After a luxurious two-hour ride on the Shinkansen, we arrived in Kyoto. By now it was about one hundred and thirty five past four in the after noon, so we were in the mood for dinner. We stopped at a mall and had some fish and beef tongue. It was pretty tasty, in fact. In Asia, they aren't afraid to eat most parts of an animal. Another nice example of this is when they served me miso soup with shrimp heads in it. You don't eat the head, but it provides a wonderful flavor to the soup. I've heard they also use the heads of chickens as hood ornaments for cars, but I didn't experience this firsthand.
We actually weren't planning to spend a ton of time in the city, but we did have some destinations in western Kyoto in mind. The Arashiyama district sits on the outskirts of Kyoto and has lots of interesting sights. The two we came to see were the bamboo forest and the Iwatayama Monkey Park. On our way through town, an older woman walking down the road approached us. I'm conditioned to believe this will be followed by "can you spare some change?", but this actually couldn't have been farther from correct. She guessed we were going to the bamboo forest and gave us directions because she saw this as an opportunity to practice her English. It was pretty endearing.
As the name "Iwatayama Monkey Park" suggests, the monkeys mostly own the place. It was about a twenty minute hike up the mountainside to get to the monkey village, but it was worth it. The macaque monkeys have a very humble civilization up in the mountains. They built a little shack and allow people to come visit! They even sell us bananas which we can then feed back to them because they know we like that kind of thing. It also stimulates the economonkey.
The walk back to the train was peaceful. There were lots of little shops and businesses along the way. One of them sold soap that made you look like you were wearing blackface. They claim it's very popular with the ladies, but I never saw anyone wearing it. So either the sign was lying, or the men here are really pretty. Up until today, we had been renting places on Air Bee and Bee, but tonight, we were going to do something much more traditional. I'll give you a hint--it's not seppuku.
Koyasan is a magical place deep in the forests sitting at the top of Mount Koya. The name Koyasan means "Mister Koya", but I'm not sure we ever had the pleasure of meeting him. Koyasan is a very special place where monks stay and practice Buddhism. Tonight, we are staying at a temple and living the simple life.
Actually reaching Koyasan is a challenge of its own, but the Japanese really have this public transportation thing nailed down. First, you have to take a train. Perhaps any train will do, I didn't check. Ride it all the way to the end of the line. As you look out the window, skyscrapers start to give way to small cottages, and restaurants with flashy signs are replaced by terraced rice fields. Even the rice fields go away and all you see is trees and rivers. Travelers should take this opportunity to listen to their spirit. Tune out everything else and look inside yourself. Only once you are truly tired of riding the train will you actually get to the last station. Just as your butt starts to hurt, you arrive. Of course you aren't actually there yet. You still have to take a cable car up the mountain... and then a bus... and then walk a bit. Relax, self enlightment doesn't happen in a couple hours. It usually takes the better part of a weekend.
We arrived at the temple in the late afternoon and just in time for dinner! I took my shoes off at the door, but my feet were too big for any of the slippers they had, so I walked around in socks. They had a little cartoon mascot for the temples that looked like a Star Wars imperial naval guard... but cuter. The temple was really beautiful, and the insides were pristine. They made us a delicious vegetarian dinner and gave us comfortable robes to wear. After dinner, I went downstairs for one of those hot Japanese baths that I've heard so much about. This is one of those deals where you strip down to your birthday suit and take a pre-shower to get clean. The purpose of the bath is not to clean yourself. Apparently, it's to melt your skin off. I learned rather suddenly that the water is 110 degrees fahrenheit. When you are sitting in the bath turning red and someone walks in, you're supposed to act normally and pretend that you can't see their dingus. Or at least that's the warning I received. Staying in the bath for more than 15 minutes or so is probably impossible, but when you get out you're the cleanest you've ever felt. The rest of the night was spent relaxing, so I went and took some photogiraffes.
After my bath and photo session, we went to sleep for the night on the soft mats that the monks put in our room. I awakened by the sound of some rather loud flatulance. It turns out it was me, but I blamed Hana anyhow. Every morning, the monks do a chant and they invite you to come join. I forgot to get out of bed, but Hana said it was a good experience. I went downstairs to a nice vegetarian breakfast. It was similar to what we had for dinner, but without the jello. There's a lot of really tall temples and pagodas in Koyasan. However, not all of the magic of Koyasan is kept in the ancient treasures. We found some wonderful desserts in the nearby shops. There was also a beautiful graveyard, but there were no desserts to be had there. Out of respect for the dead, I tried not to think about ice cream as I passed by the gravestones.
The journey back from Koyasan was mostly quiet and full of introspection. I finally broke the silence with the age old question, "If a tree falls in the woods, and there's nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?". After realizing that Hana had gotten up and gone to the restroom, I found myself alone in the train car. I then spent several seconds looking around and hearing nothing but train sounds, then realizing the irony of the situation, I felt embarassed for talking loudly with nobody around. I concluded that any respectable tree would keep quiet if they ever fell down, regardless of whether anyone was around or not. Having answered the age old question, I decided to cleanse myself with a trip to the restroom as well.
With only two destinations remaining in our stay in Japan, I started to realize that I was going to miss being here. Fortunately, the first of our destinations was so touristy that it made me regret existing at all. Without further tofu, I give you the Golden Pavillion!
I bet that's what you think being at the Golden Pavillion is like, huh?
No, no. Here's what it's really like.
We learned our lesson, but still wanted to see the Inari shrine, so we went at the butt-crack of dawn before the tour busses woke up and ruined things.
The Inari shrine has a very unusual history. More than a thousand years ago, they were constructed for the emperor. Unlike many historical structures, this one was not built to honor a death. They in fact embody the life of the emperor. You see, the emperor liked to have a good time. Many nights a week the emperor would go out and drink with his pals, but rarely did he make it home before the following morning. Living in his humble cottage on Mt. Inari, finding your way home was a tricky task. One day his wife ordered the people of Kyoto to build these large gates. She even built a few herself! The idea was that when her husband was done getting drunk as a skunk, all he had to do was follow the orange gates home. Legend has it the emperor never lost his way again, but he never did manage to kick the drinking habit.
We left Japan on a high note, and I do indeed miss being there very much. No time to be sentimental now, we have a plane to South Korea to catch!