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First Bullet Train to Kyoto

東海道新幹線、京都:銀閣寺・哲学の道・知恩院・南禅寺 

semi-overcast 10 °C

BGM: Ii Hi Tabidachi by Yamaguchi Momoe

My friend from Tokyo thought it was time for me to get some culture, so we boarded the bullet train (東海道新幹線ひかり Tokaido Shinkansen Hikari) bound for Kyoto to do some temple hopping and time-slipping. This would be a journey of many firsts for me and I didn't want to miss a thing. My friend reassured me it was fine to leave my window blind up so I could snap away with my camera, while everyone else on the train snuggled into their seats for some beauty sleep. Sleeping while traveling? This really is different from home, I mused.

The bullet train glided smooth as silk with no sensation of track beneath us. I couldn't help but marvel at how fast we were traveling in a vehicle with no seat belts. We showed our tickets to the perfectly-coiffed attendant who clipped them with a hole punch and told us to have a lovely trip. We were also given shibori (wet hand towels) as a special service for Green Car passengers. (I felt special!) A cute lady in uniform sold me a bottle of orange juice with a darling smile. I wanted a box of Pretz sticks too but my friend mentioned we'd be eating at the station, so I refrained.

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After about 30 minutes into the trip, somewhere around Shizuoka, my friend nudged my arm to let me know we were near Mt. Fuji. This was my first time seeing it from the ground. No doubt; towering above the world in a blanket of glimmering snow, she was truly a spectacle to behold.

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This particular mountain (Mt. Ibuki, Shiga Prefecture) reminded me of home, though I'd never seen this place before.

We coasted for a while past immaculate tea farms, polluted industrial parks, snow-covered mountains and bare rice fields. We stopped for a moment at Nagoya, a monstrous expanse of lifeless grey concrete and steel. But I noticed that the people who boarded the train at Nagoya were as vibrant and colorful as their neon and leopard print clothing, laughing loud and free. It was a pleasant contrast from the silence of Tokyo commuters.

We spent the final fast and furious 20 minutes in darkness with popped ears as we shot like a cannon ball through a series of tunnels, exiting into a vast expanse of brown, quaint fields dotted with old, crumbling cottages. We'd arrived in Kyoto Prefecture! The bullet train doesn't dilly-dally at stops at all; most people wait in the aisles or in front of the door with their luggage to get off the train as quickly as is humanly possible so others can get on. The Hikari pulled up softly, gently to the Kyoto Station platform and with a hydraulic hiss that sounded exactly like the doors of the Starship Enterprise (I joke not!), we were released into the wild, again.

I was starving by the time we got to Kyoto Station, so we went for a quick bowl of tempura udon noodles in the underground shopping arcade. My friend complimented me on my use of chopsticks -my technique had improved since I came to Japan!

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Tempura Udon Lunch Set with Kyoto Pickles

My feet had no idea what they'd be in for, but I was hyped and ready to go! I oohed over every little thing. But when we crossed the famous Sanjo-Ohashi Bridge over the Kamo River, I was ecstatic! We were in Kyoto! We were in Kyoto!

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Since most temples in Kyoto close by 5pm, we had to hurry. We jumped into a taxi and were whisked out towards the mountains of Higashiyama ward to Ginkakuji (銀閣寺, Silver Pavilion). While my friend asked the driver for advice, I looked out the window and noticed the streets getting increasingly narrower as we drove up the mountain. The first thing that hit me about Ginkakuji was the blast of fresh, green mountain air from the ancient pine and cedar trees surrounding us. I can't accurately explain what antiquity smells like, but this was it -and it was intoxicating!

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I know what you're thinking. "Where's the silver?" I kept asking my friend this question and got no answer.

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Two Mt. Fuji's in one day! This was almost too much!

After hiking around the serene, relaxing temple grounds of crumbling stone paths and bamboo forests, we exited the final gate of Ginkakuji and hung a tight left to walk along a quiet canal. "Quick," said my friend. "Say something philosophical. This is the Philosopher's Walk." (Um.....Ummm.....)

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The farther along we walked, the more the conversation disintegrated into belly buttons and poop jokes. I think Nishida Kitaro, the old Kyoto University professor and namesake of this stretch of sidewalk, would've approved. Either that or he would've called us both aho (stupid idiots).

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The Philosopher's Walk (哲学の道 Tetsugaku no Michi) is famous for its cherry trees that line the canal below. Though it was the tail-end of winter and the shops were closed for the day, it was still a refreshing stroll in the orange glow of Kyoto at dusk. We stopped every once in a while to laugh at some silly thought, or watch a small, white egret try to catch a fish in the cold running stream flowing in from Lake Biwa.

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We'd been strolling like this for nearly an hour, until we arrived at this impressive stone walkway lined with regal, wind-blown pine trees. A towering structure of chocolate-brown wooden pillars, each cut from gigantic trees, invited us in for a closer look. I thought this was a temple in itself. But my friend informed me that this was just the gate. (Just the gate?!) Behold the glorious Sanmon Gate of Chion-In Temple (知恩院).

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We wandered about the grounds around Chion-In and Nanzenji (南禅寺) and were struck to find this very stately red-brick (pink?) aqueduct from 1890, carrying water flowing in from Lake Biwa in the next prefecture. It was fun to climb up and around this still-functioning structure, watching the water gushing in to quench the thirsts of the masses.

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As night fell, the temperature dipped and my friend suggested we warm up at Junsei Restaurant (near the Nanzenji Temple parking lot), a popular spot for steaming-hot yudofu (boiled tofu).

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The building of Junsei, originally a hospital, was established in 1839 and boasts a gorgeous award-winning traditional Japanese garden.

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Boiled tofu squares in light dashi broth, part of a set course meal

Steam from the donabe (土鍋 clay pot) fogged up my friend's glasses, setting off another round of giggles. We each took turns scooping up a cube of tofu, gingerly placing it into a tiny porcelain dish, spiking it with tart ponzu sauce and popping it into our mouths. Accompanied with crunchy tempura vegetables and sweet, savory dengaku (grilled tofu spread with miso paste) the vegetarian meal was light, delicately flavored and cleansing -like spa treatment for the senses. As the warmth of the moment penetrated my cold, aching limbs, I felt myself lulled by the elegant, plucking sounds of the koto background music, slipping into a fantasy of being the chosen company at an imperial feast. I could feel Kyoto's effect begin to sink into my system. And I couldn't wait to explore more of this enchanting city! I knew Kyoto would soon be seeing much, much more of me in the near future.

(Okini, Kyoto. Okini).

Posted by GenkiLee 03:19 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto japan shinkansen ginkakuji bullet_train tokaido_road silver_pavilion nanzenji chionin junsei_restaurant yudofu koi_pond tetsugakunomichi philosophers_walk sanjo_ohashi mt_fuji mt_ibuki

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