Friday, 27 April 2007

Day 4: Kyoto

On the evening of my third day in Kansai I had been planning on getting a very early night so that I would have enough energy for another day of sightseeing. Unfortunately, things did not turn out that way. I had a sore stomach which was keeping me awake, but more annoying than that was the noise that was going on in the corridor. The floor I was staying on was the women’s floor, which was on the second floor of the hotel. Out in the corridor there were the sounds of someone banging and crashing about and walking up and down the corridor in plastic slippers. I thought there was some weirdo out there who had come down from another floor to prowl for women. Whoever it was tried to get into my room several times by jerking on the door handle impatiently. It was so scary! Eventually I called out in Japanese “Stop it!” and whoever it was stopped trying to get in. At about 11 o’clock the sounds stopped, and five minutes after that I and some other women who had obviously been too scared to leave their rooms went out to use the toilet while the chance was available. At 11.30 the sounds started again. Bins being knocked over, shuffling feet, etc. Whoever it was got into the room next to mine which, when I went to the toilet, I noticed the door of which was slightly ajar. They bumped around in there for a while before going out again. It was 12.30 by the time it was quiet enough for me to go to sleep.

Shortly after 6am I was woken by shuffling slippers and banging. Not again, I thought. Then I heard whoever it was banging on a door further down a corridor, and the voice of a very young child calling “Mummy!” That whole time it had been some small child causing all that racket! What kind of mother would let their pre-school child prowl about unsupervised and get up to mischief in the corridors of a hotel at midnight? I was so angry that I had been robbed of hours of sleep by some child who had a bad parent.

I checked out of the hotel shortly after 8am and headed back to Kyoto. My Surutto Pass ticket had run out so I had to buy tickets that day. I left my bag in a coin locker in Kyoto station and caught a bus towards a temple that I had heard about and very much wanted to see. I knew which number bus to catch and the name of the stop, but I didn’t know how long it was going to take. I was on that bus for ages. It drove to Arashiyama, through Arashiyama, and out the other side before I finally reached my destination: Otagi Nenbutsuji.

Otagi Nenbutsuji is an old temple that used to be located in the Otagi area of Kyoto near the Kamo River. At that time it was called Otagi-dera. It got destroyed multiple times: by flood, war, typhoon, earthquake, and many fires. Which is funny, because one of the main deities worshipped there is a ‘protection against fire’ god. Otagi-dera has got to be the unluckiest temple in all of Kyoto, if not Japan. Eventually in 1921, the people financing the temple decided that enough was enough and that the temple would be moved somewhere safer. When I got there I found that it was indeed very isolated. It is stuck up in the top corner of a valley that runs out into the mountains around Kyoto. 40 metres up the road from the temple, the road becomes one lane and goes into a tunnel through the mountains. How does a one lane tunnel work? There are lights at either end of the tunnel that have a period of about 5 minutes or more to give traffic enough time to pass through.

After the temple received extensive damage yet again (this time by typhoon) the people in the area decided to donate little Buddha statues to it to try and attract some good luck to the temple. The volunteers studied under a professional carver to learn how to make the statues. Then they started carving, and made thousands of buddhas between 1982 and 1991. But many of the people who made the statues had senses of humour, and not many of the statues are carved in traditional style. In fact, some are pretty funny e.g. boxing Buddhas and miniature Moais. Take a look at my photographs to see what I mean.

While I was at Otagi Nenbutsuji it started to drizzle, and I didn’t have an umbrella. I went over the road to see when the next bus would be along. It wasn’t for another 25 minutes. There was no shelter at the bus stop so I waited under the eaves of the temple gate. It started to rain harder. After looking at all those Ghibli-like statues, and then to be standing under a gate in a forest in the mountains surrounded my mist and rain, I really felt like I had stumbled into a Ghibli movie. I thought that the bus that came for me might be a Nekobus, if I was lucky.

As I stood there I started to get this creepy feeling on the back of my neck as if someone were staring at me. I turned around and found that the left-hand guardian of the gate was staring right at me. The guardians are statues of (usually) fearsome warrior-deities that are inside the structure of the gate behind a lattice or net so they can look out and keep bad spirits from entering the temple. The spot I had chosen to stand in was directly in the view of the scary-faced, reflective-eyed statue. The way the statue was in the dark but it’s eyes flashed golden made it look as if it were really looking at me. I took a step sidewards.

Eventually I had to cross the road and stand in the rain because if I was not at the bus stop then the bus would no doubt just pass by. The bus came, and it was not a Nekobus. How disappointing. So I took a bus all the way back to Kyoto. Even though it took so long to get there and back, the trip to Otagi Nenbutsuji was well worth it.

I was feeling tired and groggy so I made my only travel mistake I made on the whole trip: I got on the 201 bus not the 205 and so it took a while to get to my next destination – Daitokuji. At one point the bus driver of the 201 was yelling something at me that I didn’t understand. He was obviously in a bad temper. It turned out that it was the end of the line (the 201 is a loop bus and the end of the line was not marked on my map so I didn’t know) and he was angry at me because he couldn’t see my face and thought I was just some idiot Japanese person who was ignoring him until I stood up and he saw that I am foreign and so had an excuse. I hope he was ashamed of himself, snapping at me like that. At least I now know the word for ‘end of the line’ after having it yelled at me like that. I transferred to the 205 there.

Anyway, I got to the area of Daitokuji without further trouble. It was cold even though the rain had stopped, and I was tired, hungry and not feeling so good. I entered a small Japanese set menu restaurant. It turned out that the husband and wife pair who owned the restaurant were very, very deaf and didn’t notice me enter the restaurant and then consistently didn’t notice when anyone else entered or wanted to pay and leave the restaurant. People had to keep saying “Excuse me. Excuse me. EXCUSE ME!” to them before they got any service. Great comic relief. I ordered ‘Nikujaga teishoku’ which is a dish of potatoes, thinly cut beef and onions in a thin gravy served with rice, miso soup, salad and pickles. It was just what I needed, and so it tasted so good to me even though it was quite an ordinary dish, if you know what I mean.

After I had finished refilling the tank, I headed into Daitokuji. Daitokuji is not one temple, it is an area where lots of little temples are all clustered together. There are usually between 3-5 of the temples open to the public at any time, while the rest are closed. You have to pay an entry fee for each temple you visit. First I entered a small quiet temple that had raked gravel gardens. Everyone was very quiet and respectful while inside (a rare condition that is found in all the temples in Daitokuji, but is rather rare at other attractions within Kyoto). Photography was allowed. Excellent. Then I went to another temple. Photography was only allowed in the garden. I spent a while padding about in my socks on the balconies surrounding beautiful little buildings while peering into gorgeous little tearooms and stuff. It was quite nice to walk along covered walkways through the cold gardens in my socks. It felt so good to get out of the shoes I had been wearing for several days.

Next I went to Daisen-in, which is a tiny temple containing a very famous raked gravel garden. No photography is allowed inside, so I was very glad I had seen the other gravel garden earlier. I sat down on the edge of the balcony overlooking the garden with my yet again shoeless feet resting on a concrete step. The eaves of the roof were shielding me from the rain that had started to fall again. I was cold and more than tired and I felt sick and it was raining and I ought to have been depressed, but somehow I was happy. I sat there in silence and watched the rain falling on the gravel amongst a few other people I didn’t know who were also looking at the rain and somehow I was so happy I felt like crying, and my physical discomfort only added to my happiness. I really must have been tired. Either that or I am only a few steps away from Enlightenment.

I went for a walk around the cobbled streets of Daitokuji and found a long tree-lined path to walk along that reminded me of the path beside my old primary school in England. Then I walked all the way back to the front again. I had only decided to go to Daitokuji because I had heard that there are few tourists there. I had assumed that it would be a little boring and that I would only spend a short while there before moving on. But instead, I was there for quite a while and I am so glad I went. It was absolutely wonderful.

I had been hoping to take a mountain tram up to a famous hot spring in the mountains north of Kyoto, and although I had the time to go, I did not have the energy. Instead I went back to the station area. I decided to use the public bath that I had heard was located in the basement of Kyoto Tower. It is advertised as ‘the biggest bath in central Kyoto’ and the picture on the poster (an illustration not a photograph) shows a huge, beautiful bath. That has to be the worst case of false advertising I have ever come across. That bath is the smallest public bath I have ever been in. The bath was just a little kidney bean shaped thing that about four people at a time might be able to crowd into. The shower faucets were old-looking, and it was bloody expensive! But I got clean, that is the main thing.

I bought a ticket to Kyoto tower proper and spent quite a while up there peering through the mists with the binoculars trying to see the sights I had visited. I found Kiyomizu-dera, the first place I had visited in Kyoto. It is up on the side of a mountain so it is not hidden behind anything. It was almost hidden in the clouds but I could just see the stage and the flashes of cameras from the top. I remembered that I myself had stood up on the stage and had looked at Kyoto Tower, and I felt that I had neatly wrapped up my holiday. I bought the necessary Kyoto souvenir sweets for my places of work and my English conversation class and then I had dinner in a pasta restaurant in Kyoto station. There were still nearly two hours before I could catch the train, so after I got my bag out of the coin locker I spent a bit more than an hour staring at a ‘water phoenix clock’ thing that was set up near some seats in the station building. It was a big model of a phoenix standing on a clock with pillars of bubbly water behind it. Weird but hypnotic. Then I went through the barrier and waited again for a while until I could board the train. Once I was aboard, I quickly went to bed. The train got to Kisakata at 6.30am and I waited there for an hour until I could catch the five minute train home.

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