Japan, Post #1: Kyoto, an introduction

Before interest in our big trip wanes entirely, its time to get some visuals out there for those of you who have waited so patiently!  Here are a couple disclaimers we have to slap up here before I begin though:

1) These are just tourist pictures, the cheesy ones that everyone takes on vacation, and are not meant to be viewed as professional photography.  We took only one camera, a couple of zoom lenses and no lights: we were on vacation afterall!  We’re definitely not seeking employment with National Geographic here.  

2) We’re not experts on Japan, Japanese culture or religion so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Estimate that I’ll have my facts right about 54% of the time.

That being said… While our trip actually began at our friends Susan and Erik’s place near Zushi city, our first destination was the famous city of Kyoto.  As capital of the Empire for over one thousand years, it’s home to more historic temples, shrines, castles, gardens and districts than a tourist could possibly digest over the course of a full week.  Even with the time we blocked out to explore, we still had to pick and choose.  Kyoto is a huge and modern city and not quite the shangri-la its often described as, particularly when you visit during a high tourist season.  That scene in Lost in Translation where Scarlett Johanson is alone in Kyoto… um, no…so not possible in a scarf wearing season!

While temperatures in Japan were similar to those we came from back home in Virginia, their fall peak occurs much later than ours so we got to experience the spectacle of autumn twice.  It rained more than half our days in Kyoto, which isn’t unusual.  We stayed at a traditional guest house or ryokan in a section close to the University.  As you can see, we didn’t exactly fit in most traditional Japanese structures:

We had an awesome view of the city from our room, which seemed only fair since we had to climb 93 steps to get home each day.  Here’s Sam at our breakfast nook and me refusing to get up in the morning, you can tell we are morning people.  When you stay in a ryokan, you sleep on futons on the floor and stow your bedding in closets during the day so that you can eat meals or drink tea in your room.

One of our stangest/fondest memories of Kyoto was the night we ran into a geisha.  It was early on, we were jet lagged, and were standing at a bus stop waiting to go home in the famous Gion district.  Suddenly a gaggle of business men in black suits spilled out of an obscure side door and poured onto the sidewalk, drunk and laughing.  As they came toward us and the crowd thinned she became visible in the middle, gracefully walking in impossibly high platform geta (or sandels).  Now its not unusual to run into “geisha” in the Gion district, I put them in quotations because the vast majority are tourists playing dress up for a day and walking around, awkwardly in those shoes, to get pictures.  But she was the real deal, painted like a perfect doll, moving and smiling like a perfect woman, the paint on her back was what really struck me.  One of the men stopped her with his buddy to take a picture and 3 tourists jumped in with cameras to take pictures too.  Award winning photojournalists that we are, we just stood there and gawked.

OK, enough text, here are some pictures, I will add captions or info where I can…


This might be a good time to discuss English as we saw it in Japan.  Much like we Americans find kanji (Japanese script) to be cool looking and therefore use it as graphics on t-shirts or get tattoos at the age of 18 that we believe say “happiness” or “tranquility” (but probably really say “boob”), the Japanese like the look of our script too (but do not approve of tattoos).  Since neither Sam nor myself studied Japanese, we were illiterate in almost every way…. except for the ability to read completely nonsensical phrases printed on bags, storefronts, and clothing.  It was like having very special reading powers since we couldn’t understand anything useful, only entertaining things.  Here a few phrases I remember seeing as well as their contexts, we really should have written it all down:

“The Great Bathing Ape”:  printed on a man’s shoulder bag, we think it might be a brand because we saw it more than once

“Glorious Milk”: on a storefront selling men’s hipster clothing

“Spice Meets the Groovy Night”: a nightclub

“Girl saves the World. Loveboat saves the Girl” : on a shopping bag for a store called Loveboat

“Aggressive Leathers…. and Meat” : a leather store, we did not see any meat in there, only clothing

Ponto Cho, a historic alleyway, still active but a remanent of Old Japan:

Outside Nijo castle with Japanese school girls.  This is a good time to tell you that the “peace sign” we’re all giving in Japan means “I am happy and having a good time”.  While most Japanese were content to ignore us, we always got love from the school girls wherever we went.   If we were passing on the street, a hush would fall over the group as they geared up to say (or more accurately, yell) HELLO just as we were about to pass.  When we said HELLO back with a reciprocal amount of enthusiasm they would explode into a fit of squeals and giggles, sometimes one would even scream.  We loved it.

Mel on the Philosopher’s Path:

A bamboo forest in Arashiyama:

There is no lack of Japanese maples in Japan, in case you were wondering.  Lots of ginko trees too:

To say prayers at a shrine or temple, you ring a bell or clap three times to wake the gods:

Unaccepted fortunes tied to trees.  When visiting a temple, you can buy a fortune printed on a piece of paper and the process of procuring it is fun: you drop a coin a box, shake a cylinder until a stick comes out of the cylinder, match the writing on the stick to writing on a drawer and pull out the first printed fortune in that drawer.  If the fortune you receive is bad or mediocre, you tie it to a nearby branch and leave it behind so that it won’t come true.  I only got to buy my fortune once at a place where I knew they had an English translation, otherwise I wouldn’t know whether to keep it or leave it behind!

Historic Shimbashi Dori in the Gion district:

Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavillion

Happy, and having a good time at Kinkakuji:

View of the city from Kiyomizudera, the temple on stilts:


There’s much more to come, I will try and post every day with a new theme or place.  Tomorrow’s topic: Zen gardens and temples.