Once in Kyoto we went in search of a new camera.
At Bic Camera we found the Duty Free area, where there was a limited display of Sony Alfa models. We had discovered that this is the place to get the international models, the ones that have an English menu. They did have the a65, this has all the features I need without the bulk of the larger models.
We then waited about 30 minutes until they could find an English speaking sales person.
She was very helpful but had no idea about cameras or photography. I wanted to try my 300mm and 50mm lenses on the new body to see if they were still compatible, but that was way beyond her understanding.
I took a gamble and bought the camera. It was packaged with an 18-50mm lens so that solved one of my issues.
We also got the camera duty free, that’s 5% off and received another 5% discount for using a Visa card.
All-in-all it was a good deal.
Back to the hotel to charge the new camera’s battery, using it would have to wait. Then it was back to the routine of seeing sights.
The Nishiki Food Market and Geisha district were a short distance, by subway, from the hotel.
We explored the food market which is in a covered mall that was at least a kilometer long. These malls are in all the cities we have visited so far. Narrow shopping streets have been covered with an elaborate roof, making them accessible all year round. Each mall has a different roof design.
The Nishiki Market had a huge variety of weird and wonderful Japanese food, much of which we had been lucky enough to try when we were in the Ryokan.
The Geisha district is close to the Takano River and is in a number of narrow back streets full of restaurants, bars and tea houses.
It is said that there are less than 100 Geisha remaining in the Kyoto area and only 1,000 in all of Japan. We did spot, what we believed to be, a genuine one but you are never sure, as many Japanese tourists pay to get dressed up in the style of a Geisha and walk the streets.
There are 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, we visited a lot of them.
We had an escorted tour booked for the morning of our first full day in Kyoto and visited Nijo Castle, Golden Pavilion and Kyoto Imperial Palace.
Nijo Castle is a ‘Flatland’ castle built by the Shoguns in 1626 and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has magnificent gates and gardens and the interior is open to explore but unfortunately no photography were allowed.
Our guide, another Yuki, gave us interesting anecdotes as she hurried us through the castle.
Tatami mats cover the floors of traditional Japanese homes. These are made of rice straw and about 7cm thick. Made in standard sizes, with the length being twice the width, they are very soft underfoot and because they damage easily, no heavy furniture is ever put on them.
I always believed that the minimalist approach to Japanese interior design was aesthetic, but in fact, it’s practical.
Another of Yuki’s interesting stories relates to the ‘No deciduous tree policy’ of the Shoguns. The traditional Japanese garden, of the Shogun era, only contained pebbles, rocks, water and non deciduous trees. The falling of the autumn leaves reminded them of the transience of life and the fact that their power wasn’t eternal.
Yuki also had an interesting way of distinguishing between the Shoguns and the Emperors. The Emperor, she said, could sleep well at night as his power was supreme and hereditary. While the Shoguns had to sleep lightly, as their power was attained by ‘the sword’ and they never knew when that power could be terminated.
There were wide wooden verandas surrounding the meeting and living areas of Nijo Castle. They were built in such a way that whenever someone walked on them they would chirp to alert the Shogun of intruders. Because of the sound they made they became known as ‘Nightingale floors’.
The Golden Pavilion or Rukuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple). The garden complex is an excellent example of Muromachi period garden design. This period is considered to be a classical age of Japanese garden design. In 1397 it was converted into a Zen Temple and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Golden Pavilion gets its name from the fact that the entire building is covered in gold foil. It shimmers in the daylight and seems to levitate above the lake that surrounds it. The day was dull and the rain had returned, as we were on the edge of yet another Typhoon, however the temple still shone.
It was also brighter for the fact that I had a new camera to play with.
The final stop on our morning tour was Kyoto Imperial Palace. This is the former ruling palace of the Emperor of Japan. The Palace lost much of its function at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1869, when the capital moved to Tokyo. This was the period of modernisation for Japan. In 1867 the Shogunate also came to its official end and the power was returned to the Emperor.
On a less historical and more contemporary note, Yuki told us that Nintendo was created in Kyoto. Nintendo Co. Ltd was founded ion 1889 and originally produced handmade hanafuda (playing) cards.
The word ‘Nintendo’ can be roughly translated to mean, “Leave luck to Heaven”
In the afternoon we visited Higashi Hongan-ji and Nishi Hongan-ji.
Higashi Hongan-ji was rebuilt in 1885 after the original temple burned down. It is now undergoing massive renovations, with the entire temple surrounded by a protective structure. This approach to renovation seems common in Japan as we saw it at a number of sites.
Nishi Hongan-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the other main temple in the east of Kyoto. As with Higashi Hongan-ji, in the west, it was established in 1602 when the Shogun Tokugawa layasu, in order to diminish the power of the Jodo sect, divided the main temple into two.
They are affectionately known in Kyoto as “Dear Mr East” and “Dear Mr. West”.
On our second full day we headed south from Kyoto to Nara, the first ancient capital of Japan from 710 to 784.
Nara Park has four UNESCO World Heritage sites, dating back to the 8th Century.
We visited all of them.
Kofukuji Temple is on the very edge of the park and its five-story pagoda is a symbol of Nara.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine is a beautiful example of the Kasuga style.
Founded in 768 it is situated in the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, also a UNESCO site, and has 3,000 lanterns within the shrine precinct.
To get a good view of the park and Nara we climbed up to the Nigatsudo Hall, not on the UNESCO list. There were school kids everywhere around the monuments, but especially here.
I think that on any given day half the school kids of Japan are on an excursion, as there are so many not in school.
Finally we visited Todaiji Temple, famous for a massive Vairocana statue, popularly known as the Great Buddha.
The current building was rebuilt in 1709. It is huge, but only two-thirds the size of the one it replaced.
Apart from temples the park is home to 1,200 wild Sika deer who seem to own the place.
They probably do, as they were originally regarded as sacred but are now only considered a ‘National Treasure’.
You can even buy biscuits that are made exclusively for them.
We spent some time on our final day exploring the Kyoto Railway Station.
The current station was opened in 1997 to commemorate the 1,200th anniversary of Kyoto. It’s a vast complex, 238,000 square meters, of shopping malls, movie theaters, hotels, department stores, restaurants, bars and of course the train station. All this is under a 15-story high atrium roof.
It was designed by Hiroshi Hara and is in the ‘Futurist’ style.
The Kyoto Station along with the Kyoto Tower, built 33 years earlier, are controversial structures in a city that prides itself on its traditional cityscape.
The Ryoan-ji Zen Temple was a 20 minute bus ride from the station, towards the north west of Kyoto.
Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple is famous for its Zen garden which measures 25 meters by 10 meters. Within the garden are 15 stones that are surrounded by white gravel, which is raked daily.
The only vegetation is moss growing around the stones.
The stones are placed in such a way that you can never see all 15 together, however it is believed that once you have attained enlightenment, you can.
And for something completely different, our final stop was the Kyoto International Manga Museum.
The museum was opened in 2006 and is housed in the former Tatsuike Elementary School. There are over 200,000 books in the collection, including copies dating back to 1862.
There are 40,000 volumes available to be taken down from the shelves and read. These are housed in the Manga Wall which is about 140 meters in length.
People of all ages were sitting around reading their favourite volumes.