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Brian Oh: {food, travel, photo}

Japan (vi): Kyoto & (Temple) Fatigue (Day 5-6)

The sun was just creeping over the mountains surrounding the Kiso Valley as I woke up that Thursday (September 13) morning. I had since become used to the prevailing caws of crows and did not find the absence of song birds at dawn out of place. I sat up as dusty beams of light slanted through the open window and took some time to chronicle the previous days in my notebook. At 6:30 am, I heard a bell toll somewhere in the distance, but not a traditional bell. It was a series of electric tones mimicking the peal of a metal bell. It was odd, but somehow perfectly appropriate. Shortly after 7 am I went downstairs to find my host waiting outside with his small van. The night before, he had offered to drive me to the Nagiso train station in the morning to save me another 3km walk. He greeted me with a small, tied off plastic bag and just one word, "bento." He smiled as I took it and motioned for me to get in the car. Once at Nagiso Station, I waited for about half an hour in the warming sun while waiting for the train to Kyoto. I opened the small bag to find a banana, packaged sweet roll, and small coffee beverage. I savored these on the quiet, deserted platform.

While looking back on my photos from Kyoto, one of the clearest memories was of just how tired I was at this point. While the hike in the Kiso Valley was peaceful, it was also tiring. And after three hard days in Tokyo, I hadn't had much time to recover my strength. As a result, I took fewer shots in Kyoto than I should have. Some of the shots in this post were actually culled from my phone to compensate for gaps. This was also slightly exacerbated by "temple fatigue." I had read and heard that this happens to visitors to Kyoto. Once I had seen a couple of the major temples and castles, my desire to see anymore dropped precipitously. I arrived in Kyoto at around noon and, after situating myself at the hostel, I rented a bike and set out on an ambitious route hitting five or six sites. I only made it to two. I started with Nijo Castle and the Golden Pavillion. Both were famous and impressive, but it became very much a "seen one, seen them all" case. So I spent the rest of the day riding my bike aimlessly around the city.

One thing I did notice all around Japan, and most prominently in Kyoto, was that there are Japanese tourists everywhere. I found that a little odd because I'd have expected most people in Japan would have seen everything in Kyoto already given the ease of access via rail. Everywhere I went there were hordes of picture taking, ridiculously posing Japanese tourists. It was strange for me, coming from a town where tourists are so reviled by locals.

The bike was a very welcome change. My feet and shoulders needed a break. I deposited my backpack in the basket and just cruised around Kyoto's streets at my leisure. Some people are aware that I tend to sing in the car a lot. I found myself absentmindedly singing while biking around. More than a few people turned to look at me quizzically. I imagine the American tourist speeding by, singing in English is not a normal thing. At one point I had gotten myself sufficiently lost, but managed to find an older woman to take a look at my map. She kindly pointed out that I was actually about 50 feet from where I was supposed to be and I was just an idiot.

That evening I went to another ramen shop that I had read about, Men Baka Ichidai. I hadn't planned on eating ramen in Kyoto ahead of the impending ramen binge in Fukuoka, but I read about Men Baka Ichidai and their famous Negi Ramen and decided I had to try it. The Negi is a shoyu ramen, but the twist is that it's set on fire before serving. When ordered, the chef and his apprentice begin covering the counter with wet towels and hand you a paper apron to cover yourself with. The chef stood in front of me and presented me a series of cards with English on them instructing me not to: a) get up, b) make a fuss or scream, and c) touch the bowl for five minutes. He then proceeded to pour a giant flaming plume of hot green onion oil all over the bowl. The end result is a slightly smoky, greasy bowl of shoyu ramen that was quite tasty, though it didn't quite taste as explosive as one might have expected. I also took a video with my phone of another couple's Negi Ramen (see it here). I held my phone in my left hand and my SLR in my right hand, trying to stay very still. Please try to imagine how much of a doofus I looked while double-fisting my gear.

The next day, I took the train out to the outskirts of Kyoto. I had planned on visiting the famous Arashiyama foot bridge and bamboo path. When I got off of the train, I consulted a map posted outside the station and set off on what should have been a 10 minute walk. Now is the best time for me to explain that all of the maps in Japan are oriented in the direction that you face while reading them. A map facing east will have a compass with north pointing to the left. This confused me, but I had done a good job of correcting for this up until this morning. The map outside the Arashiyama Station turned me around and I went north when I should have gone south.

What followed was two hours of wandering around a rural farming village, convinced I was going the right way. Several people I consulted even pointed me in the wrong direction, confusing me even further. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant morning detour. At some point, I was overtaken by a procession of uniformed school children walking to a nearby middle school. It was interesting (in the least perverted way possible) how some of the girls wore their skirts the full length, while others rolled them up to more provocative lengths. When I finally arrived at the bridge, the morning was gone and I had more or less lost any interest in its significance. To be fair, it was quite idyllic and there were cormorant fishermen just down the river. I then went to the famous bamboo path and lasted maybe 10 minutes there. It was more or less just an asphalt paved path surrounded by sparse bamboo on either side. I confess I didn't even make it down the entire length of it. I took a few shots and headed back to the train station. The walk back took me all of seven minutes. Some detour. Then I came across an adorable troop of elementary aged school children. They all looked like little Japanese cartoons.

Back in central Kyoto, I grabbed lunch at the Nishiki food market. A famous stretch of covered alleys lined with small food vendors selling everything from fresh fish to cooking knives. I got an overflowing container of deep fried beef and onion skewers for $3. A coal grilled rice cake (dduk for the Koreans) skewer that's served with a swipe of soy, sesame sauce and a sheet of seaweed. And a bunch of other small, cheap things. Then it started raining, so I retreated to the hostel for a bit. When it looked like it was going to die down, I tried biking to the Fushimi Inari Shrine (the famous site of the trails covered by red gates), but it started pouring halfway there. I turned back after waiting under a covered bus stop for a bit to see if it would stop. When it didn't, I returned to the hostel with an excuse to do nothing and just spaced out for a bit. Then, with little energy to seek out something notable, I just ate dinner at a nearby McDonald's. It was surprisingly good. The chicken looked like chicken.

The next morning I left Kyoto knowing that i hadn't particularly seen and done as much as I could have, but not really regretting it. I was going to be eating a lot of awesome ramen later that day, so I wasn't worrying about seeing more temples.