written by Scott and Alison
We got up on time this morning-- we must still be so jet-lagged that our bodies are just going with the flow.
There was a bit of confusion once we were at the train station: two 10:13 AM trains. We just caught the equivalent of a commuter rail train (subway-style car layout rather than the Amtrak-style shinkansen). It got into the immense Tokyo station on time, though later than we'd expected. So we queued up for the next train .. and found it full. I got a seat next to a fellow who let me sit down only to find out that a woman was there already, so I got to stand for the first part of the ride. Ali practiced her numbers and time, and I set up a "shinkansen mix" on my new iPod.
Once I got to sit down (with a window seat!), some things hit me. The dimensions are different here, almost as if the Japanese interpretation of the Golden Rectangle was different. The taper of power line towers, the size of doors and subway tunnels are different. Also impressive were the fairly common heated toilet seats and subway seats. The Japanese seem to have chosen local heating rather than generalized heating-- heated seats and space heaters rather than central heating.
The shinkansen (bullet train) which we took from Tokyo to Kyoto seemed like the equivalent of Amtrak. It's the thing that you take between cities, while the rest of Japan Rail is more equivalent to the commuter rail... except that in Japan they're by-and-large run by the same company, so you can get tickets for both and so on.
(and here is where Alison filches the keyboard)
Let me just say that Kyoto station is insane. In. Sane. They've essentially taken a world-class hotel, a department store, a shopping mall and a transportation hub and sort of conflated them into a massive tower of glass, concrete and steel. The scale of the thing seems cheated by words like "huge" and "extensive" -- it was just BIG, really. (Scott has told me that it is practically an arcology, and I have chased him out of the room in response. Though he does seem to have a point.)
However, sightseeing wasn't really what we were thinking about right then. Once we arrived in the city, the first priority was to get ourselves and our considerable baggage to our Ryokan. Alas, for internet access was not nearly so easy to get as I'd anticipated, and we didn't have so much as a street address to work with. Fortunately, the nice ladies at the station's tourist information office just happened to have a photocopy of the ryokan's pamplet on file. They armed us with a few maps and a general idea of what direction we'd be going in, and sent us on our way.
Crossroads Ryokan is really just the upstairs floor of the house of a woman named Mori Sachiko, with three small rooms, a shower and a toilet. The rooms themselves were clean and well-kept, and ours looked out over the narrow street. The neighborhood was made up of old-style wooden buildings with tile roofs, quiet and safe and populated mostly by family homes and small shops.
Sachiko herself was fabulous. Despite arriving a half-hour late for check-in and thus starting off on kind of a bad note, we soon found that she wasn't the sort to hold a grudge. When asked about where we might want to go for New Year's Eve, she pulled out a huge map and advised us on which temples might be the most interesting to go to, and then gave us a map and instructions as to how we might use the Kyoto bus system to get there.
New Year's in Japan is rather like Thanksgiving in the US, mixed with a bit of Christmas for good measure. Everyone and their cat is traveling that week to be home for the holiday; special meals are prepared and spiced sake is drunk; gifts of money are given; and thousands of people flock to local temples and shrines for their first visit of the new year.
With all of this in mind, we thanked Sachiko for her advice (and for her decision to ignore the usual 11PM curfew for one night) and set out for excitement and adventure on the streets of Kyoto.
I'm a lazy git and will step aside to let Scott record the specifics of where we went and what we did. However, I will say this before I go: I love Japanese street food. New Years is arguably the most important festival of the year, and the temple grounds were absolutely covered in little booths selling all manner of treats: grilled squid on a stick, takoyaki, egg cakes with azuki bean filling, giant sausages, tiny rice-flour crepes, roasted chestnuts, candied fruit on sticks (my favorite was a whole mandarin orange with a crunchy glaze), and single-serving bottles of hot sake tempted us from every side. It's amazing Scott didn't have to roll me back to Crossroads.
(back to Scott) ... I did, however, begin to make fun of the Japanese predilection for 'stuff on a stick'. There were many things that we would not normally eat as street food that were not only there in the booths but also skewered for our convenience. Yum.
The quick and dirty of New Years Eve was that we wandered up into East Kyoto, tried to pick a happening spot to ring in the New Year, and wandered the hillside in a sprawling street fair punctuated by temples and lanterns.
On the way to the temples we killed time in the shopping arcades. We discuss these more later, but this was our first time in them. We picked a place for dinner out of Ali's Old Kyoto guide, and it was a good choice. Japanese New Years involves a meal of soba noodles cut especially long to symbolize long life, and the place we went is well known in Kyoto as a good place to eat soba out. We were the only foreigners there, and ate on the tatami with everyone else. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a tourist trap... the most interesting dish there, which involved torch-heated broth in which you soaked a succession of meat, vegetables, and then noodles, turned out to be a whole digit more expensive than anything else on the menu, though it didn't look like it on the menu. We left with the embarrassment of being giant tourists *and* of wasting resources (opportunities/money).
On a bit of a lark we decided to visit Chion-in first because it looked large and I think that I'd read about it in my Japanese Civilization and Culture class in college. It was a good choice-- it's the home temple for one of the larger Buddhist sects in Japan and features the largest (or second largest?) temple bell in the country. At 10:30 PM we found a line forming for something, and decided to join it on the Principle Of The Longest Queue. Again, intuition ruled... at 10:45 or so a group of monks filed out of a nearby temple and up the hill to the bell tower. Our line followed them up and filed around the tower as the monks rung the bell for each of the 107 human frailties. I'd love to know what the frailties are; TSOR doesn't turn it up.
After that we headed down into the street fair. On the way past a temple where Ali donated and rung the bell along with the locals, we were accosted by a man billing himself as a great English professor in need of proofreading for his manuscript on the English Language. Impressively he had it along for us, random gaijin passersby, to read. We politely declined and got ourselves candy-coated oranges in consolation for having passed up such an opportunity.
We followed the Principle of the Longest Queue into a knot of people taking pictures and spinning burning rope around the central temple of the Yasaka Shrine. Here, the Principle failed us-- the whole square was full of people not particularly waiting for anything but the tick of 12, when they began to file past the shrine for the First Shrine Visit of the new year. We walked, threw some coins and went on through Gion toward home. We warmed ourselves at Holly's Cafe and then headed home across Kyoto in the light snow that had started, beautifully, at almost exactly midnight.
It'll be nice not to have repack tomorrow. 3:27 AM and time for sleep.
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