May 26 - June 6, 2010

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Kiyomizudera, Kyoto
Kiyomizudera, Kyoto

Our first visit to Kyoto was in 1978 on our way back to the US from our two-and-a-bit year stint in Iran. We spent only three weeks in Japan altogether and that included just a short one-week trip to Kyoto. Since we were young and energetic, we suppose that we ran around to all of the major sites, but since we don't have the precious few slides we took on that trip with us to consult, we will have to leave the details to your imagination. Our memories of that visit are few and far between. We both remember the private house we stayed in that was known as Mrs Tani's. It was comfortable and our hostess was welcoming and endlessly patient towards the hordes of young travellers she managed to accommodate. Beyond that, we have only a couple of clear memories. Jan remembers the Golden Pavilion (or was it the Silver?) and Gerry the Kiyomizudera Temple. And that's about it.

On this trip, we stayed in Kyoto three times. Or more precisely, over ten days we stayed in three different lodgings in Kyoto, each very different from the other: first, a centrally located backpackers, second, a near luxurious business hotel, and third, a hostel in a private home in a residential suburb on the far west side.

This time, as befits older and wiser heads, we were a lot more thorough about the task of visiting the seemingly endless number of temples that Kyoto has to offer. There are west-side and east-side temples as well as those in the center of the city. We tried — and failed — to see them all. But we did make a good effort and spent many happy hours wandering the leafy paths that connected the outlying temples to one another.

Most of the time, we travelled by bus, buying a daily bus pass every morning in our hostel. We got a bus map from the helpful tourist office in the labyrinthine main station and set off every morning to soak up some Zen atmosphere at temple or shrine depending on the particular site. Twice we rode bicycles around town. The first time we got a free rental from our hostel for staying five nights in the same room, and the second time we rented bikes from our business hotel as they were more convenient than buses from this uptown location.

The really big and famous temples: Golden Pavilion, Silver Pavilion, Kiyomizudera, and so on were all very busy so in the end we grew to prefer the lesser-known and so less-often visited temples. In the popular places it was almost impossible to take a photograph without scores of other tourists in your photo. At first the atmosphere of the crowds themselves was stimulating but it soon wore off.

As usual, on most days we would stop off at a convenience store and buy a bento lunch box to take with us. One day, however, we had visited Kiyomizudera and were on our way to a temple nearby, when we came across a very small sign outside of a garden gate. It was all written in Japanese, but clearly meant that food was to be had here. Gerry deciphered what he thought must be a price and at only twice the price of a lunch box it was well within our budget and so we crossed the threshold, walked along the crazy paving path to the front door to be greeted by the restaurant owner. She sat us in one of two rooms on the ground floor that each held about six low tables and invited us to sit on cushions on the tatami. Sadly we were too late to get the choice seats that overlooked her lovely garden. But, we obligingly sat down, and with her English help, we ordered two delightful meals that were all basically made of tofu. We had it both steamed and fried and in soup and accompanied of course by rice and pickles and washed down with tea. It was a lovely meal in a lovely place with a very gracious owner.

While staying in our first hostel, we were surprised to hear the sounds of Farsi being spoken. But our ears had not deceived us and soon we were introducing ourselves to Simi and Mahmood ??? who were in Kyoto so that he could attend a conference on nuclear physics. Only half our age, they were not even born when we were in Tehran, but it didn't matter, it was just so good to swap memories of Tehran, which is where they were from. We enjoyed their company for dinner the next night and still didn't manage to exhaust topics of conversation. Fortunately for us, they spoke English of course. Our Farsi was always very limited and now it is also very forgotten!

Our last hostel was in some ways the most interesting, being in a very residential neighborhood. In fact, we thought that it was probably illegal and that for that reason there was no big sign on the door announcing its purpose to the world. We had a very nice, quiet tatami room and Gerry managed to rent a bicycle for another temple-to-temple excursion leaving Jan in the room for a day of rest.

January 23, 2011