Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Sunday morning. 8am
Kyoto, Japan, at 8 a.m. on a sunday 

spoken by my friend Anne, writer of the TunaToast blog, back in February: hey, you want to go to Japan? i have a friend looking for journalists to cover an event there, and its probably something you can do for GEEK.

me: hell, yes, i want to go to Japan! is that a question with more than one answer? what do i need to do to make it happen?

Anne: figured youd be an easy sell. ill send you an email with the info.

emails were sent, possibilities were discussed, two tickets were requested (one for me as the writer, the other for Tico as the photojournalist), the conversation stalled, follow-up emails went unanswered, hopes were dashed and then ultimately forgotten.

then came the reversal about six weeks ago: the request was approved by the organizers of the event, who were flying out a handful of journalists from all over the globe to cover a two-night Japanese pop music event called Japan Night, to be held at Tokyos National Olympic Stadium, which would be torn down and rebuilt soon after to accommodate the 2020 Summer Olympics. as this was a Big Fucking Deal for the country, some international exposure was needed. somehow, Tico and i managed to worm our way through the cracks.

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a lion-dog guards a temple in Kyoto

wait, what? Tico and i said to Anne and each other while scratching our heads. were going to Japan? that question mark quickly turned into several exclamation points as reality sunk in, prompting plenty of happy scrambling on our parts to make it happen. then, during the entire last week of May, Japan happened. and it was FUCKING GLORIOUS.

im going to preface this by saying {spoiler alert} this post is one endless brag. and not even a humblebrag, just a straightforward, shameless, taunting, self-congratulatory, hands-in-the-air-suckas brag. but to add some counterbalance, this wasnt entirely an all-expenses paid trip. the organizers of Japan Night covered the flight and five nights at a Tokyo hotel, which was, admittedly, the lions share of the cost. breakfast at the hotel was also included, though i wish it werent because im pretty sure thats where i got a violent case of food poisoning (to be complained about in the next post).

but as far as transportation, other meals, tickets to events and attractions and hotel the first two nights of our trip, it was all out of pocket and all very PRICEY, as Japan is pricier than New York. as this trip came on the heels of a mini remodel project (also to be complained about in a future post), i wasnt expecting this expense and am now patiently awaiting thank-you cards from my various creditors.

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alleyway in Kyoto

after a relatively smooth 11-hour flight, Tico and i arrived at the Narita airport on a Saturday afternoon and were surprised to see organizers from the event greet us by yelling GEEK magazine,” which made us feel very official, a stark contrast to how we looked and felt. the organizers kindly helped us board a train to Tokyos city center, where we got lost after getting off the train and enjoyed a quick meal of yakitori (roasted food on skewers) ordered via iPad and based solely on photos that taught me the important lesson that while liver and beef look very much alike in a photo, they do not taste alike at all. then we did something incredibly stupid.

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makeupless, humorless and jetlagged in the Shinjuku area hours after arriving in Tokyo.

after dinner, we boarded an overnight bus to Kyoto. while visiting Kyoto was not a dumb move, as we heard only awesome things about it and wanted to see as much of the country as possible, taking an 8-hour bus ride on the heels of an 11-hour flight, with luggage and gear carried on aching tailbones and sore backs, was Darwin Award-level stupidity. when we finally did arrive, at 6am, after another night of struggling to sleep while sitting upright, we begged for an early check-in at the Super Hotel so we could finally shower and lie horizontally for the first time in two days, but were allowed only to store our stuff until check-in at 3pm.

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weakly radioactive water quality?

our hotel, like many others in Kyoto, had an onsen, which is a natural hot springs and spa. though we were assured by the hotel manager that this was a poor translation and that nothing in the pools was radioactive or related to the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima (several hundred miles away), we still decided to pass.

then we dumped our stuff and threw water on our faces before proceeding to enjoy (maybe endure is more like it) a day of shrine-hopping in punishing heat and stifling humidity. the shrines were oh-so-spiritual and shit, but after the third one, i was over it. thankfully, we found a farmers market (conveniently held at a temple) to break up the monotony and provide a sample of local flavor. and we sampled the hell out of their samples, while also doing a bit of shopping and downing coffee drinks to stay awake.

we had to wash our hands before approaching the temple.
area to wash hands before approaching the temple.

another temple.

photographing Tico photographing a temple. im original like that.

the people line up to ring the bell to awaken their ancestors.

at the start of the line was a bell, which folks rang to awaken their ancestors. i thought of ringing it, too, until i realized my ancestors didnt live/die nearby and i probably shouldnbe the kind of tourist who tried to appropriate local culture. then i rubbed my belly and yawned.   

found the farmers/flea market at the temple. score.
outside of each shrine stood a giant torii that signified the area as a place of worship. clearly, this one was also a place of commerce.

the farmers market: HOLY SASHIMI! i had never seen one so vast before. not only did it have the standard food, clothes and jewelry stands, but also antiques, instruments, insects frozen in amber, goldfish for kids, carnival games, kabuki masks, dishes, books and all manner of knickknacks that probably made it more flea than farmers market. Tico bought a robe for 10 bucks and i bought a bunch of native seeds for the garden. bok choy for years!

he didn't have to offer twice.
his dried fruit was delicious. i bought a pound and finished it in an hour.

boiled, beautiful food (Oden)

boiled, beautiful Oden

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cashier tallies up my seeds purchase on a wooden abacus. like a boss.

salmon sashimi samples
i considered donning a few disguises so i could come back here all day to try the salmon sashimi samples. 

this is when i start muttering to myself: don't fall on the table.

i should have bought a few of these but felt too lazy to carry them around all day.

Kyoto was one of the only cities not bombed to smithereens in the second world war, so it
s old and intact. its also sizable, with a population of just under 1.5 million and a temple count of about 2,000. most temples are buddhist but some cater to the shinto religion as well. many of them are world cultural heritage sites with the most impeccable gardens youve ever seen. seriously, not a single leaf was out of place. i had major garden envy the whole time and asked Tico to take some cuttings so we could replicate our own zen garden back home. he reminded me there were Japanese gardens in Los Angeles and then suggested i drink more coffee. 

next stop: Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion, a world cultural heritage site.
think i could sell this as a postcard?

the Golden Pavillion, or Kinkaku-ji (the kinky temple, as i like to call it) is plated in gold leaf. its clearly the hotness, meant both literally and figuratively as the heat that day mingled with the huge sunday crowd and worsening sunburn and two-day-old sweat and yuck. i know we should have been marveling at its singular beauty, as its one of the most exquisite structures in the world, but we lasted 10 minutes before ditching it. 

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but not before taking the requisite romantical selfie, which is my current facebook profile picture. (awww, arent we the cutest patootest? ok, enough of that.)

pit stop to refuel here before hitting the next temple. food was incredible.

lunchtime here, where we enjoyed grade A+++ quality kobe beef. no patty melts here! (note: clearly, i suspended my pescetarianism in Japan, because the food, oh my god, the food was so amazing. i have since resumed it since returning stateside. thank you for not judging.)

the highlight of the first day for me was visiting the rock garden at Ryoan-ji, another world heritage site. without getting too LA asshole about it, its a zen meditation site where a monk laid a bunch of rocks of various sizes among pebbles after finding enlightenment. people sit and stare at those rocks, presumably for hours, maybe even years, in search of their own enlightenment. we arrived about 20 minutes before they closed so i had to find nirvana (and a toilet) fast.

next up: Ryoan-ji Temple, a zen garden and another world heritage site. i really liked this one.
rock garden at Ryoan-ji Temple, an example of Japanese kare-sansui (dry landscape).

canoodling couple ponders enlightenment.
i think this might be the most japanese picture i took on this trip.

how cute are they?
well, they were super cute.

caught a monk before he got on his scooter.

this monk about to get on his scooter is also super cute.

i
m sure i might have come to a different conclusion if i had years to stare at it, but after lying alongside the rocks to stretch my back, i ranted to Tico about the white space representing the mundane that we swim in every day and the rocks representing the big events that define our lives, with the biggest one bookended by two smaller rocks (our birth and parents) and other groupings to signify the clusterfucks in life that give us direction. he listened thoughtfully, probably while trying not to yawn, before saying, that was profound, honey. should we go back to the hotel? we can finally check-in and shower.

a smaller scale reproduction.
you see what i see, right? easy as harakiri!

looked like a festival just ended.
en route to the hotel, we got lost among Kyotos cute streets and alleyways. 

street cool, green lantern style

i love this guy!

when we finally arrived at the hotel, we peeled off our smelly clothing to examine our new sunburns, mystery rashes and travel bruises before respectively enjoying The Shower to End All Showers, taken in a stacked-on-top-of-itself bathroom where you could literally use the toilet, wash your face and soak your feet in the shower stall all at once. after a quick nap, we walked around for an hour near the hotel, devoured perfectly prepared 7/11 food (no slurpies there) and then slept the sleep of 1,000 dead villagers before getting up for another action-packed day.

and waited for something to open.
Karasuma street, a main thoroughfare very close to our hotel. an hour later, it would be packed full of cars and people. 

like a fairy tale.
taken near the Togetsukyo (moon crossing) bridge, on the western outskirts of Kyoto, in the most beautiful place we visited while in Japan: Arashiyama

we enjoyed the 2nd day in Kyoto far more than the first given the night of rest and rainstorm that helped break up the heat. when planning the trip, Tico had really wanted to go to Jigokindani in the Nagano prefecture, where Japans snow monkeys sit in a hot tub, as shown in the opening scene of the film Baraka. but that was too far from Tokyo and several friends urged us toward Kyoto instead, which had a snow monkey park of its own: Iwatayama Monkey Park. on the second day, we made it our first stop. 

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this marks our second international trip where we played with monkeys, the first being in Costa Rica last year. taking suggestions for a third. 


feeding time at the Iwatayama Monkey Park, where wild monkeys roam within inches of unruly children who are begging to be mauled.

greedy little bastards.
feed me, seymour!

next to the gift shop was a caged enclosure where you could feed the monkey for about a dollars worth of apples or bananas. the greedy little bastards would sit there pointing at their mouths, chasing off competitors and pawing at your hands, similar to how the howler monkeys behaved in Costa Rica, confirming to me that monkeys are essentially assholes.

baby snow monkey cuteness
but the babies were so cute. i didnt mind feeding them. 


snow monkey grooming, with music by Captain & Tennille.

stop what you're doing 'cus i'm about to ruin the image and the style that you're used to... with this random assortment of buddha statues that we fou

after filling our photo cards with variations of the same monkey shot, we took a fortuitous wrong turn and happened upon a sculpture garden full of hundreds of stone Buddha statues. 

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every statue was different and interesting in its own way. we got our photo fill here as well.

then came the most stunning gardens at Tenryu-ji temple, another world heritage site and the last temple we would visit in Kyoto, which we may have missed if we didnt get lost (again) on the way to the bamboo groves. this place was divine, especially during the rainstorm, which forced us to stop and stare at the pretty trees while holding hands and waiting for the rain to let up. our only regret is that we hadnt arrived a month earlier when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. this provides yet another reason to return.

but the garden inside, wow.
koi pond in the garden.

and this place was zen.

meditating men in the temple hall

im not sure why, but at no time during our hundred-temple hop through Kyoto did i consider entering one of the rooms to meditate. clearly, i should have as there is no better backdrop to find serenity, but all the zen was incredibly stimulating and i couldnt imagine quieting my jumpy mind or keeping my darting eyes closed for too long. i wanted to keep drinking in the city so i breezed through all these zen landmarks without so much as an om shanti om.” 

the asian redwoods
then the zen found me.

i had seen so much breathtaking beauty in Kyoto by that point that i was certain my 
awe well was tapped out. so when we turned a corner and walked into the bamboo grove, where stalks of bamboo stood as high as my beloved redwoods, i could muster no more beyond holy fuck. words and photos are poor substitutions for standing there, feeling like an ant, among natural beauty that eclipses anything technology could ever cook up. it was magical.

still blurry but more civil
naturally, we took a (blurry) photo.

it was magical.

i wanted to pitch a tent and stay forever, certain hobbits would appear at night. 

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its obscene. put on a burka, Kyoto. quit making the rest of us look bad. 

after the bamboo grove, we had to say our goodbyes to Kyoto, with regrets about missing its fish market and Gion park, where geishas are known to roam. our last journey through town was bittersweet as Arashiyama in particular hypnotized us with its beauty, making us sad to leave. it was also brief as we had to return to the hotel, grab our luggage and haul ass to Kyoto Station, where we would catch the bullet train (Shinkansen) into Tokyo.



ride through Kyoto, with music by The Smiths.

tired but happy (and always consulting a map).

tired but happy--and always consulting a map.

when we learned the bullet train would take under 2 hours to reach Tokyo when the overnight bus from Tokyo took 8, we wondered why we hadn
t used this option on the journey in. oh yeah, because train tickets were 4 times more expensive and we figured wed also use the bus as our hotel that night. but if i had to do it all over again, bullet train both ways, baby.

we sat on that train bewildered that the previous two days had passed so quickly, and worried that the next five would also breeze by us as we trailed behind them trying to squeeze the life out of every second. we had work to do in Tokyo--work we, honestly, didnt want to do. we also had new people to meet, who were sure to burst our happy travel bubble with their foreign energy.

but before i could lament to Tico much more about my latest super depressing first-world problem, i fell asleep on his shoulder, my drool running down his sleeve, while he snored loudly against the window. moments later, we arrived in Planet Tokyo, where my mind would be blown countless times by things i never thought were possible on Planet Earth.

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2 comments:

R@!$4 said...

Oh good loooooord I'm singing with sashimi as samples - that photo is just glorious I'm salivating over the screen.

I can't believe you didnt try th onsen-it's something you MUST do. And you did get an extension trip to Kyoto so Tokyo doesn't have onsens which I wanted to.

You guys managed to pack a lot of sightseeing in, so incredibly good. Laughing at your stories here!

Milla said...

RICE! i will onsen it up next time. it didn't feel right to spend too much time indoors instead of out while in Japan. as appealing as a spa is, i visit plenty at home. keep tuned for the Tokyo post.