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Published: October 30th 2009
Gate at Meiji Jingu shrine.
What do you think of when you think of Japan? Prior to the trip, our list included: godzilla, zen buddhism, samurai, geishas, car manufacturers, WWII bad guys, sumos, green tea, sushi, anime and super fast bullet trains.
We've now seen or experienced aspects of all of the above minus sumos and godzilla. Today we got to ride the Shinkansen, the famous bullet train.
We spent our last morning in Tokyo near Harajuku at the Meiji Jingu Shrine. It's a Shinto (not Buddhist) shrine built in honor of Emperor and Empress Meiji, the couple that ended Japan's isolationist policy and opened the country up to the rest of the world starting in the late 1860s. They passed away in 1912 and 1914 and this shrine was completed in 1920. Shinto apparently pre-dates Buddhism in Japan but generally the two seem to coexist well and elements of each have blended nicely. Shinto focuses on the worship of nature and, appropriately, this shrine is tucked away in the corner of a large park. You walk in through beautiful torii gates along a long pathway. The shrine itself was built from cypress trees and has a green copper roof. The grounds are stunning
Angelique participating in a water/cleansing ritual at the Meiji Jingu shrine.
and include large groves of trees brought from all over the world. It's a popular place for the Japanese to ring in the new year, similar to Times Square in New York. Up to a million people coverge here every December 31st.
Hipster kids dressed in all kinds of bizarre outfits supposedly hang out near the shrine entrance on Sunday mornings. We had the camera ready to show you all the latest trends in Japanese fashion this fall but were disappointed - no kids. We think we were there too early (10am).
Our bullet train left Tokyo at precisely 1:03pm and deposited us in Kyoto about 2.5 hours later. We wish we had bullet trains in the U.S. They are fast, timely, efficient, comfortable and very, very clean. They can travel up to 200 miles per hour. And we didn't have to go through a security check or take our shoes off. Incredible.
The highlight of the train ride, other than the train itself, was catching a glimpse (and a photo) of Mt. Fuji. At 12,400 feet, it's the tallest mountain in Japan and stands apart from other mountains. Fuji is snow capped and very beautiful which
Prayer tablets at Meiji Jingu shrine.
explains why its image shows up everywhere - on postcards, calendars, all kinds of advertisements and logos. The locals affectionally call it "fuji-san". We missed the climbing season (July and August) so we'll have to come back to Japan if we want to climb it.
Our train arrived in Kyoto at precisely 3:48pm (exactly on time). The station is huge, filled with shops, a hotel, a department store, restaurants, etc. We walked to our ryokan, about 15 minutes away.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. They were initially established in the 1600s when samurai had to travel between Edo (Tokyo) and their own district once every two years (leaving their families permanently in Edo, effectively as hostages - which is how this particular shogun family ruled so effectively for over 200 years). Some ryokans have been owned by the same family for six generations and they are known for their impeccable service and gourmet meals. We stayed in a modern ryokan (just opened this year). While our Ryokan was more basic than more traditional ryokans in town, the price was right and it was an easy introduction to this type of accomodation. They have about 15 rooms,
Procession of monks at Meiji Jingu shrine.
with tatami mats, sliding rice-paper doors and futons (another advantage of staying at a more modern ryokan is that we had AC, western style bathrooms and even a very small flat-screen TV). Just like the Japanese, each night we pulled out our little futons and made them up. In the mornings, we folded them up with our sheets and comforters and stored them in the closet. During the day, the room was empty except for the tatami mats and a small table with little chairs. We loved it and would definitely recommend it (Sakura Ryokan), especially because the staff (all young and very helpful) speak excellent English.
After settling in, we went in search of a noodle place that our guidebook recommended for dinner. Kyoto is much easier to navigate than Tokyo. It's built in a grid system, has fewer people (1.5 million vs. 12 million) and doesn't have the extensive underground (or skyway) passage system of Tokyo. Still, we had a tough time finding this restaurant and a local guy took pity on us and actually walked us to the restaurant, practicing his excellent English the entire way (he even caught us up on the latest California news
Main temple building at Meiji Jingu shrine.
- our Governator had just signed some legislation cracking down on the paparazzi).
The noodles were delicious and, just as we were ready to leave, Adrian's brother Nick and his wife Emily walked in. What a coincidence! We knew that they'd be here for a few days but it was still pretty amazing. We all chatted for a while and made plans to meet up tomorrow night and then we said good night and went home to pull our futon out of the closet and get some sleep.
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