Monday, October 01, 2007


Shops were filled with t-shirts that said "I Love Kyoto". Although I would never buy something so touristy, I fully share the sentiment. I had a wonderful time in Kyoto; it's a beautiful city and the people seem so elegant and refined. I was occasionally lulled into the idea that I had plenty of time to see everything I wanted to and other times I was keenly aware that 6 days was insufficient to see all that Kyoto holds. I approached my week as a leisurely vacation rather than as an ambitious trip and still managed to see the major sites.

Imperial Palace

Shrine; woman ringing bell

A stereotype about travel in Japan is that everything is very expensive. It is true that traveling in Japan is more of a strain on the wallet than going to other Asian countries. The filling lunch in China that costs a couple of dollars might cost nearly ten in Japan. But on a more international scale, my expenditures were on par with what I’d face in Paris or London. (Though maybe traveling in Paris and London right now would seem like more of a shock because of the terrible exchange rate. The Korean Won- Japanese Yen exchange rate is currently favorable.) Entrance fees to temples and shrines reached 5 dollars at times, but it was clear that the money was well spent on restoration and maintenance. An all-day bus pass was $4.50 and the 90 minutes train ride from the airport to Kyoto was $25. The train fare seemed like a lot to me, but I was delighted with the service. The airport train bound for Kyoto was waiting on the tracks but everyone was standing neatly in a line outside the doors. Why? Well someone has to clean the train of course! Attendants went into the cars armed with vacuums, dusters and trash bins to clean the cars before the next set of passengers got on. The seats also mechanically turned the other direction so no one would be riding backwards. The Taiwanese woman standing behind me agreed that this was quite impressive. I consistently found Japanese service to be impeccable, although I get the sense that good service is a Japanese way and is not used to validate high prices.

I stayed in two hostels in Kyoto. The second hostel had a reasonably priced single room but was unavailable for my first two nights. I thoroughly enjoyed having my own room but I liked the social atmosphere of the first hostel better. On the first evening alone, I met people from Germany, France, Taiwan, Italy and Korea. I was surprised to find a young Korean woman traveling alone since this was an important holiday week in Korea. She said her family didn’t know that she was in Japan! She lied to her father and told him that she had too much work to do and couldn’t come home. I met Katri, a wonderful Finnish woman, on my second night and we established our friendship by going to a traditional Japanese bathhouse. Since I would be at a different hostel, we arranged to meet in front of a shrine the following evening. After waiting over a half hour, I figured she wasn’t coming and disappointedly went on my way. I did a bit of shopping and got some food before deciding to return to my hostel. I missed the bus by less than a minute and ran into Katri not 30 feet later! She was so surprised to see me that she started talking in Finnish. We were both happy to have randomly bumped into each other and spent the rest of the evening chatting in a funky little jazz bar. Her bus got caught in traffic and she was about a half an hour late to meet me. I must have just missed her… How fortunate that our paths crossed later that evening!

The Ryoanji Temple has a famous Zen garden. It is said that the longer one stares at the simple arrangement of 15 stones, the more one’s imagination wanders. Unfortunately, stones do not inspire me, no matter how artfully they’re arranged. I prefer the lushness of gardens and the tranquility of ponds. For this reason, I particularly enjoyed my lunch at the restaurant within the temple grounds. Two other guests arrived just after me and the three of us sat in respectful silence, gazing at the peaceful scene around us while slowly eating boiled tofu (dipped in soy sauce with minced ginger and scallions) and drinking Japanese tea.

After lunch, I made my way to Arashiyama, an outer area of the city which is famous for its bamboo forests. I had been looking forward to going here and the experience did not disappoint.

more to come...


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