“Happy Christmas by the way.” I looked across at Nipun, trying to adjust the straps of my backpack which seemed to be far heavier on one shoulder than the other, a common annoyance. It was about 5.30am, an hour before sunrise and we were both stiff and heavy from a bad nights rest on an overnight bus between Hiroshima and Kyoto. Adjusting my pack so that it now seemed heavier on the other shoulder I replied curtly, “It’s not until tomorrow. It’s Christmas eve today.”
“No it’s not. Happy Christmas.”
I looked at my watch, startled. Indeed she was right. My tetchiness relaxed a little. It was Christmas day! Not that there was any turkey and roasted potatoes to be had, but still. Maybe the reason the backpack felt so wretchedly heavy was that Santa had filled it up whilst I was not sleeping on the bus I mused. He must of snuck in whilst we half-lay there, eyes tightly shut, sleep gelling the lids closed in spite of our inability to drift off further than the cold window pane. But the daydream was short. We were in Kyoto, trying to figure of the easiest way of deciphering a metro ticketing machine that seemed to be annotated entirely Japanese. True, the prices were in Roman numerals, but other than that it was all pretty meaningless. “Sumi ma san,” (“Excuse me please”) I winced in my far from perfect Japanese to two teenage girls dressed in identical soft pink fluffy outfits with Hello Kitty shoulder bags. “How do we get here?” I pointed at our station on the metro map futilely. The girls faltered at the sight of the desperate, unkempt and red eyed Gajin (foreigner) in front of them. Nipun took over. The girls English was almost as non-existent as our Japanese, but after a few minutes of confused laughter, raised eyebrows and exaggerated gesturing we were on our way. Generally the Japanese are immensely helpful, embarrassingly so at times. They will try and help you even if they have no idea of where you need to be. It is touching, but also time consuming. Then somehow you need to extricate yourself from the situation without being rude. This was an easy one though, the girls in their pink shorts, stockings and fur topped boots deciphered the map and we made our way to the platform.
Upon arriving at our station we made our way into the soft light of the pre-dawn morning and began to look for our hotel. The directions we had were rubbish, we knew our hotel was nearby but still managed to walk around for half an hour before we found it; ironically it was almost directly opposite the subway station exit. Using up some loyalty points we had managed to arrange a very plush hotel for the first couple of nights, overlooking Nijo Castle. Kimono clad attendants swished efficiently through the reception area, looking dubiously at the contrast of our battered backpacks and slept-in clothes against the backdrop of marble floors and ornate, polished wood furniture. “Check in time is only at three o’clock Sir,” the concierge smugly remarked when we announced our arrival. We dumped our bags and went wandering. We started off with the four kilometre walk around the castle moat and then, once the castle had opened up for the day, we went into the grounds. Nijo Castle was originally built in 1603 at the instigation of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate (military government to you and I). Like all good despots he ordered all the feudal lords beneath him to construct him a castle that was then extended over sucessive years. Today (in spite of fires caused by lightning and latterly an uncontrolled conflagration that swept through Kyoto in 1788), the castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The rambling complex is massive and includes the famous Ninomaru Palace. A large part of the palace’s fame is down to it’s Uguisu-bari, or Nightingale floor. The wooden floor boards throughout the building have been constructed in such a way that when anyone walks across them they make a birdlike squeaking, hence sending out the alarm to the bodyguards in the various chambers throughout the palace. Paranoid? Certainly not our Tokugawa. The preservation of the place is wonderful, the palace is a maze of inter-leading rooms with sliding wooden doors and hand painted screens preserved from days long passed. The paintings are over 3000 in number, some of which date back to the 1700’s. Outside the palace are carefully tended gardens, an inner moat and outer moat and a second palace.
In stark contrast to the elegant and simple Shoin-zukuri architecture of the Samurai, we went for lunch at Kyoto Station. The station is home to an ultra modern complex called the Cube, fifteen floors of restaurants and boutiques that cater for every whim. The architecture is indescribably slick, with a large expanse of open air space that consists of stairs and escalators that ascend up to the 15 floor observatory point. We discovered that it easy to lost in here, every corridor seems to take you back to the astonishing view of Kyoto Tower. What was becoming very clear as we travelled around Kyoto was just how much there was to do. The city boasts 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than 1600 Buddhist Temples and in excess of 400 Shinto Shrines. And we had five days. In that time we made a decent stab at covering as much ground as possible. We did many of the obvious choices such as the district of Ginza which is renowned for it’s Geisha’s. I thought I saw one, laboured over the obligatory photos and then found out that she was actually a tourist from Canada. The photos are good (as in enough) though so maybe I’ll just keep quiet on that one. Whilst Ginza is supposedly best visited in the evening when the Geisha’s are out, I found it really rewarding to visit there very early in the morning, when most people were still asleep. The streets are practically abandoned and we spent a few hours exploring cobble roads and Shinmonzen Minami-dori, “arguably the most beautiful street in all of Asia,” if you believe the hype in the Lonely Planet. It is a very tranquil and beautiful place, but I was a little under whelmed after reading such an exuberant write up. To be fair, it is the middle of winter here and I imagine that in spring and autumn it must be magnificent.
Among the other temples we visited were Fushimi - Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine best known for it’s thousands of Torii’s (vermillion gateways that mark the entrance to a Shinto Shrine) and dozens of stone foxes. The Shrine is dedicated to the gods of rice and sake, whilst the fox is the messenger of Inari, the God of cereal grains. Another highlight was the village and shrines of Arashiyama, which lie at the base of Kyoto’s western mountain range. To recount all the temples we saw would make for tedious reading and writing, suffice to say that with a year in Kyoto, there would still be much that was missed. After our two days of posh accommodation we moved into an 8 bed dorm and had our first and last experience of shared rooms. It is amusing how inconsiderate fellow travellers can be to each other (travelling is a purely selfish and indulgent occupation after all) and after a couple of nights of tripping over other peoples water bottles and the stale morning air created by sixteen slumbering lungs we were glad to be going again. We were also a little sad though, Kyoto has slipped by so quickly and Tokyo lay before us. It is our last destination. Ten months of travel has gone by since we left London. In some ways it doesn’t even feel like ten days.