16 July 2009

Kyoto Day 1, Hillwalker Tour

My husband and I had the opportunity to spend five days in Kyoto in May, 2009. This blog post is just the first of my attempts to share some of that journey. We took all the photos, which are just our snapshots, minimally processed. Place names on the walking tour are from the transliterations of our tour guide, Johnnie Hillwalker.

Kyoto train station

Not just a terminus, this train station complex is worth exploring. We took the escalators up and outside to the roof garden, all the while wondering how the escalators run in the winter, as the conveyors are open to the weather at the upper level. While the station does not initially seem to have much in common with traditional Japanese architecture, conceptually there are a plenty of spatial and stylistic links. For example, there is no clear distinction between the inside and outside of the station. Such ambiguity exists at the Abbot's house at Nanzen-ji temple (more in a future post), where one accesses individual rooms not from a Western-style interior hallway, but from a covered, but unenclosed, porch. Open a sliding door and one views the outdoors, but the outdoor gardens are so manicured they are like inside spaces.

In another architectural reference, just as the massive thatch roof of a traditional Japanese farm house asserts itself as the dominant element of the structure, the space-frame roof of the station is dominant and unifying, sheltering a variety of activities beneath it.

Two places to grab a quick bite - Cafe du Monde and Mister Donut

It's worth going up to the top level for views

Worker cleaning the escalator

You get some idea of Japanese notions of cleanliness too, while watching the numerous pink and blue-uniformed cleaners disinfecting all the station surfaces, even the walls of the escalators. A cleaner gets on the escalator and holds her wipe against the side wall as the escalator ascends. The worker rides down the escalator, with cleaning cloth pressed against another portion of the wall, and repeats this ascending and descending process until the sidewalls of the units are wiped clean. With outdoor escalators, keeping everything so spotless must be a Sisyphean task.

Back down to street level, we made our way to the bus information center in front of the train station. The info center staff all wore surgical masks, and it's unexpectedly disconcerting to converse with someone with half his face hidden, but they were helpful and we obtained the best city map we found. (The Lonely Planet guide to Kyoto is good, but the maps are extremely hard to read.) A good map is essential as there is surprisingly little signage in English, or any Western language, given that Kyoto is such a major tourist destination.

Johnnie Hillwalker handing out his map

Adjacent to the bus info center, there is a below-grade entry to a department store. This is where we, along with about two dozen other visitors, formed a group for Johnnie Hillwalker, aka Hajime Hirooka. An elderly but spry gentleman, he leads five-hour walking tours through the by-ways of Kyoto. He handed out home-made maps, which were quite helpful - we could follow the route, orientate ourselves, and knew how to get back in case we wanted to revisit a stop later.

Johnnie's website is http://web.kyoto-inet.or.jp/people/h-s-love/ Note well - while the walk is level, it's a lot of walking and standing, with limited opportunities for sitting or bathroom breaks. There's one quick stop, about mid-tour, for a small vegetarian sushi snack, and another stop near the end of the tour for green tea and a traditional sweet. Sunglasses or a hat are advisable in the summer.

Johnnie describes and philosophizes in easy-to-understand English, the tour was generally good, and we saw some things we would not have seen on our own, or would have viewed with less comprehension. We waited in line in an underground passage while Johnnie collected our 2000 yen each (about $20), giving us a chance to catch up on the outcome of the recent Preakness horse race (Rachel Alexandra won), then off we went.

Our route in red, with other suggestions and tips marked

Higashi-Honganji temple complex

The first major stop was the Higashi-Honganji temple complex, the world headquarters for its sect of Buddhism. The Founder's Hall, an enormous wooden structure, was being renovated, so we toured the Amida Hall, in stocking feet, carrying our shoes in the plastic bags provided, and sat on tatami mats while learning a bit about Buddhism.

The porch of Amida Hall
The massive size of the timbers makes the refinement of the detailing all the more remarkable

Detail of the metal fittings on the entrance gate to the temple complex

Carved wood entry gate detail

The moat, as we left the temple complex

A rather nondescript Kyoto street on our route

Sales assistant getting out a fan for a customer

Next, off to the Kyosendo fan shop. I'm a fan of fans, having made a visit to the Fan Museum in Greenwich, London, http://www.fan-museum.org

Largely anachronistic in the West, fans are still used ceremonially in Japan, and we crammed into the back workshop to observe a little of their manufacture. Kyoto still has what we'd call cottage industries, evidently, and these feature in Johnnie's tour.

While we waited for fan purchasers, two Spanish women in our group went across the street and bought some tofu. They were smart. We continued on to several Shinto shrines.

The Torii gate, with symbolic tasseled rope partition, indicates a Shinto shrine

The cow is a deity for the head and intellect, so students hoping to ace their exams will visit this shrine - part of the visit may include touching the rope for luck

Another shrine, with a spirit fox, a deity for wealth, in residence - the bib is an offering

The long, flat, upright sticks commemorate special death anniversaries

We also visited this small Buddhist cemetery. There were remnants of incense sticks in shallow bowls near the monuments.

A family monument with beautiful carving

A place of pilgrimage for video gamers

On a lighter note, we next journeyed to the historical headquarters building of the Nintendo company. According to Johnnie, this building dates from the 1930's; Nintendo was established in the 19th century to make playing cards.

Our group, as Johnnie distributes card samples

Small graphic design gems next to a 100 yen coin

Our route then crossed the wide, marshy Kamo River, everyone dragging a little now, and led to the Kanshundo Pastry shop, near the Toyokuni shrine. Some of us visited the flea market at the shrine, some just recharged batteries with green tea and the very pretty crispy treats.

Green tea and pink sweets on their wrapping paper

On the outskirts of the Toyokuni shrine, a very large bell.

Overexposed, but you can see the suspended wooden timber used to strike the bell

The bell is sounded on the medallion on the other side

I kept wishing we could hear the sound of the bell, but I think it's only given voice on New Year's now. A good opportunity for a recorded audio guide supplement, perhaps.

Johnnie, near the end of the tour

Our final stop was Yuki pottery, where we looked in at a potter painting overglaze decoration on a small tray, and had the opportunity to buy some small bowls and other items from the cart outside, behind Johnnie.

Final thoughts - do the stores Johnnie includes on his tour receive an inducement from him, or vice versa? Well, tour guides and merchants have had special relationships since ancient Romans took in the sites, and sights, at Delphi and Athens. I don't know the set up with this Kyoto tour, but nobody was given the hard sell at any time, and I think some mutual benefit is reasonable, given that we did receive the opportunity to see a little of the behind-the-scenes life for small manufacturers.