Arashiyama / Kokedera

Today was a day we had planned for a long time – having written to the monks of Kokedera temple months ago to ask if we could visit their moss garden Saiho-ji, and receiving an invitation card in the mail. We decided to make a day of it by heading west to Arashiyama, a small town on the western outskirts of Kyoto which is a popular tourist spot. From the station we walked to the bamboo forests and Tenryu-ji, one of Kyoto’s greatest and oldest temples, with a wonderful garden including a small area thought to be the oldest garden in Japan. The bamboo forests were quite amazing, although overrun with people walking the road, punctuated by taxis driving among the crowds. Serene, not so much.

With some planning and some luck we found the local bus from Arashiyama to Kokedera and took a short ride to the temple with time to spare for our 1pm appointment. We walked up the roads behind the temple and Mem found a track leading into another enormous bamboo forest, a short walk in the rain with nobody else at all, and it was incredible, far surpassed the earlier trail. Time wasn’t on our side so we headed back to Kokedera, where a friendly man in a suit inspected our invitation, asked the girls’ ages and immediately docked our entrance fee by half. They were the only kids there – but they sat with us on the tatami floor and wrote kanji sutras by tracing the intricate outlines given on a paper sheet using traditional block ink and a tiny writing brush. Both girls did a wonderful job and were interested by the monks chanting (which fascinated Mem and I, sonorous recitation punctuated by bells and gongs, a steady drum meter adding to the hypnotic effect). The girls’ sutras looked like lovely renderings of the shapes on the paper – mine looked like an insect had partly drowned in ink and spent some time thrashing about trying to recover. E was quite disappointed to leave the kanji because she was loving it – but we wrote our own prayers on the paper, took them to the low table, bowed and then entered the garden. It was raining lightly but steadily, but when it’s a moss garden viewing it in the rain is a plus, not a drawback. It was as lovely as we’d hoped, and even the dozens of other people present didn’t spoil the magic. I think I wore out the shutter button on my camera.

After the girls had been such good sports – and I mean incredibly good, not a murmur of complaint about the complex travel, sober ceremony or even the sanity of walking slowly around a damp garden in the rain – we decided to follow Uncle Dean’s recommendation of a trip to the monkeys. A solid hike up 150m of mountain height led to a fairly average looking caged building – but the cage was for us, so we could feed the monkeys from within, who were otherwise roaming the park freely. Aside from a couple of moments of unease (these guys are pretty large, move very fast and get cranky quite a lot) the girls were entranced, and happily fed peanuts and apple chunks to the panhandling monkeys through the wire. Very very exciting and a couple of keepsake soft toys completed the grand slam. Train back was quite full and we didn’t get to sit down – a rest at the hotel before heading out for some very tasty ramen wasn’t quite enough, and we hurried back through the now pelting rain to get Edie to bed, while Callie nailed a small tub of chocolate brownie ice-cream, crowned her favourite there and then. I have no idea where the girls get their zing from but am beginning to notice it correlates quite closely with ice cream consumption.

Quiet day tomorrow I think. But this was a great one.

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Lost in Kyoto

Yesterday was a bit of a mess with a couple of less-exciting destinations and poor transport choices, so we reached the end of the day completely worn out and not much in the mood for happy snaps! Went to Heian shrine where I had for some reason believed there were many turtles in the garden ponds – instead we saw the shrine itself followed by a rather expensive entrance (more than Kenroku-en) to a fairly average garden, with exactly three turtles in the ponds. Would have been OK except that there were beautiful sections with stone bridges and paths through trees, maybe 1/3 of the garden, simply marked "No Entry". It was odd.

Decided unwisely to walk to see some of the other shrines and temples nearby – first one was a winner, a Shinto shrine to rabbits which was charming and included a girl bringing her actual rabbit there to pray. Followed by a long, confused walk to a beautiful Buddhist temple and then a walk through a large area including an enormous cemetery and several other temples – got ourselves quite thoroughly lost for a bit (thanks Google Maps and Apple Maps). Escaped the maze and made our way back to the stop for the "Raku" sightseeing bus route, which on the way out had been merely crowded, but which on the way pack was like a Guinness record attempt for the number of people in a bus shaped space. At least the girls got a seat for the latter half of the long trip. We were all pretty dead (I’d had 4 hours’ sleep) and it was very slow, stopping several times for people to wedge themselves in and fight their way off. Also had to stop for a Shinto procession carrying a shrine so perhaps it was a significant day. Fell off at the other end, regrouped with another late lunch and after a rest decided to go to the local toy shop which was a bit unexciting, and a pet store which included kittens up to $3500 and a puppy which was about $5800 – unbelievable, perhaps there is expensive registration included in the price, but it’s not a casual undertaking it seems. Dinner was an unimaginative revisit to the teppanyaki place to short-circuit a lengthy decision.

Today, Arashiyama and the moss garden of Saiho-ji – wish us luck, and reasonable weather!

I should say that all our updates are a mix of photos taken by the whole family, in case I gave the impression they were all mine! Edie has really taken to her camera in particular. We’ve shot 1600 pictures to far, so it may be best to avoid dinner invitations for a month or so after we return.

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A pleasant goodbye to Kanazawa and an easy train to Kyoto, but it was 2pm by the time we sorted out our hotel (which is excellent) and the day was looking like a bit of a bust. Fortunately a couple of stations up the Sagano line is Nijo, where there is a still-intact 400 year old castle used by the Tokugawa shoguns and then the first Meiji emperor – we were able to walk the "nightingale passages" around the entire castle and look in on the stunning interior rooms with their original decorations. The huge cedar floor slabs are built to chirp musically when walked on, so you couldn’t sneak through the corridors and surprise the shogun. And it still works four centuries later. The interior was incredible, every detail crafted to perfection. The gardens behind the gargantuan stone walls were simple and beautiful. A really special place to visit despite the crowds of a Sunday afternoon.

We had eaten late so after a bit of a rest in the hotel we headed down toward the station about 8 and finally hit the food jackpot, a busy teppanyaki grill which made pizza-topped potato slices for the girls, and a range of Kyoto specialties for Mem and I. The staff were laidback and friendly and beamed at my hilariously bad Japanese, the food was divine and the local beer was very tasty. The girls loved watching the teppanyaki chefs doing their stuff as well. So it turned out to be a great day. 4 nights in Kyoto and thus far we love it.

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Kanazawa day

Got ourselves out to Kenroku-en using a local bus today, the driver waved us off without charging (probably because he figured it would take too long to explain things!). Kenroku-en is supposedly one of the three great gardens of Japan and it was pretty stunning. Mem was in her element. After walking around in the grey and rain (actually a nice way to see it) we crossed the road to the 21st Century Art Museum which turned out to be great – a bit like the MCA in Sydney I would say. Couple of really stunning pieces including a fathomless black oval cast in a giant concrete room by Anish Kapoor – unfortunately the only place we could take photos was in the "pool" which has a suspended layer of water over a space you could walk in, it was uncannily like being underwater. A very nice change from total Japan immersion too.

That took most of the day so we gathered ourselves for a late lunch and headed back via the Kanazawa Castle grounds, saw an original storehouse which I think was centuries old and one of the few survivors of the 1765 fire which destroyed the main castle. And missed the 4pm cutoff for the castle entrance again by about 6 minutes. So we came back and fell briefly asleep (well I did) and then went out for a fairly indifferent meal – the language barrier is the main disappointment, we are restricted to eating in places we can point to stuff which is kind of lame. But the girls could have tonkatsu and CHIPS which was wonderful given that they have had some more challenging food recently and not complained at all. And then bathtime for the young persons before well-earned bed. We are booked for our Kyoto train at 11 tomorrow. Kanazawa has been a nice place to visit – people are friendly and the fish markets are really cool.

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Takayama – Kanazawa

Hot and rainy in Takayama so just a quick trip to the Hida Folk Village and its tiny, dusty museum before we checked out of the ryokan and went in to catch the train. Fairly easy trip to Kanazawa, dropped our bags at the hotel before heading down to Kanazawa castle – a recent reproduction of the original which burned to the ground in the 18th century. It’s a coastal city so we walked through the busy fish and produce markets on the way, lots of interesting stuff there. Checked in to our hilariously small hotel rooms (2 x twin) and then a few laps of the station area to find a place for dinner, udon and soba noodle dishes liked by most. Then the REAL highlight, a trip to the ice-cream vending machine in the lobby.

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Takayama day

Started the day with a family onsen – yes, all 4 of us stripped off, washed, then sat in the intensely hot soaking bath, it was pretty good fun and interesting. The ryokan is pretty cheap’n’cheerful but there are enough elements of the real thing that it gives us a taste.

Walked into the town on a bright morning dampened by a "sorry, not here" from the railway lost and found (and a look of real sadness on the station official’s face as he bowed very sincerely in regret). Broke the news to Cal, who has been sad but OK, and walked off to see a wooden shrine in the city that had been built around 1570. Still there, looking good, and in the courtyard was a ginkgo tree which looked quite old, and turned out to BE old, 1200 years old in fact. Still healthy and thriving. Quite a thing to see.

The autumn festival was back on because of the fine weather, so we saw part of the procession and all 11 of the mobile shrines out in the streets, incredible labour in them. The town was packed and we waited to go up to Sakurayama Hachiman shrine (founded about 430 but modernised and enlarged in, er, 1683) which was the focus of festivities. It was beautiful (of course) and we made the little observances and then wandered up behind on the hillside, also stunning. Waited for the marionette show but decided we were unliklely to grasp its full meaning and it was blazing hot, so set off in search of icecream and a paddle under the bridge. Wandered around the town further, all got thoroughly tired and walked back to our accommodation. With girls tucked away Mem and I did some washing and then nipped out to a take-out for some Japanese basics, rice with very tasty chicken, pork and beef which went over well with the girls. Walked via Hida Folk Village where they have relocated some incredibly old buildings from the surrounding region as an outdoor museum. Also brought back a tiny Hello Kitty who will serve as the travel mascot until we find a larger one to replace our lost team mate.

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Goodbye big city, but one last experience when I woke at 5 so that Mem and I could tag-team a visit to the Meiji Jingu (shrine) in the huge forested park just a 20 minute walk south. I got there as they opened the gates for sunrise and walked down the huge tree avenue to the shrine, where I did the respectful observance they suggest even for gaijin – a coin, two bows, two claps and a bow. Cleansed my hands and mouth at the fount (also OK for gaijin), left hand, right hand, cup water to mouth with left hand, rinse left, rinse dipper. The shrine was beautiful – you can see it in the distance in one picture, but no photos in the shrine area itself please. I went back and Mem did her turn, while the young ladies slept in preparation for travel day.
And travel we did, after breakfast we hit the N’EX train to Shinagawa, then the Hikari Shinkansen to Nagoya (fast indeed) and then the train into the mountains to Takayama, incredibly lush forests and craggy mountains with lots of typhoon-dragged cloud, and a river gorge that was just jaw dropping in places – mixed with the usual light industrial, concrete’n’rust look of the Japanese towns and hydroelectric dams. Got to Takayama 5 and a half hours after leaving Tokyo, decamped to our, ah, budget ryokan which is a mix of fun, novelty and a bit of a cheap b’n’b feel. Very nice people and it’s comfortable if a bit chatty. I’m writing this from the futon on the tatami matting as we prepare for sleep on a fairly warm night. Room has its own ensuite toilet, don’t forget to put on the slippers while you squat! Also – bathing is in the family onsen downstairs – a big soak in the family bathtub after a wash in the changeroom …
Autumn festival was both lovely and a bit anticlimactic – lots of street stalls and throngs of kids etc. Mem and I had some takoyaki (octopus balls) and a taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry thing with red bean paste) – both very tasty. Saw a magnificent mobile shrine in the street with Shinto music played by schoolkids in the top of it – and then expected it would be taken through the streets, but in fact they turned it a right angle and took it back to the storage house. Coming back to the ryokan we discovered the festival had been cancelled! The typhoon coming through had caused rain and especially winds which would damage the incredibly intricate floats. So we were pretty lucky to see the one we did.
And then a dramatic end to the evening when we got to bedtime and Cal realised her beloved Hello Kitty had dropped from her bag on the train – looks like a trip to Takayama Station Lost Property tomorrow, with a fairly substantial language barrier ahead …

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