George Carter
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Japan ’08 – Day 7

| Sunday 10th August, 2008

We woke and checked out from our lovely Saukra hotel, went to the rail station, reserved seats on the Shinkansen and made our way to Kyoto. Separately.

Ok… not very separately, but we hadn’t realised that Sunday is Official Long-Distance Travel Day™ in Japan. We had the option to take the next train in separate seats, or take the one after that and sit together. We were keen to get to Kyoto, and plumped for the former.

Tip: If travelling in Japan on a Sunday, reserve your seats well in advance.

There were several empty seats we could have moved to, including an unreserved carriage or two, but in Japan that doesn’t work. They’re a bit funny about things being orderly. The ticket inspector has a little pad which has a diagram of where everyone should be sitting. If anyone is not sitting there, it becomes difficult.

There are rules like… “If you have an unreserved seat and there is standing room only, and there are lots of free seats in the reserved carriage, you may sit in one of them – but only if you pay for the reserved seat.”

We’d already witnessed the reserved seat thing on the bus to Fuji. There were two ladies sitting next to each other and two empty seats to the left of them. One of them moved across so that they both had a little more room, at which point the driver told her off and made her move back.

So, anyway, a couple of hours later, and absolutely bang on time of course, we were pulling into Kyoto station. It was here that we really fell over Japanese maps. I’ve already talked briefly about Japanese addresses, and the way you must have directions to your destination to have any hope of reaching it… well in Kyoto we had only a map.

The map, of course, didn’t tell us which way was north. Nor did it explain which exit from the station was which. Kyoto, fortunately, has a giant landmark – the Kyoto Tower – right outside the station.

This was not marked on the map.

The map did have, uncharacteristically for Japan, some road names marked on it. The roads in real life didn’t, though. So I approached a local advertising-tissue-hander-outerer and asked if the road in front of me matched the one on the map. He had to think for a while. Then he had to ask another tissue-hander-outerer. She decided that yes, maybe that was the road we were looking at.

In classic helpful Japanese style, she then handed her basket of tissues to the first guy and began to walk us the whole two miles to our hotel. They do that, you know. Fortunately, I managed to thank her profusely, and point out that yes, I did now understand the map, and explain that the world’s opinion of her nation didn’t hang on her personal actions. Finally, after half a pretty long street, she was happy to leave us to our own destiny, and return to her tissue-handering-outering.

I should mention the tissues at this point. The two big advertising opportunities in Japan (after giant TVs on every street corner) are freebie fans and tissues. You never have to buy tissues in Japan… just take a little wander into town and you’ll be offered three or four packs in the space of an hour. You have to look like you’ll understand the advert printed on the pack though – if they think you won’t be able to read it, they won’t offer them. So you have to walk along, carefully noting all the interesting Japanese writing around you – maybe pointing and laughing if you see the flaming chicken shed character, that sort of thing. If you can bluff them, they’ll offer the tissues and you’ll be quids in.

They’ll give anyone a fan because everyone else can read that even if you can’t.

Where were we?

In Kyoto, heading for the hotel.

Ok… so after a couple of turns we found ourselves passing alongside a huge temple. This was the western Hongwanji temple. There’s another, equally large eastern Hongwanji temple a few streets away. Kyoto really was the place for temples and shrines as we’d been led to believe.

And so to the hotel. Rather grander than our beloved Sakura in Ikebukuro. The sort of place where a white-gloved man greets you part way across the car park to take your cases from you. A place with huge glass windows looking out onto beautifully designed pools and waterfalls. A place where rather than telling you your room number, they allocate you a person to show you up there, open the door for you, and show you round. The sort of place where, despite the good deal on the room rate, there’s absolutely NO WAY you can afford to eat in the restaurant, or use the bar.

After a rest, we walked for miles and miles and miles because whereas Tokyo’s Yamanote line does a kind of circuit around the city, Kyoto’s metro does a kind of “plus” shape… and if you or your destination are not near one of the stations, well, you have to find other means to get there.

On every street corner there was a little shrine. Like you’d see newspaper stands in London. And I mean a little shrine… no more than a metre square, on a pedestal, like a little nativity-scene version of a temple. And then there were real temples too. Big ones. Anywhere they wanted one. We found a seemingly endless shopping centre, but even in here, commerce had to stop at regular intervals for yet another temple or shrine.

The whole city had such a stark contrast between new and old, although unlike Tokyo’s constant development, I think Kyoto had a boom in the late 70s or early 80s and pretty much stopped there, judging by some of the architecture. The old bits were more abundant too, and given greater priority. Even Colonel Sanders was Japanified here – there was a life-size statue of him outside KFC wearing a samurai costume.

(Although to be fair, when we passed by a day or two later, he was no longer a Samurai. Disgraced his family? Or maybe head office complained.)

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