Our first experience with the Shinkansen trains (the bullet trains that Japan is famous for) was when we traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto. The train system is quite efficient and orderly. Luckily, it seems that numbers are usually printed in "normal" characters we can read, rather than Japanese characters that just look like pretty drawings to us. So, we could pick out the important information: departure and arrival times, car number, and seat numbers. On the platforms, lines are marked out to queue for each train car and when the train pulls up to the track, it stops exactly in place. If it's the last stop of the line, a cleaning person boards each car to clean and to flip the seats around (the seats just spin around!). If it's not the last stop, you better be ready to jump on because the train only stops for less than a minute. Then it zips away so smoothly that you wouldn't even realize that its going so fast. In summary, we were impressed.
We spent two days exploring Kyoto, which were not enough to see everything. The city itself is not as mesmerizing as Tokyo, but as the cultural center of Japan, there are loads of historical sites to see. On the first day, we followed a walking tour in the Lonely Planet book of the Higashiyama neighborhood where many historical sites are centered. When we were in Tokyo, it had been rainy and overcast, so we we excited to see the sun. That is, until we realized that the combination of sun, humidity, and walking meant that we'd spend our time in Kyoto melting. Thank heavens that they have drink vending machines all over the place. John particularly loved these. He got a different drink each time, it seemed! We also took after the local women and used our umbrellas for shade. It helped, but for some reason we were still sweating up a storm while all the locals seemed perfectly at ease strolling around under their umbrellas--in heels no less and some even in kimono! Well, it wouldn't be a true adventure if it wasn't physically challenging, right?
So, on our 5K (did I mention that it was 5 kilometers?), we walked through some really cute streets that were lined with quaint, historical, totally Japanese homes and shops (think: sliding doors, clay tile roofs, and bamboo shades). Unfortunately, most of them were turned into shops selling knick-knacks to tourists, but if you focused on the architecture, the little lanes were quite darling. We also saw several shrines and temples, each a little different. One was giant-sized; one had lovely trees; one had a huge Buddha sitting on its roof. After climbing a modest-sized hill (sweating to death, remember?), we visited Kiyomizu-dera temple. The highlights here were a bright red pagoda that overlooked the city and a pillar-supported veranda hanging off the main temple that overlooked the dense trees growing all over the hillside. John also drank some water from the magical spring, so he now should be healed or powerful or something. One wacky part of this temple (maybe not so wacky if you're Buddhist and you believe these superstitions) was when we were instructed to go down into the pitch-black basement of the temple. We followed a handrail until we got to a large stone with Japanese characters under a little spotlight. Tradition follows that you make a wish and then spin the stone. And so we did. I'm not sure who was giggling more, the two Saras or the schoolgirls ahead of us. It was silly. (As an aside, there were uniformed school groups wherever we went. They must go on a lot of fieldtrips!)
That evening, we enjoyed a delicious ramen meal and then walked around the Gion neighborhood--home of the Geisha. There are only about 100 geisha left in Kyoto and they live pretty discrete lives, so they are hard to find. To further complicate the hunt, Japanese tourists like to get dressed up like them. So, we saw quite a few 'geisha,' but we were quite skeptical that any of them were real. A couple of them seemed legit though because they were alone and scurrying along as if they were going to an appointment; as opposed to the others that were in giggly groups as if they were on vacation. If you haven't done your homework and read Memoirs of a Geisha (guilty!), then, in brief, Geisha are skilled entertainers of Japanese arts of classical music and dance. (They are not prostitutes. A few naughty Geisha gave them a bad name, but a classy Geisha wouldn't do that.) Going to a dinner that is served by a Geisha is very expensive. I suppose that explains why this neighborhood was also filled with clubs that sported bouncers at the doors and all the patrons were very dressed up. It was weird--unassuming streets filled with clubs and geisha houses with who-knows-what going on inside. It felt like a secret world that we didn't understand. Because we don't, actually.
For Kyoto day two, we split up. John went to a bamboo forest and the two Saras went to the Golden Pavilion temple and to a park with hundreds of shrines and torii gates all in a row. I think we all enjoyed our little adventures. And I think we all hope that there's a 'next time' so we can see some more of the sights. We found it interesting that on more than one occasion strangers on the street offered to help us find our way when we paused on the sidewalk to look at a map. The Japanese people are incredibly nice! That night, Hyeku Song, Sara's friend from New York, met up with us. We went out for some delicious tonkatsu, deep-fried, panko encrusted pork cutlets. Yum! We then happened upon a crowd of people, kids mainly, gathered at the riverbank. A band was playing and a skinny dude in hipster clothes was drawing, DJing, and dancing at the same time. All that action combined with the wild, flamboyant, metro, cutesy outfits of the Japanese youth made for some great people-watching.