Journey Through Japan

Day 13, 13JAN2017

Before checking out of the Ryokan this morning we enjoyed a few amenities. For starters, we waddled down from our deep sleep atop the futons on the floor and clad in our robes were met by the brilliant sunshine in the breakfast room.

Right outside the floor to ceiling windows was a koi pond with Buddhist statues and trickling water. We sat once again at foot tall tables and were greeted with all sorts of unknown foods.

A small bowl of miso soup was presented with breakfast, along with scrambled eggs, rice, green tea, smoked salmon, dried seaweed strips, terryaki pork, pickled vegetables and herbs, pickled seaweed, and a small bowl of a sweet vegetable substance Josh and I could not decipher.

The central part of the meal however was a boiling pot of tofu which we seasoned with a soy and spring onion glaze.

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Breakfast was very different from anything like that we’d grown up on in the States or in Australia, but it was decidedly filling.

After breakfast we changed from our house robes and climbed the hill to explore Jakko-in Temple.

Jakko-in Temple is a Buddhist Temple that served as a Nyoin, or a retreat for female members of the Imperial family. Several princesses and Buddhist nuns served and lived in this Temple which was established in 594. The place has a surreal and yet fanciful sensation associated with it. When you first walk up the staircase leading from the road to the entrance of the Temple you are greeted by low hanging trees, moss covered grounds, glistening rocks, and pristine ponds.

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The place looks as though Tinker Bell and her friends might reside here, frolicking from one koi pond to the next. The surrounds are incredibly peaceful. The only sound is that which erupts from the nun when she sounds the chime and calls attendees to kneel before the edifices and that of ever present trickling water.

Josh and wandered through the grounds for about half an hour before it was time for us to check out of our Ryokan and bid Ohara adieu.

Once returned to Kyoto station via the bus, we caught the Kyoto subway to our next AirBnB destination. We are staying at the Kamigo Guesthouse for the next six nights. The place is located roughly three blocks from the Imperial Grounds and is encircled with several bus stops. A tiny two story home over 100 years old, the inner walls are entirely made of paper. I suppose the outer walls are made of something hardier, however the house is definitely chilly. Our bedroom is large and like the Ryokan has tatami mats, a foot tall table, and two futon beds. It is absolutely perfect and exactly what we need to base ourselves out of for the next week.

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Our New Home: Kamigo Guesthouse

We were met by Taiki upon arrival and he excitedly showed us around the narrowed hallways to our room. He is an exceptional host, well, technically he is the staff of Shogo, who is actually the host, but Taiki works in the house most of the day. Both our hosts are learning English and their pronunciation and ability to catch on to jokes is impressive.

Before we departed the house to stroll around Kyoto, Taiki invited us to join him and other house guests tonight for Okonomiyaki, or Japanese pancakes. We graciously accepted the invitation and offered to bring a few drinks to share with everyone.

Taiki then directed us to a local donut shop and Josh and I set off to explore.

The donut shop by the way was delicious and a fantastic recommendation. We shared a citron caraway donut and a white chocolate donut over coffees, then Josh persuaded by the picture menu ordered a hot dog with salad and French fries. The salad was delicious and something we both realized we’ve missed on this trip: fresh uncooked produce.

Once fed we trekked off towards Nijo-Jo Castle at the heart of the City. Nijo-Jo Castle was constructed in the early 1600s and served as the first residence for the Tokugawa Shogun. The Shogunate was a powerbase exerted by military rule – in other words, instead of the Emperor calling the shots, the Shogun did instead.

Nijo-Jo castle is striking in contrast to its more modern day surrounds. As I mentioned, Josh and I opted to walk to this castle from our AirBnB and along the way we strolled by a canal which divides Kyoto east and west down the center. Although it is winter, the water rushed through its artfully crafted bed. Obviously made by humans the water ran over various blocks, statues, and cobble stones; and along the canal were willow trees still drooping with plenty of long strands of green leaves.

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Crossing the bustling Horikawa-Dori street, guards and police directed the flow of tourists towards the northern entrance gate – the Kara-mon Gate facing east is closed due to refurbishment.

Being tourists in Japan is relatively cheap compared to the States and Australia. The entrance fee for the Castle was 600 Yen apiece, so we both opted to rent the audio-tour for an additional 500 Yen. This proved paramount to our enjoyment of the Castle. While there are certainly signs in English at most tourists spots throughout Japan, the translations and the breadth of information doesn’t seem to compare to the Japanese text. The audio-tour provided more than enough information and we were totally absorbed.

The tour guided us from the north entrance to the scaffold covered Kara-mon Gate and although we could not see the imposing white and black gate in all its glory, the audio tour actually had photos on the screen so we could see a snapshot of the gate sans construction.

We were then guided further into the initial courtyard and our attention directed to one of the remaining two of four former guard towers. The intricate decorations on these seemingly militaristic fortifications are quite intriguing.

Then it was time to turn our attention inwards from the moat, the massive stone walls, gates and guard towers towards the palace itself.

Neither of us actually had words to express our emotions when we turned to face the inner palace entrance gate. Sighs escaped us both as we looked upon the tall, dark wood gate topped with a dense thatched roof and adorned in glorious gold and bright colored paintings depicting various Japanese flora and fauna.

Imagining that this was what anyone who came to meet with the Shogun saw upon entrance was a powerful idea. We then stepped into the courtyard, removed our shoes and followed our audio guide inside the actual palace.

The Palace is composed today of five interconnected buildings. All the buildings are wooden with paper walls that slide to partition and are elaborately painted. The ceilings of the inner palace are also intricately painted and the intricacies become more and more profound the deeper one walks into the palace. The rooms of the palace were designed as a series of different waiting and receiving rooms. We never saw a kitchen, bathroom, or bedroom (or at least never saw one of the rooms presented as such). These rooms and the buildings themselves were designed for business and government.

As I mentioned the walls were painted, and while some of the original walls had been removed and included in a museum exhibit, the originals that remained were extremely expressive. Scenes varied, depending on the purpose of the room and the building’s relation. There were scenes of cherry blossoms, cypress pine trees, and various landscape scenes that represented the different seasons of Kyoto. Perhaps the most impressive scenes however were those found in one of the Shogun receiving rooms where the leader was surrounded by gilded screen walls depicting tigers and leopards. There are neither of these animals in Japan, and thus the origin of the animals presence in the rooms is most likely derived from Chinese stories and paintings. This theory is further enhanced by the appearance of a Tigress with her cubs: two tiger cubs and a third, a leopard cub. It was common during this era for the Chinese to believe a Tiger birthed leopard cubs every three or four cubs.

The fifth building in the recesses of the palace was the private domain of the Shogun. This was the only room in the tour where mannequins were positioned in the room to demonstrate how the rooms may have been used. It still appeared rather boring to me. The entire palace was freezing cold – it was 1’c today and with paper walls between the rooms and the outdoors, many of which were wide open to allow sunlight in, you were practically outside anyways and it was COLD. Staring at these mannequins, the Shogun seated in the center of the highest room, his two women seated in the second tiered room seemingly staring at him, and a third woman – a woman in waiting – standing in a third, even lower, room, looked to be doing just about nothing. I can’t imagine a lifestyle that required being seated in the cold, appearing stoic and yet wise and responsive, all day. No thank you.

While walking through the entire palace, its cold biting at our cheeks and fingers, we were widely aware that we were surrounded not by fellow tourists, a domain of former importance, nor beautiful gold paintings, rather we were surrounded by the cacophony of nightingales. The wooden floorboards of the palace were designed such that the hinged nails squeaked and sang anytime pressure was exerted or relieved from the plank. This ingenious design alerted the ruler and his staff of any approaching or entering personnel.

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Not only is photography forbidden in the Palace, so too is Pokemon Go

Complete with our inside tour of the Castle Josh and then followed our audio guide outdoors where once re-acquainted with our shoes we wandered through perfectly maintained gardens, clear streams, up huge stone stairs, past a residence home at the central most part of the castle grounds, and to the top of a Dun-in the highest section of the entire grounds.

The tour was very informative, however two hours after our venture into the grounds we were both far too cold and in dire need of warmth.

We quickly walked to the subway station and stopped to have a warming afternoon tea. I believe I’ve said this before, but Japan has not merely perfected Japanese cuisine, it has also managed to perfect several other international cuisines: pastries included. Josh and I would make afternoon tea in a Japanese café regularly during our visit to Kyoto.

Arriving at the Kyoto Train Station once again we shopped for a beanie, gloves, and an adapter. Stores were still hawking New Year sales and the numerous levels of shopping nearly caused me to give up entirely on finding something as simple as a warm hat. But we both triumphed and after nearly two hours of trying to navigate among shoppers, workers on their way home, and tourists absorbed in the chorus of noise, we hopped back on the subway and made our way home for the pancake party.

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Kyoto Tower at Night

Taiki was already preparing dinner when we walked in and presented our bottle of wine and sake. Jared and Tamiya, from New York, were also already seated at the small dining room table. We grabbed the only other chairs at the table (this place seemingly only fit four, and with the four of us seated we were a little confused how Taiki would join us).

Before we could figure anything out, another room opened up from the dining room and out poured three French-Canadians. Eventually we managed to scrounge up five stools, and in all we had Taiki, Shogo (the owner), Jared, Tamiya, Zach, Mic, Jenn, Josh and I sharing steaming hot plates of okonomiyaki drenched in mayonnaise and a Worcester BBQ sauce. The pancake itself is composed of cabbage, meat, egg, and a plethora of spring onions. It is absolutely delicious, but its also fried, so Josh and I were still craving fresh veggies.

Jared and Tamiya shared two bottles of sake, Shogo one of his own, and then Josh and I shared our sake and wine and four hours later the nine of us had taught one another English, some Japanese, various sarcastic jokes, discussed tips on dating, and shared travel stories. It was an incredibly warm and convivial evening.

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