Posts tagged ‘Culture’
When you tell a traveller in Kyoto that you spent your day at the temples they look at you sympathetically, as if you have just said that you recently had your tonsils out. Much like having your tonsils out, temple-hopping in Japan’s cultural capital is good for you, and you know it’s good for you but its exhausting and painful and by the end of the day you just need a big bowl of ice cream.
There are 13 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto, all but one of which are either a temple or a shrine. They have a temple with a bell it takes 17 monks to ring, a temple covered in gold foil, a temple with 5km of torii and a temple with the biggest gate you have ever seen in your life. They are the biggest temples, the most sacred temples, the best temples but at the end of the day, they are all just temples.
You know what it will look like before you arrive – it will be big and wooden and impressive. There will be a sheltered iron pot out front with incense burning and people will be gathered around grabbing at whisps of smoke and rubbing it into their hair and clothes. There will be the sound of coins bouncing off of wood as worshippers throw their money into a box, ring a bell and clap twice to get Buddha’s attention. You will have to take your shoes off and put them in a plastic bag. So you go, knowing what is in store and wearing shoes with no laces and you ‘oooh’ over this Buddha statue and ‘ah’ that beautiful carving. Then you put back on your shoes, trek 100m up a ferociously steep hill and express amazement over this beautiful carving and that Buddha statue.
It wasn’t surprising then that Giles and Anne (our fearless new travel buddies) gave us that ‘Oh no, you have to have your tonsils removed’ look when we told them that we were heading to Nara to see, you got it, more temples. And it was with heavy, slip-on-shoe-clad feet that we dragged ourselves out there at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, expecting to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and wish we had stayed in bed.
What we didn’t know however, and what made the whole trip worthwhile, scratch that, a highlight of Japan, was that Nara is not only a UNESCO-holding, temple-filled tourist mecca, but also a deer park. The park is home to thousands of tame deer who wander around footpaths, chase children with ice cream and lounge on top of sacred Buddha. It made for a lot of fun.
The streets of the park are lined with stalls selling deer crackers and, after realizing that the deer want nothing to do with you unless you have a little something to give back, we bought a pack from the first vendor with thoughts to carrying them with us for the day in case we ran into any super cute fawns. Big mistake. The deer were on to us immediately and, the second the vendor handed them over, they rushed me, nudging my hip, licking my bag and sucking on my coat buttons until I handed over the goods. Terrified, I dropped them and ran (before Gary could even get a picture, much to his dismay.)
Eventually we worked out our own crafty plan and Gary distracted them while I quickly threw correct change at the little old man at the stall and dropped the crackers into my bag before hightailing it. We got away safely but as we made our way through the park, we got a little bored and started to leave trails of cracker crumbs behind us, collecting our very own assembly line of deer.
Oh yeah, and we saw some big temples and pretty stone lanterns. Who knew temple-hopping could be so much fun? Nara – highly recommended for the temple weary.
More pictures of Nara are available in the gallery
13th November 2009
*Warning: contains scenes of nudity that may offend/horrify some readers.
At 6.49pm Kyoto time today, I somehow found myself sitting on an upside-down bucket, being scrubbed down by a very small, very old, very naked Japanese woman. She was trying valiantly to teach me Japanese but, being that she didn’t speak any english and that my entire grounding in her language consists of exactly three words, that panned out to be a much more arduous task than removing all those layers of dead skin from my back.
Are you confused? Vaguely aroused? I had better start from the start then. Today we had our first onsen, a Japanese public bath that is traditionally located in a natural hot spring but is reproduced artificially in cities across the country. Much like the Hungarian equivalent, this means a combination of various baths – from hot to cold and everything in between. and much like all other Japanese traditions, attending an onsen is an event with a lot of very specific rituals around it.
Before today I had a lot of preconceived notions about what it was to take a bath. For one, I thought that the purpose of a bath was to clean oneself. Wrong. Bathing is apparently what you do after you are clean.
The ritual begins when you walk through the door. Like everywhere else in Japan your shoes come off at the door. After paying and, if you are not properly equipped, buying a wash cloth and soap, you head for the changing room where men and women are separated and the rate of undressing accelerates. Here you leave all your clothes and walk naked with your washcloth and soap (trying desperately to cover yourself with 5 square inches of cloth) into the onsen, collecting a basin as you go.
Now comes phase one. Sitting on an upside-down bucket you scrub every inch of your body until you are red raw, trying desperately to keep your bare bum on the bucket as you get slippier and slippier. If you are a westerner, a quick glance around you at this point will make two things clear – 1. You are the only person who is having difficulty staying on their bucket and 2. You have a captive audience who are, at this stage, supressing their giggles. Plant your two feet firmly on the floor and get on with it. Two bruised bum cheeks and several bars of soap later, you are now permitted to choose a bath and dive in.
For us, the choice was endless in Funaoka Onsen, with simple cold and hot pools, a jacuzzi, a sauna and, best of all, an outdoor pool – a sheltered, heated bath made of the softest, smoothest wood with a bamboo trunk for a tap. It was utter bliss until it got crowded with naked octogenarians and I was forced to dash inside for the sauna, followed by a dunk in the ice cold pool – strangely enough, that one was empty.
Now pretty confident with my new fleshy look, I plucked up the courage to swagger over to the more adventurous pools. First off was the herbal pool which was a vivid shade of orange and approximately half a degree below boiling point. Gary says that this bit made him feel a little stoned but I just got bored and started to worry about coming out looking like a Cheesy Wotsit.
Finally I tried the electrical pool – distinguishable by the presence of a series of plug sockets at around knee height. I’m not certain how that was supposed to feel but I had the sensation that all of my joints were dislocating themselves. Let’s just say that I won’t be hopping into my tub with a hairdryer any time soon.
Just in case the seven pools, sauna and various hosing downs don’t leave you squeaky clean, the last step to onsen-fresh skin is another vigorous scrub down using liberal amounts of soap and a rough cloth. Apparently I wasn’t quite up to scratch on my vigorous scrubbing skills however, as the aforementioned old woman was forced to take over with her scrubbing brush and organic soap (without a word of warning, might I add).
As clean as a whistle, I floated outside to meet Gary who, after an hour and a half with dozens of naked Asian men, had a new found confidence and a swagger in his step.
As we were unable to take a camera into the Onsen (for obvious reasons) the pictures used in this post are courtesy of Google Images.
12 November 2009
Have you ever felt like you have stepped onto the set of an indescribably beautiful film and that any second the lights will come up and someone will usher you off the premises? Well we had one of those days today in Kyoto.
Our first Hollywood moment took place at Fushimi Inari Shrine when, predictably, we stumbled onto a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha. Luckily they let us hang around for a while.
Although the shrine includes the usual temples and incense, what everyone really goes for is the torii – those beautiful deep orange gates that you see on every Japanese postcard. While we had seen the odd one or two lying around since we arrived, we had been a little underwhelmed – until now.
With 4km of torii climbing up a steep mountain, Fushimi Inarii is the mother lode for anyone who likes gates. Or the colour orange. The most memorable section, and the one from Memoirs of a Geisha, is a pretty short stretch (maybe 100m long) of back-to-back vivid orange torii with black engraved Japanese letters on them. Of course, as is always the case, running the route was easier for the Geisha than it was for us. Two hours, several bottles of over-priced water and one sunburn later, our white make-up was was all over our kimono and our heavily ornamented hair was a darn sight.
12 November 2009
Our second brush with fame happened outside the north gate of Tenryuji Temple. As it was coming into early evening (and it being winter it was starting to get dark), this one was fortunately less crowded with tourists than our first stop.
After a few wrong turns we managed to locate the Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama that looks exactly like a scene out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The fading light gave it a great eretheral air, even if there was a gang of Japanese schoolgirls holding up peace signs while their friends took photos on their 25th century phones. The soundtrack of screaming monkeys and the wind blowing through the trees also added to the magic. Since bamboos are so tall and hollow, they make a really unique, faraway sound – the usual whoosh of leaves blowing combined with the hollow thwack of trunks banging against each other. Strangely enough it sounds exactly like rain beating against glass on a windy day.
More pictures from Kyoto are available on the gallery