Trip Start Sep 15, 2007
Trip End Nov 14, 2007

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

On Wednesday, 31 October, we took a shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The 4 of us stayed there for 6 nights and came back on Tuesday the 6th.  The last 2 nights we stayed in a small, traditional community on the northern outskirts of Kyoto - the subject of the next blog entry. Upon reaching Tokyo Station on November 6th, Jackie and Byron headed off to Narita, where they stayed overnight and flew home the next day.
We had a terrific time with them and are glad that they could come an join us while we were here in Japan. We're also really happy we were able to visit Kyoto with them, as Kyoto is truly the cultural soul of Japan - no visit is complete without seeing Kyoto. J&B were in Tokyo in the 60's, which must have been totally amazing; they said the women all wore traditional kimonos, none of the signs were in western script, the air was polluted, and streets were crowded with taxis (now the air is remarkably clean and everyone takes trains and subways). They went to Kamakura back then (which I have yet to see ... not to mention Hokkaido, Shikoku, Okinawa, or the other islands ... will just have to come back), but didn't make it to Kyoto.
Kyoto served as the capitol of Japan for 800 years from 794-1600 (from 1185-1333 the shogun ruled from Kamakura and the emperor in Kyoto was just a figurehead). It was spared bombing during WWII, and has countless ancient shrines, temples, gardens, palaces, etc., including 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It's also less overwhelming and more manageable to get around than is Tokyo. One thing we didn't foresee was that the Saturday we were there was a BIG national holiday ... Culture Day ... and the place was mobbed. But, we had good weather and got to see many interesting sites.

See the photos for a sample of what we saw. I took hundreds of pictures in the few days we were there; this is just intended to give you an idea. Also, note that I've quit manually inserting the photos into the text. Sorry about that, but it's a pain in the butt and not very straightforward, so I'm just using their algorithm for inserting the photos. I'd suggest just clicking on a photo and working your way through them.
The shinkansen are amazing trains, so fast and smooth. They reach speeds >300 km/hr. The one we took was a Hicari. There are 3 types of shinkansen, with the Hicari being the 2nd fastest, stopping at a few more stations than the Nozomi. You can't take the Nozomi with a JR pass. Still, we stopped at only 5 stations and reached Kyoto, a distance of 514 km, in 2:40.  There are a number of other trains that run faster than that (it was the first in 1964), but it's a great ride, and you can set your watch by Japanese trains. Much of what you see out the window is not terribly interesting, but we saw Mt. Fuji on the way back, and some of the hilly/mountainous areas are really beautiful, with tea fields, rice paddies, orchards, and traditional villages, and sometimes the ocean on the other side.
We stayed at a traditional (although recently remodeled) Japanese ryokan, sleeping on the floor, and leaving our shoes downstairs. "Grandma," who ran the place, was VERY strict on the rules!  Bernd and I almost missed the 11:00 PM curfew one night, and visions of our friend Rainer's story of spending the night at McDonalds after being locked out of his ryokan came to mind. We remembered just in time, ran out of the subway station abandoning our unused tickets, grabbed a taxi, and thanked our lucky stars that there was no traffic that time of night. The place was great, however - reasonably priced, quiet, very conveniently located near the station.
The first day, I went sightseeing with J&B while Bernd met with colleagues at Kyoto University. We saw some of the highlights and got a feel for the city - we visited the Imperial Palace, Ginkakugi (Silver Pavilion, a World Heritage site), walked along the philosopher's path, and did a little shopping. The Imperial Palace normally requires advanced approval for visiting, a minor formality for international tourists with passports but a long, drawn-out ordeal for Japanese who wish to visit on their own. We happened to be there during one of the two 4-day periods during the year when anyone can visit without prior approval. It was pretty crowded, but really neat in that they had special exhibits, everything was open, and the locals were truly enjoying themselves and relishing the experience. The gardens were gorgeous.
On Friday and Saturday, J&B poked around Kyoto seeing the sights, and Bernd and I, having spent time in Kyoto before, wandered further afield and made additional use of our 7-day JR passes.
On Friday we went to the western suburbs of Sagano and Arashiyama. It's a beautiful area in the foothills, known for many ancient temples and also autumn color. I had seen the temples and we didn't feel like paying admission, so we did a "walking tour" and visited a big park. We also took a "romantic" sight-seeing train through a narrow gorge in the mountains. It was a lot of fun and very pretty. The leaves are way behind schedule this year, so there wasn't a lot of color, but still very pretty.
On Saturday, we headed northeast to Hikone, a small town on the shores of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. Its claim to fame is a castle, Hikone-jo, built in 1603, and the main tower is still original. We waited in line to go up into the tower, which wasn't all that impressive after having seen Himeji (west of Osaka - highly recommended). However, the garden was fantastic, and it was a beautiful day.  Also, while the Kyoto train station, the trains, and even Hikone, were amazingly crowded because of the holiday, we managed to avoid the worst of the mob scene in Kyoto.
That night we met our  friends, Fujio and Motoko (he was on Bernd's PhD committee in Karlsruhe, so they go way back), at a restaurant and feasted 'til we thought we would burst. That was the night we almost missed curfew ... got busy talking and just plain forgot about it.  We had a great time visiting with them, as we always do when we're in Kyoto.
The following day, after visiting an "antiques" (flea) market on the grounds of a large pagoda, Fujio drove us and our luggage up to Ohara. That was really nice of him, as it wasn't easy to find the ryokan, and fighting crowds on the bus with our luggage could have been quite a challenge.
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