>Day 7 23 Nov 2007 Arashiyama Kyoto

>Definitely one of the best days of the trip for me.

We took our brekkie with us to Arashiyama. Arashiyama is a leafy, hilly district in the west of Kyoto, dotted with temples and bamboo groves. While it is usually quieter than the rest of Kyoto, autumn usually changes this dramatically as the hordes descend on the place.

From the minute we took the train, gettting packed in like sardines, it gave us a foretaste of what to expect. My hope for getting seats on the Sagano train to Kameoka dimmed considerably. The Sagano train is a quaint reproduction of a steam train puffing its way through green hills, over rushing river waters to the little town of Kameoka. In the autumn, the train is usually mobbed thanks to the pretty coloured trees along the way. I had tried making reservations on the net but could not. A last minute ditch at reservations at the Kyoto station the night before also drew a blank. I thought I could try my luck at the station that morning itself. But all that flew out the window when I saw the snaking lines at the Sagano station which was next to the Arashiyama JR station. Gah! A friendly conductor and customer service lady in the station tried their best to explain to me what I already guessed – it was totally packed and standing room only. I could not imagine how I would have to stand for half an hour carrying Trin, pushed up against some stranger and craning my neck to see the autumn leaves! So obviously with much regret (from me!) we gave it a miss.

Decided to walk down the main street to Togetsukyo. En route we passed pretty tea houses, shops and restaurants. At the Keifuku station we decided to have our brekkie on some benches found inside the station. The Keifuku train is really a sort of electric tram that runs right through some of Kyoto’s residential neighbourhoods so sitting on it really gives you a glimpse into the houses the Kyoto-ites live in. We didn’t try it though. Interesting part of the station is an actual bath house right smack on the station platform. At least that’s what I think it was – a small wooden hut that had nori curtains with the character for bath! The orgel chimes that signal a train’s arrival and departure were also really charming. So sitting there and having our sandwiches with juice was a good break.

Just after we got out of the station, we spotted four maikos! Dream come true! I was hoping for an opportunity to spot a maiko/geisha and in atmospheric Kyoto preferably and here I got my wish! Looking tall and majestically elegant in their impossibly chunky high getas (wooden sandals) and their embroidered kimonos, faces and necks painted white with a small triangular patch on the nape left unpainted, they were wonderful to see. I quickly asked if I could take a picture and they hesitatingly agreed. So all four of them stood there with some of the kids (not everyone was in because I just didn’t want to waste time with my Shepherd routine) and KH (although I was so excited I cut him in half!). I thanked them profusely and turned away and as I did I heard other excited voices asking for pictures etc. Hee, guess my photo request started the ball rolling!

Further down a bit was Togetsukyo which was packed with people. Again, we got lucky and spotted a row of blue-robed monks! Really my day for the photo ops!

The hills around Togetsukyo were lovely in their patchwork colours of yellow, brown, red and green. The Hozu river lay before us – deeply green with flocks of white cranes and egrets perched on a tiny dam. It was beautiful. The place was packed with tourists though and rickshaw pullers really were in demand. We saw a group of Taiwanese tourists getting on rickshaws two by two. I felt sorry for the rickshaw pullers even though I know its a living, but geez, to pull a carriage + heavyweight passengers – can’t be a breeze! I saw a rare woman rickshaw puller too.

From there, we made our way to Tenryuji, considered the best of the Five Great Zen temples of Kyoto. Honestly speaking though, because I have no great interest in Zen or Buddhism, I was more swept away by the stunningly beautiful landscape garden and the gorgeous reds that were in season there.

Just behind Tenryuji is a bamboo grove – kinda like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. But with the hordes of tourists, the atmosphere was unfortunately lost. Cait found a cloth dragonfly pin on the path here and it stayed with her for the rest of the trip – posing along with her in photographs!

The rest of the day passed in a nice slow stroll ambling through the back lanes of Arashiyama, popping into one temple after another. While the crowds were definitely there, I didn’t feel as hemmed in as I did at Higashiyama the night before. We could still feel some sense of space as we walked.

Highlights for us were the lovely gardens and trees and pagodas of Jojakko-ji and Gio-ji. Stories of spurned love, tragedy and drama of centuries past lay with these quiet little temples. Lots of maples set amidst mounds of mossy ground.

Another place which I really enjoyed was the tiny poet’s hut of Rakushisa. Something pensive and solitary about that place (even though it was full of tourists that day) drew me. I could see myself living in a place like that (this is the romantic non-practical side of me speaking of course!) – how marvellous it would be to have no children, to stay for months on end in this little hut – but with modern toilet and heating facilities la!

I also greatly enjoyed our lunch. We just popped into this little restaurant, packed with people and with a tiny queue so the Singaporean in us assumed it must be good! We sat on a tatami matted platform, cross legged and with our shoes on the floor below. I had the zaru soba set and the rest had assorted noodles/rice sets and we ordered the yudofu, tofu cooked in broth. Well I have to say I enjoyed the meal and thought it was nice but not everyone did. The carnivores in the family demanded: why no meat??? And only later did I tell them – the place was vegetarian!! Which under normal circumstances in Singapore we would never eat. But eating yudofu, a traditional Kyoto dish, in Kyoto is a must. All part of the experience. Had I told them beforehand that I suspected the restaurant was vegetarian, they would never have gone for it!

After we’d wandered the day away, our final stop was the temple of Senryu-ji. A huge gravel-laid compound with a big main hall and several smaller temples. Not many people there at that time of the evening. It seemed far less touristed than the rest of the places. Senryu-ji had a big ‘gate’ too constructed of wood. While less imposing than the one at Nanzenji, the smaller scale made it more intimate and welcoming.

It was almost dark by then but Arashiyama had left us feeling so mellow we felt a bit reluctant for the day to end. So we decided to take a bus to Nishiki market in the heart of Kyoto city. Big mistake.

When we got on, all seats were already taken. So we had to stand. I was carrying Trin. The other kids were all standing nearby. One by one, as the journey wore on, I saw them nodding off. The poor things were literally sleeping standing up! Finally one seat came available and we got Gillian to sit there with Isaac, Owain and Cait sort of half-sitting, half draping themselves over her. And it was a single seat mind you! Uncomfortable though it must have been, they continued sleeping! I stood with KH. The bus got more and more packed. The penchant for packing trains until there was no more concept of personal space seem to apply to buses too. A rather big man squeezed his way in between KH and I. He was reeking of alcohol and everytime the bus jerked, he would sway right into my space. Meanwhile, Trin was also asleep and a dead weight in my arms. My left side was beginning to hurt again – intolerably so and I was desperate to sit. A woman sitting right in front of me, well-coiffed hair with a white leather jacket and designer bag, diamonds in her ears, ignored me. No matter how much I bumped into her shoulder, she would not budge – and I could not help bumping her because the bus by then, was packed!

We stood like this for easily more than half an hour. When a single seat behind Gillian was vacated, KH was standing right there, but before he could sit down, an old woman pushed past him and plonked herself down. KH could only look at me helplessly. It was an old woman, he could not shove her off right? So we continued standing. I tried shifting from foot to foot to ease the pressure in my left ribs and my shoulder but it didn’t help anymore after a point.

Finally across the bus, someone vacated a seat and KH literally lunged across and called me over loudly. When I got there, I saw he was grimly holding back some commuters. I was in no mood to consider whether it was polite or nice or whatever. I just sat – very gratefully. I waved him to ask Isaac – who had been perched on the last square inch of space on Gillian’s chair – to come over and sit on my lap. I had Trin facing my chest and Isaac had to balance himself on whatever space there was left on my knees. It was a precarious position and because he was sleeping, he would have fallen over a couple of times. Had it not been for a lovely old couple standing right in front of me.

They looked like they were in their 80s. The man was brown, lean and sinewy with bright twinkly eyes in a lined face and a kerchief round his head. The old lady was plump and smiley. They dressed shabbily but they had hearts of gold. Throughout the rest of the journey, the old lady had cupped her hand round Isaac’s head to protect it from hitting the metal pole whenever he nodded to the bus’s motion. The old man had put his hand on Isaac’s shoulder to steady him and hold him up to prevent him from falling over. And they themselves were swaying away with every jerk and braking motion of the bus!

I think I literally teared in gratitude and wished wholeheartedly that I had enough words in Japanese to thank them. All I could manage were fervent “domo arigato gozaimashite!” They only smiled and shook their heads and gestured ‘de nada’ gestures. Gosh!

In just one bus ride I saw two extremes of Japanese people. A rich woman who could not be bothered and did not have the compassion to let me have her seat vs the old country couple who showed me and Isaac such kindness. While Japanese take such pains to be ‘polite’, I think sometimes superficial forms of courtesy pale so much in comparison to old-fashioned kindness. So far, with the exception of this old couple, I have found Kyoto-ites to be colder and more unfriendly than Tokyo-ites. Which came as a surprise to me because I’d thought that Tokyo, being an urban centre, would have lost its personal touch a long time ago, while Kyoto, being relatively smaller, would have some sense of humanity and warmth. Boy was I wrong. So far I have found Tokyo-ites to be more forthcoming with smiles, eye contact, directions and approachability. The Kyoto-ites tend to be more standoffish. Does this have to do with the fact that they come from a long ancient line of nobility and royalty? Maybe. Reading Alex Kerr’s book “Lost Japan” after the trip helped give me some insight.

After that long, long, long bus ride, we finally alighted at a street corner right in the heart of Kyoto city. The kids were refreshed after their nap and were raring to go. So we walked underground via the subway station to Daimaru, exited and turned to Nishiki market. Only to find it closed or closing!!

But beyond the dark stretch of the market, lights beckoned. Turns out there was a shopping alley there. The first thing we saw was a shrine! Yes right in the heart of a shopping alley, there was a small shrine with all the bells (literally!) and whistles. The kids enthusiastically did the shrine routine again. Then there was the usual argument about where to eat. Their eyes had lit up at the sight of the fat colonel and his chicken but we did not come all the way to Japan to eat KFC for crying out loud!

Stalemate while we wandered through the shopping lane. Came out to a darkened lane – more like an alley – and led by our noses, hunger nipping at us already, we came to a light in the dark lane. It was a curry house and normally I eschew Japanese curry, considering it a bastardised version of the real thing, but this place smelt so dang good we were salivating! Unfortunately, it was ‘sold out’ and ‘closed’ for the night and the last diners were just finishing up. We were quite crestfallen to be turned away – it looked like a real warm haven in the cold and oh the smell!

As we walked back, we caught sight of a small tiny shrine. Wedged in between doors, windows of buildings was a shrine the size of a doorway. It had the vermillion torii gate and little wooden money box, bells etc and lots of Tanuki-kami figures! This is like a raccoon spirit with a hat, a grin and er, genitals so large they swept the floor!

Another classic Japanese moment for me. Gosh, even in the middle of ‘nowhere’, in a shopping lane, a darkened alleyway, there were shrines!

We decided to head back to Amici, an Italian-Japanese restaurant across from our hotel, for dinner. Back in the shopping arcade, we found a shop selling custard ‘buns’ – I don’t know what its called in Japanese but we got 10 for 550yen and it was piping hot and yummy! The kids clamoured for more but I said no.

Then, waiting to cross the road, and this was Shijo-dori – a very busy road, like Orchard Road, I caught sight of yes, another shrine! Complete with sake barrels, figures shrouded in shadows, bright lanterns at the front, and the bells/pulls. Floored me again. It is so much a part of life here. We would never think of a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist altar right at a traffic crossing at Centrepoint or Heeren right? And yet here this was – on a street crowded with shoppers, pedestrians, cars etc. It was amazing and quintessentially so Japan. Little things like this remind me why I am so fascinated and so captivated by Japan. Of course I know I am only scratching the surface but these little surprises really make my trip so great!

Back at Amici, we had dinner – or tried to. In a bad chapter of accidents that would be crowned by the big incident the next day, first KH’s glasses broke. Then when he had left us to try to find an open optician in Kyoto station at 9pm (thin chance!), the pizza we tried to eat slipped off the plate and landed on the floor when I tried to slice/move it! After that, I let Trin stand on the banquette only to realise with horror that she had upended a sugar container and now had sugar everywhere! I had to apologised profusely for that but they didn’t look happy at all. KH came back – no luck with the optician and we had to order another pizza. By which time, my mentaiko and ika pasta had turned stone cold and really sucked.

All in though, a nice day except for nasty bits right at the end. Travel fatique setting in I think!

Pictures at: http://picasaweb.google.com/chongbrood/Day7Kyoto05

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