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Old Meets New in Kyoto, Japan (Kyoto: Japan's Cultural Treasure)
Special to iFlyLAX.com
Story and photos by James Reilly
The author and a "Maiko-san"
I must admit, I am no stranger to Japan. Years of practice with
the Japanese language, a college major which included a year of
study abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo, and a 20-year marriage
to a native-born Japanese, have given me the ability to communicate
freely in a land where few foreign visitors dare to venture linguistically
beyond the obligatory "Arigato" and "Konnichi wa". Bridging the
language barrier has not only made traveling in Japan easier, but
also allowed me to become familiar and comfortable with the country
and its people; and immerse myself in a variety of authentic cultural
Though you may not speak the language, you'll find that the Japanese
will go out of their way to help you with whatever it is that you
are trying to do. Those who speak English, relish the opportunity
to do so. If you just stand there long enough, looking confused,
inevitably someone will approach you and offer assistance. Some
years ago while my parents were on their first visit to Tokyo, a
pair of young Japanese women not only gave them directions to the
Ginza District, but rode along with them on the city bus for the
sole purpose of indicating precisely at which stop they should get
But here I must confess that for all the time I've spent in Japan,
I have rarely wandered beyond the Tokyo city limits alone; and never
on a solo cultural sight-seeing trip at this. Yes, I have been to
Kyoto before. But that was on a escorted college-group bus trip,
in which I remember much drinking, at least one occasion of "mooning",
and a lot more partying than studying going on. This time, I am
fifteen years older and twenty years wiser! I've left my family
behind in Tokyo with the in-laws, and set out alone to explore Japan's
historic capital, and experience its most famous festival.
Take the "B" Train
The best way to travel within Japan is by rail; and intra-Japan
rail routes serviced by the fabled "Bullet Trains" are more plentiful
than ever. Although a regular reserved-seat round-trip rail ticket
is comparably priced to what you would expect to pay for a seat
on a domestic airline flight, the hassle involved in getting to
and from the local airports (you'll be getting on a train anyway)
make going by "Shinkan-sen" (Bullet Train) the logical choice.
Japan's newest "Bullet Train"
You will definately want to look into purchasing a "Japan Rail"
pass in the U.S. (or your home country) before your trip. For a
week of unlimited rail travel within Japan, including Bullet Trains,
the price is about $250 (US dollars). Once you arrive in Japan,
exchange your Rail Pass voucher (you will need to show your passport)
for your actual pass, which will last a week (or for whatever longer
period you may have purchased) from that point, at a Japan National
Railroad (JNR) travel office, located in most larger rail stations.
With a Rail Pass you will not be allowed to book a reserved seat,
but non-reserved seats are plentiful if you avoid travel at peak
hours; or you can just wait for the next train going in your direction,
as seats in non-reserved cars are available on a first-come, first-served
Like the "Concorde" supersonic jet airliner, the Bullet Trains
have been running for over thirty years (first built for the 1964
Tokyo Olympics), yet still posess a futuristic appeal. But unlike
the SST, the Bullet Trains have been upgraded and refined over the
years to provide a smoother, faster and safer ride.
JNR "Train Attendant"
It was not long after my departure from Tokyo station that we were
well out of the city's impacted frenzy and gliding through rural
farming and manufacturing communities at speeds of up to 250 kph
(the newest trains max out at 270 kph, our conductor, Mr. Morikawa,
explained to me), with a ride smooth enough to write this part of
this story, and quieter than a jet aircraft interior.
Snacks and beverages are offered from serving carts by what I must
call "Train Attendants", who troll the aisle throughout the trip.
There are also first class, or "Green cars" with wider seats and
their own private attendant, or dare I say, "Stewardess". Non-smoking
cars and pay phones are included on every train, as are both Japanese
and "Western" style toilets (I'll let you experience that for yourself).
After a brief stop in Nagoya, my train was again on its way, speeding
to my destination of Kyoto. The terminus of this train would be
Osaka. Which means that if you arrived from the U.S. in Japan's
second largest city, you're an even shorter Bullet Train ride away
from Japan's historic capital.
A Perfect Day
The August sun beat down relentlessly. The heat and humidity were
oppressive. It was a perfect day.
The shear number of temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan's historic
capital and center for traditional culture, required that I restrain
myself to selecting a handful of the most significant and representative
to visit during my short stay, and savor their individuality. But
first, I had planned to meet with the residents of Mt. Iwata (Iwata-yama)
on Kyoto's Western fringe.
From my hotel, a short bus ride took me to Shijo-Omiya station,
where I caught an electric trolley (the old Los Angeles "Red Cars"
must have been like this) to Arashi-yama. A short walk down the
street and across the beautiful wooden Togetsu-kyo bridge, which
spans the gentle Hozu river, brought me to my appointment right
Don't Stare at the Monkeys
A "Monkey's-eye view" from Mt. Iwata
Kyoto's "monkey mountain" is populated by an extended family of
red-faced simians who make human visitors hike up a one-mile switchback
trail to their home on Mt. Iwata, which offers a beautiful panoramic
view of the entire city. The monkeys themselves are not allowed
in 'their' house; that is reserved for visitors. It is a place where
humans can take respite from the elements, have a snack and, by
all means, purchase packets of apple slices to feed their hosts,
who are scampering around on, and hanging from, the wire fence that
covers the windows of the structure with outstretched (make that
Although the sanguine simians are polite enough to their human
visitors / benefactors, they can be quite rude to each other as
they squeal and jockey for the most "fruitful" positions on the
feeding fence. This behavior, coupled with the warnings posted on
signs along the foot trail up the mountain, prompted me to treat
them with respect and allow them their space whenever I was outside
the protective cocoon of the "human cage". It did seem, however,
as I made my way away from the mountaintop house and back down the
trail, that those monkeys I encountered along the footpath who had
chosen to avoid the main feeding area were quite mellow, and went
quietly about their monkey business.
Life Sucks, and then You Die
Nature abounds in Japan, and Kyoto is no exception. The foliage
is lush; and whether in the mountains, along river banks or on temple
grounds, fauna is omnipresent. During the late summer the constant
buzzing and beeping of insects called "Semi" (kind of a large winged
Cicada) permeates the air. "Semi" live underground in a larval state
for almost the entire year until a metamorphosis gives them wings
and brings them out into the summer light just long enough to make
some noise, mate, lay their eggs, and die.
All that Glitters
Perhaps the most well known of all Japanese temples is the Golden
Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji. Its image is familiar around the world;
located in Kyoto's northwestern quadrant, not far from Mt. Arashi,
it can be accessed easily by bus or taxi. Entry into the building
is no longer permitted, but it is the striking picture of the
structure itself that appeals to visitors, who are delighted
to view and photograph the square, gold-leafed building from across
the reflecting pond on which it is situated. Constructed in 1397,
it served as the shogun's retirement villa, and was later converted
to a temple. Although tragically destroyed by fire in 1950, the
structure was meticulously reconstructed in 1955 to the original
Nothing but "Zen" at the Ryoan-ji Rock Garden
The Golden Pavilion is just one of the temple buildings located
in the Rokuon-ji compound. At a nearby sub-temple, after a brief
purification by smoke from the large incense pot, visitors alert
the gods to forthcoming requests for blessings by pulling the ropes
that clang gongs at the temple hall. Your wishes can also be written
on special papers to be folded and knotted along lines outside.
As you circulate around the grounds back to the exit you'll be glad
you included a visit to this beautiful golden symbol of traditional
Up in Smoke
On the day prior to Kyoto's biggest festival, men stacked miniature
wooden planks into piles to be transported into the surrounding
mountains and used as kindling for the giant Japanese characters
(Daimon-ji) that would be ignited on
the mountainsides facing the city the following night. But not before
the faithful had a chance to purchase the small "message boards"
for a couple of hundred yen (about $2) and pen a wish of good fortune
or a message to an ancestor that would rise to heaven with the smoke
from the giant burning symbols.
Like a Rock
While you are in this part of the city, a visit to another landmark
that represents traditional Japanese culture and values is highly
recommended. Not far from the quiet opulence of the Golden Pavilion
is the Ryoan-ji Temple. For a small fee (most temples charge about
500 yen, ($4 USD) for entry), visitors may enter the austere, yet
refined, wooden building. After the pre-requisite removal of shoes,
proceed to the veranda for a peaceful contemplation of the world's
most famous Rock Garden. It's an ideal spot to take a break from
walking, and relax on the slick wooden-plank floor overlooking a
perfectly manicured "garden" of average-looking rocks, planted as
islands in a purposefully raked sea of white pebbles. This is the
meaning of "Zen"; and it is at this place that you realize Japan's
truly unique contributions to Asian, and world, culture and philosophy.
Nothing Raw in Kyoto
All the walking and heat were bound to wear me down, so in the
mid-afternoon I made my way back to my hotel, which provided a cool
retreat from the day's activities. I considered going to take a
long, hot, relaxing soak at one of the handful of Japanese style
public baths, or "sento", that still exist in the city, but I figured
"why boil a body that's already been steamed, fried, and baked?"
Instead I showered in my room, then headed down to Kyoto station,
just two subway stops from the Shijo subway station right next to
my hotel, as the sun went down. Kyoto station, where I had arrived
by Shinkansen (Bullet train) the day before, is right in the center
of town within a gleaming hotel and shopping complex called "the
Cube". Across the street is the "Kyoto Tower", a candle-esqe structure
built for the 1964 Japan Olympics. It offers panoramic views of
Kyoto and the surrounding mountains. It is a worthwhile experience,
especially on a clear day, providing a great lay-of-the-land and
a good mental picture of where you've been, and where you may be
going, while sightseeing in the city. Be prepared, however, for
a really cheesy cultural display, (strongly in need of an update,
or just plain removal), as you wind your way out of the observation
"The Cube" at Kyoto Station & subway "grafitti"
Stick a Fork in it
Electing to have dinner in the area, I wandered into the "Suishin"
restaurant near the station, where I enjoyed a delicious assortment
of my favorite Japanese dishes: tempura (lightly battered deep fried
shrimp and an assortment of vegetables), tuna sashimi (tender slices
or raw Albacore tuna), a bowl of miso soup (soybean paste-based
soup with clams) and a draft beer (draft beer) for about $20.
The food available throughout Japan is, in most cases, reasonably
priced and delicious. It's truly difficult to describe the variety
and quality of the dining choices both residents and visitors enjoy.
Eateries are everywhere: in office buildings, department stores,
underground thoroughfares, and on street corners. Italian tratorias,
French bakeries, and American diners coexist along side of every
conceivable kind of Japanese restaurant, from conveyer-belt sushi
bars and noodle houses to establishments offering exotic Japanese
style specialty dishes; eat-in, take-out, stand, sit, or remove
your shoes and eat from a Japanese-style low table while sitting
cross-legged on a cool tatami (a smooth woven mat). With such an
abundance and variety of good food at their fingertips, it is amazing
that to see even a moderately overweight Japanese person is an extreme
The sight of familiar illuminated signs for such convenient places
as 7-Eleven, Circle-K, Mc Donald's, and Shakey's shouldn't come
as a surprise, and makes things easy when you just feel like having
a yogurt, a sandwich, some fries, or a burger. The bottom line:
you'll eat well in Japan, whatever your tastes or budget.
No webmaster would be worth his weight in megabytes if he didn't
check his e-mail on the road. These days, this can be easily accomplished
from a computer / internet access cubicle at Kinko's (you know-
Kinko's Copy Center), which can be found in most larger Japanese
cities. High-speed access will cost you about 10 yen (9 cents) a
minute. Not bad, really. And if you dig a little you may be able
to find an "Internet cafe" as I did while in Tokyo, where I got
an hour of high-speed surfing for about 3 dollars and free soda
My first day in Kyoto was its hottest on record. And the following
wasn't much different. But this day I would have the good fortune
of being escorted by friends Kayo-san and Noriko-san, and Kayo-san's
two children; and driven in an air-conditioned mini-van to Kyoto's
eastern foothills, where a cluster of temples and shrines stand
adjacent to the famous "Kiyomizu-tera".
Sprawling Japanese "Ohaka"
The whole compound, in Kyoto's oldest district, is lined
with narrow streets and old shops that date from the Meiji-era
(mid-1800's) The heat probably made the streets seem steeper than
they were; but make no mistake: you will walk, and climb steps,
and walk some more. On the most well traveled shop-lined thoroughfare,
I met an artist who was delicately oil painting the scene on the
street. Initially he declined to be photographed, but my ability
to speak Japanese, artist to artist, softened him up.
One Man's Sistine Chapel
The painting he was working on was, to date, a 7-year project,
and a labor of love. It duplicated the cobblestone shop-lined street
crowded with tourists of all nationalities in intricate detail.
A true purist, Mr. Yamamoto never used photographs; and painted
the characters and their faces strictly from memory, which was quite
an amazing feat considering that most passersby are in the view
for just a moment or two. Yamamoto-san had no intention of ever
selling the small colorful masterpiece, (though he said he had received
many offers) or for that matter even showing it to anyone other
than those who, while strolling by, noticed his diligence and stepped
behind him to see what he was working on, as I had done.
Over the course of a thirty minute conversation, I learned that
Mr. Yamamoto, who was not an artist by trade, lived in neighboring
Osaka and commuted to Kyoto 50 or 60 times a year, worked for about
6 hours from his street-corner perch, and returned home the same
day. Eventually, we established a mutual respect and friendship,
exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and will no doubt communicate
again at a future date. Later, I couldn't help but to conceitedly
wonder if I might, from his photographic memory, be added to his
cast of characters and immortalized in this exquisite unseen painting.
The Hills are Alive
There is a reason that many longtime Kyoto residents and out of
town visitors make their way to this particular area adjacent to
Maruyama Park, and that so many shrines and temples are located
here. It is also home to a sprawling hillside cemetery. Terraced
rows of "O-haka" (Japanese burial plots with compact, inscribed
headstones) spread up the mountain as far as the eye can see. Reverent
relatives wash the headstone(s) of deceased loved-ones and often
leave flowers or light a stick of incense. Lucky ancestors receive
a special treat such as a small can of beer or a cigarette burning
alongside the fragrant "senko" (incense) sticks.
Kyoto's Kiyomizu-tera (Pure Water Temple)
On this last day of "O-bon", the special week of the year when
particular attention is paid to the memories and spirits of ancestors,
the cemetery was lined with strings if "chochin" (paper lanterns)
that would be illuminated later in the evening to help celebrate
the crowning event of the season: The Diamon-ji Festival.
It's the Water
A truly interesting variety of temples and shrines are located
in this area. At the huge gate entrance to the Chion-in temple we
encountered ricksha-drivers hawking their services (not unlike Central
Park horse-carriage jockeys) in spite of the extreme heat; and Buddhist
monks visiting from Myanmar (Burma) who must have felt right at
home in the thick humidity.
The Ryozen-Kanon is a giant statue of the seated Buddha, and commemorates
those killed in the war. Inside of it you will find smaller shrines
each hosting a different manifestation of Buddha dedicated to those
born in each of the zodiac year-of-birth animals.
At one of the smaller temples in the Kiyomizu-tera compound, you
can hand over 100 yen (1 dollar), and be sent down a long flight
of stairs into a pitch black environment, guided only by a handrail
of large wooden beads. Finally, at the bottom, a glowing round stone
appears. The object being to turn the stone for blessings as you
round it for the return trip back up through darkened maze into
the light of day.
The most striking feature of the main Kiyomizu temple building
is it's huge wooden balcony, which is suspended off of the structure
over the forested hillside, offering a lovely view down into the
city. The other notable feature here is the water fountain which
flows from above in three streams, and for which this temple gets
its name: Kiyomizu, or "pure water", temple. From metal cups attached
to long poles water is captured from one of the falling streams
and used for a purifying hand rinsing or a spiritually refreshing
and thirst quenching drink.
Girls' night out: "Maiko" performers
take the night off to view the burning "Daimon-ji"
from a rooftop vantage point.
Memories of Geishas
Kyoto is renown for keeping another flame burning: that of traditional
Japanese entertainment and art forms. In the Gion district, home
to both public and private performing arts theaters, it is not uncommon
to catch a glimpse of a Maiko-san. Maiko, are female entertainers
who have been highly trained in special forms of dance, singing
You may spot them making their way to or from a private performance,
ornately glad in full kimono (Japanese-style dress), make-up and
headdress; or possibly even have the privilege of witnessing a performance.
I had the good fortune of meeting a pair of maiko-san with their
"manager" at my hotel's rooftop festival viewing event. Though demure-looking
in their snow-white make-up, they were not shy and graciously agreed
to allow me to photograph them.
Giant Flaming Characters
Not to be confused with a West Hollywood parade, Kyoto's best-known
event is called "Daimon-ji", and yes it means "Giant Flaming Characters".
In five strategic positions on the mountainsides that surround the
city, multiple mini-bonfires are constructed to spell out two hundred
feet tall "ji": characters with special meanings appropriate to
O-bon's finale. The firepots are ignited, illuminating each character
in sequence, ringing the Kyoto valley with visions of the huge burning
"Daimon-ji". The "oohs" and "aahs" from the spectators are reminiscent
of an American 4th of July fireworks display audience. From various
vantagepoints around the city, this, that or the other character
is visible. Even the local TV new stations give a complete report
on the best spots from which to witness the event.
By coincidence, and good fortune, the 15-story Karasuma Kyoto hotel,
where I was staying, had a policy of opening the doors to it's roof
top vantage point, which was equipped with rows of folding chairs
for guests lucky enough to experience a simultaneous-viewing of
all five "Daimon-ji": the big "dai", "ho", "fune", the small "dai"
and the "tori". Gentle background music set the mood for viewing,
while I rolled my video camera from the perfect corner perch to
record the illumination of the characters on the mountains in the
As the flaming symbols slowly burned-out, and guests made their
was back inside, I couldn't help but think of the cultural contrast
of this beautiful orchestrated mountainside fire festival to the
deadly out-of-control infernos which will scorch southern California's
mountains in the coming dry season.
Just Click your Heels
Having accomplished everything I had set out to (and more!) on
this short cultural side-trip, I took my return Bullet-train ride
to Tokyo, to spend a few more days and prepare for my flight back
to Los Angeles.
I would have time to reflect on the warmth of Kyoto (heatwave included)
and its residents; the graciousness of my hosts (I am still amazed
at how euthusiatically they walked around the sweltering city with
me); and the amazing paradox of present day Japan, where the best
of the modern world coexists with beautiful ancient traditions.
Japan remains one of the most crime free societies in the world,
especially for tourists (though usual precautions should be taken
to avoid theft and dangerous situations). And with Japan currently
experiencing a slower economy, prices on everyday necessities have
come down, in spite of the still strong yen.
On Sunday, I would be on my way home to LA; but they say "home
is where the heart is", and I think I may have left a little piece
of my heart in Kyoto this time.
About the Author
is an interactive media instructor at Santa Monica College, freelance
writer, and Webmaster for