The Kansai Episode: Across The Obverse

Under the foliage, through a tree tunnel, into a world unlike my own.

After an immensely well rested stay at Hostel Mundo, it was time to bid the memorable souls farewell. I must admit that the owners and caretakers certainly made an impression on me, but alas, we had to honor our bookings with the next inn. En route to the Kyoto Subway station, we dropped by some dimly lit cafe restaurant. My travel partner, Titus had gravely missed the high protein breakfast sets of bread and eggs in Osaka, and was subsequently led inside here by the need for a egg fix. I would’ve preferred to drop our bags at this evening’s accommodation, but alas, every need needed to be looked after, so in we went.

The cafe was dimly lit, and the air stale – of dated cigarette smoke and damp carpets. By the entrance lay a generous rack of reading material from manga to magazines, which on a closer look, seemed stocked only for a particular kind of audience: the sexually starved. Anyways, we placed our orders. It was long past eleven, which meant that the breakfast options had expired for the day, so we had brunch. I opted for a “safe” option – I know this is Japan, and appearances aren’t always everything, but the pornographic stash, dark and dilapidated unwelcoming decors and the fact that there was next to no one aside from an old man smoking with a cup of coffee – well, it wasn’t encouraging. And true to my gut, the curry was neither energizing nor inspiring. As my mother would say in response to the shockingly bad meals that her husband would prepare (it’s shocking because nearly four years on since he started [not by choice, but by necessity], there has been a obstinate lack of understanding towards the workings of flavors and spices, exacerbated by personal bias and stereotypes against all garnishes and spices in general), “just eat for the sake of it.” After the most unimpressive meal, we drop our bags at the hostel near Gojo subway station. The notice calls for an evening check-in, and that puts a damper on our plans to check out the city’s urban scape.

Deciding not to use the precious 3-day Kansai Thru Pass, and armed with nothing besides our Kyoto Subway Pass, there was some understandable hesitation when our next sightseeing locale called for the chargeable ICOCA transport card. The Kyoto Subway Pass offered a free alternative in the form of a bus ride, but we both agreed that we couldn’t just see one attraction a day. Already past noon, and with daylight not on our side, and terminating in just under four hours, we had to get to our first attraction fast. So, armed with ICOCA (which is now interoperable with most of Japan’s rail network, as is Tokyo’s SUICA, Nagoya’s MANACA and the like), we tapped in at JR Kyoto station, and boarded the JR Sagano Line bound for Saga-Arashiyama station. It was quite magical, actually, being zipped to Kyoto’s northwestern suburbs in under ten minutes.

Arashiyama was a touristy district even before the word, “touristy” was invented, literally. Serving the same purpose since the Heian Period (794 to 1185), the scenic Togetsukyo Bridge traversing the livid streams, framed by the lush, flowing forested mountains of the Arashiyama forest above, and the promenades lined with picturesque cherry blossoms, and all of this still within the ancient capital’s borders, it was the Clarke Quay or Xintiandi of their time. The shops, restaurants, and the attractions of the district are still around – similar, but different. Perhaps the most noticeable trait are the bamboos themselves – the mountains are a little more bare, the bamboo trails shorter, the density thinner. Originally a sustainable trade where local craftsmen would fall the bamboo to make baskets, boxes, furniture, has swollen to cater to the expounded demand for such priceless handicrafts.

Struggling to beat the clock, we forgo seeing arguably Arashiyama’s most famous landmark: Togetsukyo Bridge. The bridge itself, inspires little, but like the bridge that straddles the poetic River   Kwai, it is in whole that the illustration comes alive. We walk through the forested bamboo trails of Arashiyama, but the bursting crowd eager to breathe in the sights of the city in autumnal bloom, along with the harsh reality of the ubiquitous thinning of the tree density makes it difficult to experience what the nobles of the Heian Period might have seen more then a millennia ago when they walked down the very same path steps.

As you can clearly tell, it is obviously too crowded, what with the rickshaws and bicycles and all.

It looked a lot nicer in press photos.

A random wall of vibrant red and orange leaves in the sea of faded greens.

Zen Buddhist or not, you can pray too. The paper on which to write your wish isn’t free, but it’s sure as hell cheaper than the more “public” wooden slabs.

Either way, be careful what you wish pray for. I casually “played” around with those boxes where you donate any amount before shaking your fortune out when I was in Tokyo in March. I had just been let go, and I was completely devastated – destitute, lonely and nobody I could talk to, I mouthed a silent prayer to ask God, desperate and near suicidal to be honest, for a sign, any sign, that I wasn’t alone in Japan. A stick came out, and I went to exchange for my fortune.

He had answered.

I must add that unlike some overzealous individuals, like an ex-intern of mine, I’ve got a lot of faith even though I don’t go to church these days. Perhaps it has gotta do with my journey into the darkness, and being plucked out of it, to be given this second chance at life. So yeah, I don’t think, I know He’s there.

There are quite a lot of these jinriksha pullers orbiting the touristy attractions, and all of them have really toned bodies, and a few are really very good looking.

Before taking in the sights under the cherry blossoms by Togetsukyo, the regal, nobility and aristocrats would’ve undoubtedly paid their respects at Tenryuji Temple, the most important in the Arashiyama district, and one of the city’s five great Zen temples. Like most, Tenryuji is a working temple, and is the head of a school within the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism. For all of its noble intentions, Tenryuji was actually built out of fear. It was commissioned by ruling shogun Ashikaga Takauji to former ruler, Go-Daigo. Initially close allies, Takauji, corrupted by power and supremacy of all of Japan, turned against the emperor. Tenryuji was built to appease the emperor’s spirit, but if subsequent events were any indication, Go-Daigo’s spirit was never appeased. The Ashikaga reign was fraught by instability, civil unrest and turmoil. The complex’s halls itself were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries. Eventually, the government, and the city fell – it was an end of an era, for it was to eventually herald the reign of samurai. Much of the structure standing today were rebuilt during the Meiji Period between 1868 to 1912.

Maybe it was Emperor Go-Daigo’s spirit at work, but while Tenryuji was repeatedly destroyed, the gardens however, were never tainted by enraged spirits or the elements. What you’ll see today is what it was when Tenryuji first opened. With a rather pricey entrance fee, Titus forfeited the visit, leaving me to see the temple and gardens undisturbed. There’s always something really surreal about seeing really old s**t. I’m no botanist, but when you stroll through the inner garden courtyards of Beijing’s Forbidden City, and the gardens of Tenryuji, you get excited – the flora looks nothing like the minimalist foliage of today. There’s a bestial, almost prehistoric look, and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to a more mythical world. The gardens were created by Muso Soseki, a renowned designer responsible for many of Japan’s landscape gardens. Maybe Muso Soseki’s turn as Tenryuji’s first head priest blessed the gardens with immortality. I stomp and scurry around the gardens, pressed for time, but even this what I thought was a brief stay, turned out to be a massive forty-five minutes visit.

Entrance into the grounds of Tenryuji.

Beautiful autumn leaves above the bus park.

Does anybody know what these Asian garden gnomes are?

Blood red.

My travel partner doesn’t accompany me from here onwards. In an effort to conserve cash, he doesn’t pay for the entry fee into the garden. I don’t offer to pay for him, either. By my Cambridge “O” Levels Elementary Mathematics’ D7 grade’s estimates of how much he had left already, I expect I will have to completely fund his last two nights in Japan.

This tree is even more impressive in real life. It’s like an umbrella. Lol.

The real bamboo forest.

You might recognize her as “Guan Yin”, but in Japan, she’s known as Kannon. For the first thirty-years of operation, a pre-WWII enterprising upstart, reminiscent of Chinese companies half a decade ago, continues its business by reproducing cheap, inferior versions of the products, selling everything from a re-engineered version of a British calculator to replicas of Leica cameras. In 1971, the company literally had enough – deciding to pursue the top-end SLR camera market instead, and with that came a rebrand. The logo, basically a manga reprint of the mythical female deity, was rightly perceived to be inaccessible to the Western world, so it Anglicized its name from “Kannon” to “Canon”.

While most of my pictures you’ll see depict the Japanese ancient capital in full autumn bloom, the truth of the matter is that the last of the leaves were beginning to fall. Indeed, the city is completely bare barely after a week after my departure, welcoming its first snow falls.

After what seemed like a really quick hike, I reached the final destination. The money shot. The one everybody comes here for: the central pond. I apologize. I love discreetly taking pictures of other people with them unawares. There’s just an emotion that’s so powerful, it transcends time and computer screen.

So designed, yet so natural…

I want to drink Koi. Oh wait, that’s inappropriate.

Once out, we make our way for the Randen Arashiyama station for the Randen Railway. Normally free under the Kansai Thru Pass, and not covered by the Kyoto Subway Pass, we elected to transact under the ICOCA instead. At the terminus station, we catch a bus for our next engagement.

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