KYOTO | JAPAN
NO SOONER HAD I STEPPED OFF THE PLANE INTO OSAKA AIRPORT THEN I WAS CONFRONTED WITH A GANG OF HOODED WARRIORS. FOR A MOMENT WE STOOD STARING EACH OTHER DOWN, SIZING EACH OTHER UP, WAITING FOR AN OPPORTUNITY TO STRIKE.EVERYTHING STOOD STILL. I COULD FEEL EVERY EYE ON ME, MY EVERY MOVE SCRUTINISED AS TIME SLOWED TO A STOP.
THEN I REALISED IT WAS A CARD BOARD CUT OUT.
VISIT IGA CITY! NINJA CAPITAL OF JAPAN! It screamed. I made a mental note. Must visit IGA CITY! NINJA CAPITAL OF JAPAN!
I was confident ninjas wouldn’t attack me in the toilets so that’s where I went to gather my thoughts. That’s where I first met a robotic toilet. You’ve probably heard about these already. They have various buttons which do various things, things I don’t quite understand. I don’t get it. A toilet should be a place to get away from the stresses and strains of modern life. In Japan the stresses and strains of modern life follow you into the jacks, requiring you to have an engineering degree to take a whizz. It took a while to figure out. Mostly the buttons have an obscure picture on them, or something in Japanese. I just wanted to flush, not launch a surface to air missile. I have no doubt though that if you pressed the wrong button that’s exactly what you might end up doing…..
It surprised me that Kyoto didn’t have an international airport. I realise that Osaka is just an hour away, but still for such an important city, one that was capital of Japan for over one thousand years, it struck me as odd. Still, I just got off the bus and straight away found myself disorientated. It took a lot longer to walk to my hostel than I expected and by the time I got there I was soaked in sweat thanks to the surprising humidity. No matter. I was here now, and what better way to relax and gather my thoughts then a few minutes of quiet time in the toilet and – GOD DAMN IT.
The next morning found me at Kennin-Ji, Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple, not on purpose, I just kinda found myself there while walking towards Gion. It was the first Japanese temple I’d visited and I couldn’t wait to try out those sliding paper doors and squat on a meditation mat. They have those in abundance in the Abbot’s House. It’s a relaxing, cute place complete with manicured little gardens. They lead to the hatto, which seemed to be the main hall. It contained an amazing dragon fresco on the ceiling and underneath what appeared to be a throne of some sort. Kennin-Ji seemed to be famous for it’s paintings. Most of the wall panels were covered in flowing grey scale pictures of all sorts from demons and dragons to fat bald guys laughing at each other. So far zen seemed to be living up to it’s name, I found it a great place to chill out.
I headed further down towards Gion. This is the old town of Kyoto and home still to many geisha houses (hanamachi). People come here specifically to catch a glimpse of the geisha as they flit from house to house on errands. You gotta be quick though. Those girls can really move in those robes. People hung around outside the geisha houses like blood hungry paparazzi, cameras at the ready. I’d been there for a while with no luck. As I sat down on a step and contemplated the decisions in my life which lead me to stalking pale foreign women two of them blind sided me and scuttled down the street. Like a flash I leaped to my feet and fired off several blurry shots. The geisha, it seemed, were photo shy and there was no way I was gonna approach one asking for a selfie. Through the course of a few nights there I seen geisha girls a handful more times. They frequent the ochaya or tea houses, entertaining business men with song and dance they way they may have entertained samurai in centuries past. Wandering Gion at night amid these old wooden houses and catching glimpses of the geiko (gion geishas) it was cool to be transported back to middle ages Japan, even if it was just until the end of the street and you were blinded by a passing car.
Speaking of old fashioned dress. It seemed popular, at least in Kyoto, for young people to dress in kimonos. Anyone can rent the robes at shops, and it became a common sight to see girls or couples walking around in matching kimono on the street. I wasn’t tempted myself. At the rate I was sweating I don’t think I could have afforded the dry cleaning bills. I’m surprised you couldn’t get them in a vending machine. They have vending machines everywhere here. My hostel was a small wooden house located down a narrow alleyway and twenty feet away was a vending machine selling drinks. There was another one right on the corner no more than a one minute walk away. Being a spy would be the easiest job ever in Japan. Just disguise yourself as a vending machine. You’d look out of place nowhere and no one would bat an eye at your presence. Street corner? Yup. Bathroom? Why not. Funeral? How convenient.
There are some 2,000 temples and ancient structures around Kyoto but arguably the most notable is the Kiyomizu-Dera buddhist temple situated on the hill just outside the city. A temple has been here since the 8th century while the present building was built in the 17th. It was a miserable day as I trudged up the hill towards the complex. The chat in the hostel that morning was that a typhoon was heading in. Never one to balk at some passing wind I took my chances and grabbed my transparent umbrella (a japanese must) and headed for the site. All the old Japanese temples are wooden structures. Kiyomizu-Dera is amazing in that for a building of it’s size, not a single nail was used in it’s construction. At the entrance I passed by several red torii gates and smaller shrines before coming to the main hall. On the left is a candle lit shrine while I followed around to the right and onto the main “stage”. In olden times (or “yore” if you prefer) it was believed that if you survived the jump from the 13 meter veranda your wish would be granted. Nowadays jumping from here is banned but I’m sure some X-Treme sports company has applied to install a bungee.
The temple is also famous for it’s wish granting water. The stream opens up into a little three channel waterfall. You catch the water in your cup and make a wish, usually for love, money or good health. I say why choose? Wish for a rich doctor. Still waiting on that one.
On the way back down the hill I glanced longingly into one of the souvenir shops selling replica samurai swords. One day, I thought. One day…..
Later that night the typhoon hit Osaka. To be honest I didn’t really notice much difference. It was windy and rainy sure, but to me it was just like an Irish summer. Instead I spent that evening planning my trip to IGA CITY! NINJA CAPITAL OF JAPAN! In typically Japanese fashion it didn’t seem very straight forward. I couldn’t even begin to figure out the buses but I found a website which simplified the train system, as much as it could. The most direct route from Kyoto central to IGA CITY! NINJA CAPITAL OF JAPAN! involved changing trains four times. Doable I guess, and it’s not like it’s gonna be a disappointment. It’s IGA CITY! NINJA CAPITAL OF JAPAN! Renewed now that I had a plan I slept soundly through the storm.
Kyoto central train station is a behemoth. It’s one of the largest buildings in Japan, and it’s easy to see how. Luckily I’d scoped the place out the day before so I had a pretty good idea where I was going. I hopped on the JR Nara line, before transferring to the Kansai line heading towards Kamo. All that was left was to catch the train heading towards Iga-Ueno and transfer again on the Iga line to Ueno-shi which stops in Iga City. It couldn’t be simpler. As I sat on the train a young girl approached me to practice her english. “Excuse me sir? Where are you heading today?” “IGA CITY! NINJA CAPITAL OF JAPAN!” I screamed in reply, the forced of my breath blowing her hair back. Momentarily stunned she retreated to the back of the train. My eyes narrowed as I glanced around the carriage, the old men locked eyes with me and nodded sagely. Yes, here was a passionate gaijin worthy of learning the ways of the ninja. I knew then as we exited the train as equals that my quest was true.
I couldn’t believe my luck when I arrived at Kamo, it had gone like clockwork. The station was a little empty but that just meant less queues. Hang on why were the gates locked? After managing to attract the attention of a bemused security guard I learned through broken english that the line had been closed for repairs after the typhoon. Disappointing but not a huge problem, I’ll just retrace my steps back to Kyoto. “You don’t understand, all the JR lines in the vicinity are closed, you can’t go back” he explained. My only chance was to continue on the last train towards Nara and then transfer to another train there heading back to Kyoto – if any were.
Once in Nara the news was that all the JR lines were now closed, but there was a chance the Kintetsu line might still be open. I left the JR station and into an eerily deserted Nara. It was the middle of the day and yet the place was like an abandoned ghost town. If this was the wild west a lone tumbleweed would have had me nervously fingering my six shooter. Arriving in the Kintetsu station I was relieved to discover that humanity hadn’t be eradicated and, more importantly, the Kyoto line was still open.
After the hangover had passed from my train binge the previous day the next was better. The typhoon had dissipated and the clouds were a much lighter shade of grey. That morning I took a walk through Kyoto’s famous bamboo “forest” at Arashiyama. I used the term “forest” loosely because it’s more of a short ten minute walk through a small grove until you reach a wall. Literally. Fun while it lasts but there’s not much to it. A short distance away is the Tenryu-ji temple. The sun had burned away the remaining cloud revealing beautiful gardens and another of Kyoto’s “Five Mountains” – the five most important buddhist temples in the city.
Japan’s largest pagoda is the amazing five storied To-ji pagoda just south of Kyoto station. Again, like all traditional japanese buildings it’s a masterpiece made of wood. Unfortunately the pagoda itself is only open a select few days in the year. The temple complex here had been burnt down several times over the centuries and it’s only now that they’ve had the piece of mind to leave a few buckets of water scattered around. Just in case someone drops a cigarette. Matches are understandably banned from the site. Snacks are permitted, as long as they’re not too hot.
The Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine is one of Japan’s most recognisable locations. The torii gates which line the trails up the mountain are dedicated to the shinto god of rice Inari. The trail itself is nice and winds gradually through some nice forest, and through some deafening swarms of cicadas. Each of the hundreds of red torii gates here were dedicated by local businesses hoping for the luck of the goddess to rub off on them. The gates truly are beautiful, especially at the beginning of the trail where the smaller gates are tightly packed together. The way the sunlight filters through the trees gives them an almost ethereal orange glow, while the kanji script richly decorates the torii with the hopes and wishes of the people who created them. There are lots of small side-shrines at various points on the way up. They almost look like a religious land fill, the altars and statues crammed into niches in the trees like they’d been dumped on top of each other. There are numerous shrines here guarded by kitsune, or fox spirits. In Japanese lore when a fox reaches a certain age it morphs into a supernatural creature capable of taking on female human form. Like a MILF these foxes are wise old tricksters preying on the weak and sexually immature. Being in a high risk category I decided it was time to get back to Kyoto. I still had to figure out how to get to Fujiyoshjida, and that required a trip back to Kyoto central station. I hiked back down the mountain passing more gates and ever more compacted shrines (real estate must be expensive, even for gods) and after ten minutes on the JR line I was back in the labyrinth.
I remember the David Bowie film vaguely. A girl’s kid brother gets kidnapped and she must survive Bowie’s devilishly designed maze , his wig, and the bulge in his uncomfortably tight pants. The help she gets from the characters along the way was frustratingly unhelpful. But then again they were just pieces of rubber with someone’s hand up their asses. Kyoto station is like that. Well, not exactly like that. It’s not that the people are purposely unhelpful, it’s just I’m rubbish at japanese and not much better at english either. Eventually I found the bus ticket office, and after pointing at a calendar and doing my best to pronounce Fujiyoshida in a way that could be understood by someone with zero english, I managed to snag a ticket. It wasn’t for that night, which I’d wanted. The bus was sold out so I’d be on the next night bus, which left me with an extra day in Kyoto. A smile crept across my face : If at first you don’t succeed…
IGA CITY! NINJA CAPITAL OF JAPAN!
Yeah baby! No storm was gonna stop me from rubbing shoulders with the greatest assassins in history – and after breakfast in McDonalds I’d also pay a visit to the ninjas too. Typhoon-less my trek to the promised land was successful and I found my myself in Iga-Ueno park. Here is the ninja museum contained underneath the “ninja house”. It’s a small traditional japanese house fitted with various traps and hidden compartments. Here the ninja could crawl under floors or hide in walls ready to pounce on intruders. Masters of the surprise party. Once the guided tour was over you were free to continue into the basement for a surprisingly comprehensive museum dedicated to all things ninja. Weapons, armour, disguises, my christmas list grew exponentially. I love a good mystery, and they had examples of “Ninja script” here. Ninjas were mostly hired as spies. As such they developed secret languages and codes, a lot of which remain unbroken and untranslatable today. Not that my involvement would do any good. In my native gaelic language all I can say to this day is to ask permission to go to the toilet. But at least that’s useful.
Also here in Ueno park stands the beautifully elegant Ueno Castle. They claim Ueno Castle was regularly attacked by the local Iga ninja clans. I’m not surprised – their house is only two minutes away.
It was time to pack my bags and head east towards the grandaddy of Japan – Mount Fuji. I’d be arriving a day late which might scupper my plans to climb the thing, but inspired by my ninja brethren I’d give it my best shot. Or die trying.
Next time: I have an argument with a mountain.