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Mark's World Tour 2007-08

Day 166: The temples of Kyoto

JAPAN | Saturday, 19 April 2008 | Views [720]

Maiko - trainee Geisha - on the streets of Kyoto

Maiko - trainee Geisha - on the streets of Kyoto

Saturday 19th April

Although it was a Saturday, Kumi had to go to work at the language school where she is a manager, but Pete and I decided to visit the city of Kyoto, one of the most famous towns in Japan and home to thirteen UNESCO World Heritage sites (a figure that is second only to Rome, no less). We didn't get going until late in the morning, but we still managed to get to Kyoto by 11.00 as it is reasonably close to Osaka (which is very well situated for visits to other important cities in the Kansai province). The JR rail pass was proving to be a real golden ticket, as it gives tourists a lot of freedom to travel where they like without having to worry too much about transportation costs.

It was a beautiful spring morning, very mild and a clear blue sky provided us with a perfect day for some sightseeing. I realised that springtime in Japan is a very special season, with the cherry blossoms bringing people out to parks in droves; families picnic under the sakura (Japan's national symbol) and it is a time which is celebrated with great enthusiasm (not surprising given how cold it can get here in the winter). The freshness of the air, the cleanliness of the place, and the beauty of the general environment in Japan makes for a usually very pleasant experience.

We first visited the Kiyomizu-Dera temple in the south-east of Kyoto. As we climbed the steps to the entrance, we were approached by five girls asking if we would like a guided tour of the temple complex. They were from an all-girls university in Kyoto (oh, behave!) and they wanted to practice their English on me and Pete. We gladly accepted, and the fact that some of them were quite cute made it all the better!

There was a real throng of people: Japanese tourists, school groups, and the odd westerner. It was an impressive place, sitting on a hillside overlooking the city. Pete and I had a good chat with the girls, not paying too much attention to the historical sights in front of us. At the end of the complex, a waterfall called Otowa-no-taki is a place where visitors can choose to drink from one of three streams: one for Wisdom, one for Beauty, and another for Long-Life. I was advised by the group to go for Wisdom or Long-Life, and was quite happy that nobody had suggested I needed to drink for Beauty (maybe they were just being nice). Most of these temples offer little tokens to buy, and promise the most trivial of blessings in return for a couple of bucks. It's a blatant money-making exercise but the Japanese go in for it big time, and they seem to be a very superstitious bunch.

We said goodbye to our new friends and took a walk through the narrow streets of the old town which are lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. On appearance, it is a very attractive town, everything is clean and neat and it felt comfortable to amble about despite the crowds. We even came across two trainee geisha who were walking about, and they gladly posed for a photo. Geisha are most common to Kyoto, and rich businessmen can still pay huge sums of money to have them entertain them, like they have done for many years.

After lunch, we took a walk around some more temples including the beautiful, quintessentially Japanese garden complex of Kodai-ji, which was a particularly peaceful place to wander about. The more I saw of Japanese architecture and landscape design, the more I liked it. We walked around for another couple of hours, enjoying the springtime sun and the opportunity for peace and quiet that the gardens offered. Although Kyoto is one of the larger cities in Japan (with a population of almost one and a half million), the World Heritage sites are real havens of calmness.

We made our way back to the train station via the Gion district, the part of town where the geisha do their business. The low-rise wooden buildings with attractive signs outside make for a different type of scenery, but another reminder of what life in Kyoto has been like for centuries.

We got the train back to Osaka and had some sushi for dinner. It was good but I'm not sure whether it will ever become a favourite. Some of the dishes trundling along on the conveyor line looked like they had been extras in the 'Alien' movies, and so I stuck to raw tuna, salmon and mackerel, with the 'scallop eyes' about the most extreme thing that I managed to put away. Still, it was a healthy dinner and six plates cost just under six pounds, so it was very good value too.

Pete and I met up with Kumi and Sharon and we went to a pub and had a good laugh but, again, it wasn't a late one as we had to catch the train back to the outskirts of Osaka, and got home at about 23.00. I wasn't too pushed on staying out late as I was tired and we were planning a day out to the historic town of Koyasan the next day, so got some well deserved rest after we had chatted for a while back at the flat.


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