Wednesday, December 24, 2008

weekend away

Tip for families traveling to Kyoto: you can hop on a local train (Sagano JR line) and in 15-20 minutes be in Arashiyama, a little river town, with a cool bridge, mountain scenery, a giant bamboo forest, and the usual assortment of shrines and temples (the big one is Tenryuji, considered the best of the top five Zen temples in Japan).

Oh and there's also a monkey park, which was a huge hit with the boys. The park is actually on top of Mt. Arashiyama, and it's well worth the hike (well maybe it's not at the very top, but we walked up steep paths and stone steps and more steep paths for a good while. The route is clearly marked with signs like this one..
You can see the river behind Conor, and part of a tour boat that takes people on a 2-hour cruise. We didn't have time for that. Monkeys were the top priority.

Still not quite at the top, our first close encounter with the macaques (I read somewhere that there are 170 of these snow monkeys at this park)

There's a rest hut at the summit, where you can buy bags of cut up apple and sweet potato, and outside there are several park benches facing a great view of Kyoto and surrounding mountains.The monkeys were good at reaching through the chainlink fence to get their handoutsAt one point Terry said he saw this big one got mad at this little one, and climb up onto the roof to pee on his head.There were many Japanese tourists with very nice cameras there when we were there. We met two guys from Singapore and one of them had the biggest lens you can get for the Nikon D series SLRs. He also had a tripod sticking out of his backpack. We asked if he was a professional photographer and he laughed and said he was just a tourist on his first trip to Japan...
None of these pictures show the monkeys' pink faces. They were bright pink, fuschia even. Their butts too.

So Friday was Arashiyama; we returned to Kyoto to sleep, basically, and on Saturday we went to Nara (30 minutes on the superfast train, reserved seats recommended!) where we fed the overly aggressive, somewhat mangy deer and visited the Great Buddha (the largest in Japan -- the one in Kamakura is the second largest). Oh and we hiked up a hill to visit a temple where there was much incense burning...

But first, deer:
As soon as they see you buy the crackers from the Deer Food stand, you are surrounded.
You back up, and they just keep gets a little scary.
If you don't have crackers, they basically ignore you and let you go about your business as they go about theirs...The deer's charms were quickly lost on Dylan, particularly after one of them slimed the sleeve of his coat. I washed it off with a moist tissue and even sprayed --no, saturated -- the infected area with that antibacterial stuff we moms tend to carry around in our purses, but it still took a while for the kid to get over it.
The Enlightened One, in Daibutsu-den, Todai-ji temple

Dylan took this picture. He's very arty with the camera. We've seen these silk pouches for sale at lots of shrines we've been to, and I believe they serve as a sort of amulet, or talisman. You write out a prayer or wish (for health and happiness for your family, say) on a piece of paper or a small piece of wood and put it inside, and carry it around with you for good luck.

That night, we returned to Kyoto and, not wanting to just go to K's house, the hostel where we were staying (nice and clean and cheap! two bunkbeds, kids on top!) where we would be stuck for the rest of the evening, we popped into this little bar on the corner with a sign saying, simply,
It was tiny inside, about 10 barstools around a J-shaped bar, a TV, one of the old-fashioned big box ones, at one end. The bartender, an older Japanese lady, welcomed us inside with a wave and a smile and promptly filled two empty nut bowls with candy from big glass jars on the shelf. She served Terry and me big bottles of Kirin beer, which we drank out of these delicate blue etched glass tumblers, the kind of glasses I've only ever seen at my grandmother's. I asked if there was karaoke, sort of half-joking, but she said yes and motioned toward the coin-operated machine under the TV and the two wireless mics standing in a charger at the end of the bar and handed us the big book of songs. Each song was 200 yen. We needed change so she dug around in her purse and emptied it of 100 yen coins for us...

The catalog was in both Japanese and English, and before long we were able to find Aerosmith, The Beatles, the Carpenters...even Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" (Conor's solo). Wish I had video footage of Terry and Dylan singing YMCA. "Rainbow Connection" which was our big finale, and the video that accompanied the onscreen lyrics was a loop of New York City street scenes, including a drive over the Brooklyn Bridge and a brief glimpse of our building, the St. George Tower! It was surreal.

At one point an old guy came in to eat a bowl of soup. He sat at the bar with us. Then another old guy came in for a meal. When he started smoking that was our cue to leave. So we went to the Zen Cafe next door to the hostel, ordered pizza and yakisoba and more beer for the grownups, and played Crazy Eights.

On Sunday we finally had our chance to hit the sights in Kyoto. A journey to the Fushimi Inari shrine (or really series of shrines), on Mt. Inari, just outside the city, took the first half of the day.
The place is famous for its 10,000 red torii gates, which stand so close together it's like walking through a tunnel. There are many many stone fox statues there as well, as the site exists to honor the Shinto god of rice and sake, and the fox is believed to be this deity's messenger.

After lunch...

...we managed to fit in a visit to the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion). Isn't it pretty?

Then we toured the secondary building at Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle), where the floorboards are designed to squeak like nightingales, to signal an intruder. You have to leave your shoes at the entrance and put on slippers. And you can't take pictures, which is a shame because the walls of the various rooms of that building were covered in beautiful paintings, images of Japanese pines and other trees, peacocks and other birds, set against a golden backdrop.

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