conference wrapped up, and I became a full time tourist. Which is perhaps why, two days later, I have a horrible case of museum feet and I feel like I've seen more than enough temples to last me a good long while. Here's what I saw:

Saturday, September 11.
After breaking down the trade show booth and schlepping our materials back to the hotel, we went to the area near Kyoto Station in search of dinner. We, meaning my coworkers David, Arye, and I wound up having Ramen at the food court on the 10th floor of the Isetan department store. The ramen was indifferent, but the Grand Staircase we climbed to get there was pretty cool, as was the view, and the fish cake with the restaurant's logo in it that was floating in my ramen.

Later, the boys wanted to celebrate the end of a successful show, so we wandered around for a bit looking for a bar. We wound up drinking in a restaurant that serve my favorite, okonomiyake. (Le sigh.)

Sunday, September 12.
After a quick breakfast with our CEO to debrief about the show, we checked out of our rooms at the Hotel Monterey Kyoto (a very nice, Western-style hotel, along the lines of a Kimpton property, except all the rooms smelled of cigarettes.) Then we set out to see the sights for real.

1) First up was Kinkaku-ji, with it's iconic Golden Pavillion, which is on the cover of pretty much every brochure about Kyoto. Although sometimes it may look like this or this, it more frequently looks like this (covered in tourists). It was beautiful, and I'm glad I had the chance to wander around the gardens, but I also found myself wishing it weren't quite so hellishly hot! As I mentioned previously, the weather had turned disgusting - 99 degrees and 98% humidity.

2) We walked over from Kinkaku-ji to Ryoan-ji Temple, a sprawling complex with a famous raked rock garden. Again, it was all very beautiful, but since I don't understand the important history these temples represent, nor the Buddhist symbolism (call me silly, but there's no way those rocks look like a tiger and her baby crossing a stream, as advertised), I felt very removed from it all.

3) We took a cab over to an area called Arashiyama, which is famed for it's bamboo groves. It was a cool place to visit, a little ways outside Kyoto proper, and a spot it seems like a lot of Japanese tourists visit. I enjoyed watching the young couples and families, dressed in traditional dress (a couple steps down from full kimono, I think they were in their Sunday yukatas, but still impressive considering the heat.) Also impressive were the very fit dudes wearing black loin cloths who were offering to pull these families in large-wheeled buggies. Definitely an interesting way to see the countryside.

We wandered through the bamboo forest (on our own two feet) and saw a shrine with lots of forms of prayers - papers tied on rope fences, calligraphed wooden slips of various shapes and sizes, strings and strings of tiny paper cranes... It made me wish I knew more about what I was seeing, and all the nuances of this place.

Coming out of the bamboo forest, I stopped for a soft serve ice cream cone. Unfortunately, I wasn't wise enough to spot the black sesame honey, which I only learned about after the fact, but the plain vanilla was a wonderful nostalgic trip back to summers by Lac Bromont in rural Quebec.

Before heading back to the city we walked through the gardens at Tenryu-ji,
which were very quiet and restful. Again, I'm sure the nuance of the place were lost on me, but I very much enjoyed sitting for a moment and watching the sun, now low in the sky, peak out from under the moody clouds and turn everything golden. (This contemplation made me a wonderfully easy target for the mosquitoes, but I didn't learn that until later.)

Upon returning to Kyoto proper, my coworker David split off to to catch the bullet train to Tokyo, leaving Arye and I to check into our new hotel. In an effort to experience a bit of the more traditional side of Japanese hospitality we had booked ourselves into Ryokan Sakura. Although that particular Ryokan didn't offer the most traditional set up - no dinner in the room, no curfew - I did get to stay in a beautiful room with tatami mats, on a futon that I set up every night. It was a great experience, and a beautiful room, and I'd highly recommend that spot to anyone. More about this later...

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