Published: October 2nd 2009September 20th 2009
Day 445: Thursday 17th September - Himeji Castle and a stay in a traditional Japanese Inn
It’s back on the Shinkansen this morning for Himeji. I share the hour-long journey with Matt who was staying in my dorm in Hiroshima. He’s heading on to Nara. Himeji is a small city (well small for Japan still = half a million people!) situated on the Shinkansen train line between Hiroshima and Kyoto, my next destination. It is home to what is considered to be Japan’s most impressive castle: Himeji-jo. It is situated on a hill-top in the middle of the city and along with Matsuyama which I visited yesterday is one of only three surviving hill-top castles in Japan.
From first sight walking up through the city this is one impressive castle. It dates back to 1609 and is known as the ‘white heron’ castle a name which derives from its magnificent white form. It is one of the few castles in Japan that has escaped the ravages of war and earthquakes and still survives in its original non-concrete form. The castle has even featured in a James Bond movie. It takes about an hour and a half to walk around
the castle and its grounds, the centrepiece being the five-storey central tower which towers above the surrounding city. Writing this at the end of my three weeks in Japan, I would probably say that Himeji castle is the premier sight that I have seen in Japan. That’s not to say that it is my favourite part of Japan because Japan, for me is defined by its experiences. Nevertheless, it is a very beautiful castle and well worth a visit if you’re nearby.
After the castle, I follow the moat that surrounds Himeji-jo to Koko-en gardens. This is the former samurai quarters of the castle. There are about a dozen separate gardens, in a variety of styles, a few ponds containing huge, vividly coloured carp and a stream which runs through several of the gardens. I think it stands comparison with some of Kyoto’s better gardens, which is to say simply it is very beautiful.
After an afternoon in Himeji, I walk back to the station and pick my large backpack up from the expensive storage lockers in the station. 600 Yen (£4) to store a bag for a few hours.....that’s like two night’s accommodation in parts of southern China!
It is then back on the Shinkansen for the last time for the hour’s journey to Kyoto.
My introduction to Kyoto is a disappointing one. Everyone who arrives here is here to see the same thing - the temples, the shrines and the beautiful gardens, which make this the most visited tourist destination in Japan. Kyoto was also the capital of Japan and the home of the Imperial family between 794 and 1868, until the Meiji restoration when it was moved to Tokyo. However, for people arriving by train the first introduction to Kyoto is the space-age and city sized train station, Kyoto Tower which rises like a rocket next to the station and a sprawling modern city. This isn’t the image of ancient temples surrounded by beautiful gardens that draws the crowds.
For my first night in Kyoto I have my next ‘only in Japan’ experience. I have booked into a ryokan, a Japanese Inn. Ryokan’s in the 21st century come in many shapes and forms but my criteria was that I wanted a traditional inn experience as well as one that won’t break the bank. With the help of a website dedicated to ryokans I find
one that fits the bill - Heianbo in Kyoto. Heianbo is a short walk from Kyoto station so is excellently situated and charges only 6000 Yen per night (£40) for your own room so whilst it is more expensive that a hostel which is to be expected, it isn’t prohibitively expensive.
For the price I’ve paid I expect that I will have to forego some of the additional extra’s that the more expensive ryokans provide like Onsen baths and traditional Japanese food. However, when I check in I discover that Heianbo has all this and more. I get shown around the inn, to the Onsen baths, past the indoor Japanese garden and miniature Japanese bridge, and then upstairs to my traditionally furnished room, complete with tatami mats, painted screens and a tea table. I love it! I’ve hit the jackpot with finding this place. I’m like an excited kid as I become acquainted with my new surroundings, first with my room and then exploring more of the inn itself. I decide after a day of sightseeing that I’ve earnt a soak in the Onsen baths. It is bliss, although a western woman does walk in on me whilst I’m
showering, after failing to spot that I’ve put the blue light on outside saying that it is in use by a male!
Having refreshed and relaxed, my next objective is to find Amanda or should I say Xue Lan to use her correct Chinese name. We’ve been in contact since we met in Tokyo and she is keen to see my ryokan. The problem is I have no way of contacting her apart from by e-mail and I can’t find a workable internet connection anywhere, which is unusual for Japan. My ryokan has internet but it is a Japanese keyboard which doesn’t want to behave and the cafes and restaurants in the vicinity don’t have wi-fi. Eventually I manage to leave a message for her that I’ve made it to Kyoto. She has given me the address of her hostel too but I can’t locate it and the staff at my ryokan don’t speak much English. I have an idea to ask at the hostel I’m booked into tomorrow to see if they can help or have a map. They can and once I find out where it is I decide to walk to the other side of the
station to see if Xue Lan is there.
Part of me is questioning why I’m running around like a headless chicken trying to find someone when I should be soaking in the experience of my ryokan. However, I feel like I want to share this wonderful experience with someone and Xue Lan has expressed an interest in seeing the ryokan. She also hasn’t travelled that much outside her native China and I think she’d love this new experience. Also, maybe I’m more than a bit interested in this girl....
My trip to find Xue Lan’s hostel doesn’t start well when I manage to get lost in Kyoto station. I’ve come in one entrance and I want to get out the opposite side across the train tracks, how hard can that be? Seemingly very, although eventually I manage to navigate my way through the many levels and out to the other side. Sometimes fate plays into your hands and tonight in Kyoto it has done just that. As I wait at the pedestrian crossing on the other side of the station I glance to my left and who is stood there but Xue Lan. If I hadn’t have messed
about for an age trying to first contact her, then find where she was staying, then been hopeless with finding my way I probably wouldn’t have met her tonight. I would have arrived at her hostel, found that she hadn’t yet arrived from Tokyo and probably gone back to the ryokan. Thankfully, tonight I’m a complete incompetent!!
I walk with Xue Lan to her hostel and as she settles in I spot a guy I recognise from the hostel in Tokyo. I start up a conversation which he doesn’t seem initially interested in being involved in. Something changes though and when Xue Lan returns he’s happy to invite himself to dinner with us. I would never say ‘no’, as I’m too nice and I appreciate what can at times be a lonely existence when you’re travelling alone but I was kind of looking forward to getting dinner with Xue Lan alone.
It’s getting late by the time we finish dinner and I haven’t really warmed to the Australian guy. He’s okay but I’m keen to show Xue Lan the ryokan and she still wants to see it so we make our excuses and leave together for the ryokan.
I show Xue Lan around the ryokan and then we sit talking for a couple of hours over some green tea. She’s managed to help me with the air-conditioning and boiling the kettle. Two easy tasks but not when they’re written in Japanese characters! Thankfully they’re similar to Chinese characters so Xue Lan can figure out what I can’t.
Day 446: Friday 18th September - Wishing I had a mobile phone
I get up early hoping to make the most of my last couple of hours in the ryokan. I’m hoping for a final dip in the onsen baths but they’re not filled so I have to scratch that idea. I do have the opportunity though to have a traditional Japanese breakfast in the ryokan. It is rice, miso soup, yoghurt, fruit and a variety of strong tasting vegetables. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan though after eating. I then check out of the ryokan and into my hostel. I try to book another night in the ryokan in a few days but with a Japanese holiday period coming up it is fully booked which is a shame. Never mind, I leave appreciating the experience I
did have even though it was a short one.
When Xue Lan left last night we agreed to meet this morning in Kyoto station to spend the day sightseeing around Kyoto. Meeting in a train station is not a good idea though in Japan - they’re huge. I thought she’d said to meet at the tourist information office on the second floor but after waiting half an hour for her I’m not so sure. I discover that there are in fact four information offices in the station building. Which one did she mean?? I go to the one on the ninth floor where I see the Australian guy from yesterday who tells me where she is. Unfortunately by the time I make it there (half an hour after we’d agreed to meet) she’s gone. I haven’t a phone never mind her number and have no way of contacting her. I know she’ll be thinking the worst of me and with her being alone in a foreign city and so new to travelling I feel really bad about the situation. But, what can I do? I’ve changed accommodation so she doesn’t know where I am. I could try at her
place but there is no guarantee she’ll be there. I decide that the odds are stacked against finding her, so I will just have to visit the temples on my own, maybe we’ll bump into each other somewhere along the way? The thing is with over 2000 shrines and temples, spread across a huge city it is like finding a needle in a haystack. What a shame.
Maybe this is the time to share the huge dollop of good fortune that history served Kyoto. Most Japanese cities were heavily bombed during the war and much of what you see in Japan is testament to the amazing ability of the Japanese to rebuild the country in the decades after the war. Kyoto however escaped this bombing. It did so due to two strokes of good luck. First, it was selected to be on the shortlist of targets for the atomic bomb so it was spared any bombing by conventional means. Second, it wasn’t eventually selected as a target for the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, so it avoided any bombing altogether. Maybe if the Japanese hadn’t surrendered when they did, it too would have been levelled by an atomic
bomb as it would have been very near the top of the list after Nagasaki. So, history played Kyoto a kind hand and because of this we can still enjoy the many temples, shrines and gardens.
The best way to see Kyoto I think is going to be to concentrate on areas of the city, therefore cutting down on the time taken to travel between temples. I buy a day bus pass as I come to the conclusion that Kyoto is too big to walk around and the rail network doesn’t really get you too close to a lot of the temples. I pick the northwest of the city as the place to start and catch the bus to Kinkaku-ji or the golden pavilion, Kyoto’s most famous temple. Kinkaku-ji is beautiful but I’m not blown away. Part of this is due to the crowds that naturally spoil the ambience. Trying to keep the crowds out of my photographs is not easy, there are school kids everywhere. Still, surrounded by water, gardens and covered in gleaming gold it is an impressive sight. I would like longer to enjoy it but I simply have to escape the crowds.
is to Ryoan-ji, famous for its Zen rock garden. The temple itself is nothing special, but it’s the austere arrangement of fifteen rocks sitting on a bed of white gravel that is the attraction. That's it: no trees, no hills, no ponds, and no trickling water. I’m sorry but I don’t get it. Some people obviously do as they gaze on in a spiritual trance, but it does nothing for me so I move quickly on. Next up on today’s temple tour is Ninna-ji. The large temple complex is amongst the most impressive I see in Kyoto. There are some beautifully painted screens and a beautiful walled garden too. For the whole package, gardens, temples and peace and quiet away from the crowds to enjoy it, I would have to rank it as the best temple of the day.
From Ninna-ji I get on the bus and head towards the Arashiyama district of Kyoto. This area is clearly very popular with Japanese tourists and features numerous shops selling anything a tourist may want. I skip the shopping and instead head to Tenryu-ji the major temple in the area. The temple itself is unremarkable but the gardens and pond are
lovely. Behind the temple is a bamboo forest which is cool to walk through. But, after four temples I’ve had my fill for the day and decide to return to my hostel and central Kyoto. After day one in Kyoto, my first impression is that it is good not great. I’m not a massive fan of the temple complexes (once you’ve seen one you’ve seen 101) and I find the gardens more beautiful.
Back at the hostel, I manage to make contact with Xue Lan. She did come looking for me at the ryokan but I’d already checked out so she left a message for me to meet her at her hostel at 10pm if I want. I park that for the moment and try to find someone else I know to be in Kyoto. Jen, the daughter of Bryan who I used to work with at SCA is in town and over e-mail we’ve said it would be good to meet up. I tried her phone this morning but the number I had was one digit short but I manage to get it off Bryan. I try her phone several times with no joy so decide to walk
down to her hotel to see if she’s there. They haven’t even heard of Jen at her hotel and try their sister hotel with no luck either. I can’t even leave a message and short of trying her phone again I’m scratching my head on this one. I’m not having much luck finding people today and I’m kind of wishing I had a mobile phone.
After a long day on the temple circuit I could easily decide that the walk to Xue Lan’s hostel is too far and I can’t be bothered. However, I feel I owe it to her to walk across to see her. Today was unfortunate not meeting up and I know we both wanted to spend it together so maybe we can arrange a better plan for tomorrow. I find Xue Lan at her hostel and we talk about our days, we go out to get some food and we agree that she will meet me at the ryokan tomorrow. Neither of us can lose each other there surely?
Along with Jen’s number, and a brief chat with what was happening back home, Bryan’s message to me was that my blog could do with being
spiced up. Well Mr Read this is just for you: Enjoy!
One of the main spices used in Japanese cuisine is Wasabi. It is the root of a plant in the cabbage family which is similar to horseradish but with more of a pungent aroma. The natural, unprocessed form of wasabi is made by grinding the root on shark skin, the natural spice and fragrance being brought out to the full when it is then mashed with the back of a knife. Frozen wasabi solely consists of the wasabi root, but the powdered and paste wasabi contains horse radish amongst other ingredients. Its main use in Japanese cuisine is as an accompaniment to sushi and sashimi. It is best mixed with soy as I have discovered rather than on its own when it has a very strong and unpleasant taste.
Now I could have a daily spice section (but I can’t honestly be bothered!!) so for the moment I hope this is enough spice!
Day 447: Saturday 19th September - A magic day in Kyoto
I have no problems meeting Xue Lan at the Heianbo ryokan. I just wish I’d suggested it as the meeting place
yesterday as I had reservations about meeting in the station from the start. What’s done is done and we’re lucky to have a second chance. The poor girl has run in order to make it to the ryokan on time. I would have waited and I’m reminded of the tortoise and the hare as Xue Lan takes a while to regain her breath before we can get going for the day.
We get the bus to the Higashiyama area in the eastern part of the city. Once off the bus we walk uphill to Kiyomizu-dera, a temple complex with a spectacular location overlooking the city. The temple itself is densely populated with tourists but it is the start of Japan’s five day holiday. The main hall’s wooden veranda offers incredible views over the city. We walk down from the temple and get brunch in the tourist filled, souvenir shop-lined streets that approach the temple. We then take a walk north through the charming and picturesque streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka, lined with old wooden teahouses and traditional shops.
The next stop on our walking tour through Higashiyama is Kodai-ji temple. The temple is surrounded by gardens and they
are probably less impressive than some of the gardens that I saw yesterday. But the sun is shining, it is a beautiful day and sharing the experience with another person definitely makes them more enjoyable. I would describe Kyoto is a romantic location and although there is no romance yet between myself and Xue Lan there is a definite mutual attraction and plenty of flirting going on. It is kind of hard not to appreciate the beauty of the location with a beautiful girl.
From Kodai-ji, we walk up to Chion-In, a large temple with the largest temple gate in Japan. It should belong in the ‘just another temple category’, and it would if I was on my own, but I‘m not. I sit with Xue Lan talking in the grounds sharing our hopes and dreams for the future, sharing our respective and very different cultures. As we walk to the next temple Xue Lan poses a question that I’m quite unexpected for: ‘Would I consider stopping travelling for her?’ Being from a different culture she has asked a few challenging questions today I wouldn’t normally get asked. This is a good thing though, it is quite refreshing to
have to think about things that you consider ’normal’. What exactly does she mean by it? And how do you answer a question like that? From the heart and with honesty is the only way I know.
And my response? Well, I tell her that I don’t know her well enough at the moment to say ‘yes’. But, I look forward to coming to Shanghai (where I’m going in a week and where Xue Lan lives) to get to know her better. You always feel that you could speak with more eloquence in those potentially defining moments in your life but it is probably a fair reflection of how I feel. Would I stop travelling for Xue Lan? I have realised through my travels that it is people that define your life experiences rather than the places themselves. This girl is beautiful both in looks and her personality and I would love the opportunity to get to know her better. I have also decided recently that I’m becoming tired of travelling and a return home is necessary, so I’m more open to her question than I would have been previously, but this was a twist I didn’t expect. It
is a good twist though, uncertain times lay ahead, probably the most uncertain of my entire journey but there’s something about Xue Lan that makes me want to take a chance. I look back and think that we should never have met. The odds were stacked against it but I believe in fate and it kind of feels like we were meant to meet. This road ahead promises to be lined with many obstacles on so many different levels (different countries, different cultures, very different paths in life at the moment etc etc) but I can’t betray the excitement that I’m feeling.
We continue walking to the northern part of Higashiyama to Heian-Jingu. About 500 metres before the temple there is a massive orange torii to pass through. The temple buildings are colourful but it is the spacious garden, with its large pond and Chinese-inspired bridge (it reminds me of Chengyang) that is the star attraction. This is probably my favourite garden in the whole of Kyoto, and when I talk with my old university friend, Paul who lives in nearby Osaka a few days later he tells me it is his favourite too. Walking through the beautiful gardens
with Xue Lan makes it more special.
The afternoon is drawing to a close by the time we leave Heian-Jingu, and at 5pm most of the temples close. We still decide to walk to Nanzen-Ji and get to enjoy the expansive grounds of the complex if not the temple itself as it is now closed for the day. We finish our tour of the Higashiyama area by following the path of philosophy, a path beside a canal lined with cherry trees. We watch the sun set over Kyoto and end up walking most of the 2 kilometre path in darkness. It may be dark, but it doesn’t stop Xue Lan spotting a Japanese lady preparing a shop for opening in a few months. It sells silk scarves and the like and fifteen minutes later we (or should I say I) leave a few thousand yen lighter in the pocket. Typical woman, she loves shopping!
We take the bus back to Kyoto station where we get sushi for dinner. I didn’t realise it until I got to Japan but sushi is not necessarily raw fish. Rather, it the grain of rice that gives it its name. Sushi could contain
steak, snails, marmite or deep fried rat as long as it is served with the special lightly vinegared rice. Sashimi (which I had at Tokyo’s fish market) is raw fish. We pick plates off the revolving conveyor which are colour coded according to price, and we also order a la carte from the menu. I’ve never been a huge fan of sushi and even in Japan I’m not converted. It just doesn’t fill me up. It is okay and something I definitely had to try in Japan. Otherwise the meal is over-shadowed by a change in mood. The magic and romance of earlier in the day is gone and the mood feels darker as if normality has descended. I think we’re both tired after a long and busy day and Xue Lan is not looking forward to returning to work next week as she goes back to Shanghai tomorrow.
I walk her back to her hostel where she manages to persuade a Taiwanese guy to let her share his Japanese style room with her for the night. Her other option was a night in a booth in an internet cafe. I checked one out with her last night and
I’m pleased when she returns downstairs to say that the guy will let her share with her as I didn’t fancy her having to spend a night in the internet cafe. She discretely disappears upstairs so the hostel staff don’t know and that’s the last I’ll see of her until Shanghai in a week. She’s definitely got under my skin though, what a magic day!
Day 448: Sunday 20th September - Nara
My JR rail pass expires today so I decide to take a day trip out to Nara so at least my journey there and back will be free. I reckon I’ve saved £100 over the last week by having the pass so it has definitely been worth it. Nara is only 40 kilometres and a 45 minute journey from Kyoto. Nara was the first real capital of Japan prior to Kyoto in the eighth century for 75 years. It is also packed with temples and a beautiful park full of deer. Seeing the deer try to get deer crackers off the many Japanese tourists is entertaining. The deer are very inquisitive, quite happy to be stroked but this tourist will have no food for you at
150 yen (£1) a go for a few crackers. Most of Nara’s sights can be found in and around the park.
The first temple I stop at is Nara’s most famous, Todai-ji. It houses the largest Buddha statue in Japan, and one of the largest in the world, appropriately in a large wooden building which is said to be the largest wooden building in the world. The giant front gate, Nandai-mon is protected by two fierce protectors. Deer also swarm around the front gate looking for hand-outs from the mass of tourists. It is a very impressive building.
I continue around my walk around the park towards Kasuga Taisha temple. The approach to the temple is through a beautiful primeval forest but the temple itself despite its many lanterns is not really worth a visit. I finish my visit to central Nara by stopping at Kofuku-ji temple but don’t linger too long as I decide I’m starting to get sick of the sight of temples. I’ve seen central Nara in two and a half hours and I have the rest of the afternoon at my disposal. Despite my current feelings towards temples, I decide to get on the
train to visit some of Nara’s outlying temples and make the most of my time here. I make it to Yakushi-ji which has some impressive temple buildings but decide that Toshodai-ji is one temple too many and that I’ll return to Kyoto instead.
I wouldn’t rate Nara as highly as Kyoto. The park full of deer is a beautiful setting but Nara is more about its temples than the gardens that surround them, which I’ve decided is my favourite part of Kyoto’s temples. Todai-ji was very impressive but otherwise nothing got me too excited. Yes I missed the gardens of Kyoto today, but more than that I missed the fun of sharing the day with Xue Lan like yesterday. Today was just a regulation day travelling, not one that will stick long in the memory.
Day 449: Monday 21th September - Templed out
After yesterday’s side trip to Nara it’s back to Kyoto today. I’m going to stick to the centre of the city and see how much I can see on foot. I start by walking to Toji-ji temple, on the other side of Kyoto station. Toji-ji’s pagoda is the tallest wooden structure in Japan, and
its gardens are an oasis of calm in the centre of Kyoto. The temple is also surrounded by a flea market. I walk back towards my hostel and visit the nearby Higashi and Nishi Honganji temples. Both are big temples but in rather uninspiring settings. Both seem to be working temples for worshippers rather than sights to admire for tourists.
I continue walking north a further couple of kilometres to Nijo-jo, Kyoto’s own castle. To describe it as a castle would be pushing it and it is more like a collection of several ornately styled reception rooms. It is packed with tourists and after Matsuyama and Himeji this is a very second-rate attempt at a castle. The castle does have some nice gardens which are the definite highlight of an otherwise very missable sight in Kyoto.
I eventually succumb to catching a bus to get to the northwest of the city. I’ve been here before but missed Daitoku-ji, an oversight on my part. This temple complex is extensive and boasts 24 sub-temples, although most are closed to the public. I visit Daisen-in famous for its Zen garden and Koto-in famous for its maple trees in the autumn. Some
of the colours of the leaves on the trees in Kyoto are just starting to change, but I think the gardens would be so much more beautiful in a few weeks when they adopt their autumnal colours more fully.
I finish my day’s sightseeing with two Shinto shrines which are two of Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO world heritage sites. The first, Kamigamo is unexceptional and I much prefer Shimogamo with its wooded area. I love the vivid orange colours of both shrines though. And that’s pretty much it for the day, nothing really stood out as being great and to be honest I’m becoming a bit bored of all the temples.
Day 450: Tuesday 22nd September - Templed out, now no more gardens and no more tourists!
I decide to go back to the Higashiyama area of Kyoto where I spent the day with Xue Lan to visit the sights we missed a couple of days ago. I had initially thought of being more ambitious and visiting a number of the outlying temples in the south of the city but that would involve a lot of travel and I just can’t get excited about it so I decide
to reign in my plan to the few sights I didn’t see in Higashiyama.
I start by visiting Sanjusangen-do, a temple that houses 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. It is packed with tourists and seeing the temple involves almost queueing up to be led around at a snail pace walk around the temple. The statues are impressive but are overshadowed by the crowds, and I can’t wait to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere. I walk across the road to the Kyoto national museum which is closed for a month so cross that off today’s list of things to see. Instead, I walk back through the charming streets of Higashiyama to Nanzen-ji temple which was closed when I visited it with Xue Lan. I meet one of the boys from the hostel and sit and chat with him for half an hour. He tells me that he thinks that Kyoto would be a great place to bring a girlfriend. I agree, there is a romance to the place, and although not my girlfriend, I shared a very special day with Xue Lan here. Otherwise, I would say that Kyoto is over-rated. A temple is a temple and you
soon get tired of them, the gardens are beautiful but much of the tranquillity is taken away by the crowds at many of the temples. Maybe I didn’t visit at the best time with it being a public holiday and therefore very busy?
In Nanzen-ji, I visit the temple and its Zen garden but my favourite is the garden in the sub-temple I choose to visit which is almost deserted but very beautiful and the peace and quiet is bliss. I leave Nanzen-ji temple and retrace my steps of a few nights ago along the Path of Philosophy up to Ginkaku-ji, better known as the Silver Pavilion. It is under repair but nevertheless choked with tourists. Unlike the Golden Pavilion it isn’t actually covered in silver but is still a pretty temple and the views across the gardens and tall pines from the hillside are good.
After Ginkaku-ji I throw the towel in. I have no interest to see another temple, another garden or another damn tourist for a while. Kyoto is nice but I personally wouldn’t rate it as Japan’s premier sight. With 2000 temples and shrines you could spend months or even years visiting them all
but after a while they all seem to blend into each other. A couple of days is enough. I don’t feel like I got much out of my last few days in Kyoto, and I still missed 6 of the 17 UNESCO world heritage listed sights. Am I bothered? Not one bit, I saw enough, more than enough, and to be honest I’m looking forward to a change of scene.
There are more photos below