Sunday, October 22, 2017

Japan | Three

Sue wakes up super happy.
She pops out of bed, eager to go downstairs, declaring, "no need to do our hair or make-up! Let's just go! There's yummy food down there!"

We had The Best Breakfast Ever taking advantage of the complimentary buffet our hotel offered. So many options. So much variety. So very delicious.

When our tummies were full, we went back upstairs and crawled back into our beds. We both pulled our laptops open and reconnected with our offices back home for a few hours.

At noon, she left for work, and I put my thinking cap on, planning how I was going to get to my meeting point for my Kyoto tour. It was at the Osaka station, (where I was becoming a bit of an expert) but in an area I'd not visited yet. So maybe I was giving myself a bit of a pep talk.

I left the hotel, walked over to the Shinosaka Station, asked the JR Train Guy which track I should go to, wondered/worried about finding the meeting spot the whole train ride over.

When I arrived at the (huge) Osaka station, I wandered around for awhile...

I may have gotten distracted by this sign:

But did eventually connect with the tour guide for the Kyoto Tour.
I was the only person from Osaka on the tour.

(In case you need a frame of reference, Osaka's population is 2.6 million. Vancouver's is 650,000.) I only mention this so that you know I am in a big city. And I am the only tourist from this city going to Kyoto for the afternoon bus tour. What this means is, the woman that met me is my personal guide to getting me over to Kyoto. She buys us both train passes, and together we get on a train for the half hour ride north. Once we get to the Kyoto train station, she walks me through the station and down to the bus depot and suggests I shop in the adjoining mall for 20 minutes as we arrived early.

I 'shopped' for twenty minutes (buying nothing) then went back to the depot meeting spot. She said I was STILL early, I should go shop some more.

EVENTUALLY, the bus arrived and she ushered me onto it.
I was the only person. So I sat in the front behind the driver.
The tour guide, (a totally different person than the one I'd just spent an hour with), sat across the aisle from me, assuring me there were others joining us.

We left the station and drove for 15 minutes over to a business that offered craft classes where we picked up 50 people who'd taken the morning tour and had just finished their craft project.

And from that point on, we were Picachu followers:

On the way to our first stop, our guide explained that we'd be seeing a Shinto Shrine. Shinto is the ethnic religion of Japan that focuses on ritual practices to be carried out diligently, to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past. 

The Heian Shrine:

Do you remember those prayer/wish papers you could get when you shake a cylinder and a numbered bamboo stick falls out?

Wellll, apparently, if the paper you get doesn't have a good fortune on it, (or it might be, in general,  a good fortune/response to your prayer/wish, but you don't want it) then you can tie your paper to this stand and leave it behind. It does not have to go home with you. It doesn't have to mean anything if you don't want it to.

Or you can tie that paper to a tree:

Nearly 80% of the population in Japan participates in Shinto practices or rituals, but only a small percentage of these identify themselves as "Shintoists". This is because Shinto has different meanings in Japan. Most of the Japanese attend Shinto shrines and beseech kami without belonging to an institutional Shinto religion.

There are no formal rituals to become a practitioner of "folk Shinto". Shinto has 81,000 shrines and 85,000 priests in the country. According to surveys carried out in 2006 and 2008, less than 40% of the population of Japan identifies with an organised religion: around 35% are Buddhists, 3% to 4% are members of Shinto sects and derived religions. 

This photo below requires you to look carefully.
I'm sitting in the bus and taking a pic of the building outside.
Can you see the white horizontal lines on the wall, above the stones and below the roof?

There are 5 of them.
That building is a Buddhist temple and the lines mean it's a 5 star temple. 
There are temples on every block in Kyoto (so thousands and thousands of them) and some are better than others. So the lines are a way of 'advertising' their rating.

Our next stop is the Sanjusangen-do, which is a unique Buddhist temple.
I was threatened to within an inch of my life if I took any interior photos, so I kept my camera tucked in my arm pit.

Even the signs telling you not to take photos were angry.

The following pics are from Wikipedia:

The original temple complex was completed in 1164, but suffered a fire in 1249.
It was rebuilt in 1266 AND IS STILL STANDING TODAY.


The main deity of the temple is Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteĊ›vara (Also knows as the Thousand Armed Kannon). The statue of the main deity was created is a National Treasure of Japan. (if you look closely, you can see he has many hands with eyes in the palms.)

Also? Right beside this main deity? Is a monk(?) standing behind a desk, willing to take your cash in exchange for a candle. (No pics of this.) A big candle, will cost you $10. You write your name on it and he'll place it in the candle holder in front of the statue and chant a prayer for you. 
Smaller candles are $1, and those are placed in votives. A smaller pen allows you to write your name on it, but the monk doesn't chant. 

The temple also contains one thousand life-size statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon which stand on both the right and left sides of the main statue in 10 rows and 50 columns. (See pic below) Of these, 124 statues are from the original temple, rescued from the fire of 1249, while the remaining 876 statues were constructed in the 13th century. 

The statues are made of Japanese cypress clad in gold leaf. The temple is 120 meters long. Around the 1000 Kannon statues stand 28 statues of guardian deities. There are also two famous statues of Fujin and Raijin. (Raijin is pictured below.)

It felt dark and oppressive in there.
Impressive in size and age, but mostly cold and depressing.
At least is was to me. 
Others may have felt differently.

Back outside afterwards, our guide shared memories of when she'd gone through this temple when she was 8 years old and the lasting impression it had on her.

It was a blistering hot day and this space between the two buses was about 150 degrees.

From there, we headed over to the Kiyomizu-dera temple.
I tried to capture just how narrow the streets are in this tiny town.
These ancient streets were never built with the intention of two buses passing each other at the same time.

Once we'd parked we were told the plan.
We had 75 minutes to explore the hillside town and the temple at the top.
75 minutes.
The bus was leaving at 5:10.


Keep an eye on the time so you weren't late.

75 minutes.

The streets were packed with people. All tourists.
It was a little like being on Main Street in Disneyland with all it's little shops on either side. Except this street was on a steep hill.

The climb up the narrow winding streets leads you to the temple at the top.

These girls (and all girls) wearing kimonoes are tourists, wearing rented/borrowed outfits.
(Kind of like dressing up like a Disney princess when in Disneyland.)
Very few Japanese girls wear ceremonial kimonoes on non-special days.
Although in the last decade, it has become a dating thing for young couples to wear traditional formal wear for a special evening.

The temple was founded in 778 and its present buildings were constructed in 1633. There is not a single nail used in the entire structure. It takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills. Kiyomizu means clear water, or pure water.

Below is the gate to the main temple building which is undergoing a re-roofing project. 

This is the view from the balcony:
(Do you see that orange roof in the distance? I walked over there.)

This photo (below) (from Wikipedia) is what it (the main temple) looks like when it's not covered in canvas and surrounded by scaffolding:

Since it was built, this structure gets re-roofed every 50 years.
It takes 2 years to complete, and is made from the bark of Cypress trees. (The trees are 'peeled' in such a way that doesn't affect the tree. They continue to live and grow after their bark is removed.) Bamboo nails are used, like millions and millions of them.

In that pic above, can you see the balcony in the centre of the photo? (Like, in the spot where there is no black canvas?) From Wikipedia:

The main hall has a large veranda, supported by tall pillars, that juts out over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city. Large verandas and main halls were constructed at many popular sites during the Edo period to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims.
The popular expression "to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu" is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression "to take the plunge".[5]This refers to a tradition that held that if one were to survive a 13-meter (43-foot) jump from the stage, one's wish would be granted. 234 jumps were recorded, and of those, 85.4% survived.The practice is now prohibited. 
Beneath the main hall is the Otowa waterfall, where three channels of water fall into a pond. Visitors can catch and drink the water, which is believed to have wish-granting powers.
The temple complex includes several other shrines, among them the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to a god of love and "good matches". Jishu Shrine possesses a pair of "love stones" placed 18 meters (60 feet) apart, which lonely visitors can try to walk between with their eyes closed. Success in reaching the other stone with their eyes closed implies that the pilgrim will find love, or true love. One can be assisted in the crossing, but this is taken to mean that a go-between will be needed. The person's romantic interest can assist them as well.

I loved the setting of this temple; in the mountains, in a forest, just outside a quaint town.
So very picturesque.

And walking for 75 minutes in the fresh air was lovely.

At this point it was about 4:50 pm, and I decided to take less photos and be more intentional about getting back into town,

So many happy tourists.

It's 4:55 pm and I'm at the top of the street.
At this rate I'll be back at the bus a few minutes early.

But it's hot.
And I'm thirsty.
And someone is selling shaved mango ice.

So I stop.

It was the most delicious thing I'd eaten all week. The texture! The flavor!
SO refreshing:

I turned to continue my journey to the bus when I noticed a couple from the tour who were about half a block ahead of me.

I stopped the conversation I was having in my head about where to turn right, and just followed them.

It's 5:00, and I follow them as they turn to the right and go down an alley with a million steps.

"Did we come up steps?" I ask myself.
"I don't think I remember steps..." I respond.

It's 5:05.
"Steps? I really don't remember steps."

At 5:07, I tap the woman I've been following.
Me: Hi, you're from the bus tour, yes?
She: Yesssss....
Me: OK good. I'm following you to the bus and none of this feels familiar....
She: Oh, we're not going back to bus. We told the guide we're going to have dinner here then take a cab back to our hotel.
Me: Shit.
She: You'll have to hurry, you have to go back to the top of the stairs and turn right, then turn right again...
Me: Yes I do.

The other night, while I was waiting for my private tour bus at the entrance of the White Castle, about a million Japanese men and a dozen Japanese women ran past me. For exercise. For fun. For health reasons. It was early evening, but the air was still super warm. It reminded me of all the runners in Central Park in New York City. Just jogging because they could.
Runners running for fitness reasons.
Making it look easy.

While watching them run, waiting for my bus last night, the thought crossed my mind, "I wonder if I can still run?"

Current me, realizing it was 5:07 and I had to get to the bus in three minutes: I wonder if I can run?

I ran.

I ran with my camera and my purse and my tourist bag of information and my empty mango ice container (because there are no public garbage cans in Japan). I ran in 30 degree weather with bangs that are growing out, make-up that is melting and deodorant that had given up hours earlier.

I ran up those stairs, inhaling deeply, causing a ruckus amongst the tourists in that tiny town where I was the only blonde woman. Now I was the only blonde woman doing track and field tricks on the street of a million stairs in a sleepy little village next to the oldest temple.

I ran to the top of the stairs, turned right onto the main street, then turned right again to go down the path to the parking area.

I ran like a lumbering bat out of hell being chased by demons and bad guys.

I ran through the gate, across the dusty lot and into the last bus that was waiting for it's last tourist.

At 5: 17 I dropped into my front seat with my chest heaving. HEAVING.

The bus driver looked at the tour guide who nodded as she checked my name off the list and without a word, he drove us back to the bus depot.

I am failing at touristing.


Once we got back to the bus depot, the tour guide assigned a personal travel guide to me, ensuring that I'd get back to my Shinosaka Station safely.

Turns out there were two other ladies also going back to Shinosaka, so she huddled us together like a little pre-school group. She bought our tickets, showed us where to stand in line, and found seats for us on the train, while she stood near-by like a watchful nanny.

The trip home took about an hour (lots of stops along the way) (rush hour), so I chatted with my travel companions.

We were all the same age.
This is Ann from Malayasia.
She is retired and is traveling the world.
Me: Whoa. What kind of job did you retire from?
Her: Sales.
Me: Sales? What were you selling? Houses? Cars?
Her: Advertising.
Me: Sweet gig. You're gonna have an awesome retirement.
Her: I know.

She was The Happiest.

And this is Marla from Burma, originally, but has lived in Seattle for the past few years.

Me: So what brings you to Japan?
Her: I was going to meet my sister. She still lives in Burma but her husband has a two year work contract here in Japan. So she was going to visit him and I was going to visit her.
Me: But?
Her: But she couldn't get a Visa, and I already had my ticket, so I came anyway.
Me: So you're staying with your brother-in-law?
Her: No! I'm staying at a hotel. The Marriott Courtyard, attached to the Shinosaka Station.
Me: Me too!

We are amazed at the coincidence.

Her: Do you have any plans for this evening? Or tomorrow? Or the next day? When do you fly back? Do you want to do something?
Me, knowing that Sue was working late: I have no plans for tonight, what were you thinking?
Her: Well, there's a spa I've been reading about. Kind of like a hot springs? What do you think?
Me, thinking of how much I'm going to ache after my sprint stunt earlier this evening: Ahh, that sounds good, but I didn't think I'd be swimming on this trip. I didn't bring a bathing suit. Sorry.
Her: Oh no! You don't wear anything. You're nude.
Me: Uh. Oh.
Her: Whadda ya think? Fun?
Me: Actually. Sorrry. I have to work this evening.
Her: Oh.

The train pulls into our station and our personal travel guide asks us if we need help getting to our hotel.

Me: Seriously? This is your job? Riding the trains with tourists making sure they get home OK?
Her: Yes.
Me: Whoa. Thanks. I'm grateful for your help, but I've done this a few times now, so I know my way from here.

Marla: Do you mind showing me how to get back to the hotel? I always get lost.
Me: Sure. It's the North exit right beside the McDonald's.

We talk as we walk and I know I've disappointed her. She's lonely and was looking for someone to hang with.

But I was at my limit of small talk and new experiences, so we parted ways in the lobby.

I got back to my room at 7:30 pm, starving and aching all over. I checked my emails, updated Facebook, washed my face, and limped over to the McDonald's at 8 pm to order a Filet o Fish and a small order of fries. I ate at the window bar watching a sea of men in white dress shirts walk past on their way home.

After my gourmet dinner I wandered around the station looking for snacky things to eat and took a chance on some packaged pecan shortbread cookies and almond balls. As per usual I also bought some bottled water.

Sue arrived home shortly after I did, thrilled with the way her day had turned out, ecstatic about the food she'd eaten, happy with the way her presentation was received and excited that she'd had the chance to spend time with old friends.

I told her I was considering booking an appointment for a foot massage.

Her: Did you see the gardens? The red-light district? The palace? The Gion district? Did you shop?
Me: Nah, I saw temples and shrines.
Her: WHAT? Kyoto is so beautiful! What kind of tour where you on?
Me: A temple and shrine tour, I guess.
Her: Did you have supper there? The FOOD IS AHH MAZING.
Me: I had a filet of fish on the corner a half hour ago.
Her: WHAT?


I'm really sucking at touristing.

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