Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Japan: Nara; Kyoto wrapup

(Written Sunday night, posted Tuesday morning.)

We're safely in Yokohama, having spent a day in Nara and a day and a bit in Kyoto since last I wrote. This is going to be even longer than usual as a result.

Also, I am very tired, but wanted to write before even more time passed, so if I make any egregious typing mistakes, please feel free to ask me what I actually meant.


Friday we went to Nara, about an hour away from Kyoto by train. Actually first we went past Nara to Ikaruga, to see Hôryû-ji.

I need to say two things about this day here. First, details are already fading. Second, the principal things we saw were buildings and statues (If I mis-type statutes for statues, forgive me; I do that *all the time*. I mean the pieces of 3D art, not codified laws.) And most of the statues had minimal explanatory text. So not only are those details particularly fading, but I was less enthusiastic about them. I like art, but with the context to help me appreciate it.

Hôryû-ji's grounds contain some very old buildings, dating from the mid-6th to early 8th centuries. What I principally remember is that this was the start of our collection of fabulous roof ornaments, starting with a figure holding up a roof beam and continuing with many different things on the corners of temple and gate roofs. Chad took *lots* of pictures and I anticipate a Flickr set in the future.

There is also a museum with art, which I don't remember much about now.

We then went to Chugu-ji because it was right next door, but we could have skipped it. All it has is a famous statue of Nyoirin Kannon sitting in a half-crossed-leg position looking contemplative. (One of the buildings is undergoing renovation, but the brochure doesn't mention anything else.)

And *then* we went to Nara.

Which is famous for its sacred deer, messengers for a Shinto deity IIRC. They are everywhere, are used to tourists buying packets of cracker-y things and feeding them, and will make pests of themselves if they see that you've been foolish enough to buy them food. I did. I couldn't resist. The woman who sold me the crackers mimed putting them in a fold of her shirt and wouldn't give me them until I indicated understanding. In this way I successfully got past the deer hanging out at the cart, but once I started handing the food out, I had deer literally eating out of my hands--when I would have been happy to respectfully lay the food on the ground in front of them.

So, deer everywhere. We got some good pictures out of it, at least. And they are cute.

We started the more cultural part of the sightseeing at Kohfuku-ji, originally established by the Fujiwaras, burnt down in the post-Fujiwara war, and then rebuilt by the victors. This also had a museum, with some really awesome guardian statues; according to the brochure before me, one of them is Tentoki carrying a lantern (in case Google is useful), and his partner has a snake around his neck and a positively indescribable expression on his face. They had *personality*, and as we found ourselves saying fairly often about the art, personality goes a long way.

Then we went to Tôdai-ji, which houses Vairocana Buddha (the Great Buddha). Which is very big and not particularly interesting, as all the guidebooks say. Also, Tôdai-ji is crowded like whoa. One of the accompanying fierce guardians is holding an ink brush as though it were a weapon, though, which I thought was good.

Then a wander through the woods, what the tourist map calls the "Kasugayama Primeval Forest," which are pleasant and shady and quiet. We ended up at Kasuga Taisha, a very old Shinto shrine, which was an interesting change of pace--unless my memory has completely failed me, that was our first shrine. It is notable for its many, many lanterns--about 3,000, according to the brochure. There is an associated museum which was having an exhibition on two classic dance forms, Bugaku and Kagura, displaying costumes, masks, and drums.

We ended the day at Shin-Yakushi-ji, which was founded in 747 and *never burned down*, which those familiar with Japanese history will recognize as a rare thing. The Buddha and accompanying twelve divine generals are also 8th c., similarly a rare thing. As this may suggest, this was principally notable for its age, though the building and statues were enjoyable--the statues in particular were old enough to still have personality, before the move to very stylilized ways of portraying Buddhist figures.

I should also mention, having talked about bad food experiences, that we had a very enjoyable dinner in the Kyoto train station that night, at a kushikatsu place, which is basically food deep-fried on sticks, brought out to you one at a time. We had a set and then ordered a la carte--dangerous, as it probably doubled the bill--and I came out feeling very satisfied.

_Northwest Kyoto_

On Saturday we visited Northwest Kyoto, which was a day of contrasts. Also long.

First we went to Daitoku-ji, a famous Zen monastary filled with subtemples. Only four are currently open to the public, and all are worth visiting.

Ryogen-in has five famous Zen gardens. Two are just rocks and sand, which I'm afraid I am insufficiently enlightened to appreciate. (I did make an effort to contemplate the meanings suggested by the guidebooks and the signs. Really.) There's also one garden with an island of moss among the sand, and two dry landscape gardens using all moss as a base for the rocks. I was able to appreciate these more, but all of them were worth seeing.

Zuihô-in has two gardens designed in the 1960s. One has deeply furrowed sand, tall pointed stones, and hedges defining a corner; it's surprisingly energetic and I really liked it. The stones of the other are set up as a stealth cross, in honor of the founder who converted to Christianity shortly before it was outlawed in Japan.

Koto-in is a nice contrast, being set in woods and much greener than the other two. The English brochure is skimpy and the English labels are, IIRC, nonexistent. It does contain the graves of Hosokawa Tadaoki and his wife, Gracia or Gratia. The brochure mentions that Gracia was a Catholic at a time when the religion was outlawed, but omits that, according to one of our guidebooks, she was killed on her husband's orders during a battle so that she would not be captured by his enemies.

Oh, and on the way, we passed what appeared to be a monastic shift change: two lines of monks came chanting to a temple from either side, and then a similarly-numbered set that had been standing on the outside steps went away in another line. It was 10:15 in the morning, if that means anything to anyone.

Finally for Daitoku-ji, Daisen-in has a number of gardens, including one famous enough that this and only this sub-temple got big crowds mid-morning on an August Saturday. These were Zen in the classic style, one just two big cones of sand, and some dry landscape ones that were quite interesting--a bit like the first sub-temples, but with more sand and a different flow.

And then for something *completely* different, we went to Kinkaku, the Golden Pavilion. This temple was apparently originally intended to have its top two stories covered in gold leaf, but money ran out. However, when a disaffected monk burnt it down in 1950, it was rebuilt exactly, and this time with the gold on the top two (of three) stories. It is absolutely ridiculous. And crowded. There are wooded gardens behind which are nice enough.

After lunch, we did yet more temples:

Ryoan-ji has another very famous Zen garden, which is of the minimalist rock-sand-leetle bit of moss type. (One of the guidebooks claims that it is designed so that one of the rocks is always hidden from view; maybe it meant from inside the building.) It also has a nice walk around a pond.

Ninna-ji has a number of gardens, including one with a waterfall we really liked, and a very nice set of paintings done by Domoto Insho in 1937.

Taizo-in has a very famous painting called "Catching Cat-Fish with a Gourd," which I believe was not actually on display and was more of historic than artistic interest to me anyway. It also has a nice garden with an extensive waterfall/pond arrangement.


We went to Gion that night. First we had dinner at an eel place called Matsuno, mentioned by both guidebooks. I had eel donburi (eel over rice with a dark, thick, sweet sauce), which was fine. Then we walked around for a while, seeing a few geishas and many people taking pictures of the geishas, until it was time to buy a ticket for Gion Corner, which does Cliff-notes versions of traditional Kyoto performing arts (loosely defined).

Gion Corner absolutely knows its market and caters to it, as witness the annoucement that photographs *are* permitted. Which unfortunately gave some of the audience license to be amazingly rude, like the woman who kept standing for *ages* to take pictures, either not realizing or caring that we were behind her.

Anyway, we saw: a tea ceremony; koto music; flower arranging (!); and then four more dramatic performances. Gagaku is court music that originated in China during the T'ang dynasty and was particularly popular with the Heian aristocracy. It was accompanied by dance that was apparently supposed to evoke triumph, which I didn't really get from it.

At least that wasn't obviously specifically symbolic, unlike Kyomai, a Kyoto-style dance. The one we saw was apparently supposed to evoke a young woman's changing love life, with references to the four seasons. I got the strong feeling while watching that every action carried a specific meaning, but heck if I could tell what, and the headsets and program did not translate.

They did give enough plot information for the two dramas, however, that I could enjoy them. The first was a comic play, Kyogen, which was very slapsticky but with wonderfully expressive and appealing actors.

The second was Bunraku, a puppet play. I was vaguely expecting strings, but no, the puppet was manipulated by three black-clad people on-stage, two wearing executioner's hoods and one (the master) with a bare head. Seeing the master's face was distracting sometimes, but other times the puppet's movements were surprisingly effective. I was particularly impressed by the way they had the puppet climb a tower's ladder.

(In a lovely bit of classism, the program asserts that "The reason why Bunraku was so popular in Osaka [the biggest commercial city in Japan in the 16th c.] is its vivid and dynamic life of the merchants required interesting and melodramatic entertainment rather than a more sophisticated type.")

_Fushimi Inari_

This morning we went to Fushimi Inari, a Shinto shrine to the deity of rice, sake, and luck, which we really enjoyed. It's famous for its thousands of toriithe red gates that look like pi symbols. They form tunnels, are stacked up in front of sub-shrines, and are very impressive. I will say, for the benefit of future visitors, that the effect can be sufficiently appreciated on the flat path immediately behind the main buildings. Unless one requires a serious cardiovascular workout or has reason to visit more sub-shrines, taking the uphill paths (which *keep* going uphill) is not necessary.

Inari's messengers are stone foxes, which are all over the place, guarding sub-shrines. I desparately wanted a non-twee set as a souvenir and had almost despaired (there were stone ones, but for $150, and the painted ceramic ones weren't quite right) when Chad spotted a metal set. I was very pleased, and quite revived from the uphill climbing.


After showers and last-minute packing, we took the shinkansen to Yokahama, where we're settled for the next week and a half, including Worldcon.

We're in the Royal Park, located in the top quarter or so of the Landmark Tower. It's further from the con space and a bit more expensive, but it promised an actual large bed, which we couldn't be sure any of the closer hotels had. (And we booked through Expedia which was a savings over the con rate.) They upgraded us for free, it being the slow season, and we have this absolutely ridiculous corner room now. If you look up at the Tower and see a round window next to a long set of windows? That's the kind of room we have. The round window is in the bathroom, and the long window, to just past the buliding's angle, is our view. The bath is big enough for Chad to stretch out in, to give an additional idea of the scale. We keep walking in and saying, "*so* *ridiculous*." And it is.

The rest of the afternoon was unfortunately marred by getting really lost on the way to a coin laundry, and then by my lack of mosquito repellent while I was doing the laundry. However, now we have clean clothes, and next time I will either find a dry-cleaner than does clothes by the kilo or wear long sleeves. And a neck scarf.

Oh, and some interesting articles in the _Japan Times_ this morning:

* In the village of Inakadate, farmers have been planting different varieties of rice to form replicas of famous artworks. This year they did one of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. It's really impressive and charming.

* Interview with Stephen Hunter, who describes his thriller _The 47th Samurai_ as "a rebuke to [_The Last Samurai_ movie] and to the 'White Samurai' genre," in that his white protagonist doesn't become a kick-ass swordfighter and (I think) isn't the center of the story. He also mentions his efforts to not trivialize the Japanese setting. I am half tempted to check it out of the library now.

* Review of _Japanese Love Hotels: A Cultural History_, by Sarah Chaplin. The review is not particularly insightful about the book, but gives the impression that it lives up to its title.

Oh, and finally, a tip for you when making your travel arrangements.
1) When booking hotels, make sure that all your hotel days *overlap*, that is, do not leave Kyoto on Saturday and check in to Yokohama on Sunday, because where exactly did you think you were going to sleep Saturday night?

2) When checking in while jet-lagged to hell and gone, do not automatically say "yes" when the person at the reception desk asks if you are staying X nights. Ask for the _date_ they have you leaving, and thus mistakes in your reservation will be caught much sooner than the day before you *think* you're leaving, when your key card suddenly does not work.

(Fortunately the hotel was not crowded and just extended our stay.)

ETA: pictures from these days at http://pics.livejournal.com/kate_nepveu/gallery/00039kd9
ETA: Chad's full Flickr sets for these days at http://www.flickr.com/photos/11070535@N08/sets/72157601988537735/ ; http://www.flickr.com/photos/11070535@N08/sets/72157602125312018/ ; and http://www.flickr.com/photos/11070535@N08/sets/72157602174137719/

Tags: japan 2007, trips

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