On Thursday morning we took the subway to Kyoto Station. The Station is one of the country’s largest buildings, incorporating a shopping mall, hotel, movie theater, Isetan department store and several local government facilities under one 15 story roof.
The Station opened in 1997, commemorating Kyoto’s 1,200th anniversary. It is 70 meters high and 470 meters from east to west, with a total floor area of 238,000 square meters. Architecturally, it exhibits many characteristics of futurism, with a slightly irregular cubic facade of plate glass over a steel frame. Kyoto, one of the least modern cities in Japan by virtue of its many cultural heritage sites, was largely reluctant to accept such an ambitious structure.
We rushed into Vie de France cafe and plopped various baked goods onto our trays. I ordered a double espresso and grapefruit juice along with a Maple scone, Cream cheese and Carmel Danish and an Apple and Green Tea muffin. We purchased our JR train ticket to the district of Arashiyama which is located on the north western side of the city. We sat beside a group of middle aged Spanish women from Madrid and chatted about our adventures together excitedly. I declared my love for Spain and they responded with a reciprocal cheers for Canada.
The train scooted across the city to the mountain filled neighborhoods of the north. The train windows were foggy from the thick humidity as it had been raining all night (and would be raining all day). Many people complain about rain when they are on vacation. This makes sense when you are sitting on a beach in Mexico or Cuba. However, I feel rain can create such a lovely ambience and the fog which clung to the mountains all day proved to be breathtaking. A fresh downpour also allows the lush greenery of your surroundings to excitedly pronounce themselves for your enjoyment.
Arashiyama station is located north of the Oi River and at the bottom of several surrounding mountains. Walking throughout the neighborhood allows you to appreciate the nature of Japan as there are several mountain hiking trails and moss and flower filled temple gardens.
We walked out of the station and wandered up to the neighborhoods famed Tenryu-ji temple. Along the way we were shocked by the number of small shrines which were located along the path. Every few meters we would encounter another small enclosed Japanese garden which smelled of incense, wet wood and always prominently featured a Buddhist statue. Some of these gardens featured waterfalls and small lily ponds full of giants goldfish.
Tenryu-ji is the main temple of the Rinzai school, one of the two main sects of Zen Buddhism in Japan. The temple was founded by Ashikaga Takauji in 1339, primarily to venerate Gautama Buddha. The entrance of the temples main building features a beautiful rock garden covered in bright green moss. Several humorous stone masks can be found propped against the building. The temple is famous for its many historical artifacts such as paintings, wood carvings and illustrations. The garden, created by Muso Soseki, features a circular promenade around sogen Pond, and is registered as both a special place of scenic beauty and a historical landmark.
We arrived back on the main street and I couldn’t help but laugh at the hundreds of bobbing umbrellas that lined the sidewalk. We tried to keep as dry as possible by crouching under the overhead pine branches. The walk through Sagano Bamboo Forest to Nonomiya Shrine is a real treat. Off the main road we walked straight into this bamboo filled forest which has appeared in numerous Japanese films. Once we were fifty meters along the path we were surrounded by the whistling of bamboo stalks which swayed in the wind. One expects a samurai to run around the corner screaming as the grove makes you feel as though you have gone back in time to the era of the Shogun. We stuck to the left side of the path as the right seemed to be designated for Japanese men covered in mud and soaking wet from running their tourist filled rickshaws. The shrine at the end of the forest path was painted bright orange and featured a beautiful moss covered garden surrounded by tall Japanese Maples. I spotted a few slow moving slugs on a rock and crouched on the wet ground to take a picture of them with my macro lens.
We stopped back at the Station for a few moments to dry ourselves as the sky started raining buckets. Around the Station there are several Japanese tea houses and sweet and pastry shops. We sat in front of a Japanese soft ice cream shop which offered a plethora of interesting flavors. Everything from the typical Vanilla, Strawberry, Chocolate Banana – to the more obscure Kyoto Soybean Flour, Kyoto Vegetable, Green Tea and Sesame Seed.
Our umbrellas burst back open and we skipped across the bridge to the base of Arashiyama Mountain. We hiked up to the entrance of The Iwatayama Monkey Park which is located on the slopes of Mount Arashiyama. The park is inhabited by over 170 wild Japanese Macaque monkeys. From the entrance of the park, you walk about thirty minutes on a mountain path before reaching the observation platform at the top. We climbed these stairs as our hair stuck to our foreheads from the rain. We were climbing through thick and lush green forest which provided some beautiful scenery. Huffing and puffing up the hill we noticed several signs which read:
Don’t stare at the monkeys in the eye.
Don’t touch the monkeys.
Don’t feed the monkeys.
Don’t take a picture on the way.
We hadn’t been told where the monkeys were exactly so after twenty minutes of hiking I wondered if we were going to see any since the weather was negligible. We persevered and reached the top of the observatory with an abrupt moment of shock upon arrival. I was hiking, staring down at my feet and all of a sudden there was a pink monkey face not two inches from my nose. I screamed and almost fell backwards down the mountain. We all laughed as we climbed onto the platform and stared at over 170 wild monkeys who sat on stumps, benches and hid under the observatory roof from the downpour. I had never been this close to so many monkeys it was all a bit of a shock. The ground was covered in monkeys which I had to tip toe around in order not to step on them. Every time one of them looked over at me I quickly turned away so our eyes didn’t meet (they think you are challenging them to fight if you stare them right in the eyes). I was startled by several screaming monkeys who started a fight, biting each other and generally being primal. The observatory is 160 meters above the city and provides an excellent view of the village bellow. We were nestled way up in the mountains and I almost teared as I stared over at the dramatic fog which clung to the peaks of Mt. Hiei across the river.
I spotted the most adorable baby animal. This baby monkey was half the size of a Tickle-Me-Elmo doll and far cuter. It stuck close to its mother but would often wander down the slope. It had clearly just learned how to walk and would trip and fall as it rolled down the hill. Its fingers were so tiny I just wanted to hold the little guy and keep him all for myself. Each monkey is given a name, and its date of birth is known. This long-term study makes this group of monkeys very interesting for students and researchers, who carry out surveys of the population. After several minutes of monkey observation we stared down at a huge pond full of large white and orange goldfish which the monkeys also seemed to find rather fascinating. We walked back down the opposite side of the mountain and encountered a few paths which had now transformed themselves into precarious waterfalls.
Arriving back at the Station I gave both of my friends a hug before hopping on the train back to Central Kyoto (they were heading for Tokyo on a night bus that evening). After washing up in the hostel I decided to spend this very wet afternoon window shopping in the cities several high end department stores. I wandered through Hankyu Department Store first and skipped by a few Japanese designers before arriving at a large red sale sign. I’m a sales nerd and was fortunate enough to find a piece which I actually wanted and fit! I purchased an Energie pleated navy dress short for 50% off. I even considered the 50% off sales price to be borderline ridiculous but figured I was on vacation and deserved a long overdue pampering. I found the high end department stores to be rather exhausting as every time you walk into a store the sales people all turn to you and bow to the very floor (as if they were trying to lick the tip of their shoes). I feel as though I spent most of my time bowing as I shopped. Bow when you enter, bow when you say hello, bow when you leave, bow again when they say “come again have a good day”, in Japanese. The running joke that the Japanese bow a lot is no joke. The country is full of obsessively devout bowers.
I walked out of the department store and found the cities famous Teramachi Street which feature endless souvenir shops, wild and funky thrift stores and manga doll paraphernalia. I had noticed several guys in Tokyo wearing bizarre jeans and shorts which are made to appear as though you are wearing two pants at the same time. I found a pair of green khakis capris which were sewn into a green and beige cotton short. The waist of the shorts are lined with over fifty belt loops made of various materials such as corduroy, denim and brown leather. My favorite part of the shorts is their zipper pockets which unzip all the way to my bum. I could fit a live trout in these pockets if I so chose too. I hopped into another vintage store and bought a lovely light brown purse and a black and white polka dot cotton zip up hoody.
I ran into one of the guys from my hostel and we decided to eat at a famous restaurant located along the shopping arcade called Mr. Young Man. I will always remember our conversation at dinner and his self titled salutation, “I am a footballer from Fresno.” The restaurant is known for its fusion concept Okonomiyaki. I ordered the Love Pancake which arrived on my table in the shape of a heart. I squirted various sauces over the steaming griddle as we chatted and gobbled our food.
I spent the rest of the night sitting on the balcony of the hostel with an odd bunch. A twenty three year old balding Parisian named Yves, a German from Mainz who had been living in India for the past year and often spoke with a thick Indian accent in between moments of thick Bavarian and three middle aged outrageous Australians women. The night was a hoot.