Japan: cultural immersion in Kyoto

I was expecting an awesome trip for the 7-hour overnight bus from Tokyo heading west to Kyoto, as things in Japan, I had come to expect, are generally awesome.  However I was slightly disappointed with the rather cramped, stuffy bus sat next to a larger (albeit extremely polite) gentleman.  Nevertheless we arrived on time and I had managed to get a few hours of kip.

Kyoto used to be the capital until a few hundred years ago and has managed to retain many of the traditional temples, shrines and grand official buildings that were constructed in the lavish glory years.  Strolling around the east area of the city it feels like you’ve stepped back in time, and many locals and tourists enhance this by dressing up in traditional clothing.

Before entering a shrine you go and take a sip of water from the fountain and then wash your hands as demonstrated by this traditionally dressed Japanese:

Traditional Japanese graveyard.  Even the gravestones are designed to save space:

This Buddha was HUGE. Use the tiny figure to the right as a size reference:

The purpose of the Buddha statue:

Kyoto is also the best place to spot one of the rarest creatures on the planet: an authentic Geisha.  Geisha girls are dwindling in numbers but their practice is still alive and their services are procured by high-rollers for about £1,000 an hour :-0!  For this you can expect a fan-dance, some pleasant chitter-chatter and your tea poured.  Sounds a bit of a rip-off to be honest but it’s all about honour.

I managed to pap this Maiko (trainee Geisha) as she was out doing a spot of morning shopping.   Shortly after this she shuffled her way into a Geisha parlour.

This pair were doing a photo shoot.  Probably weren’t actual Geisha’s but they looked cool anyway:

Not sure what this dude was but he was chanting something and looked really mystical:

One of the nights in the hostel a group of university students came in to teach us how to do origami.   By now this type of friendliness and willing to go-out-of-your-way to help out strangers was become the norm.  I really got into that paper folding and made loads of different bits and bobs.

With the super-happy teacher, Mari, after having completed my first lily:

I got slightly addicted and ended up making loads:

The next day I hired a bike and decided to do a tour of the out-lying sights.  Just outside the town there were some lovely sights of tree-covered rolling hills and wide sweeping rivers.  And the shrines and temples aren’t restricted to the inner city either.  One of the most revered sights in Japan is Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pagoda.   Originally built as a villa by a powerful statesman it has since been converted to a Zen Buddhist temple and is an awesome sight to behold.  Unfortunately 30 minutes into my cycle the heavens opened so I didn’t catch the pagoda in the bright sunshine which would have added to the spectacle, but it was breathtaking nonetheless.

After a few more stops at various shrines and temples I was soaked to the bone so decided to call it a day.

That evening a group of us headed out from the hostel and Mari convinced us to partake in one of her’s and most Japanese girls’ favourite past time: Purikura.  To you and me photo booths are generally exclusively used for passport photos but to young Japanese people they’re a cracking friday night out.  You can dress up, do your make-up and even straiten your hair in the Purikura place,  so you can look your best for your ‘photo shoot’.  Then its the turn of the photoshop software to make your skin airbrushed and pale, eyes bigger and rounder and smile whiter and shinier.  The final step is to graffiti the photos up whichever way you choose.

On this one I went for the Doraemon onesy (gadget cat from the future) and afterwards the guys put a bow-tie and glasses on me.  We chose eye size extra-large:

Scary:

After the excitement of the Purikura we headed to an Isakaya which is a traditional Japanese pub.  For me, these places have one great aspect and one terrible aspect.  The first is that for £13 it’s all you can drink until 5am in the morning (which considering it’s about £6 a pint in Japan is an amazing deal!), the second is that you are confined to your own personal room, which is a bit weird as pubs are generally there for socialising and I don’t really know why people don’t just go round to someone house – there’s not even any music!  Not to say that the company wasn’t good, it was, it’s just you can hear people in the next cubicle having a laugh, but can’t see them or talk to them.

My final day in Kyoto I took a trip to Fushimi Inari which is an amazing series of thousands of Toriis (Japanese-looking archways which signify the start of a shrine).  You can walk through a couple of miles of these orange toriis passing shrines and scenic lakes along the way.  There’s even a lake with tons of turtles swimming around towards the end of the track.

Mind-boggling:

Really cool to walk through:

One of the shrines:

Afterwards we decided to head for a bit of Udon, which are these really delicious thick stodgy noodles.  But first I spotted this pup which I was tempted to kidnap:

Udon, served here with raw-egg, springs onions, some Japanese sauce, chicken tempura and tempura bits. Unbelievably delicious and one of the cheapest options for eating out in Japan:

The next day I caught the bus back to Tokyo.  This time I had stumped up an extra few hundred yen for the ‘Theater’ bus which offers a personal screen with a catalogue of movies, live TV and the Pièce de résistance, old-school Sega games such as Golden Axe!

On returning to Tokyo I checked back in with Tadashi and Hiroshi who had hosted me at their place in my first week; as they had offered me a futon for my last night in Japan.

My evening flight wasn’t until 11.30pm meaning I had one last day in Tokyo, and so I decided to stroll to  the nearby Tokyo Dome which is a 55,000 baseball arena coupled with a huge entertainment complex.  On arrival I realised there was a game being played and after some uncomfortable conversations with several officials who although incredibly polite were terrible at English, I ascertained that it was a university tournament.  As I had covered most of the other places on my Tokyo itinerary I decided to check it out and wasn’t disappointed.  The game of baseball I could take-or-leave; the high-light was the team’s supporters.  Despite the stadium being about 99% empty each university had its own band, troupe of cheerleaders and uniformed fans.  The most interesting/funny thing about it all was how organised and rehearsed everything was.  When one field was in bat, their fans would kick up a real hullabaloo, with singing, dancing, chanting and band-playing; meanwhile it was etiquette for the other team to sit-down and shut-up.  Then when that team was out, it would switch round in an instant, even if it meant cutting short the song.  There were also some very interesting rituals performed by wailing, suited, arm-waving guys at the start and finish of each game.  It was all very entertaining and I definitely recommend watching how the Japanese have made such an American cultural experience their own.

The teams line-up and bow:

It was hard not to giggle as a group of uniformed-and-bandanered Japanese university students hum-singed the chorus to ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’ whilst banging green cones to the beat:

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And after the victory it was the winner’s ritual.  At the end of this, the guy turns to the opposing fans and does the exact same thing:

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After catching a couple of the games there was only time for one last huge bowl of noodles before saying cheerio to the guys that had been so accommodating and helpful by letting me stay with them.  It’s hard to explain why Japan was one of my favourite countries, after all I hadn’t been to any breathtaking beaches, mountains or jungles, but it’s just a really fantastic place to be; I guess this has to be put down to the people, which you’re probably getting sick of me saying, but are so unique, friendly and charming.

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