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Saturday, April 01, 2006


Off to Kyoto... (warning, long post ahead)

We started the day at the base of Mt Fuji, at Kawaguchiko. We had to take a bus to get to the nearest Japan Rail stop so we could take a train to Kyoto. We bought our bus tickets and waited. While I watched the luggage, Mrs. Cleek ran off to get some snacks. See if you can spot her trying to cross the street:

Sony P7

That bus turned out to be a local bus - hitting every stop it could find, for an hour - but it went through some pretty nice mountains, so that made up for it. But, then we tranferred to another local bus that spent another hour going through another string of quaint but monotonous towns - our suitcases were starting to become a real pain in the ass to drag around and we just wanted to drop them somewhere. After that bus we hopped on a train that took us to Osaka, where we had lunch:

Sony P7

Mmmm beer.

Then we got our first ride on a bullet train. Lemme tell ya: that's fun. Those trains go 120+ mph. And when you're standing on a platform waiting and one comes by, it's there and gone in mere seconds - a flash of white, a huge rushing sound and a big gust of wind, count to 5 and it's gone without a trace. And likewise, when you're on it, the scenery is a blur. Good fun. The trains have smoking cars, reserved-seat cars, first-class cars and, my favorite: silent cars. where there are no P.A. annocenments, you just check the little scrolling LED sign at the front of the car to find out what's going on.

The standard men's rooms on the trains are single urinals with a glass door. So, you stand there and people can look in and tell, by seeing your back, if it's occupied or not. Sometimes, there's the other option:

Sony P7

The scenery from Osaka to Kyoto (and from Tokyo to Osaka, it turns out) is almost a solid band of highly industrial, dense, smoggy, flat, non-stop city. It looked like nothern New Jersey (imagine the opening sequence of the Sopranos), for three hours - but with a hazy ring of steep mountains off in the distance, fencing all the sprawl onto the plain. Smokestacks everywhere, miles and miles of squat concrete buildings with occasional small rice or tea farms near concrete-walled rivers. Plus, as with everywhere, the parts of the city near the train tracks are always dismal. That was not inspiring.

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But Kyoto.... what a fun city. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto isn't a modern high-rise metropolis. Kyoto is older, twistier, lower to the earth and more laid-back. We stayed in another ryokan, but the view wasn't quite as nice as the last:

Nikon D100, 18-35mm

The hot tubs were too hot for either of us - I got in for mere seconds and turned bright red from the waist down. The food was the same style as the previous place - but even stranger: whole baby squid with mustard, multiple octopus variations, some strange fermented fish dumplings, etc.. We only made it through one meal there and then we cancelled the others - we couldn't eat it, and felt bad wasting their time and food. All that aside, it was in a great location for other things.

For one thing, it wsa right across the street from a huge temple/shrine/park/cemetery complex. We saw temple stuff:

Nikon D100, 18-35mm

A Japanese wedding:

Nikon D100, 28-80mm

A crane:

Nikon D100, 75-250mm

And: rickshaw drivers, an old cemetery, a collection of old expensive cars, cherry and plum trees in bloom, etc.. Very nice.

Later that night, bummed-out about our inability to handle authntic Japanese food, we went to an Irish pub. There, a Japanese girl sang passable versions of Western songs while playing piano. She did "Every Breath You Take". She got to the bridge:

    Since you've gone I been lost without a trace
    I dream at night I can only see your face
    I look around but it's you I can't replace
    I keep crying 'baby, baby Please'

But, of course, when she sang that, she did what we were silently hoping she wouldn't; she sang the last word as "Prease". If you know the song, sing it to yourself with that word. OK? Now, it's not fair that we, a couple of people who speak less Japanese than a two year old Japanese child, should find it funny that a native Japanese speaker, in the course of playing and singing songs with English words, live, with her parents in the room (we think), messes up a word or two. But, she had nailed pretty much everything else; she only fudged a couple of words here and there - a typical amount for a cover act, in my experience. And she got all the L's in all the other words! So it wasn't that she couldn't do it, or that she didn't know. It's just that when she got to that one, the Big One, the Big Note, the climax of the song, she missed it, hard. She gave it that bad-Japanese accent spin. So sad. And we bit our tongues to not laugh out loud - not cruel laughter, but a happy "yeah, it's an Irish pub, but damn, we really are in Japan" laughter. On the other hand, I'm paying $5.00 each for Bass, I should be allowed to laugh at whatever I want.

Notes about drinking: wine in general is not common, even in bars. Red wine is often served cold, or with ice. Whiskey is very popular. Beer is plentiful, and you can even buy it in vending machines - and we did! often! Some vending machines sell small bottles of whiskey (not airplane bottles, bigger). A typical glass of whiskey is 1200 yen ($11). A typical beer is 500-700 yen ($4.50-6.50). It's cheaper to drink from the hotel mini-bar than it is to go to a bar, most places.

The next day in Kyoto, we went to the "Golden" temple:

Nikon D100, 28-80mm

This was a wonderful temple, covered in gold leaf, on a perfect little pond, with perfectly-sculpted trees and gardens, up on a hillside. Crowded with sightseers, though. It's a bit hard to get all peaceful and reflective when you're trying to avoid getting trampled by your fellow tourists. Still, a great place - a place where I think I could spend hours, if the crowds were smaller.

Then we went to a quiet little district, on a different hillside, full of great little shops and restaraunts - quiet twisty little streets than snake around the hills. Don't know the name, or I'd recommend it - it's near Kyoto's oldest Pagoda, if that helps. While we were there, we noticed some smoke a couple of blocks away, so we went to see what was going on. It turned out to be a Buddhist ceremony of some kind on this hilltop; monks were throwing bundles of sticks into a big fire - all the sticks had words on them. We assumed they were prayers of some kind. Some monks threw sticks, some threw water - to keep the fire smoky, I guess. Some monks banged drums, and they all chanted.

There are two flying bundles of sticks in this picture; one looks like it's attached to a wire - it's not. My wife got some video of this. Pretty wild stuff.

Nikon D100, 28-80mm

They did that for a half hour or so, then got up and marched away into the shrine. Then we walked back down to the shops were was saw these two:

Nikon D100, 28-80mm

We thought they might be real geisha, at first. But the next day we saw an ad in a paper for a service that would let you dress up as a geisha then wander around the town for an hour. That might explain why those two were taking each other's pictures while they were walking around. Oh well. Fun anyway.

Then we walked back to the hotel - but on the way, we heard music coming from a club. We walked in - no cover, since it was still mid-afternoon - and watched a couple of Japanese emo/skater bands in a dark underground club - covered with posters, graffiti and t-shirts. The bands were as good as any American college club band - the same styles, same moves, same looks - but singing in Japanese, of course. A good time. I think they were webcasting it or something. We got some audio for a couple of songs.

Sony P7

Right next door to that club was a fugu shop:

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Poisonous blowfish anyone?

Then, later that night, we went to another Irish pub. And we heard probably the best live Irish music I've ever heard: guitar, pipes, drum. Amazingly tight. It was played by three young Japanese guys, of course:

Sony P7

And I discovered I love Jameson's 12.

One more bar. Then the walk home:

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Because, even though we loved Kyoto, we had to get up, check out and get to Hiroshima the next day.

All images Copyright 2004-2005, cleek.