Monday, 6 May 2013

Of Routes, Tracks and Paths

After a phallus-heavy few days in Tokyo the time came at last to activate our rail passes and go off to explore a little more of Japan. This was an exciting moment - I am by no means a railway fanatic but I have to admit that Japan's Shinkansen, or bullet train, is pretty fantastic. I didn't think one would notice much of going at over 300km/h (190-ish mph), but even in the completely sealed train (to avoid eardrums bursting in tunnels) the rush of speed is apparent. It also helps that Shinkansen trains look pretty badass; there's simply no way around it. 

Looks like SPEED. I have also never seen anything that looks so different from front and side as a Shinkansen engine. The wind and blast when these things rush through a small station at 190mph are pretty intimidating - definitely not a country where you'd want to stand inside the yellow line...
In true Japanese style, the service on the Shinkansen is impeccable. Ticket inspectors bow upon entry into the carriage and recite something polite-sounding, and bow again upon receipt of every ticket. Before every new journey the train is cleaned by a small army of pink-uniformed cleaning ladies who are ready and waiting on the platform for the train to arrive. People are accustomed to this and queue up happily while the train is cleaned, waiting for the moment they are cleared to board. This is another great moment to pause and behold the art of queueing in all its glory. On every platform, the places where the doors of the stopping train will be are pointed out with stickers, numbered by carriage - for every possible length of train. Instead of a crowd along the whole platform, therefore, dozens of little queues will form at each train door, up to half an hour before the train is even due to arrive. Often, queues start forming for the next train while the one before it has not even arrived on the platform. 

Ready for action.
This conductor leaning out the train window proved shy - looked like an interesting shot, but this was the best I could get.
Possibly the biggest joy of Shinkansen journeys is boarding the train in the smug knowledge that you just got a seat for "free" while the locals pay for hellishly expensive tickets (100 pounds from Tokyo to Kyoto, a trip of under 2 hours). Not that the rail pass itself is cheap - I paid 400 pounds for my 3-week one - but it turned out to be absolutely incredible value; I suspect I travelled away 3 or 4 times its value quite easily...

Having been deposited in Kyoto after a sunset train ride past a resplendent Fuji-san (the mountain gets the same suffix as the one used when respectfully addressing an elder), we set out trying to see as many of this remarkable city's temples as we could without growing tired of them. The first day we managed to see all of two shrines, but these were arguably the most remarkable ones. 

Fushimi Inari-taisha is a shrine devoted to Inari, the patron of business and wealth often depicted as a fox. It is located on a hill - covering the whole hill, really - and consists of literally thousands of red torii (archways) snaking up the various paths to tucked-away mini-shrines and all around the hill. They are donated by businesses around Japan who hope for good fortune from doing so. It is remarkable, really, that in a country as high-tech and seemingly beyond religious values, so much money, energy and effort is still readily poured into monuments and shrines by both people and completely secular organisations. All the better for us, though, because there was no entrance fee: not what one would expect from one of the highlights of Japan's arguably most famous collection of temples and shrines! 

The entrance into the warren of torii "tunnels"...
...and inside. The orangey-red makes for weird light!

Helena thoroughly enjoyed the foxes stationed everywhere - each with a slightly different expression!
We made it to the top without incident, witnessing a surprising number of wedding-style photo shoots on the way - the Japanese seem to love nothing better than photos of themselves - and found dozens of little sub-shrines and rest stations with tea and mini-torii for sale along the way. 

On the way down, however, we got quite spectacularly lost - given the fairly obvious markers literally covering the right way(s), I'm not sure how this happened, but it made for an enjoyable ramble through a quiet and pleasant bit of forest before we realised we had no idea where we were. 

Hard to miss, you'd think...
Of the next temple I have no photos as they were strictly forbidden and it was imposing enough a place that - like at the Taj Mahal - I never even considered disobeying. Unlike at the Taj Mahal, everyone else was similarly complicit which was a nice change. Sanjusangen-do
contains 1001 bronze(?) statues of the thousand-armed Kannon, although he was more conveniently depicted with 42 arms each. Considering each statue was slightly different and unique, it must still have been a faff to cast them...

Since I have no photos of the inside of the temple, here's one from the interwebs. The 1001st statue sits amidst the other thousand life-size ones and is many times bigger. It also seems so holy that even google produces just one photo of it. (The gift shop, of course, had various crappy-quality reproductions of the whole thing...). At least I managed to get a few impressions from the gardens...

That evening, we wandered around Gion, the traditional Geisha quarter - and not bringing my camera and tripod here just might have been the biggest mistake I made this whole trip. The area is absolutely gorgeous and full of character, and we caught the last vestiges of the cherry blossoms adorning the branches of willows drooping over the narrow river onto which the old geisha establishments back. Even had I made it back to Kyoto at a later point, the cherry blossoms would have been gone. Yet again, the interwebs will have to make do (eg. here and here and here). Still, we had a lovely dinner of various Japanese things in an izakaya - the Japanese version of a pub. They take their snack food seriously here - as much as I love pork scratchings, sashimi does take things to a whole different level. That said, sea-snail sashimi (we think...) was probably the least tasty thing I had while in Japan; a rather brackish and gelatinous affair!

Snail sashimi in the near corner, along with (presumably) the animal's shell...
We finished our time in Kyoto with a general wander through the city's temple district (characterised by an even higher concentration of shrines and temples than elsewhere). Here we found what was probably my favourite garden in all of Japan - they really do know how to make them. The midday sun, of course, did its best to wash out photos I took, but such is life. I am often gutted about the lack of quality photos I have taken, and have to remind myself that this is a travelling trip first, not a photography trip - if it were, I would have structured it very differently. But then that's not an excuse, really - ANYWAY. No point ranting about what can't be changed. 

After a quick wander down part of the Philosopher's Path, a supposedly tranquil meander near the city's edge which turned out to be rather crowded, we decided to call it a day as we were both getting a little temple-weary. Kyoto does that!

However templed out I may get, I don't think I'm ever going to tire of cherry blossoms...
Maybe it was because Kyoto was so stunning that I was left a little underwhelmed by Nara. This is the old royal capital and praised to the skies by guidebooks and fellow travellers alike for its castle- and shrine-type endowments. I have to admit that besides probably being oversaturated with temple-type stuff from the last few days, the layout of the place didn't add much: grassy expanses cropped close by hungry and rather forward deer separate various sites and sights.

The only one that really impressed us both was the giant buddha housed in Todai-ji temple. This 15m-high bronze affair was certainly worth checking out, despite the crowds clamouring all around it. Of course, we also kept up our duties as gimpy tourists...

To compensate for such obscene levels of temple-hopping, we spent a day in an outrageous onsen (thermal spa) out in the hills near Kobe. Arima Onsen is only accessible by a tiny single-track train line which emphasises how out-of-the-way the place really is. 

A far cry from the Shinkansen!
What a way to unwind this was - we got a proper tatami (woven straw mats) room, got given fancy robes (yukata) upon arrival and could book private onsens instead of the normal gender-segregated public baths. 

Radium and carbonate in the ginsen water...
...and kinsen, water coloured ochre by iron and salt. 

And then, of course, there was breakfast. I was a bit worried about portions being small in upmarket resorts such as this one - but boy, was I mistaken. We counted a grand total of 21 dishes each, 18 of which contained food of all sorts. It being a Japanese breakfast, things were mostly fish- and/or pickle-based, but tasty without exception. Finishing everything was quite hard work and almost painful towards the end, but let's face it - not finishing was not an option.

SO. FULL. But the waitress offered to take a picture, so who are we to say no?
And so (more or less) ended Helena's adventures in Japan - apart from a rather stressful last-minute arrival at the airport and a mad dash to the check-in desk...

In the next instalment, I head off to the northern and western ends of Japan and get used to travelling on my own again!

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