06.07.2006 - 10.07.2006 27 °C
The 6 of July is the first day of my 7 day Japan Rail pass, allowing me to travel anywhere in Japan on the railways of Japan Rail unlimited for the next 7 days. In a country of expensive tourism, it’s a fantastic deal. Leaving Tokyo, I hop aboard the Hikari Super Express Shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka, though I am disembarking at Kyoto Station.
I won’t go on about the train except to say that it is quick, comfortable and easy, and the distance from Tokyo to Osaka is similar as the distance from Toronto to Montreal. It really is a much better way to travel than flying, especially for distances that short.
Kyoto Station is a marvel. The platforms are nothing special, but entering the terminal building is amazing. It is 15 floors of shining glass with a massive atrium in the middle. I take the elevator up to the 9th floor to the tourist information center, where they provide a free map, suggested walking tours and book accommodation for the next 4 days for me. I then wander up a couple of floors to Eat Paradise, a floor dedicated to restaurants with stellar views of Kyoto. After lunch, I wander out onto the Happy Terrace to digest and plan my next moves.
Map and suggested walking tours in hand, and replenished wallet after hitting the international ATM, I wander through the temples of Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji. Both are beautiful examples of the more than 2000 temples, shrines and castles that make Kyoto famous. Saving the other temples for my future days in Kyoto, I head south for the Umekoji Steam Locamotive Museum.
Umekoji is an old station house that has been turned into a museum of steam powered rail. They have a bunch of old engines that you can look in, some interactive exhibits on how steam engines worked, and a few model train sets. But the big attraction is the chance to ride for 1 km on a steam train (500 m down a spur line and then 500 m back). Afterwards, they pull the engine onto the working turntable, turn it around and fuel it up, then again onto the turntable to put it into the roundhouse for the night.
The other passengers on the train were mostly young families, the children excited as the steam whistle blows and the train rolls slowly down the track. Looking at the tracks running beside us as we journey, the commuter trains journeying to the suburbs of Kyoto and the Shinkansen bullet train bound for Osaka speeds by, further exciting the children, and the train geek in me.
When I was a kid, I had a train set, and my father knew some people who worked in the rail industry. A few times I got to go out and look at the diesel engines and freight cars up close. And every summer my father, my mother and I would hop aboard the GO commuter train and ride from Burlington to Toronto to go to the Canadian National Exhibition, known as the Ex to the locals, and 3 week long national fair of rides, food and games.
The love of trains was instilled in me then, and it is a bond that I feel strongly with my father. That’s what I was thinking of as I rode that 1km journey down a seldom used spur line, being bitten by mosquitoes and listening to the joyful squeal of children, how much my father would appreciate this.
I arrive at my Hotel, the Nishiyama. From the outside, it looks like a standard, 5 story hotel. But upon entering, one is brought into the Ryokan experience. Ryokan is the traditional Japanese guest house, the kind that you have seen in a million kung-fu movies, where the hero sits on the mat floor, painting Japanese script with a thick, black brush.
I am shown to my room, where I put on my Yukata, a traditional Japanese robe. The woman showing me the room explains the rules of staying in the Ryokan to me. Upon entering, I must remove my shoes. You never walk on the Tatami, the straw mat floor, with your shoes on, only bare foot or with socks on. If I enter the bathroom, there is a separate set of slippers to wear in the bathroom, which aren’t to be worn elsewhere. She shows me how to open and close the Shoji (sliding paper screen doors) that cut off the main room from a small alcove with the windows, and the futon lying on the floor where I will sleep. A low table sits with a tea service on it, and a book explaining in further details all the rules. Beside the table is a small cushion with a wooden back to sit at.
The woman leaves, and I flip through the rule book. In addition to the rules my host covered, the book also covers other rules, such as when to remove your shoes in other parts of the hotel, when it is appropriate to wear your yukata robe, how to use a Japanese squat toilet and also what can be stored in the tokonoma. The tokonoma is a small alcove in the main room which, according to the book, is used for hanging scrolls or putting flowers for contemplation, and not to be used for storage. In my tokonoma, however, is a TV, a phone and a mini-fridge, leading me to believe that perhaps the hotel Nishiyama is more of a “minshuku” than a ryokan. A minshuku is a more casual and usually less expensive option to a ryokan. The minifridge in the tokonoma, which I am soon using to store diet Coke, would indicate a certain casual atmosphere.
I sit at the low table and take notes on my day, and write plans for tomorrow in my notepad. I am struck by how much I feel like a shogun, sitting as his table planning a siege of a rival samurai’s castle.
As mentioned before, Kyoto is home to more than 2000 temples and shrines, and many UNESCO world heritage sites. Many of the temples start to blend together after a while, though, and it’s easy to burn out on them, especially with the crowds of bus tourists and school groups.
Two of my favorites, though, are Nijo Castle and Shoren-In temple.
I arrive right at the 9am opening of Nijo Castle, and am able to walk quickly past the tour groups on the squeaking nightingale floors (ancient alarm system – all the floors in the castle squeak to alert everyone of intruders) and soon am ahead of them and have the place to myself. It has a beautiful large garden with old stone walls, and is very peaceful. The only time my peace is interrupted is on my brief passes of Dan and the German.
I first encountered Dan and the German outside of the main building, heading into the garden. Dan and the German were standing talking as I passed them, and I heard the following snippet of conversation.
Dan, who I am guessing is North American of some manner based on his accent, is telling the German that he is, “the luckiest guy in all the world. I have a household staff of five; a cook, a dishwasher, a gardener, a maid and a nanny…”
The German, rolling his eyes, asks Dan sarcastically, “only one maid?” Dan forges ahead with his story.
“…and their names are Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan and Dan.” Dan stops and laughs at his own joke, before continuing to tell the German how much work he does in his house, what with having to clean it and feed and care for his children. I walk quickly past, head down and out of earshot, not wanting to really listen to anyone complain about how much work it is to live their life. Dan, I am sure you already know, is not the only person in the world that needs to clean their own house and cook their own meals.
I have a peaceful walk through the rest of the garden, only occasionally encountering Dan and the German as I am walking out of an area that they are walking into. Each time, I pass a sympathetic look with German, who trails behind the constantly jabbering Dan. But I am enjoying the peace, and have no time to save the German today.
The next day I arrive at Shoren-in right at 9am, it’s opening time. I think this is the secret, arrive early. I walk in, and I have the place to myself. I kneel on the tatami mat floor and contemplate the waterfall and beautiful gardens outside. Shoren-in might not be the most beautiful of all the temples in Kyoto, but it is only as I am alone, with no sounds but the sounds call of the birds, the splash of the waterfall and the rustle of the wind through the bamboo that one gets a true appreciation of the peace of mind that meditating at these temples can bring.
Shoren-In Temple, Kyoto, Japan
Shoren-In Temple, Kyoto, Japan
I am standing on the roof of my hotel, wind rustling my hair and flapping gentle on my yukata robe. Looking like a shogun warrior surveying Kyoto’s defenses, my brow is wrinkled. “Look,” the observer might say, “how Greg is deep in thought. He must be planning a grand adventure.”
But no, the observer would be wrong. I am standing on the roof because that is where the washing machine is, and the weather has been hot and sticky and my clothes needed to be washed. And my brow is furrowed not because I am deep in thought, but because I am stressed with worry. Two thoughts trouble me. Firstly, I am wondering how to best stand to ensure that my yukata does not blow up and expose my private bits, for I am wearing nothing underneath.
Secondly, I am deeply troubled for I am about to enter the onsen, or public bath. The onsen is the traditional public bathing area in Japan. One enters the onsen, gets naked and then squats on a stool. They soap up and rinse off using a bucket of water and a washcloth, and then, now clean, they enter the bath itself, of really hot water. It is a relaxing and liberating experience, and apparently one of the few places in Japanese society where you are free of rules, as long, of course, as you follow a set of rules in expressing your liberation.
It is a traditional Japanese practice, and so, in the spirit of using travel to expand my horizons, I am going to enter the onsen. But I am not comfortable at all with the prospect of public nudity. I have a fear of public nudity. Not other people’s public nudity, mind you, so girls keep going wild, just my own. I am hairy, chubby, lumpy and pale, kind of like a sickly brown bear with the mange. It’s not, in my mind, a very pretty sight, and I don’t like to put my body on display. But, I’m going to suck it up and do it.
I enter the onsen, and I am alone. I store my yukata, shoes and room key in a storage bin, and enter the bath room with just my little towel and a grimace. I squat on one of the 12 inch high stools, and start to soap myself up. I am trying to get as clean as possible, because it is extremely bad form to enter the onsen while still dirty, but I want to get into the water before anyone else might enter. There are mirrors on either side of the room, so I catch a sight of myself squatting on this small stool. It’s not a pretty sight.
I rinse off, and slip into the bath. The water is very hot, but the bath is nice. It’s like a hottub, but without the bubbles, and with a view through the window of a waterfall. I actual feel myself starting to relax, enjoying the hot water circulating around me, loosening muscles tired from days of walking around the temples of Kyoto.
Then, the door slides open, and a naked Japanese man enters. My peace, suddenly is shattered, and my muscles tense up again. The man squats and starts to wash up. I find myself watching him wash himself, noting how he uses the bucket and soap in a much more efficient and practiced way than I did. I’m taking mental notes on his technique when he turns to soap his side, and our eyes lock, and I am suddenly acutely aware that I am watching a naked man wash himself. I turn away quickly, and am confronted with the mirror reflection of the naked man. I turn the other way, trying to watch the waterfall through the window, but I keep catching the man’s movement in my peripheral vision, and natural instinct swings around my head to again watch the man.
I try looking down. The water is crystal clear, and I can clearly see my naked body through the water. I am suddenly very aware of my nakedness, and feel embarrassed and ashamed and queasy. I think I know how Adam and Eve felt upon realizing they were buck naked.
The man is nearly done washing himself, and soon will slip into the tub. Sweat is pouring down my face, my stomach turning circles. I can’t take it, I get up and quickly exit the room, trying, in vain, to use the small washcloth to cover myself.
No more onsens for me. The only way that I can imagine that I will end up naked in a vat of hot water anytime in the near future is either if I am drunk and accompanied by naked co-eds, or being boiled alive for someone's dinner.