Kinkakuju temple and the journey to Hiroshima

I got up at 7am on Saturday to head on the train to Hiroshima. It’s clear at this point that the New Year which is the Japanese equivalent to Christmas has begun and there is a lazy atmosphere in the air. First I headed to Kyoto station to leave my baggage before catching the slowest express bus I’ve ever caught which took 35 minutes to get to the shrine. The shrine was very beautiful and well set with a pretty lake in front of it however after a quick look around as there really wasn’t much to see I rushed back to Kyoto station (I got strange looks for walking at commuter speed through the rest of the shrine – hey I had a train to catch!) so I could get the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. I seemed to have bad luck with public transport today as I missed quite a few trains by a minute or less. I did even experience my first late train in Japan as well which was a whole 5 minutes late. The one behind was even worse at 15 minutes late! Outrageous. The Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima was also even full in the unreserved section so I didn’t get two full seats to myself like I usually do and had to make do with only a single seat.

To avoid hypocracy I’m going to criticise the Indian trains in the same way that I critised the Japanese ones but so I don’t bore you like I did with bus-movies in New Zealand I’m going to do it in advance now. The Indian trains all suck for being at least 5 minutes late, it’s a disgrace.

Now I have something else to say about Japanese trains that the British actually do better. I’m deadly serious too.

Now you’re over the shock that Britain isn’t actually that bad with it’s trains I’ll tell you what it is. It’s the automated route management software that the ticket office access which doesn’t seem to easily allow you to compare train changing points on the Shinkansen as well as even a paper timetable. This means they didn’t recommend the fastest train yesterday and on Monday my journey back to Yokahoma will be 30 minutes longer than necessary. Oxford also does better with their automated display boards telling you which train to catch so you get to see what is the “next fast train” to your destination. This would be very useful at Kyoto for Shin-Osaka and Osaka for example.

Castle Himeji

I headed out to castle Himeji on boxing day morning, heading to Himeji mostly on the Shinkansen and changing 3 times on the way. Himeji is unsurprisingly another boring town though it has it’s good points. Firstly they rent free bikes to allow you to explore the town. This wasn’t that useful but did enable me to speed up to the castle (and to be a complete hypocrite I even went on the pavement like the other Japanese.).

The castle itself was actually amazing and was typically very cold. We got to explore the princesses rooms as well as the main keep and it was all very impressive. It could probably do with an update of the décor however as it was mostly pretty boring plain wood – espeically in the princesses quarters which were supposed to be very beautiful.

The main keep was well worth exploring too and it was pretty tall as well. Overall I believe the castle is being done up in January for three years now which will undoubtably fix my complaints. The guidebook also states the guided tours are good but these weren’t available today.

After seeing the castle I went to the nearby Japanese garden which was included in my ticket. This was also excellent and at ¥300 (£2) it was the cheapest as well as by far the best Japanese garden I’ve been to with 8.5 gardens in 1. All of which were relaxing, beauitful and different from each other. After this I zoomed over to the art museum on my bike but it was closed so instead I caught the Shinkansen back to Kyoto. When there I ran into a guy from my hostel and we went to the 1000+ tori walk up a mountain which is where you walk up a 1.5km path that is completely enclosed by tori and was amazing to see. It just kept going on and on and although we only went for 30 minutes it went up a lot higher into the mountains. After that I had another McDonalda before return to the hostel.

Kyoto and Nara

So I arrived into Kyoto late on Sunday and in the evening I uploaded a whole bunch of stuff to Flickr which carried on after midnight and so in the morning I had a lie in and got up pretty late too. First I had a wander around town and went down one of the back streets that still had a traditional appearance (most of Kyoto seems to be an ugly concrete jungle.) and amazingly saw women in Kimonos on the street – unfortunately I didn’t ask them for a photo but it was good to see. After doing that and buying some water I had lunch and then headed over to the railway station to pick up something from the tourist information located there. The railway station building is actually quite pretty and has an enormous entrance though overall it reminds me of a half baked London Paddington. After I left the station I went to a camera store as my “developing world” camera is showing it isn’t well built and is already not working well this led to several surprises – first the Panasonic Lumix range is the same here in Japan as it is in Chile and the UK. I believe the same is true for the Canon range though they have different names here. Secondly there are some cameras with “new” features like autopicture taking when the target is still or smiling or something though it doesn’t work that well which seems to be like the barcode feature on Japanese phones. Thirdly a lot of the cameras seemed to be pretty difficult to use and unintuitive. Only the Lumix and Canon passed this and the Canon is really the better of the two.

After my visit to the camera shop I went to the imperial palace to arrange my palace tour for Wednesday before I headed over to the International Manga museum which was truly excellent. All the signs were in English and even if you aren’t really a fan it was still very interesting to see. They also had an exhibtion comparing Manga with French comics like Asterix. It seems that Manga has been around for several hundred years but came to life in the 19th century and it was influenced by English political cartoon Punch. The museum also currently is running as special exhibtion on the 1000 year old novel Tale of Genji which I really want to read.

On Wednesday I first had some admin and at 10am I headed off to Nara for the day. Once there I heads through the, frankly ugly, town centre to reach the interesting parts of town. First I had some lunch and then went to see the amazing temple complex Kofuku-ji. There was a small section of faded statues which you had to pay for which was disappointing as it was fairly expensive and technically you weren’t allowed to take photos. I’m not a fan of those rules as you are at some sites with seemingly no real reason and if its prevented they are usually the only sign in English at the site – maybe it’s a cultural thing though as there are never signs asking you to not use flash – even though disabling flash on every digital camera I’ve ever used is straightforward. After that I headed to Naras main sight the temple of Todai-ji which is the worlds largest wooden building and contains a similarly amazingly large giant golden buddha statue which takes your breath away. It is even more amazing that it comes from 800AD which makes the UK look like a young country in comparison. After seeing I explored the rest of the surrounding temples (at least from the outside) which were also beautiful before heading to the Nara national museum which contained further Buddhist statues and metalwork (much of which is actually of Chinese design) as well as a gallery on some of the ceremonies performed in Nara for the new year. I actually managed to pick up a local volenteer guide in one of the galleries who told me about the symbolism of the statues. Those with armour are guardians and that the Buddha statue had his hands in a certain pose compared to the Buddha in training to show he was boss – though the easiest way to tell was that the Buddha looked more confident. After this I returned on the train to Kyoto as it was dark and also very cold – I’ve been wearing my hat and gloves a lot here.

The next day I headed to the palace for my 10am palace tour. Even though I left 40 minutes ahead of time I only just made it on time for the tour but we had a wander around the palace grounds and the guide pointed out the sites in excellent English – I have lots of photos too. After that I headed into East Kyoto to see some more great temples and walk along the philosophers path to another temple which I didn’t visit as I didn’t feel it justified the standard ¥500 entry fee. I then walked onto the train station to head south to my second last stop of the day which was to an amazing temple called Sanjusangen-do this was probably the individual best temple in the city. It had loads of explantion in English and contains 1000 man sized gold statues as well as the 28 guardians of Buddhism including the 4 kings (the guardians of the east, west, north and south of Buddhism). To put the 1000 statues into perspective they are 6 deep and there are 5 or 6 along the front for each of the 28 guardians which are spaced about 2 metres apart. The only bad thing was that I only had 30 minutes before closing which wasn’t enough to do the place justice. I also didn’t get a photo of the whole hall as photography is banned.

Finally I went and picked up my “Christmas present” a new digital camera. This is my fourth camera of the trip but fortunately this time the camera just stopped working properly, the Lumix dwp-fs3 (developing world product and the model number fs3) isn’t up for the rigours of real-world use by me and didn’t “disappear”. I also changed allegence from the Panasonic lumix to the Canon Ixy 20 (I’m sure it’s also available in Europe though under a different model number) – down to Panasonic selling models with the same model number as those in the rest of the world but with only Japanese software -even though my Lumix does Japanese. In the evening I went to the hostel Christmas party which was OK but not that great.