Wednesday, 30 December 2009

day #2 in Japan

I had around 14 hours sleep which was nice, and resulted in me feeling less like death than yesterday (also nice). Upon waking up, Alex and Chris gave us a mobile to use. It was only capable of receiving calls, so we used Alex's phone to ring Jay and give him the number, then headed out.

The plan was to head to 銀閣寺 (Ginkaku-Ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion)), at the start of the 哲学の道 (Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher's Path)). The path passes many temples and shrines, and is considered one of Kyoto's best sights. It takes its name from the Kyoto University philosophy professor who is thought to have meditated there daily. We stopped to buy lunch at a 7/11 on the way, then sat on a bench and ate it. It was here that I scrawled my first thoughts about Japan (scrawlings which I am now using as a basis for this post). After lunch Jay rang and said they had arrived, so we made haste towards the proposed meeting spot.

Unfortunately some shops and other interesting sights filled the gap between us and Jay's party, so we were hugely delayed. This meant that by the time we reached Ginkaku-Ji, Jay and co had already passed through and were waiting for us in a cake shop nearby. The grounds of Ginkaku-Ji were lovely. The ¥500 (~£3.50) entry fee was well worth it. While the temple itself is off limits, a picturesque walk up the adjacent mountain provides great views (which unfortunately I did not manage to capture because my camera died AS SOON AS we went in (bah)). Below is an image (from Wikipedia) of the temple and the sand garden. The carefully constructed pile of the sand at the centre represents Mt Fuji.

(Edit: I found a good article explaining some of the history of Japanese gardens.)

Eventually we reached the Ginkaku-Ji gift shop, and saw our first example of Engrish (defined by Wiktionary as "Ungrammatical or nonsensical English found in East Asia, especially Japan"). A security camera at one end of the shop had a sign above it saying "The security camera is observing", which was fair enough. A camera at the opposite end of the shop, however, claimed that "The security camera is being observed". Either this was a very philosophical and roundabout warning, or just a poor translation. Whichever is the case, it made me laugh.

After leaving the grounds and collecting Jay, Simon and James from aforementioned cake shop, we continued the walk. At this point, however, it was becoming dark and the optimum temple-and-shrine-viewing hours were coming to a close. We continued nonetheless, and arrived at what we thought was a temple about 20 minutes after. It turned out to be a graveyard just under half way up a mountain, but it was still picturesque (and serene) and so we had a quick walk around. Aaron said the spirits were welcoming us (or him at least), a vibe which I didn't detect unfortunately.

Further along the walk we reached a small shrine along a backstreet, and looked at it for a while. I don't know what it was honouring unfortunately, but it's something I would like to find out. By this time the temple-and-shrine-viewing hours had ended, and so we decided to catch a bus to Gion, then walk through it towards Kyoto, with the intention of finding an 居酒屋 (Izakaya (traditional Japanese drinking place that also serves food designed for sharing)).

For those of you who don't know, 祇園 (Gion) is Japan's famous 芸者 (geisha) district (although Gion geisha go by the local name 芸子 (geiko) (note: geisha and geiko (and indeed all Japanese words) are the same for both singular and plural forms)). Although much rarer now than before the Second World War, geisha can occasionally be seen in Gion. Unfortunately we were not lucky enough to see any, or even any 舞子 (maiko (apprentice geisha)).

The walk through Gion was lovely, nonetheless. Most of the buildings there are in their original state, and so there is a strong feeling of history as you walk through. The prices of the restaurants along the streets represent this fact, however, and so we looked elsewhere for food. Below is an image (from Wikipedia again) of a typical Gion street:

On the other side of Gion (to where we went in) was Kawaramachi - one of Kyoto's busiest streets. The intersection of Shijo Kawaramachi is hugely busy (and touristy), and it is here that we found the Izakaya we had long longed for. Unfortunately the wait for a table was just over an hour, and we only persevered because of the frequent, enthusiastic, entertaining and seemingly random shouts of employees (something like "EEEEYYYEEEAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!"). Upon being seated, we ordered 12 dishes and a drink each, then moved table to a bigger one and had to carry all of the plates, drinks and cutlery to the other table.

The concept is something like Tapas, in that you order many cheap dishes, and share them out. The menu ranged from traditional Japanese dishes to chips, and we sampled things from both ends of the spectrum. It was gooooooood. There is no smoking ban in Japan, however, and Aaron is particularly sensitive to smoke, so he didn't enjoy himself as much as the rest of us (which was a shame). We left after an hour or two of eating and talking, then had a look around the nearby shops for a while before saying our goodbyes and heading home.

It was a good first full day in Japan!

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