Monday, 22 December 2008

Leaving Kyoto

Kyoto has been a great base for the last week. As a city it's good in itself; ringed by scenic hills (steep-sided but not too high, clothed in pine trees) and small enough to be easily manageable it has a huge number of sites of interest and good public transport. We've nipped from venerated temple to zen garden to lamp-lit bamboo forest by bus at a leisurely pace.

Kyoto's central position on Honshu has made a good base for wider exploration too. We've day-tripped to Hiroshima to see the peace memorial and the island of Miyajima for the floating torii (and tourist-mugging deer). We've overnighted in a temple at the top of mt. Koya ("Koya-san") and wandered amidst the 200,000 moss-covered graves in the cemetary, cathedral-like with its tall stands of Japanese cedar. This has naturally led to lots of photo opportunities :-)

Our night in the temple on Koya-san and the last four nights in Kyoto have been in traditional Japanese ("ryokan") accomodation. Think Kill Bill - tatami mats, paper screens, no shoes (very Swedish!), bedding rolled out on the floor and lots of sitting cross legged at low tables.

The ryokan in Kyoto is a very interesting place. It's been run by the same lady since it opened in the 60's and some of the furnishings - particularly the TV and bakelite phone - seem to be original. The place was groundbreaking in its time for catering cheaply to foreign tourists in a traditional manner - there are Japanese newspaper clippings and stills from TV interviews in the 60's and 70's attesting to the fact. There are also articles from foreign newspapers (eg NY Times) with some fantastic photos of tourists with big moustaches, bigger flares and flowery shirts. The journalistic style of the time seems to have been for fantastically posed shots that focus on the travelling westerner ("yes, you too could be here"): the smiling tourist with a flower in her hair waving goodbye to her hunky friend on the balcony above - the ryokan frontage and canal opposite being mere incidental backdrop. There's a great shot of a middle aged gentleman, neatly trimmed with the conservative look of a bank manager, wearing a yukata (Japanese dressing-gown type robe) and kneeling down ready to try some green tea. He looks stiff and uncomfortable with a very fixed "I really am enjoying this, honestly" smile; it's easy to imagine the BBC english commentary "Here is Mr Smith, having a jolly good time sampling the local culture in Japan."

What really makes this place is the friendliness of the owner and her son - not just the normal Japanese politeness but a real warmth of welcome whenever we return from a day out (or even the laundrette round the corner). The son gets very excited when he discovers that K is Swedish - it seems they've had a lot of Swedish visitors since the early days. We get a goodbye in Swedish ("Vi ses") whenever we go out. You can't escape the Swedish mafia...

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