In some ways, the biggest victory was just getting to the start. It’s true sometimes for a marathon race and it was definitely true this morning as we struggled to find the South side of the Kyoto Avanti shopping mall that was the meeting point for the start of our city tour. Nonetheless, we persisted.
Much like the hotel I booked, this all-day tour was highly rated. I’m beginning to think one can’t trust the internet. At the end of the day, we saw some cool things but here’s the comment I would make if I were so inclined to post a review on the travel site: it was too darn big a group. Oddly, when you write a review for those aggregator travel sites there’s an odd, almost Rule 19 of the Senate thing going on — you’re not allowed to go into TOO many specifics as apparently they want to keep the reviews anonymous. Or at least, that’s what they told me the time I tried to write about my personal experience with a supplier a few years back. I was very careful to word the review that this was my opinion based on my own experiences and it may have been a case of Murphy’s Law… but I was also very clear in that case about the unacceptable nature of the experience for me as a human being.
No such extremes in this case, but the reality is we were a full bus of tourists with a single tour guide. Her name was Psycho (though I suspect spelled differently) and she made several jokes about the name and her non-relation to Norman Bates; Psycho was apparently a descedent of samurai and doctors who served the Shogun and Emperor throughout the centuries. She was very nice but she made what I would call four egregious mistakes for a tour guide:
- The bus was full yet she always had to do a count with a clicker to make sure she had everyone. Hint # 1: If there’s an empty seat on a full bus, you’re missing someone. No need to do the count.
- When providing narration and information at sites, Psycho would wear a portable personal address microphone. But she would be at the front of the group, leading us, with her back to us, and the amplified sound of her voice therefore had ZERO chance of reaching any of us not within arm’s length.
- With 50+ people, it’s hard to be arm’s length; ergo, A LOT of information was missed or never communicated due to space and time.
- When leading 50+ people through throngs of OTHER tourists, it was very easily to get separated in traffic and get left behind. Psycho would really only do a head count at the end of the site visit, thus one could be separated from the tour for the ENTIRE segment without her ever realizing it.
A lot of this may have been a cost-cutting maneuver on the tour company’s part and Psycho may have been saddled with a tough situation; she did perhaps as well as she could under such circumstances. I only wish she had been able to do better. Quibbles, mayhaps, but considering this wasn’t the cheapest tour in the Far East (nor to be fair was it the most expensive as a private tour would have been), I still felt like, I dunno, it could’ve been better.
So I’d give the tour a grade of C…BD — could’ve been better.
But enough of that — it’s the photos you came here to see. And despite the overcast, dreary, spitting rain morning and afternoon, we did what we could to shoot some decent shots. So here goes:
The morning tour consisted of three site visits — the Nijo-Jo Castle (the Shogun’s Castle), the Golden Pavilion Temple, and the Old Imperial Palace. The afternoon tour was all about religion and shrines — Buddhist and Shinto shrines.
We start then at the Nijo-Jo Castle:
Psycho told us if we stayed a month we’d be able to enjoy the cherry blossoms. But since it’s the middle of February, we saw this:
To me the most interesting thing about the Shogun’s Castle had to be the nightingale floors. They were so named as the metal rods in the floorboards squeak like the songbird when one walks, serving as a rudimentary alarm system for intruders. Ninjas couldn’t sneak in without the boards whistling. Apparently this security system was only in common reception areas; the shogun apparently wasn’t too worried about his friends or family which seems… shortsighted to me.
I only have photos of the external grounds as photographs weren’t allowed indoors. But it’s a nifty place, originally having been built in the 17th century. Again, I didn’t completely understand Psycho but I thought she said the surrounding wall was built in the 700s when Kyoto was founded… I think I have a hard time hearing the word “wall” now without cringing in embarrassment over contemporary plans for the US/Mexican border.
I should note for historical fun facts that this castle was also where the 15th and final Shogun in 1868 gave back his authority and power to the Emperor and ended feudalism in Japan. This act ushered in the Meiji Restoration and opened Japan’s borders and trade, ending isolationist policies and leading to modernization and industrialization.
The Golden Pavilion is a Zen temple that apparently was visited by Steven Jobs (Psycho kept calling him Steven) and his long lost daughter. There’s apparently some famous photo of the two of them there. She strongly encouraged us to take our own Steven Jobs selfie, and so I did as I was told:
She kept pushing the Steven Jobs connection but I never really understood too much about the place proper. As I type this, a quick google search tells me:
Kinkakuji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion) is a Zentemple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.
Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond, and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.
Besides Steven Jobs visiting, Golden Pavilion was also important according to Psycho because of the 600 year old pine tree cut to look like a giant Banzai and evoking a ship sailing the seas. You gotta be at the right angle — hopefully I snapped it here:
And this by the way is the answer to the age old question: What’s the backside of the Golden Pavilion look like?
Mom opted to skip the climbing walkthrough and maybe that was for the best. A large continent of school kids sporting green hats marched along and the paths were a little narrow and steep; to me it felt like we were walking through the Swiss Family Robinson/Tarzan treehouse at a Disney Theme Park.
I did love seeing this though — Comb the desert? Nonsense! But sweeping the forest? That we can do!
The Old Imperial Palace was a leftover seat of power from Kyoto’s capital days — 794 to 1869. The building still is used from time to time by he emperor when he’s in town, albeit he’s 80 something and has asked to abdicate as he doesn’t feel up to the official role requirements. This is a huge deal as it requires altering the rules that say an emperor is emperor for life. It also means a new calendar as in Japan when a new emperor comes to power, so too does a new timeline calendar.
A buffet lunch at a handicraft marketplace proved surprisingly tasty. And there was a samurai sword shop across the street that Marg Helgenberger apparently loves.
The afternoon brought three quick visits to religious shrines, none lasting more than about 45 minutes. It was a whirlwind run past sacred artifacts, many of which we weren’t allowed to snap photos of. But here’s a short-short recap:
The first stop of the PM was the HEIJAN-JINGU SHRINE, a Shinto space complete with giant Torii gate (orange by the way is apparently the preferred color of Shintoism, not red as I always thought it was).
Again, Psycho wasn’t great at keeping the whole group informed so this is what the internet says:
Heian Shrine (平安神宮, Heian Jingū) has a relatively short history, dating back just over a hundred years to 1895. The shrine was built on the occasion of the 1100th anniversary of the capital’s foundation in Kyoto and is dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors who reigned from the city, Emperor Kammu (737-806) and Emperor Komei (1831-1867). Heian is the former name of Kyoto.
From there it was a short bus ride to Sanjusangen-do. Here Psycho warned us that the Buddhist Monks are super scary and if you were caught snapping a photo your camera would be confiscated and destroyed and you’d be hauled off to jail. Given the signage posted inside, I don’t think she was exaggerating. I of course couldn’t take any photos of the signs but trust me — they were explicit in their warnings.
And it’s kind of a shame I couldn’t snap a picture of the visually stunning statue room. Here arranged in neat rows are 500 Buddha statutes, a large Buddha at the middle, and then another 500 Buddhas, making for 1001 Buddhas. They apparently clean them every 50 years but it’s a tough process. Due to their sacred spirits, and the fact that there’s a living force within each Buddha statue, the monks have to perform a special ceremony to send the spirit off into the universe; once the spirits are out of the statues, they can be cleaned and once they are cleaned, the monks have to perform another ceremony to bring the spirit life force back into their tangible houses. On top of that, three of the 1001 Buddhas are on traveling display — one in Kyoto, one in Tokyo, and one out and about, all part of a marketing and financial plan to help keep the temple solvent. But what that means is that though we were promised 1001 statues, we really only saw 998. What a rip-off.
Here’s an image from the web though:
The final tour stop was at Kiyomizu Temple, a Shinto temple with a plethora of pagodas nestled on the top of a steep hillside. Things went sideways on this excursion as Psycho did little to keep sight of us as she took the hill with all the care of George Pickett at Gettysburg — she was charging ahead and consequences be damned. But much like that crazed effort of the Civil War, the casualties were many as we tried to keep pace. For one thing, the hillside was steeper than anything else we’d done all day. For another, tourists were swarming about, browsing the various marketplace stalls and noshing on the Green Tea ice cream that seemed to be on offer at every other stand. Mom and I split up as she didn’t want to do any more damage to her knee or back that had really been bothering her post 17+ hour flight times. Psycho was little to no help, telling us that we should just follow the people to make the circuit of the hilltop — except there were multiple routes and the people split into multiple directions once we passed the turnstiles. Eventually I guess we all wound up at the same spot but there was a way to see some things along the way and a way to just hustle through and I’m not sure which version I experienced. Given the crowds, I was just glad to get out of there.
On the walk back to the bus, Mom and I did enjoy a Green Tea cone. We also stopped for a few, oh, let’s call them B-roll shots, things to give some detail and atmosphere to the proceedings.
There’s a few odds and ends I could relay here but honestly it’s been a long day of tourism and like Major Tom, here I am sitting in my tin can of a capsule hotel, far above the world. I’m tired and there’s nothing I can do… except wrap this up with a shot of Mom and me at an Udon place where we had a pretty good dinner.
Tomorrow: The Kyoto Marathon Expo and hopefully a rickshaw through the Bamboo Forest and a stroll through the Geisha district.