Kyoto: The Land of Dreams (part 1)

Here I am. Kyoto. It took me over sixteen hours to arrive here. I took five or six local trains, transferring often, sometimes with only 2 minutes in between trains. I haven’t eaten a proper meal all day, mostly just snacking on randomness from the infamous convenience stores of Japan where men openly view semi-pornographic magazines. I’m tired. I long for a real meal. And I couldn’t be happier to be here.

Sunset at Kyoto Station

This is my second trip to Kyoto. I love it. I love everything about Kyoto. During my first visit here, I accomplished much of the touristy agenda. I browsed the many of the temples. I even had the pleasure (although at the time it seemed like a curse) of wandering around Ginkaku Temple in a serene, misty rain.

Rain peacefully falling on Ginkaku Temple

So I’m back again. I’ve returned mainly for experiencing the sakura, or cherry blossoms. The thought of cherry blossoms always triggers immediate thoughts of Japan in me, whether intended or not. After my first visit, I longed to be able to return during the spring months long enough to catch a glimpse of the beautiful sakura falling weightlessly from the trees covering the aged temples and historical backstreets of Gion. I’ve returned to Japan for a few reasons, but the ultimate goal was to see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto.

I’ve arrived in Kyoto without a plan, in fact without actually knowing how long I will be in Kyoto or even Japan. I’ve come to Kyoto to just be.

Kyoto is home to around 2,000 religion sites, both of the Buddhist and Shinto variety and is one of the best preserved cities in Japan. Originally heading the list of possible atomic bomb targets, it was removed by the Secretary of War because of its known cultural heritage and importance in Japanese history. Translation: Kyoto is one of the best places in Japan to soak up Japanese culture. As you walk the streets, it is impossible not to come across a temple here and a temple there. The other attraction impossible not to find in this wondrous city: peace.

I ended up spending most of my time in Kyoto just walking. I had no real goals, other than to just soak up Kyoto in anyway possible. When you travel in short bursts of time, it’s often common to see as much as possible in the amount of time you have allotted. However when traveling for longer periods of time, you find that it is almost impossible to always be sightseeing. During these times, it is good to just relax and enjoy whichever random pastime you can find.

I always enjoy walking along the big open paths of Kyoto Gyo-en, the Imperial Palace Park. It runs 1.3 km from north to south and 0.7 km from east to west, giving it about a square kilometer of total area. Spring was running bit late this year, so the cherry blossoms hadn’t quite woken up yet. Still, it is a great place to lie in the grass, either in the sun or in the shade, and enjoy the beautiful day.

Imperial Gardens

I did have one appointment on my agenda. I was very curious to meet some local people here in Kyoto and try to see what life would be like if I ever decided to move here. I got in touch with a couchsurfer, who offered to show me around a bit.

Koji listening to the magical process of making Sake

We met up in an area just south of central Kyoto, although now I can’t remember the name. It was supposed to be very well known and Koji was shocked that I hadn’t been there yet. Oh well. You can’t always see everything. There were many traditional souvenir tourist trap shops in the area, plus a very beautiful temple. However, we were only there for one thing. Barbecued sparrow.

Koji had originally asked me if I had ever eaten sparrow. I wasn’t sure if I had, but it sounded good anyway. I was in for a bit of a shock though. We arrived at a little restaurant and looked at the menu. I was asked if I wanted the bird with or without bones. So I chose the boneless option. We were served some delicious Japanese green tea while we waiting. Then our selection arrived.

Umm...excuse me. There seems to be a head on my plate.

I’m not sure if the picture does it complete justice. We were, in fact, served a complete bird (head, wings, and all) although luckily it seemed to be de-feathered. I stared at Koji in a state of disbelief.

“Am I supposed to eat the head as well?” I enquired.

He laughed and finally admitted he had never eaten this either. Well, here goes nothing. I devoured the sparrow-on-a-stick, head and all. It was actually really good. The head gives you a nice little crunch, but not too much. The rest was also a bit crunchy, but quite delicious. As I finished eating, another plate arrived. This was pretty much the same thing, although cut up instead of served on a stick. This was the boneless selection I had ordered. Koji had ordered his second course with the bones still intact. I wasn’t aware that he had ordered two items for each of us. Koji decided to give me the pleasure of eating the head of the second bird he ordered. How nice of him.

Ok, so first adventure finished. Next, we scurried off to check out a Sake brewery to find out how the traditional Japanese rice liquor is made. I was really excited about this. The property of the brewery was very old and beautiful. It smelled of rice and awesomeness. I developed quite an affinity for Sake sometime during my stay in South Korea. I know. Sake is a Japanese liquor. Still, it’s delicious. The tour was given by an older Japanese man. He seemed like a very intelligent man and was possibly giving a great tour of the brewery, however, it was all in Japanese so I missed most of it.

Sake Brewery

At the end, we were given samples of their best Sake though. At that point, I didn’t really care so much about the tour. I just enjoyed the free Sake being handed to me.

We then headed down the road to a little cafe where we were able to try some more Sake. We sat and chatted about the world and anything else that entered our minds as we let the various types of Sake quench our thirst. It’s hard to find a good conversation partner who stimulates your interests and can inject inciteful commentary into the mix. Koji was definitely a good conversationalist, well-versed in world issues.

Sake Bottles

We finally finished off the day with a bowl of Japanese ramen. The Japanese ramen served in restaurants in Japan is a far cry from the dried-noodle packages you can get at supermarkets in America, for anywhere between 10 and 50 cents. The Japanese style is very hearty and healthy, with many fresh vegetables and perhaps little bits of meat. It’s a nice light meal on a chilly day.

We parted ways at this point. Koji informed me of a gathering of other couchsurfers the next week in central Kyoto. If I was still in Kyoto at the time, I would join him. I headed back to my hostel to relax and contemplate on the day.

This next week, I tried to explore areas of Kyoto that I had previously missed or just walk up and down random streets to see what I could find.

If you feel like taking a walk down streets that hold some significant history, make your way over to Gion. The thin streets with antique wooden facades are beautiful and walking down them at night seems to suggest that secrecy is still the norm in this area. You can sense a feeling that you must be important to know what happens beyond the simplistic wooden fronts.

Streets of Gion

Gion is perhaps the most famous Geisha district in all of Japan. Arthur Golden used Gion as the setting for his book, Memoirs of a Geisha. There is a common misconception that Geisha are prostitutes. The word Geisha in Japanese translates to “person of the arts” and Geisha were entertainers for the wealthy and important Japanese. Gion is not and never was a red-light district.

I’ve read that from time to time, you can actually catch a glimpse of real Geisha still moving between appointments on the streets of Gion, but I have yet to see one. Today, although there are still Geisha in Japan, the numbers have declined greatly since World War II.

Next perhaps, you might want to explore Nijo Castle. Since this 400 year old castle was located right next to my hostel, I decided to explore it at night time. The castle only opens at night at certain times of the year and cherry blossom season happens to be one of them. The cherry blossoms are beautifully lit up throughout the castle with colors from white to pink to red. A perfect night time treat.

Nijo Castle Cherry Blossoms

Kyoto is located in the Kansai region of Japan and it is central to many other interesting areas so it makes a great place for day or short trips elsewhere in the area. It is my intention to break up my post on Kyoto and the Kansai area into multiple posts. Check back next week for more.

To be continued….

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