Sunday, June 3, 2012

Kyoto, Japan Part One: Geishas and Gold

Kyoto is overflowing with sights that have profound historical value. UNESCO seems to agree greatly with this statement as they've designated no fewer than seventeen sights as fit to bear the title of a world heritage sight. I think there was immeasurable draw to Kyoto for both Bri and myself. We hadn't had a vacation in quite some time, and Kyoto really seemed to possess all the qualities we were looking for on a trip during our precious long weekend. We debated visiting Taiwan's capital, Taipei, but decided we had seen enough concrete in the Seoul area. Instead, it was off to Japan's ancient capital, which withholds a mecca of pleasure gardens and lush greenery. Tokyo left a pleasant taste in our mouths, but we were looking to see what else we could stomach when it came to Japanese culture. To be honest, I think we were both feeling a little drained from work as well. At times, it can get a little discouraging to teach in Korea. Although, at times it can get discouraging to do just about anything for a long period of time. That being said, the connection I've made with some of my Korean students has been priceless. Today, for example, I was teaching my higher level students the story Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett, and it made for an excellent class. Also, I love my "minions" around the school that never hesitate to say hello. Overall, it's been wonderful, but it can certainly drain your energy, slowly but surely.

I don't like to generalize, but I feel as if Japan has more of an open mind, and that relates specifically to the presence of foreigners. I felt incredibly welcomed within Japan, and that's not always the case within ultra homogenous Korea. For example, a few days ago, a news story appeared from a major mainstream Korean news source, MBC (Munwha Broadcasting Corporation), that was deeply disheartening. The segment was titled, "The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners", and it is really nothing more than blatant stereotyping and racism. At the end of the video, I wasn't even sure what I was supposed to take from it, other than my presence in this country is utterly unwelcome as a white male foreigner. I have a profound appreciation for Korea, but sometimes I wonder how reciprocal those feelings are. Nonetheless, it was off to Japan for what would turn out to be a few of the most remarkable days I've yet to experience on this varied and vivacious planet.

World Heritage Shimogamo-jinja, Kyoto, Japan
The relatively painless flight between Korea and Japan landed us in Osaka around 4 in the afternoon. We quickly regrouped and hopped on the JR Express line which would take us to Kyoto in around 75 minutes, which isn't too bad all things considered. Out the window I noticed young Japanese sports enthusiasts testing their skills on dirt covered urban baseball diamonds. There are few things I appreciate more than letting the train guide my thoughts. It reminds me of Alain De Botton's novel The Art of Travel, where he notes that, "at the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have returned to ourselves - that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us." A little later on in the book he coins a phrase I quite appreciate. He remarks that, "journeys are the midwives of thought." I'd like to think he's onto something, and arriving at Kyoto Station, I felt even further convinced. I don't think ultra modern Kyoto Station is what I envisioned arriving in the ancient capital, but I'm all for surprises, and this was certainly an impressive surprise.

I understand there was some backlash when this was first built, as it doesn't really mesh so well with Kyoto's past. However, I'm a strong believer in building a quality transportation hub in your city. It's efficient, logical, and accomplishes exactly that. It's one the country's largest buildings, and the second largest train station in Japan, while somehow managing to produce the feeling that, based on busyness, it should be even larger. Kyoto immediately felt more "Japanese" than Tokyo, if I can even say that without sounding slightly ridiculous. It was a little less tourist friendly, but once we figured out the bus system, it turned out to be a breeze. I believe both Bri and I were relishing the fact that it was a little disorienting when we first arrived in rush hour, which is something we hadn't experienced for quite some time, and perhaps not at all in Tokyo. I think if you can master Seoul's vast network of transportation, then you're likely to be well off in any other city in the planet when it comes to navigation. I'd like to think Bri and I have done that in some way or another. Once we oriented ourselves post-disorientation, we embarked on the short journey to Kawaramachi Station, which would lead us only minutes away from our hostel.

We stayed at Khaosan Kyoto Hostel, and it boasted an outstanding location. It's consistently ranked among the top hostels in Asia, and provided all the amenities and more. Strangely, I found Khaosan Kabuki Hostel in Tokyo to be better overall, although public opinion on the internet doesn't seem to agree with me. We dropped off our bags, locked up our valuables, then jetted out the door just as the light was fading from the sky. I was half expecting to be surrounded by neon lights (like in Tokyo, and Korea at large) but was pleasantly surprised that Kyoto has placed restrictions on such practices (although they were still present). Instead, traditional lanterns hung in droves, and illuminated the narrow streets of nearby Pontocho with simplistic perfection. 

Pontocho is primarily known for its wide variety of traditional tea houses, restaurants, and geisha houses. It is a gorgeous entertainment district of sorts, and has been since at least the 16th century. The forms of entertainment are known to vary quite a bit, and some would say that not all these forms of entertainment would be suitable for your family. If that subtle hint wasn't taken immediately to heart, then I can it make it a little more clear by saying that one of the supposed forms of entertainment rhymes with "bostitution." If you didn't get that not-so-subtle hint, then there's no helping you. The main tourist draw for many people on an evening stroll is spotting a geisha. There's only one district where your luck might be even better - Gion District. Gion is one of the foremost geisha districts on the planet. It's much larger and more renowned than Pontocho, and has been around since the middle ages. The city of Kyoto has recently been working on a massive restoration project on this district, and it seems to be paying its dividends. I should quickly note what exactly being a geisha constitutes. It's a common misconception that these women are prostitutes, but actually they are female entertainers who are often highly skilled at performing traditional Japanese arts. They have been popularized in the novel and film Memoirs of a Geisha, and often will look something like this.

Gion District appeared to have fairy dust sprinkled all over it. That is to say, there was a sense of magic around those dimly lit streets. The Shirakawa Canal reflected the soft lighting of the restaurants and there were geishas galore for our Saturday night stroll. We were tempted to get our photo taken with one, but it seemed to be a little too invasive, and generally lacking in respect. Thus, we admired from a distance, albeit a close distance. In a narrow alley, we spotted a quaint looking traditional restaurant just off of the Shirakawa Canal. We took our shoes off and headed in, noting with excitement that it was a Teppanyaki restaurant, meaning that our table was essentially an iron griddle ready and willing to cook our dinner. Eventually we decided to get some udon noodles with vegetables, accompanied by an Okonomyaki Japanese pancake. This type of pancake is famous in the Kansai area (primarily constituting the cities of Osaka and Kyoto), and isn't quite like the pancakes your mom made you for breakfast this morning. The batter is made of flour, grated Japanese yams, water, eggs, shredded cabbage, green onion, and generally your choice of meat. Both dishes we chose were very flavourful, and bore an underlying sweetness, which was a change from Korea's spicy cuisine.

Vegetable Udon Noodles
Beef Okonomiyaki Pancake
With our bellies full and spirits high, we embarked on the final walk of the evening that would lead us back to our hostel. Of course, as per usual, an unscheduled detour was in the cards, so we actually ended up taking in the sights of Yasaka-Jinja. This shrine is widely considered to be the "guardian shrine of Kyoto," and most of it was constructed in the 17th century. The west gate, with which I was most impressed, precedes the construction of the rest of the complex. We happened to stumble upon a theater troupe practicing for an upcoming performance, which only added to the authentic and eventful evening we were already experiencing.

It was only a short walk from here to our hostel. Talk about a good location. After drinking a few Asahi, and possibly a Sapporo as well, we decided to call it an early night. We didn't have much time to see this treasury of cultural heritage, so it would take a well planned Sunday to accomplish everything we were hoping to. I believe we did a phenomenal job, and I can't recall a day that I've been busier in recent memory. Before I sign off from this post, I'll tell you about the first place that we visited on that Sunday to rule all Sundays. After a relatively miserable sleep, I awoke to my alarm in surprisingly high spirits. We were showered, smelling fresh, and had a cup of coffee in our hands by eight in the morning. It's easy to motivate yourself to wake up when you're anticipating a visit Kyoto's famous "Golden Pavilion."

Kinkaku-Ji. Also known as "The Golden Pavilion."
We arrived before the sight was even opened, but so did the rest of Japan. Hundreds upon hundreds of people lined up out front of the gates, largely consisting of school groups. Humorously enough, the school groups had an assignment to practice their English with foreigners, so we were quite popular while everyone was waiting in line. Once the gates were opened, it was a literal mad dash to beat the throngs of students and snap a few good photos devoid of other people. As the above photo suggests, we were successful in our endeavours, but it wasn't long before the complex was absolutely swarming with people. Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Buddhist Temple in Kyoto, and arguably the most popular sight in the city. The history of this temple dates back to the 14th century, when it was purchased by a shogun as a villa. It was converted to a temple shortly afterwards. During the Onin War, a civil war of the 15th century, all of the buildings in the complex, but luckily not the pavilion. However, in 1950 a young monk who was apparently mentally unstable and incredibly obsessed with the pavilion lit the pavilion on fire. This famous story has been fictionalized in a book by Yukio Mishima, and is appropriately titled The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. I've actually just added that book to my "to-read" list (only 168 books long) on Goodreads, so I'll be looking to read it in the near future. The building had to be rebuilt in 1955 as close to the original as possible. There is some question as to whether extra gold coating was added for visual stimulation, but even if it was, the temple today is a stunning spectacle.

Walking towards Ryoan-ji at around 10 in the morning, I suspected there was a lot on the horizon for that day. The sun was shining overhead, and the sky was clearer than glass. In the second installment of Kyoto, I'll be sure to tell you all about it. For now, I'm going relish in the pleasant weather in Korea right now. I find myself in an open cafe in Jukjeon with my computer on the table, A Kurt Vonnegut novel beside it, and a cool breeze politely whisking the day away.

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