Monday, April 4, 2011

01/04/2011 - 04/04/2011 Takayama and Kyoto

Ok, wow, so a few days went by without me really noticing. Time for a quick fill-in on what happened over these days.

Our first day in Takayama was spent looking around the centre of the "old town", through the various stores selling local handicrafts. These were primarily wood-carving based, but there was also plenty of pottery and other types of crafts. Emma bought quite a large variety of souvenirs, but the only one I can remember at the moment is a ceramic owl, wearing a cloak made out of an eggplant. It's very cute.

The next day we checked out the historically preserved village of Hida No Sato, which, while itself isn't an authentic village from centuries long ago, it is made up of various houses from other villages that have been moved to this "safe" location, and have been historically preserved. It was a picture-perfect look at old Japanese village life. Everywhere you looked, there was an interesting hut, full of preserved tools and other mementos from the village lifestyle. I especially liked the really steep roofs on the buildings, designed to withstand the heavy snowfall that the Hida/Takayama region receives during winter.

When looking around this village, Emma and I were lucky enough to visit on a day when there was a parade being held. Before this parade, they were making a traditional rice-based dessert, which is essentially rice pounded into a paste, and then dusted in sesame seed powder or green tea powder. During the rice pounding process, Emma, being the only foreign woman there, was picked to help pound the rice. Many embarassing photos were taken.

Then, the parade took place. It was an interesting mix of traditional attires. The large parade made their way around the village. There were kimono-clad women, demon mask-wearing men, and men who dressed similar to priests, playing instruments that could only be described as sounding like someone playing a kazoo through their nose. Not pleasant to the ear, but I'm sure they were culturally relevant somehow.

After the parade ended, Emma and I then went and fed the Koi carp at the lake for a good 30 minutes. They had breadsticks for 30 yen. We couldn't resist. It was definitely funny when you broke off a piece of bread so big that none of the fish could swallow it whole. They would chase it around the whole lake until one fat one finally managed to inhale it. That, or the solitary swan that was on the lake came along and swallowed the bread whole. It was an angry swan.

Later that night, Emma and I tried out one of our Hotel's traditional Onsens. It was quite relaxing, but boy was the water temperature hot! It felt like we were being boiled alive every time we moved in the water. Never did I think that I would sweat in Takayama's freezing cold weather. Still, after a good soak I definitely did feel refreshed.

Also, a side note, each night in Takayama we were treated to a diverse range of Japanese cuisine, using local ingredients. The food was tasty, but I'd be lying if I said I knew what I was eating for 70% of the time. Still, the highlight of each meal for me was the beef. Apparently it came from local cows in Hida, about a 20 minute drive away. It tasted amazing, and was probably the best beef I've ever eaten.

Yesterday (3rd of April) was a day spent primarily travelling between Takayama and Kyoto. It involved a 150 minute train ride through the mountains to Nagoya (during which I spent most of my time playing Ouendan on my DS), and then a Shinkansen from Nagoya to Kyoto. The Shinkansen was great fun once again. Looking out the window, it's as if you're driving along a highway, except everything is in fast forward by about 300%.

After checking in at our hotel (which has the smallest toilet/bathroom ever - it's like a port-a-loo!), we tried to find somewhere to eat for that night. Unfortunately, having all the knowledge of Kyoto that a tea leaf does of the history of the East India Company (thanks for that one, Douglas), this was a difficult task. It appeared that everywhere we looked lacked an English menu, and from the pictures on the outside, everything appeared to be swimming in pork or beef - both of which Emma can't stomach.

Sadly, in the end, we had McDonalds. It wasn't particularly nice, but at least Emma's Teriyaki Chicken burger was something different.

Today (April 4th), Emma and I first headed to the International Manga Museum (Japanese Comic Museum). It was fascinating, with the museum containing over 300,000 different manga volumes. Unfortunately for us, most of them were in Japanese. We still did have a good browse through the English section. I read the manga version of the video game "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask", and Emma read... something... with a weird title. Something like "Solanum"... I think.

They also had a fascinating section on the history of Manga and its various influences across the world. Furthermore, they explained how money from a sale of a Manga book is divided up, and pretty much summed up how much it sucks to be a Manga artist, as you get paid very little money for your craft. Still, recent estimates have valued the Japanese Manga industry worth over 3 Trillion yen, so there must be some money in there somewhere...

Then, we headed west to a the Arayashima district. This area was very beautiful, with the streets lined with cherryblossom trees, most of which were in bloom. The area was also very touristy - probably the most touristy area we had encountered so far in our Japan travels! Still, the reason we were heading here was to see Tenryuji Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site. Moreover, we were going to visit the garden at the temple, and it certainly did not disappoint. After rounding the corner of the main hall, Emma and I were presented with the most beautiful Japanese garden we had ever seen. Everywhere you looked, every angle, there was a perfect photo opportunity. Moreover, the garden was dripping in cherryblossoms, and it made the garden exponentially more beautiful. Lots of photos were taken.

Then, we headed north of the gardens to the equally impressive bamboo grove. Essentially it was just a path through some bamboo, but when you're actually walking through it, it's so much more. You are surrounded by a virtual forest of bamboo, which sways gently in the wind. This bamboo stretches far above you, to form a canopy of green. It is a very surreal experience - gone are the memories of the bustling streets of any major Japanese city, and instead you are filled with a sense of calm. To anybody who goes to Japan, you *have* to walk down this path. It is amazing. Unfortunately, my camera couldn't really capture the awesomeness of the grove, but hopefully I can fix the colour levels in Photoshop later...

After some more wandering through the backstreets of Arayashima, we were on a train (in peak hour fun) back to Kyoto city. We had a look around Kyoto station to find somewhere to eat for dinner. Once again, we encountered much of the same troubles we did the previous night - no english menus and most meals seemed to have only red meat in them. Thankfully though, after a while we did find a nice place to eat. We had torikatsu - crumbed meat (in this case shrimp) deep fried served with vegetables. It was a nice way to end a very fun day.

Tomorrow: More Kyoto temple stuff, and some observations on the city of Kyoto.

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