Sight-Seeing

The next morning Don and I had breakfast in the hotel observatory at the Western restaurant. We had our choice of eggs, accompanied by toast and bacon, for breakfast. From there, we could look out over Kyoto as we planned our day of sightseeing. Since the students were all still on their home stays, the professors had a free day to tour Kyoto. Mitch had, of course, offered to provide a van, along with a driver, to take us anywhere we wanted to go. We left around 9 am for the Golden Pavilion, meeting Mitch and the three students who were staying at his house there. Kinkakuji, as it is called in Japanese, is actually a guest house that was built for visitors of the shogun to stay in. The house is plated with pure gold and is situated alongside beautiful gardens which include a large pond. A view of the Golden Pavilion reflected in its adjacent pond is one of the most iconic sites in all Japan. We walked all around the pavilion grounds, finally following a path which led up the side of the adjacent hill and afforded different views of the simple, but beautiful, building. As we prepared to leave, we stopped at a gift shop that was located near the parking area for the Pavilion. As Kristin admired some pricy gifts, Mitch offered to buy them for her. In fact, he wanted both of us to pick out anything we wanted to from the shop, which he would then purchase for us, but we insisted that that wouldn’t be necessary. Soon, we parted ways with Mitch so that he could go to work, but we took the three students with us to our next stop.

The next most famous site in Kyoto is probably Kiyomizu Temple, the “temple of pure water”. On our way across town to get there, we saw some girls in kimonos and asked our driver to stop so we could take their pictures. I turns out that they were dressed up for Coming of Age Day, a holiday in which youths who have turned 20 during the past year get dressed up and parade around town to celebrate being of legal age in Japan. We then walked around the area in which we had ended up, the banks of a canal that cut along the backs of a row of quaint closely-spaced Japanese homes. The weather was perfect out; it was a warm and sunny January day in Japan.

We ended up parking a good distance from the temple and having to walk through the narrow streets which surrounded the temple area. The entire approach to the temple led uphill and included a long set of stone stairs.
The street was lined with various stores which catered to tourists- we stopped inside one filled with oriental fans to admire the beautiful craftsmanship. Kristin and I bought some steamed dumplings, called manju, which were filled with seasoned pork- they were delicious. The approach to Kiyomizu led up even more stairs and through a huge colorful gate. The grounds of the temple were quite large, much of which looked out onto the rest of Kyoto, which lay in the valley beneath. Before we reached the temple itself, we took an opportunity to enter the “Belly of the Buddha” beneath one of the smaller temple buildings. We descended some stairs and were soon plunged into the complete darkness which filled the basement of the temple. We, along with a whole line of people, we forced to hold onto a handrail in order to transverse the maze which lay beneath the temple. We finally came to an illuminated spot that held a symbol-adorned rock that was apparently the main attraction. While the rock itself was not that impressive, the adventure of wandering around in the dark had made the side trip worth taking. Shortly afterward, we ascended some stairs back to ground level.

The main temple at Kiyomizu is perhaps best known for its huge wooden “porch” which is suspended above the valley by massive wooden pillars. It was hard to believe that we were suspended above the valley on the porch until we were able to view the temple from the side, as we once again descended some stairs to the three channels of (supposedly therapeutic) water which emptied into a pond, it was from this water that the temple acquired its name. Since there was a long line waiting to partake of this water, however, as well as the fact that we all felt just fine at that moment, we decided to forgo the experience.

After we had returned to the van, we decided to part ways with the three students that had been accompanying us, so we soon dropped them off in one of the main shopping districts in town. We professors had alternate ideas of fun- having agreed that we were due for a break in touring temples and shrines, I had found an amusement park in my guide book that was also a working studio where most samurai movies were filmed. Eiga Mura, the “Movie Land” of Kyoto, was therefore the next destination on our tour. Unlike American-style theme parks, Eiga Mura was devoid of any rides but was simply a small town consisting of recreations of buildings from the heyday of Japanese warrior culture in the 17th century.

As we entered the park, we noticed that a samurai show was about to begin, so we headed directly to the park’s theater. Don translated the dialogue for Kristin and I, but this was largely unnecessary, since we could almost guess what the warring samurai were saying to each other by their body language. The show also ended up being heavy on action and rather light on speaking parts. After the show, we decided to grab some lunch at a period-style restaurant and then set out to further explore the park. Although no movies seemed to be filming on the outdoor sets that day, a number of men dressed as samurai were wandering around the park for the benefit of visitors. We soon found ourselves inside of a costume shop where one could pay to get dressed up in period gear and have your picture taken. Kristin really wanted to dress as a geisha, so Don and I waited as she was transformed into a passable imitation.

Upon reaching the far end of the park, we awaited the appointed time for a dragon spirit to rise out of the side of a hill and billow steam at us. I came to the conclusion that Eiga Mura was best enjoyed by adults who enjoyed walking around in historic surroundings as well as by young children (a number of which had materialized to watch the dragon), but probably not by too many ages in between. This thought was reinforced by the last area that we visited, an indoor museum dedicated to the more modern Japanese movies featuring various robots and monsters, most typified by the main exhibit, which was devoted to a history of the Power Rangers, teenaged kids who transformed into masked jumpsuit-wearing superheroes in order to save the world from just such attacks. In fact, someone dressed as the Blue Power Ranger was there getting his picture taken with the visiting children. I, however, wasn’t embarrassed to stand in line and get my picture taken with him as well.

Our final stop for the day was at one of the shrines known to attract the most young people who were celebrating their coming of age that day. Our driver took us back to the Gion district in order to visit the Heian Shrine, whose architecture had a distinct Chinese influence to it. Most of the buildings which surrounded a large open square were colored bright orange, as was the large gate, or tori, that was indicative of a Shinto shrine. This particular tori gate was one of the largest in Japan, spanning the road that served as an approach to the shrine. The courtyard of the shrine was filling with 20 year olds dressed in their traditional garb, who were only too happy to pose for our pictures. The other noticeable thing about the shrine was the thousands of paper fortunes which were tied onto string fences near the buildings. Apparently, the New Year was a big time to visit the shrine and to receive a paper with one’s fortune on it, which was then duly tied onto a nearby fence.

Back at out hotel, we were reunited with Christie, the one student who had chosen not to participate in the home stays. Kristin and I suggested that she join us for sushi- so we walked to Kyoto Station, where we knew most of the eating establishments in our area were located. We found a “kaiten”, or conveyer belt, sushi restaurant on the outside of the station, which we decided to try out.

Kaiten sushi is the most inexpensive way to enjoy sushi in Japan. Various pieces of fish pass by in front of diners on a small convey belt. At the place we went to, the color and design on the plate indicated how much each set of pieces cost, usually somewhere between 100 and 300 yen. At the end of the meal, the cashier just counted the numbers of the various plate types and tallied up the total. The sushi was quite good, but Christie, although she made an effort to try a few different things, was generally revolted by the raw fish. We therefore ended up at the nearby mall which was housed in the train station to find something more suitable for her palate. We ended up finding a diner-style restaurant which served honey drizzled over a large slice of bread, something Christie found much more to her liking. While we ate, I noticed the American rap music that was being played in the mall, complete with the “N-words” that were not allowed over American airwaves. That, along with the “No F***ing” T-shirt I had seen previously that evening outside of the Heian Shine, convinced me that the Japanese were not at all uptight about English profanity, much of which I assumed that they didn’t completely understand. After a little window shopping, along with a snack of Chinese dumplings (which we called pot stickers, but the Japanese referred to as gyoza), we walked back to the hotel and turned in for the night.

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