Ah, Kyoto, the thousand year capital, the city of two thousand temples. Speaking to my Israeli audience, Kyoto is to Tokyo what Jerusalem is to Tel Aviv. The latter is a bustling, 24-7, hyper-modern metropolis and a youth cultural center, the former is more elegant and spiritual, filled with the air of history and tradition. In Kyoto, one can wander amid exquisite gardens and tour serene Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines simply by walking the streets. Kimonos are a regular sight and in certain districts it is not uncommon to cross paths with a geisha or witness a monk procession.
Over the centuries, Kyoto was destroyed by many wars and fires, but thankfully it was dropped from the list of target cities for the atomic bomb in WWII due to its historic value, and spared from air raids as well. It is the ancient imperial capital of Japan, with more than 1200 years of history, and it is largely preserved.
Most of my first day in Kyoto was spent in the company of Arthur, a contemplative Brazilian guy I met in the previous night in the Ryokan I was at. Of all the places I stayed at, this was by far the most social (more on this later).
Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion
Kyoto is a large city, and divided into distant areas. It took us nearly an hour to get to the sights each day. Straight after breakfast we headed to eastern Kyoto, starting with Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. It was built in 1482, and it was around that time (and area) that many arts that are nowadays identified with Japan (such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement and garden design) were developed and refined.
[This image is from www.kanpai-japan.com – it was too crowded to take a good picture when I was there]
In a very tightly scheduled day, I sure did take my time in the garden. It was the first sophisticated garden that I’ve been to, and as was evident by the end of the trip – Japanese gardens are like drugs to me – I can’t bring myself to leave them.
Japanese gardens derive their beauty from a mixing and blending of different elements:
4) ornaments such as lanterns, water basins (tsukubai), and bamboo fences
5) natural plants and surroundings
The design of the Japanese gardens is based on three basic principles, reduced scale, symbolization, and borrowed view. Gardens in reduced scale represent famous scenes and places in small and confined spaces. Mountain views and rivers are miniaturized using stones, sand and gravel. Symbolization is used in almost every Japanese garden. Raked sand or gravel symbolizes rivers, groupings of stones and rock can represent islands. Shakkei or borrowed view is the use of existing scenery and plants to supplement the garden. The garden design is made in such a way that the existing scenery becomes part of the total design.
From Ginkakuji we headed to Nanzenji temple via the Philospher’s Path, a 2km trail that follows a canal and is lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Along the path we stopped at amazing restraunts and caffes, many of them with their own little gardens and shrines.
We couldn’t resist stopping for a tea and cake break in this place:
Moving from temple to temple and absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the city, we soon lost track of the time of day or our intended path. We followed the stream of people and Kimonos and discovered a lively domestic tourism culture, with many Japanese children and teenagers exploring Kyoto for the first time, as wide eyed as we were.
Ha, now this is a picture with a story behind it. This right here is a class of girls, out on a field trip. The pleasant gentleman in the top left of the frame is their English teacher, and he is taking them to meet some real to life gai-jins (foreigners). Luckily, they aren’t hard to come by in Kyoto, and so they picked the most handsome one they could find to ask some questions.
Teacher: Hello, sir. We are a school class learning English. Would you mind talking to us a little and answering some questions about yourself?
Me: Actually, I was on my way to see some more of your wonderful temples, but this sounds so fun and I would love to talk to you guys.
Teacher: Thank you! First, we would like to introduce ourselves. *encourages the children in Japanese*
Smallest one, hiding behind the teacher: “My name is… Yuna”
Me: “Hello Yuna! It is very nice to meet you! I am Eddie Smolansky.”
The rest introduced themselves as well, each giving their best effort to pronounce my name correctly.
Teacher: Can you tell us please, where you are from? And I will translate for the children.
Me: I am from a far, far away place. A very small piece of land where the continent of Asia, Africa and Europe come together. It’s called Israel, and it has an ancient history. Our history goes back 3.5 thousand years, and we are the first Abrahamic religion – from it were also born Christianity and Islam.”
As the teacher translated, the children made very explicit surprised sounds. I think they were being polite 🙂
The conversation went on, back and forth, for a quarter of an hour or so. I tried not to confuse them with the difference between Israelis and Jews, I told them that my favorite local food was Hummus, that Jerusalem is our capital city and sacred for three religions, that we have a very salty lake where you can just float on the water, and that like them we are a very high-tech nation with many neat gadgets. As we spoke, I showed them images of everything I described on my phone.
I couldn’t help but notice that the children didn’t actually learn any English, as everything was conveniently translated to them, and when I went off script with some basic questions about their country (“why are some of your books written from left to right, while others go from top to bottom?”) they didn’t know the answers, sometimes even the teacher. It’s a topic for another day, but I feel that there are some distinct advantages and disadvantages to the Japanese education system.
Anyway, as I was saying my farewells, the small one gave me a high five, which prompted the rest of them to swarm me with high fives, and my day was that much better.
Girls in Japan just love to pose, an essay in two photographs:
Dinner in Gion
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. It is filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where geiko (geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) entertain.
I was chasing the sunlight all day, and gave up lunch in favor of seeing more of the sights while the light was good. So by 8pm, when I finally settled down long enough to realize that I was hungry, I was actually starving. Thinking with my stomach I walked into a Shabu Shabu restaurant, attracted by a sign promising an all you can eat menu of the highest quality meat. I was certain I could get my money’s worth.
Man, this establishment was fancy. I was very much out of place in my travel clothes, but the staff treated me with Japanese levels of grace and respect, which means I felt like a king, and gently instructed me by example on how to properly eat the dish (see video below). I didn’t buy the Kobe beef, which is considered some of the finest beef in the world, but I ordered an all-you-can eat dish of their second best meat. And It… Was…. Good.
On final count, I ate about 1kg of meat that night. Judging by their reactions, I figured some of the staff were betting on me, and that I surpassed expectations.
Obligatory evening selfie:
Japan days 4, 5: Fuji Q Highland, Fuji Five Lakes
Japan day 6: Eastern Kyoto [You are here]
Japan day 7: Kyoto – Arashiyama on a bicycle with Yas