Sunday, November 26, 2006

I went to Kyoto

I went to Kyoto last week. Unfortunately, half the population of Japan also went to Kyoto last week.

I blame the media. You see, it’s autumn and the leaves have started to change colour. The Japanese media have been reporting on the “leaf front” sweeping across the country as if they were in hot pursuit of OJ Simpson’s white Bronco. The leaf front has been the lead story on almost every TV newscast for the past five days. We’re talking live hits, helicopters, expert commentary and graphics. All for a bunch of dying leaves.

When the leaf front finally hit Kyoto on Tuesday, there was wall-to-wall media coverage. I was both excited and annoyed that the leaves had decided to explode into fiery shades of red the exact same week I was going to Kyoto. I knew it would be beautiful but I also knew I’d have to share the view with hordes of people.

Undeterred, Zoe, Aiko and I set off for Kyoto at dawn on Thursday. It took three and a half hours by train to traverse Shikoku Island and cross over the Inland Sea to the Japanese mainland. Once we were on the mainland, we hopped on the bullet train to Kyoto.

The bullet train was fast. It was a strange feeling riding on a train that went more than 300 km an hour. It felt like we were sitting in an airplane that was barreling down the runway just before takeoff. Towns and cities whipped past the windows. An hour later, we were suddenly in Kyoto.

We decided to spend the first day walking around. We saw geisha wrapped in beautiful silk kimonos.

We walked along cobblestone streets lined with traditional wooden houses.

And then we set off for some Buddhist temples to see what the entire population of Japan had flocked to Kyoto to see. Blazing leaves!

Now, you may think this was all very beautiful. But the photos don’t tell the whole story. For example, there were news helicopters circling overhead. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a temple garden when the air is filled with the constant thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack of propeller blades.

And whenever I tried to take a picture of something, there were 50 other people jostling to take the same picture as me. There was not one moment of quiet reflection. Nowhere to wander off by myself.

Visiting the temples was like a ride on an amusement park. You queued up in line. You paid your money. You shuffled along a roped-off path with hundreds of other tourists. You took some pictures. And you popped out the other side. One bus full of tourists drove away and three new buses arrived.

The experience wasn’t much fun. I didn’t hate it, though. There were parts of Kyoto that were breathtakingly beautiful. Like this golden temple just before sunset.

I also had a cinnamon bun and a latte for the first time in four months. It was almost as exciting as riding the bullet train. (Yes, I went to the cultural centre of Japan and Starbucks was one of the highlights. Go ahead and mock me. But you try living in a rural area where there’s no coffee and cinnamon buns and people who speak English and then tell me your heart wouldn’t involuntarily skip with joy when you saw those familiar green letters!)

We spent Thursday and Friday night in Osaka. Actually, the real reason we stayed in Osaka was because it was impossible to get a hotel room in Kyoto and Osaka is only half an hour away. I had tried reserving a room in Kyoto months ago but everything was booked solid.

We were lucky to even get a hotel room in Osaka. Then again, this was the view outside our hotel room window.

But Osaka was great. It was miles and miles of nothing but concrete and neon. I love neon. I’m like a moth drawn to the lights.

And that was it. We took the train back home on Saturday afternoon.

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