Traveling through a potpourri of ancient culture and modern metropolis

Kyoto Travel Blog

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Subject: Traveling through a potpourri of ancient culture and modern metropolis

       Well, well, well.  When I wrote last, we were at the bottom of the road to Nagano.  Alas, I use the word "bottom" as opposed to "beginning" for good reason.  This was a ride like no other.  This was the hardest ride of my life.  Just over 80 kilometers didn't seem like much.  I've done more than that.  NO WAY could anything be up so uphill though!  Incline after incline after incline.   The reward for getting up a steep incline was another less steep incline.  This seemed to go on forever.  To make matters worse, I had a bad stomachache and a cold.  I even thought I was getting bronchitis.  I pushed to limit though.   Till this time the hardest day of sheer labor in my life that I can remember was back when I was caddying and once carried four bags in the morning for one loop and then carried two more bags again in the afternoon.  For this ride, every time I could not go on, it was a few minutes rest, and then off again.  This went well on until about 10:30 when we had to stop a bit longer at a convenience store.  For some reason I didn't think yogurt would upset my stomach anymore.  Did I mention that aloe yogurt is the norm in Japan?  When we were done there, oh boy were we in luck,  It was almost all entirely downhill for the last 30 kilometers!  At some points the decline was so steep that we must have been going around 50 to 60 mph easily.  Finally we saw the lights of Nagano and stopped at the first hotel with vacancy.  A very cheap, tacky, and vacant hotel is what we found, but we weren't very picky at 1am.  Inside there was a ridiculous mix of decorum.  There were little swirlies in the ceilings design that one would find on toilet paper.  Weird painted babies with harps and musical notes were on one wall.  Stars and paint streaks from the 60's was on another.  If it weren't for the arduous ride, sleep would not have been easy.  The next morning we were promptly kicked out at 10am.  It was Thursday morning and we had two main options.  Either bike like crazy for the next three days and try to get to Kyoto by Saturday night or relax in Nagano for a day (which we needed bad) and train to Kyoto on Friday so we have the whole weekend there.  We chose the latter.  Time for Nagano central.  Since the town was selected in 1991 to host the 1998 Winter Olympics, it was rapidly modernized, but it turns out that this city was built around the Zenkoji temple that was founded in the 7th century.  This is the most important pilgrimage temple in Japan (this is open to all Buddhist sects), and millions of still flock here every year on a pilgrimage just as they did over 1300 years ago.  We found a restaurant for lunch that seemed like an American restaurant that was trying to be Asian.  A strange find indeed.  Nevertheless, this had some of the best tasting food we had so far in Japan.  Time for that famous temple. This was my first visit to a big temple in Japan, and oh boy did I get plenty of pictures.  All of the exotic architecture and gardens were great, and there was plenty of chanting inside.  Right near by was a youth hostel so we headed there.  This was unlike any youth hostel you can imagine.  It was actually a temple.  We passed it three times over before someone pointed right at it when we asked for directions.  We dropped off all of our things and checked the map for the next place we wanted to go.  Oh boy, another onsen!  You cannot resist these once you start going to them.  That soothed the savage aches and pains from the prior day's ride.  We wandered for places to eat for a bit and then decided, what the heck, let's go back to the Asian cafe.  It's a good thing we did because the owner rushed up and thanked us for coming twice in the same day by giving us free beer.  Staying in the temple was very strange.  We weren't even allowed to bring our things to our rooms since the tatami mats were sacred.  We had to be in by 9:30 or the temple gates would be locked, and lights out at 10:00.  Well that rest was definitely needed.  We started our journey to Kyoto by train.  When Dave landed in Osaka a couple of weeks before I landed in Tokyo, he made a new friend named Koji that was a Kyoto native at the airport.   Koji was just at U of I for four years studying urban planning.  He very kindly invited Dave and I to stay with his family when we got to Kyoto.  This was supposed to be a five hour trip where we switch to three other trains, but luck was not on our side that day.  There were numerous delays on the first train that messed up our schedule, but the mountain and river scenery was beautiful that I didn't mind so much at first.  Supposedly, there was a bridge that was wavering in the wind that caused us to wait nearly an hour at one stop.  After the first 200 kilometers it was pure city and population.  Almost no trees or nature or anything that I have been accustomed to since I have been here.  Miles and miles of metropolis.  I enjoyed seeing plenty of shrines all over the place every day prior to this, but in the area of Nagoya there were none to be found.   People, buildings, streets, cars, and more people.  This area should be a warning to the rest of the world.  After switching to a few trains around this area we finally got on the train to Kyoto.  It ended up being about a twelve hour trip.  Luckily, Koji wasn't too upset.  He said he will join us for dinner, but that we should stop by first.  We went to his house and I met him and his parents, who were extremely nice and polite.  This was my first time in a Japanese home.  I finally got to see what the thousands and thousands of houses that we rode by look like inside.  He and Dave discovered a great Okinomiyaki restaurant when Dave was here before.  The best short description for this would be un-rolled fajita-noodle-pizza.  It's very good though, trust me.  Something almost instantly noticeable about Kyoto is the amount of caucasians that I saw.  This was all the more prevalent at the bar called "Bar, Isn't It?" that we went to after dinner.  Koji informed me that this is the regular place for caucasians to go and where Japanese women go when seeking Caucasian men.  Not a single one that I met was American though.  They all seem to be from Switzerland or Australia.   Anyhow, this place nothing compared to the clubs in Chicago so didn't really get me going.  Finally, Dave was ready to go and we went back to Koji's.  The next morning (early afternoon actually) was slow moving.  The following is not for the timid.  One discovery I can't resist making note of is the "automatic" toilet in Koji's house.  That's right, automatic.  It automatically does everything you need.  Enough said I hope.  Those seeking more explanation must wait till I return.  Anyway, I finally had time to organize everything and re-read what was in the Kyoto area.  There were tons of places around here.  Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Himeji to name a few.  At the end of Japan was only one place that I was interested in going, Nagasaki.  Again a big decision had to be made for the course of the trip; to stay in the Kyoto area for all these great places or to go on to see just Nagasaki, take a train back to Tokyo, and leave.  In my guidebook, Kyoto was described as "The Heart of Japan" being everything that Japan was and everything that foreign visitors want Japan to be.  They were right, and we decided we were here to stay a while.  I was concerned about staying at Koji's, but Dave assured me that it was okay.  The family was so nice that they invited us to go to an extremely formal Japanese dinner on Sunday, and the name of the meal roughly translates as "emperor's meal" in English.   That day was mostly spent at the shopping districts.  There are entire streets that are closed off completely to cars because of the sheer number of stores on them, and at Kyoto station was a gigantic, fully loaded shopping mall that was nine stories high!  Woodfield must cower in comparison.  That night we met Koji's friend Kei and Dave's sensei's nephew, Saira.  We all went to dinner and plans were made with Saira to see Himeji castle (touted as the best in Japan) on Thursday.  That gives us four more days in the heart of Japan, and then two days in Tokyo, where I really haven't been yet since I went straight to the coast from the airport.  After dinner, we headed to the Gion festival.  They closed many more streets for this and it was much like The Taste of Chicago.  There were over a thousands booths with food, drink, and wares (including tons of Doraemon products).  There were many large carts three stories high for that various temples in the city.  Koji explained that on Monday morning there will be hundreds of people pulling these giant carts on ropes.  I wanted a picture of me helping, but unfortunately one had to apply months in advance for this.  Later, we went to a British pub called the Pig & Whistle, where Kei had his first Guinness and then finally went to "Bar, Isn't It?" again.  The next day there was a bit more shopping and then time for our emperor's meal.  This was by far the best place we had eaten since we got here.  You have your own little private room with a view of a garden.  The waitress apologizes every time she comes to bring food and presents it in an extremely servitude-like manner.  Although the food was very strange it was great and the whole experience was fantastic.  With high spirits we went back to the Gion festival and more of the secrets of Doraemon were revealed while we were walking around there, thanks to Koji.  It turns out that he is the comparable to Mickey Mouse in America.  To Dave and I, Doraemon seemed like a completely simple, generically shaped character.  Well, he is a robot cat from the future that got his ears eaten off by a rat.  He has a time machine and came back to constantly assist the ancestor of his creator to make a better future.  All of this seems like The Terminator to me.  He has no hands, just little electromagnetic circles.  The greatest thing he has is a pocket in his belly that can produce any convenient device that is needed at the time, be it helicopter hat or metal detector.  Koji explained that it's probably not popular in America because the inventor's ancestor is stupid, always gets into trouble, and Doraemon always saves him (he never saves himself).  I suppose that is a bad example for American children.  Well, Monday we had to wake early to see them moving the carts and the rest of the parade.  The main attraction stems of the lack of thoughtful engineering put into the carts design.   More specifically, they naturally do not turn.  When they would get to an intersection they laborers rushed out and laid bamboo all over the street and wet it down.  They would pull the cart onto the bamboo, run around the cart a bit, and then pull with all of their might.  This resulted in the cart turning about 30 degrees and everybody cheering.  This process repeated for hours throughout the day.  We were done with this after about an hour and Koji and Kei took us to some of the better shrines and temples in the area.  We went along the famous "Path of Philosophy" from one temple to the next.  They all have beautiful architecture, landscapes, and rock gardens.  These are intended to be somewhat like three-dimensional paintings.  The whole scene being suggested by the placement of the gravel, rocks, and shrubs.  After a great dinner that was the same barbecue style at the cafe in Nagano, it was time for bed.  Today, I raced to Nijo castle, the Emperor's palace, and three other temples by bicycle.  I will describe those in the next chronicle, since the Internet Cafe is closing.  Farewell for now!!

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