Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Kyoto My Heart

Following the advice of the college roommate of our friend Kendra, we made a day trip to Kyoto, a city with a dense concentration (17, to be exact) of World Heritage sites. We found our time in Kyoto to be our favorite part of the trip to Japan, and deeply regretted not having spent more time here. As a city, Kyoto is lovingly ensconced amidst verdant hills, and the city unfolds before you as you make your way from one neighborhood to another. One online reviewer compared Kyoto to his native Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has to be the single most over-the-top compliment ever paid to Chattanooga. In truth, our Kyoto trip also benefited from some serendipity; Vik happened to come across a stray Word document about Kyoto in our hotel’s computer lab that gave us several well-written tips on where to go (and where to shop!).

Our day started with a rush-hour foray, and we were definitely overwhelmed by the central Tokyo railway station. We bought our tickets without much problem (other than our raised eyebrows at the $125 per person one-way fare), but couldn’t find the right departure track for the Kyoto-bound train. Our frantic running-around the station elicited enough attention that two undercover policemen (who politely flashed their badges to us) approached us to help us find the right departure track. We caught our bullet train with barely a minute to spare.

Riding the bullet train was quite an experience, best described as being in “super pursuit mode” for 2 hours (you’ll have to pardon Vik for that gratuitous Knight Rider reference). Vik still believes that we were a mere 10 mph or so away from going fast enough to reverse the earth’s orbit. As we raced westward from Tokyo, we watched Mt. Fuji whip by our window. We had to avoid holding our gaze too long on the snow-topped peak out of fear that we’d give ourselves motion sickness.

Upon arriving in Kyoto, we caught a bus downtown to the central shopping district. After making our way to Kyoto’s Nishiki Food Market, we discovered a store that has made samurai swords for 460 years. Today, the store has expanded its repertoire to other hand-forged metal goods. Given Vik’s ignominious history with overeager U.S. airport security personnel, we passed on purchasing a sword and opted instead for a copper bowl with our names engraved phonetically in Japanese characters on the side. After sampling some of the offerings from the market’s sundry food vendors, we ventured to Kyoto’s antiques district of Shinmozen and then watched amateur samurais train at the nearby Heian Shrine.

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the walk to Kyoto’s Silver Palace. Navigating by one of our 8 Kyoto tourist maps, we happened upon a cobblestone path running alongside a pleasant canal on Kyoto’s east side. Known as the Philosophers’ Path, the walkway was dotted with charming crafts galleries, cafes and artisan workshops. We felt like we’d been transported to another place and time. We can only imagine how stunning the scene must be when the cherry blossom trees are in full bloom, but even in the stark winter, the serenity of the walk enchanted us. After a brief pitstop for some heavenly thin cinnamon cookies, we arrived at the Silver Temple.

The majesty of the Silver Temple was unlike any other we had seen in Japan. We are not entirely sure that our pocket camera has done it appropriate justice. Vik initially balked at paying the 1,000 yen admission cost (roughly $10) a half an hour before closing time, but Kaberi made the executive decision to buy the tickets. It proved to be a remarkably-sage course of action given the beauty of the setting, the layout of the grounds and the delicacy of the architecture. Vik expects Kaberi to stop saying “I told you so” some time in 2014.

Had we had more time in Kyoto, we would have toured the world-renowned Kyoto Botanical Gardens and the Golden Palace. But there just weren’t enough hours in the day to fit everything in. Suffice it to say that we have already begun plotting our eventual return.

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