Tuesday, 12 May 2015

10 Days and 5 Canadians in Japan, Eh - Days 4-6 (Kyoto)



Day 4 - Fri, April 17th (Bullet Train To Kyoto)


The modern Bullet Train (Shinkansen) is more like an airplane than a train and includes stewardesses offering meals and beverages. On straight stretches, the train typically runs at about 200 miles per hour (320 km/hr). While passing another Shinkansen, going in the opposite direction, all you see is a long white streak, its windows nothing more than a grey blur. The ride is so smooth, that it's an unexpectedly unremarkable experience to travel this way. Farms and mountains in the distance give no hint of the speed. It's only when you try to glimpse scenery that is very close to the tracks that you realize how fast you are going. The first time I traveled to Kyoto, I spent the entire journey trying to get a picture of some of the remote villages that I glimpsed through brief breaks in the foliage. Unfortunately, we sped by so fast that I was unable to focus the camera and snap a single picture.

After 3 days of trains, subways and monorails my parents are little-impressed by yet another train, regardless of the speed. For the first ten minutes they look out the window. Dad spends the rest trip glued to my laptop, playing poker or asleep dreaming about poker. Mom reads a book. Rihana sputter-coughs. Noah barfs. Moments later, he proudly announces that his vomit was going more than 200 miles per hour, as it entered the bag. I point out that his current record remains untouched at 570 mph (913 kph), during the flight from Canada. We are all as impressed as we are grossed out.

Dad going more than 200 miles an hour.
The view of Mt. Fuji whenever my parents are not with me.

 I told my parents that they could look forward to seeing the iconic Mount Fuji, but clouds obscure the view and we speed by a vista of fog, instead.

Our hotel in Kyoto, ANA Crowne Plaza Kyoto, is upscale from the family-oriented one we just left. It has several fancy restaurants that offer a variety of cuisine and a luxurious lobby and lounge. We are greeted by beautiful young girls in kimonos and Dad immediately says the word "Geisha" about ten times, as they lead us to our rooms.

Crowne Plaza Lounge with waitresses in kimono.
Our hotel is located directly across from Nijo Jo, the ancient Emporer's Castle.

The view outside our window.
East meets West. The Japanese have a long tradition of taking what they like
from many religions and melding them into one.
I have no idea who these people are, but they were getting married the day
we checked in and were stalked by some old Canadian guy with my camera.
In the hotel garden. It struck us all that so much loose change could never exist in a public space in Canada.
Had to buy one of these.

The hotel is directly across from Nijo Jo (Nijo Castle) and so, once we were settled in, we stroll across the street and through what was once the garden of the Royal Family, when Kyoto was the capital city, before 1868.

Mom and Dad at the gate to the Emporer's Palace.
Nijo Jo is famous for its "Nightengale Floors." Looking at the floorboards, from below, you can see
the special nails, purposefully designed to squeak, as an intruder alarm.

The scale of the castle walls and moat are as impressive as the intricacy of the gates and murals in the Royal Palace.
We took a similar photo in 2004 (right), while Junko and I were dating. No less beautiful now, than then.
And this is the full update of that 2004 photo.

A fine Western-style meal at the hotel completed our day...



"Yeah, well you should see the other guy."
Our tour guide's tired... but not as tired as she looks.
She's been rubbing her allergy-sore eyes and smeared her mascara.




Day 5 - Sat, April 18th (Fushimi Inari-Taisha)


Our accommodation is a Kyoto highlight. Everyone is happy here. Mom and Dad have no trouble with the menu. Meanwhile, Junko and the kids have found a nearby breakfast restaurant they prefer over the hotel's. And so, the three of us—Mom, Dad and I—enjoy starting our days off with recognizable coffee and good conversation, at the breakfast buffet. I notice that a slow start, comfort food and a happy crowd at breakfast is critical to a good day. Also, I am learning a lot about my parents talking to them, one on one, like this.

Junko has done a great job of organizing the trip, so far. She's been a fantastic tour guide, but thinks nothing of transferring from bus to train to subway. All the waiting and walking do not seem to wear her down the way it does the rest of us.

The kids are still not at full steam. Both suffer bouts of nausea as we travel, and sightseeing is not their favorite activity. They don't complain much, but are not enthusiastic to start another day. On the other hand, we've so lowered their expectations that when we come across a small park with a seesaw, they jump for joy and spend a happy hour teetering and totering. A ten-year-old and eight-year-old so enthusiastically playing on a seesaw may appear mentally challenged, but you can't ignore their happiness. I think their time at Disney Sea has taught them the value of anything with a short queue.

Junko takes us to Fushimi Inari-Taisha a shrine dedicated to the god of rice. Somehow, a rice-loving fox is also involved. The most memorable feature is a 2-hour trek through a winding path under 3300 orange gates, donated by businesses, throughout Japan. Orange paint in this town is either incredibly abundant, or incredibly scarce.



We only follow the first hundred-or-so meters of the path which brings us to a series of shops and small shrines, providing at least four different ways to pray for good luck and good health, while also donating to the shrine. Religious mini-arcades like this is an idea that North American churches seriously ought to consider. One of these religious "attractions" is a wishing stone. You decide whether the stone is heavier or lighter than it looks then make a wish, before attempting to lift it. If you were correct in your guess, your wish is granted. No spoilers here, but I did not get my wish.

Noah's wish was for more Pokemon. Mine was that he would not get any more Pokemon. We both did not get our wish. Our future remains unclear.

We stroll the crowded lanes of tourist-oriented shops and I spot some small souvenirs (omiyage) I might want, for friends back home. Junko interprets between me and the shopkeeper who delivers one of the best comeback lines I've heard in ages...

ME: Maybe I should wait. I can get similar things elsewhere.

SHOPKEEPER: Yes, but you can not get souvenirs from here, anywhere else.

I am sold. For what is the value in a cheap, factory-made souvenir, if not purchased where it has significance?

Later in the day, Junko, the kids and I head out for some truly Japanese fare while Mom and Dad choose to relax in the Hotel lounge with some pasta and wine. After our dinner, I join them for conversation and wine, and to enjoy the violin and guitar performance, on stage.



Day 6 - Sun, April 19th:

During our breakfast conversations I am discovering interesting things about my parents. For instance: My mother does not have a poker face. I casually mentioned that we would soon be heading to Fukaya, Junko's home town, and that we will all be staying at my father-in-law's house. Her face falls faster than Niagra. I remind her that Junko had debated whether to set them up in a hotel or not, and I was sure that we mentioned that either arrangement was possible. But, still, I feel bad. My mother is a quiet person who really likes her privacy. I am losing a dollar of my inheritance for every letter of these blogs.

The problem with a hotel near where Junko lives is that it would be miles away and would not have much in the way of English-speaking staff, because Fukaya is a farming area, not geared for tourists.

Another problem that recently came to light is that there are six of us and none of the family's cars that are at our disposal will carry more than four. Beyond this, Junko's license has expired. Apparently, she mentioned this to me and encouraged me to get my international driver's license, though probably not in the same sentence... or month. In dealing with Japanese—especially wives—it's always up to you to put 2 and 2 together, however far apart they might be. I did not want to drive in Japan, but if I'd known that we'd spend the entire three days of my parents' visit stranded at her rural home with no driver, I would have sucked it up.

To top it all off, the weather is still anomalous and today it's raining, over all of Japan.

This time, it's going to take more than coffee and pastry to cheer Mom up.


Kinkaku-ji:

Kinkaku-Ji, The Golden Pavilion.

For the last two years, I have extolled the serenity and breath-taking beauty of The Golden Pavilion (KinKaku-Ji), saying that if my parents see only one thing in all of Japan, this site is worth the experience.

Ten years ago, my visit to the Golden Pavilion seemed the epitome of zen. I recall strolling the garden paths at leisure and stopping for a relaxing cup of Matcha tea, prepared and served in the traditional way by a kimono-clad woman, in a wooden hut, surrounded by forest and the sounds of birds.


Things have changed. As we near the ticket booth, three large tour buses of Chinese tourists disembark and start pushing and shoving us forward. It's lightly raining and every one of them has an umbrella, the spokes of which threaten to poke out our eyes. These Chinese are loud and a bit rude and completely disrupt my fond remembering. As we ooze along the path, pushed from behind like paste from a tube, we bask in a serenity similar to that of downtown Tokyo, at rush hour. The authentic-looking tea house where I once enjoyed the Matcha, years ago, still has a view of a serene garden, but that garden is tiny and surrounded on all sides by shops and milling tourists.

An interesting thing about Kinkaku-Ji is that, in 1950, a mad monk burned it to the ground. So, like much of the interior at Nijo Castle that we saw yesterday, what we are looking at is mostly a modern reconstruction. In the case of Kinkaku-Ji, even the gold exterior was upgraded, covering more area and made thicker and more lusterous than the original. All the world is becoming Disneyland.

I wonder why North American churches haven't learned to fund raise through "good luck" games, like this coin toss.

At key viewing spots along the way, Dad skillfully nudges his way to the front and manages to take the same photos as a million tourists before him. The photos record a serenity that is not actually there. Who says a photo never lies?

It's ok. I have my memories and I don't like Matcha Tea, anyway. But for Mom and Dad, this is miles from what I had led them to expect. Also, it's raining.

My father is a physical anomaly. He's always been athletic, but his vigor and stamina are completely inappropriate and just plain weird for a man of his age. Of all of us, he's the one who seems to be weathering our rigorous itinerary the best.


Throughout the trip, as we negotiated stations and hopped from one transit system to another, my father has not only carried his own weight, but the weight of one of our large, jam-packed suitcases and, upon occasion, a child's jacket or cap. Many times, I've looked at him lugging all of that crap and been thankful that it allowed me the freedom to eat my donut. He may not know why he's in Japan, but I do.

I did not inherit my father's athletic prowess. My brother got that. What I got is my father's love of documenting things. My brother got that, too. The most common picture that gets taken, every time we get together for a family event, is of one or all of us taking pictures of the other(s), like some sort of Tourist standoff.

Tourist Standoff

I had hoped to keep Noah amused using my still-camera to record Grammy and Grampy's trip, but he'd rather be bored than have a job. Rihana is eager but not yet skilled enough. So, I was very pleased when my father volunteered to take snapshots. I'm still documenting things with the video camera, but it's freed me up enough to actually see some sights and I get to be in the pictures, which is rare.

Dad's a man of action. He prefers to do things rather than just sit around the pool. He is not so enthusiastic a sightseer. But give him a camera and, suddenly, he's on a mission. He will get shots that I am too shy to take. Today, he took a picture of a rickshaw driver or engine—not sure which to call him—who I passed by because he did not seem to be in the mood. Dad captured him and his mood.



He's snapped just about every "Geisha" we've come across and yesterday, he stalked a bride and groom to document the luxurious wedding that took place at our hotel. Dad does not miss much. Especially, if it's cute.

A montage of all the "Geisha" pictures Dad took this afternoon.



Kiyomizu-dera:



One bus ride and a sick bag later, we arrive at another Buddhist temple: Kiyomizu-dera. The main road leading to the shrine is long and steep. It's lined with shops and the crowds are thick, as we've come to expect. I am sure to hold my kids' hands tightly and keep a hawk's eye out to make sure we don't get separated. My mother is winded by the time we reach the gate of the large shrine and picturesque rambling gardens. We stop for beer and ice cream.

The main gate at Kiyomizu, a hilltop shrine. Only 800 more stairs to go, Mom!

Mumbling-man stands passively for hours holding a cup,
ready for donations to the shrine.

My mother is in the lead as we enter the temple. Junko waves me to one side to see something and I double check that the hands I am holding are still those of my children. I notice Mom continue on, but know that she'll stop in a logical spot and wait for us. The rest of us file past a large metal pole that, surprisingly, proves impossible to lift. For 10 minutes, we watch people being surprised then moving on before we get our turn. We are equally surprised, then move on.

I still think it was concreted into the ground.

Moments later, we are again surprised: My mother has vanished.

My mother is extremely uncomfortable with heights and none of the three possible directions she might have gone seem probable: A steep staircase upward, a steep staircase downward or the narrow and a flimsy-looking bridge crossing to the rest of the gardens.

Mom, moments before she disappeared.
This is the picture Dad planned to use on the posters.
We've still got 4000 copies, if you want one.

Still, I am not worried. She's not a three-year-old. Also, she's a fiesty Canadian girl and I judge that it would take five Japanese men to take her down, in a kidnapping. Also, I think it's so obvious that we don't come from money that everyone knew it the moment we stepped off the city bus.



As I sit waiting with two extremely bored children, I realize that I have made a critical error in allowing my wife and father to carry out the search together. My father will immediately switch into "Man of Action" mode and Junko, being Japanese, would pole vault over a speed bump. Moments later, I hear an announcement over the loudspeakers: "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah Linden Dean."  Its barely audible, but having had time to think it through, I am expecting it. The National Guard can not be far behind. Allowed to continue without restraint, my wife and father have a good chance of finding Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and Amelia Erhart before they stumble upon my mother. I briefly consider the benefits to all of mankind, but Dad and Junko have been gone so long that both children have to pee. I don't want to hear my name over the loudspeakers or see myself on the evening news but I am forced to move toward the bathrooms. Luckily, we bump into Junko on the way. She tells me that Dad has gone back to the restaurant where we had ice cream. It was the place we all agreed to meet, if we got separated.

A picture of us all agreeing to meet back at this spot, should we get separated.
Also, a photo of my Mom not hearing any of that conversation.

I lead Junko down the garden path—for the second time, her father might say. I still see no reason to worry and I'm sure we'll stumble across my mother. Sure enough, Mom's found herself a relatively comfortable rock at the park exit and is busy smiling and refusing help from every attendant that passes, and that mumbling-guy who we saw begging for change.

"How did you all manage to get yourselves lost?"

As it happens, this location is twenty feet from our agreed-upon meeting place. I scan the crowd and see everyone except my father.

Now, it's my father who's missing.

We wait and bow to well-wishers who have been alerted to the emergency and are glad that things have worked out for the best. What the worst might possibly have been, I can not guess.

Fifteen minutes later, Dad appears. From his point of view, he has rescued us all.



So-Japanese Things of the Day:

An Asian girl's fingernail. Also, novelty imitations of family seals. This one represents Yokokawa, my wife's family-name. Official versions of these stamps, called inkan, are still used in Japan to verify identity on important documents.

Inside a car, parked in a private garage are life-sized cardboard cutouts, presumably of the owners.
Neither Junko nor her family or friends can offer any explanation for this one.
I wish I'd brought one from home that says "Tom" which I could slip onto the store shelf, to enhance someone's day.



Next: The last segment of our journey as we travel to my wife's hometown of Fukaya (click here)

_________________________________________________________________

Or, take a mental vacation
with my time travel, action/adventure novel!
 

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