Apr 09: Tour of Kyoto

First, a sitrep: we had hoped to fly home on Monday the 9th, but United was unable to accomodate this change. We’re now flying home on the 11th. Tracie’s condition seems to be stable for the moment. The silver lining to our cloudy situation is that we’re able to salvage some of our original plans for our stay in Kyoto. Today we saw several of Kyoto’s major attractions with the guidance and assistance of a private guide who goes by the nickname Sid. (His real name is Makino but I am not sure whether or not that is his family name.) It was a long day and I’m fairly tired so I’m going to let photos do most of the talking. I shot about 300 photographs today.

First on our itinerary was the Heian Shrine, a very large shrine fronted by the largest tori (gate) in Japan. Passing through a tori is said to purify the walker, so Shinto temples usually have one or more tori in front. They also have a small fountain or well for performing the water-based purification ritual. (You don’t want any impure types running around in the shrines after all.)

The shrine itself is impressive but the main attraction to us was the adjacent garden which is said to be the most beautiful landscape garden in all of Kyoto, and by extension all of Japan. I won’t argue that choice. No verbal description can do justice to this place. I think I can speak for both Tracie and myself when I say that we were unprepared for the dazzling and seemingly endless beauty of this garden. It was one of many “yes, this is why we flew halfway around the world” experiences of this trip. I took at least 100 photos in this garden itself; obviously the following are just a small selection.

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Now is as good a time to mention something I’ve been meaning to mention, which is that all of the photos I’ve posted here are by necessity considerably reduced from the originals. I’m using a 6 megapixel camera which produces photos of more than four times the size that I’m posting here. At some point after we get home I’ll post the full-resolution versions and/or burn some slideshow CDs for friends and family.

You’ll notice that the cherry blossoms are in bloom here. Our timing has been incredibly lucky in that we saw the cherry blossoms in both Tokyo and Kyoto.

Next we visited the Nijo Castle. This castle was built in 1603 as the residence of the first Tokugaawa Shogun, and is significant in part because it was the site at which the last ruling Shogun officially returned sovereignity to the Emperor of Japan. I was surprised at how spacious it was inside. Photos are not allowed within the castle itself because it is decorated with very old and treasured paintings, but the surrounding grounds are quite beautiful, as I hope these photos will illustrate to some degree.

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Yes, women still wear kimono here, and not just elderly women. Here’s a nice juxtaposition of the old and the new: a woman in kimono using her cell phone:

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Next we went to the Rokuon-Ji temple, known as the Golden Pavilion. Sid told us that this is the top tourist attraction in Japan but that it’s a bit much for his tastes. I can understand the reason for both points: Americans (et al) are drawn to shiny expensive things like moths to a flame, and Japanese aesthetics (in my extremely limited understanding of them) don’t encompass things this ostentatious. Still, it was pretty neat to see a gilt temple in person, and again the grounds around it are quite beautiful.

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The experience was faintly unreal: a gold-covered temple in a garden of unutterable beauty.

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I think that if you live a particularly virtuous life you may be reincarnated as a carp in a pond at a Japanese national monument. These have to be the most pampered fish on the planet. They’re huge, fat, and clearly accustomed to being fed by hand.

Our final destination was largely picked at my request: the Ryoanji Temple, home of one of the most famous stone gardens. These are the racked-gravel-and-rocks gardens associated with Zen monasteries. Sadly the temple is no longer functional except as a tourist attraction, and it’s difficult to appreciate how serene it must have been when it was populated only by monks. The understated beauty of the garden’s design endures but like a musical instrument placed in a museum, never to be played again, something wondrous, intangible and precious has been lost.

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We also stopped for lunch halfway through. I had sushi and Tracie had rice. It was a long day and in the end it was too much walking for Tracie. Hopefully a night’s rest will restore her; tomorrow we go to Nara to see more gardens.

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