Today I set off from Tokyo to take a one week trip around the south of Japan which will first take me to the old imperial city of Kyoto and then to Nara, Osaka, Kumamoto and Hiroshima. I have to admit I was slightly nervous before leaving my host’s house as this is the first time I will embark on a journey completely on my own. But up until now it turned out everything went fine so far. I will stay in Kyoto for the next few days and then leave for Kumamoto and Hiroshima on the weekend. Both Nara and Osaka are so close that I will make day trips to those cities.
My host and her younger sister were so kind to drive me to Tokyo station so I didn’t have to got through the crowded public transport of Tokyo. Although there is a national holiday today it surely would have been very crowded. When I was dropped of at Tokyo station I searched for the ticket counter to get a reservation. Ravelling with the Japan Rail Pass is very easy as you just have to show it when you enter the platform and then you are fine. If you like, you can get a reservation for a seat on the shinkansen, the world famous bullet train. This works so easy because the long distance train system is also organised like the public transport. There are gates at the train stations which give access to the JR area of the station. Think of London or Paris with those gates where you put in your tickets and enter the platforms. At those points you just show the Rail Pass to the person standing there and you are fine.
So I got myself a reservation for the next shinkansen to Kyoto and entered the platform. It’s devided into the respective doors the train will have. With the reservation you get the information which seat you will have in which car. So you just go to the number which is your car and wait there until the train arrives. People will actually line up there like waiting for the bus. Once you enter the train everything is very comfortable. The seats and the footroom are huge, there are two seats on one, and three seats on the other side with an aisle in the middle. When the train gets going you don’t realize how fast it is. Top speed must be something at around 300 km/h which lets the scenery fly by. In just a mere 2 hours and 45 minutes I reached Kyoto station.
The first difference to Tokyo was the weather as it was even more humid than in the capital. Apart from that the first impression wasn’t that exciting. So I hurried to get a hotel room and ended up at a JR travel agency bureau. The woman there was kind enough to get me a cheap room at a business hotel right next to the station. Unfortunately only after I visited the real tourist information bureau I found out that there were other opportunities which might have been even cheaper. But this way it’s most comfortable for my day trips to Nara and Osaka as I just have to fall out of bed (literally) to get to the train station.
After I left my luggage at the hotel room I left for a small tour of the city (which would take me around 4 hours, all by foot). I got a map at the tourist information and decided to check out a few things around the hotel. I first went straight up north through small and narrow streets. In this Kyoto is completely different from Tokyo. True, Tokyo also has small streets and Kyoto has big ones, but here everything has a slightly different touch to it. As my guidebook told me Kyoto was spared from allied bombings during the 2nd world war and although there are quite a few new buildings the aura of the old and narrow streets still feels very nostalgic and historic. There’s one thing now which at some times ruins the wonderful impression. In Japan cables are not dug into the ground but are going overhead so the whole sky is filled with cable strings, whoever knows what they are good for. I have no idea why that is done, but me and a friend were guessing it might be because of the dangers of earthquakes (which, by the way, I haven’t experienced up until now, knock on wood).
I saw on my map that two temples were close to the train station so I was searching for them a little bit and ended up seeing something which looked like a gate. The sight was not very impressive, but the closer you got to the gate, leaving the small street further and further behind it, the bigger it got. I was standing in front of Nishi Hongwanji, one of two temples close to the train station. I have been to Nikko, so the sight of a temple wasn’t as new to me, but seeing something like this when you are only used to european churches is always exciting. What’s always interesting is that the places are very tidy although there are no garbage cans or ashtrays. The main hall of this western temple was huge and the place was set up in a very harmonious way. Although there was a huge street going past it the noise wasn’t as loud inside.
I took a few snapshots and tried to find the eastern counterpart of it. Again walking through narrow streets things felt really calm and quiet, hadn’t it been for the humid air which was lying heavily on the city. Higashi Hongwanji was under construction, unfortunately, but the sight was impressive nonetheless. From there on I decided to walk a little bit towards the city center, which, as I found out, isn’t as different from Tokyo, at least on the outskirts of it. The streets are flashy and loud, there’s music coming from almost every store, the boardwalks are crowded and the only thing missing are the huge video screens. It has to be said though that in Kyoto you come across a lot more tourists than in Tokyo. Maybe that’s because the city is only one sixth of the size of Japan’s capital.
I walked until I reached the Kamogawa, the river which divides Kyoto into east and west. From there on I followed the river on the other side to get back to the train station. Arriving there I headed for some gyudon chain store and had something to eat, something I hadn’t done all day. I searched desperately for some small local Ramen or Soba store, but maybe my Kanji reading is still to weak to find one. The food was decent but not thrilling and because it was cheap I haven’t any complaints. After walking around the train station area for a few more minutes I got back to the hotel and asked for an internet connection which the friendly person at the counter gave to me. He was quite talkative for a japanese person and was very interested in where I came from. When I mentioned Germany he was thrilled and started talking about football, mentioning Ballack and Klose. Seems like the japanese like the German team just as much as the Germans.
Tomorrow I will leave early for Nara where a friend of mine is spending a semester abroad right now. Nara looked fine when I first saw the town in a japanese television drama and it’s alo an old imperial city and was the first capital of Japan over a thousand years ago (albeit for only 75 years).