Sunday, 23 September 2012

Alone in Kyoto and a bit of naturism.

Kinkakuji - Golden Temple, Kyoto.
The train from Osaka to Kyoto took about twenty minutes, and there was barely a break in the urbanism between the two. I arrived in Japan's old capital in mid afternoon, and once I'd dropped my stuff off at the hostel I went for an explore of my surroundings in the late afternoon humidity. I walked along the busy Shijo Dori, a bustling street filled with shops and restaurants, and everlasting arcades spanned off in both directions. I'd seen on a map a park and temple area only a short walk away, so decided to head there; after all, the main reason tourists visit Kyoto is for the abundance of temples.

I arrived at some sort of temple, sat in the front of the park, but it left me fairly unimpressed. I'm not sure what I was expecting or what I demand for entertainment these days, but it barely held my attention for more than a minute before I was pacing off into the park. The last drops of daylight were incredibly humid, and I was soaked as I decided to follow a trail up the hill and into vegetation. I climbed a fair way and my hard work was rewarded with a small view over the city, but the flat fading light didn't make the city sparkle. I found myself in a small cemetery up on the hill, and I was unsure if people were buried there, or it was a place for cremation and remembrance. The tombs were incredibly close together, all on top of each other, and there were lots of wooden ski-like planks with writing on on each crypt, but I am yet to find out what these are. On the climb back down I came across a small waterfall and took a long exposure whilst mosquitos feasted on my blood, before walking back to my neighbourhood for a quiet evening socialising with some Americans. 

Shijo Dori, Kyoto.
Dark clouds gather over Kyoto.
The first temple I came across.
View over Kyoto.
The crowded cemetery.
Waterfall in the park
Man powered rickshaw.
The following day I was finally ready to head out by lunch time, I've never been a morning person. I decided to walk to the Golden Temple, also known as Kinkakuji, as it didn't look too far or complicated to get to, and I like walking across cities because you never know what you'll discover along the way. Kyoto didn't offer up too much though. It seemed to be built on a grid system, which made navigation easy, but most avenues and back alleys looked the same. The day was grey so maybe this made everything else look grey, but all the colours felt desaturated and the architecture had almost nothing to say. The city felt safe and functional but it seemed to lack an edge, but people had told me Kyoto wasn't the most exciting city, it was really only worth checking out for the number of different temples. 

As soon as I arrived at the gates of the Golden Temple, the dark clouds that had been brooding overhead unleashed their heavy load. I'd left the hostel without a coat or umbrella, so sat under a shelter for thirty minutes and watched hordes of visitors gripping umbrellas go through the gate. There were three men employed to direct people where to go, from the ticket office all the way to the entrance kiosk 10 metres away. To me their job seemed completely unnecessary, and would never be funded at home. I'd seen plenty of positions like this, their only function to micro-manage social order. I'd seen uniformed men on the subway stood ushering commuters to the left, and this superfluous position annoyed me slightly; what if I wanted to walk on the right?

I waited until the heavy rain subsided to a manageable drizzle before venturing into the park the temple was situated in. The temple itself was a pretty sight; a shining bright golden pagoda sat on the edge of a picturesque lake. It was a shame the rain still fell, and sunlight didn't polish the gold. Had the light been better and the lake undisturbed so it mirrored the temple, I feel it would have been twice as spectacular, I could see the potential but lady luck was not with me on this day. 

I followed the route through the site and upon exiting decided to head to another series of temples the other side of the city. Rain was still falling and my cotton clothes were becoming heavy with damp. The air was so thick with humidity that having gills may have been an advantage. I'd also misjudged the scale of the city, and was halfway to my second destination when I realised it would be closed by the time I arrived, so adjusted my route to head home. I managed to buy an umbrella just as the rain was easing, and stopped for some sukiya lunch, a bit of a Japanese curry type thing, before arriving back at the hostel at dusk.

Walking through Kyoto.
Visitors enter the temple as I wait for the rain to fade. 
Micro managing society, giving unnecessary directions. 
The Golden Temple.
The following day I met up with Yuma, the Japanese guy I had met on the boat from Shanghai and toured the seedy underbelly of Osaka with. He had invited me to stay with him in his university town of Shiga, another twenty minute train ride from Kyoto. We met at lunch time at Kyoto station, and after I'd dropped my bags off in his studio apartment we headed for Lake Biwa. He'd mentioned hiring a boat or jet skis and said he would treat me. Japanese people seem to be incredibly generous, but I couldn't let him pay for this as I knew it would be expensive, and I'd be happy to just swim in the lake which would be free.

Taking the train from Kyoto with Yuma.
We took the train to the opposite shore of the lake from Shiga, and we were pretty much in the countryside, only a few quiet houses were visible from the train, and huge green hills rose above these and looked down on the lake. We spent the afternoon swimming in the lake. It was both warm and crystal clear, it felt cleaner than a swimming pool and small fish idly swam amongst our feet. We'd brought a couple of beers with us, and enjoyed them in the sun whilst listening to music and casually watching some attractive girls sun themselves on the shore. We went in the water again and swam until the warm September sun sank below the smokey hills and the houses and fields were coated in lavender hues.

Looking towards the hills which surround the lake - taken on Yuma's iPhone 4 as I left my camera behind.
Lake Biwa - taken on the iPhone.
The sun starts to sink behind the hills - taken on the iPhone, a bloody good camera for a phone.
We boarded a train and headed for an 'onsen', a Japanese hot spring and kind of leisure centre. We'd been given some robes to wear upon arrival, so went to the changing room and slipped on my new attire. They were a bit like a beige, baggy, three quarter length pyjama, and I felt like a member of a cult as everyone was in the same outfit. We took a meal in the restaurant as soon as we changed as both of us were starving, and cleared our plates and bowls in minutes. The centre itself was huge, and walking through I could see there were plenty of different activities, as well as restaurants scattered throughout. There were libraries of manga books, an internet cafe in which most websites seemed to be blocked, and huge lounges with chairs all facing the same way, that looked like they were from the first class section of a flight and had individual flat screens. I'd found some massage chairs, which you sunk into and trustingly placed your limbs in some padded folds. It was operated with a remote control, I chose my setting and relaxed. Actually, it was really enjoyable, the robot chair pushed and squeezed my muscles, and at times shook and vibrated like a space shuttle ready for launch. The chair helped me drift into the soft depths of my imagination, and the movement of it sent ripples through my thoughts, like a pebble plopped into the pool of consciousness. I wondered for a second if I'd been slipped some hallucinogens, but I realised it was all the workings of the chair. I looked back at the remote to see how skilled this robot really was. I was disappointed to discover there was no happy ending button.

We then headed to the main part of the onsen, the hot springs. To do this we had to strip down to our birthday suit, and although public nudity is not commonplace in the UK, I was in Japan and onsen is a cultural institution. I wasn't fazed by the nudity at all, and was put even more at ease upon discovering the rumour about Japanese men and their appendages is generally true. In the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king. In this Japanese onsen, my one eyed snake was king. Well, it was at least aristocracy. Once I'd stopped looking at middle aged businessmen's dicks, I entered the various hot pools. Each one had a different offering; some were like jacuzzis with jets of bubbles, others were just nice and hot and we sat around in it watching the tv for a while. One pool had seats which gave you a challenging electric shock. I wasn't expecting it and as soon as I plonked my arse down in the corner I felt my ribcage twitch and spasm and a strange sensation, just into the territories of unpleasantness, spread across my body. For a split second I wondered if I was having a heart attack, before realising I was experiencing an electric shock. A friend had told me about the goings on at an onsen, and how you could be electrocuted, now I knew what he meant. I forced myself to stay in the reaches of the shock, I found it quite uncomfortable but unusual enough to persevere with; the only electric shock I'd experienced before was gripping sheep wire as a kid. This was much more powerful. Another minute and I would have confessed to crimes I'd never committed. My face grimaced and I let out strange yelps as I insisted I remain for as long as I could stand. Yuma just laughed and watched from the safe part of the pool. After we visited the sauna, which was as hot and humid as I'd ever experienced, and we could only last five minutes before escaping for the gasp-inducing cold pool. We later got showered and changed and spent the rest of the evening relaxing in the dry facilities, such as watching tv and dozing, before catching the last train home. I really enjoyed the onsen, it was great to visit something very Japanese and experience the typical leisure activities of the locals, something I wouldn't have been able to do without my Japanese friend.

Yuma on the roof of his student accommodation.
Yuma in his room.

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