Thursday, June 18, 2009

History Embraced in a Vibrant City

Japan's Treasure - Kyoto

Day 10

When friends come back from foreign lands I always want to see their photos and hear about the trip.

Sometimes I regret it. After the fifteenth picture of "oh looks like another picture of my finger in front of the lens" or "I don't really remember what this shot is, but I liked it", I want to run screaming from the room.

So, at great risk of boring you all to death, I am posting a lot of photos today. I think I have two great reasons: Kyoto is worth it, and, as I've reminded everyone before, it's my blog.

This is the perfect city for a first time visitor to Japan. It is bi-lingual enough to enable anyone to get around easily. Its streets are reasonably straight and in many ways it is very modern. It has subways, lots of higher education, and a sophisticated tourist infrastructure. Yet, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an amazing temple or shrine seemingly on every other block.

Kyoto is a city that is beautiful by day and plays hard at night. When you are busy looking at one interesting thing, a cab full of geisha goes zipping by so fast you can't get a photo.

Kyoto was spared allied bombing in WWII and its treasures are intact. It is where the Japanese send their children to learn about their history, much like we send our kids to Washington DC. I could not figure the best way to present Kyoto, so I decided to just do it in the same chronological order as we explored it. And our visit merely scratched the surface of Kyoto's treasures.

We arrived into Kyoto's stunning new railway station. It was built after a design competition where many of the entries tried to balance the history Kyoto with the modern needs of rail travel. The winner was an architectural professor from Tokyo who came in with a design that was unabashedly modern. While it fails to reflect the essence of such a history rich city, it is, nonetheless, a stunning gateway to Kyoto, and it works.

After a lot of research I had re-booked us into the Hotel Granvia (which is actually in the new train station). I am so glad I did. It freed us from having to hail a cab from the train station to the hotel. Its staff is friendly and totally bilingual, the rooms are spacious, modern, and lovely. And the location is perfect for initiating visits anywhere in Kyoto.

The Great Hall of Kyoto's Train Station

To the right of the great hall are the tracks of the Shinkannsen and all local (JR and Kintetsu) rail lines. Below it are two levels of shopping malls. To the left are all the local city buses and one of the two Kyoto subway lines. Above it, on one side, (believe it or not) is a huge rooftop outdoor amphitheater.

After marveling at the train station we walked about three blocks to the Higashi Honganji Temple complex. The main temple is Kyoto's largest wooden building. The complex has two main temples and a series of ceremonial gates and related service structures. The original temples were built in 1591. They have experienced repeated destruction (fires) over time and were rebuilt to their current condition in 1859.

The main temple is presently undergoing a painstaking renovation and seismic upgrade. The renovations to the smaller of the two temples were completed in 2008. This temple is more than a historical edifice, it is home to one of the largest and most active Buddhist congregations in Japan.

I was glad to be able to see the restoration process. Watching the technical sophistication of the construction work was wonderful. They still have the main temple covered in a temporary enclosure (which itself is one of the largest buildings in Kyoto). There are three cranes to move the incredibly heavy roof tiles and load the roof. Inside they have built a series of internal structures to raise and underpin the existing structure to allow them to literally weave in a new steel seismic structure.

The Smaller of the Two Temples Is Huge
(Yet it is Dwarfed by the Main Temple)

The Temporary Protective Construction Structure

Since the original temples are built of a series of shims and wedges (which is why they tend to perform so well in earthquakes), they have to be carefully underpinned to allow for renovation.

The model built to illustrate the restoration was itself a masterpiece.

The Model Shows the Internal Underpinning Towers

Massive New Steel I-Beams Will Cross Under the Roof and Brace the Width of the Temple

After the new steel is in place the underpinning towers will be incrementally lowered (literally a shim at a time) and then eventually removed.

The photo below shows the incredible detail that is being taken in the applications of gold leaf, hardware, and roof tiles.

The Restored Temple is Emerging into View

The next stop was a return after twenty-five years to Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo). The castle was built from 1603 to 1623 to serve as the Kyoto home to the Tokugawa Shoguns. It is foremost a defensive, albeit lavish, structure. The grounds are surrounded by a moat and tall protective stone walls.

Integral to the whole site are its elaborate grounds. Much like the Imperial Palace in Tokyo (or most castle design in Europe), the entire perimeter of Nijo-jo was surrounded by a moat.

The Steep Stone Walls Surrounded by the Moat

The construction of the walls themselves was a thing of incredible beauty. Each major stone was somehow placed using a series of smaller stones for infill.

Detail of the Protective Stone Walls

The interior of the castle was adorned with incredible paintings which (remarkably) survived from the 17th century intact. Many have been removed for preservation and have been replaced by exact replicas.

What I love the most about Nijo-jo is it's "Nightingale" floors. All of the interior rooms are surrounded by wide wooden hallways. The wide cypress plank floors in the hallways have a slight amount of give. The floors are fastened using little metal rods that slide down gently when pressure is applied from a footstep. They scratch a concealed metal plate below the floor creating a chirping sound. Hence, at night it was impossible to sneak up on the Shogun.

Alas No Photography is Allowed inside the Castle

Rich Carvings Adorn the Entrances

I could have spent an entire day just admiring the grounds of the castle. The landscaping is beautifully composed and wonderfully maintained. Every turn brings a different vista.

Tranquil and Perfectly Composed Gardens

A New Vista at Every Turn

The Gardens Form a Complete Inner World

Visitors May Climb One Outer Wall

In 1867 the fifteenth shogun returned the castle and grounds to the Emperor. It was donated to the City of Kyoto on 1939.

After visiting Nijo we made the best of our all day bus pass and circled 1/2 of Kyoto getting off in the Gion. This is Kyoto's main historic shopping area. Its historic area showcases the work of Kyoto's famous artisans. Interspersed are restaurants and theaters. The chic Hankyu and Takashimaya department stores are located here as well.

The Edge of the Gion

Little (Edible) Fish Cookies Displayed in a Traditional Japanese Confectionary
(They Faked us Out With Icky Bean Paste all the TIme)

At night Kyoto's character changes completely. Aside from the Kabuki theater all of the businesses on the main street of the Gion close and the action is found in every 8' wide alley. There is a seemingly endless number of tame (or not so tame) nightclubs. Businessmen with an unlimited expense account can schedule an evening with a traditional geisha here.

A Theater in the Gion

Back near the train station the action moves to the Pachinko Parlors and more conventional nightclubs and restaurants. One of the things I had on my list was to go play Pachinko, but then I went into a few of the parlors. They are not merely loud, they are earsplitting, nuclear, mega, knock-you-on-your-butt loud. With generous cigarette smoke thrown in for good measure. Guess I'm just too much of a wimp these days.

At Night the Pachinko Parlors Fill Up

And with that we called it a day (and night). When we got back to our hotel room we found it perfectly framing Kyoto Tower. Kind of like the clunky Tokyo Tower, it is oddly proportioned, but beautifully illuminated at night.

Our View from the Granvia

Well, thanks for bearing with a really long post.

My next post will be about Nara. Nara is about an hour from Kyoto and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to yet more amazing temples and pagodas.

But it has something else. It has about 1200 tame deer that live in its main park. I wanted to see that.

Alas our time in Japan will soon come to a close. Even before we leave I already miss it.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

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