Of all the pieces of advice we never received about Japan, probably the one we missed most was IF YOU ARE THINKING OF GOING IN THE THIRD WEEK OF SEPTEMBER, DON’T‼‼ This year the juxtaposition of the autumn equinox and another holiday on 19th September, together with an official bridge day to make it all a five day weekend, left this as possibly the worst time to head off on our rail passes: no spaces in the hotels, everywhere thronged with tourists and even some difficulties making reservations on the trains we wanted have made the trip run somewhat less smoothly than we would like. In particular, the hours spent on the internet and phone finding all the accommodation booked solid have made us seriously reconsider our policy of being spontaneous and going with the flow.
So from now on instead of being a spontaneous ad booking at the last minute we will revert to being completely disorganised and booking at the last minute. Ah well.
A second piece of useful advice might have been “if you must travel then, avoid Kyoto at all costs!” Hiroshima was crowded, but manageable. Kyoto was mobbed and is less easy to walk around. The buses were packed, with long queues, and the very nice people at the “foreigners'” Tourist Information (not to be confused with the normal Tourist Information Centre, which has little information not in Japanese) advised us to get a local train to a spot about an hour’s walk from the Golden Pavilion rather than wait what promised to be the same amount of time for space on a bus. The information centre, incidentally, is a bit of an oasis. On the ninth floor of the station building (in a department store so busy that the lifts down were full and skipped the 9th floor altogether) it is quiet, light, roomy, equipped with free internet and a variety of newspapers and magazines (in several European languages) and space to sit and read them.
It was a good choice, although I had to be deliberately vague about the length of the walk in order to avoid a mutiny. It was a hot afternoon – the morning having been stolen by accommodation searches, breakfast and the strangely magnetic attraction the shopping centre under the station seemed to exert – and small legs did not appreciate the exercise as much as they might. Still, we wandered not quite randomly through quiet residential districts and streets lined with small local shops and restaurants, all a far remove from the manic bustle of the centre. Stopping at one of the ubiquitous vending machines looking for water, the owners of the property rushed out, eager to help. But there was no water in the machine so, in a very Japanese way – courtesy being extremely important – they rushed off to get four glasses of water for us, the whole exchange being managed with many bows, lots of “arigatoo”s and not a few “onegai shimasu”s.
Finally we emerged on to the main road at the Ryoanji Temple (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), another popular destination in the series of Kyoto’s endless series of huge and impressive temples and shrines (and a UNESCO world heritage site), but, philistines that we are, gave it barely a passing glance before continuing up the road to join the throng queuing for Kinkaku-ji Temple, best known for the Golden Pavilion.
The pavilion itself is stunning, no question, especially when seen from the far side of Kyo-kochi (the “mirror pond”), with its reflection in the calm waters. A place of peaceful reflection and contemplation, at least in another universe or at another time when there aren’t 10000 people fighting to get a photo of their friends or family in front of the classic image, we couldn’t linger if only because the movement of the crowd was bringing a new meaning to going with the flow and we duly ooh-ed and ahh-ed our way around the grounds before being spat out the far end.
By this time hunger, as well as tired legs, was taking its toll. The restaurant we selected (using the criterion of the first open place we saw) gave us another new experience. Rather than going to all the trouble of telling the staff what we wanted, we put our money into a vending machine and selected the appropriate button for our meal. Then – wonders of technology – an electronic voice told the staff what we had ordered. So much simpler than us just telling the servers ourselves. All cynicism aside (not an easy task for me) the result is good value: tasty, reasonably priced and as it seems with most Japanese fast food served on reusable crockery rather than stuffed into polystyrene boxes whose useful life is destined to be about 30s before they are abandoned to lie in landfill for a couple of million years.
An hour back on the bus gave us some idea of the size of the place, and took us past more huge temples and the Imperial Palace, but by then we were more than happy to head back to our Japanese-style room – futons on the tatami mat floor, or as Julie dubbed it “very expensive camping”. A good day in the end, if not quite the one we had planned.