>Day 6 22 Nov 2007 Kyoto – Nijo Castle, Higashiyama

>Breakfast in our rooms before setting off for the day. The night before, we bought sandwiches, milk and juice from the convenience store across the hotel. So early in the morning, we feasted on egg mayo sandwiches, tomato cucumber sandwiches, fried egg sandwiches – all surprisingly good! None of the dry, hard sort of bread you usually find in convenience stores. The bread was soft and the fillings tasty and generous – with a dash of wasabi for a kick – never knew tomato sandwich with wasabi tasted so good!

Today we decided to go to Nijo castle, in the heart of town. But before that, we bought the Kyoto Sightseeing Day Pass which qualified us for travel on buses and the subway in the Kyoto area. With that, we hopped on the subway (very similar in layout to our MRT!) and headed for Nijo castle.

At Nijo Castle, we bought tickets via (what else!) the vending machine before proceeding through the huge thick walls and the gate to the inner pathways leading to the main building.

Nijo castle was built for the shogun. It is known for its wooden ‘nightingale floors’ which squeak like a bird when someone walks on it – an ingenious way to alert the bodyguards to intruders. This being the palace, the place where daimyos (lords of the land) came to pay respects to the shogun, it was not a place where one could just wander at will. The visiting lords were kept in holding rooms with tatami mats, then escorted to the main audience room etc so no one would be walking around ‘unnecessarily’ in ‘unauthorised’ areas. Each of the rooms had walls painted in gold leaf and realistic motifs of animals eg leopards, tigers etc.

We had to take off our shoes, put them up neatly in wooden pigeonholes, before walking through the castle. Bedroom slippers were thoughtfully provided for those who did not wish to walk on their bare/stockinged feet.

Have to say it was a bit challenging to rein in the kids at first – especially Owain – they were thrilled with the nightingale floors and tended to bounce/jump on them, run on the passageways and generally made the usual exasperating kiddish nuisance. Definitely not with the stealth of the ninja! The Japanese attendants along the museum had to tell him politely not to run, use the rope barriers as a swing rope, not to make so much noise etc. Erm, quite embarrassing for them to tell us and for us to be on the receiving end!

The gardens of Nijo Castle were lovely and we were thrilled to see so many trees in full colour – the bright red of the Japanese maple and the yellow of the gingko tree.

After strolling round the gardens of Nijo Castle, we took the subway to the eastern hills of Kyoto – Higashiyama, an area known for lovely temples. Coming out of the station, we were not sure where to go exactly, but the answer soon presented itself – just follow the crowds! So off we went, through a tunnel, down one-car width lanes flanked by stone walls, wooden doors, clear water running from the hills towards Nanzenji.

Nanzenji is one of the most beautiful temple complexes in Kyoto. It is reputed for its great San-mon – gateway. One of the stories behind this is that of a local Robin Hood style character who stole from the rich to give to the poor. When he was caught, he was sentenced to die by being boiled alive – with his son! Legend has it that the brave man held up his son above the boiling water for as long as he could until he went under. And all of it right here at the San-mon. But of course nothing grisly remained to be seen and it was a hug entryway that we just walked through and admired. For Owain, he literally had to clamber over the doorstop since it was too high for his little legs to walk over!

We were just happy to wander around the grounds, to admire the lovely autumn-scapes all around us. On the grounds, we noticed something really pretty – road barriers made of steel that that had little steel birds perched on them. We all found them very charming! Details like these make the trip the fun discovery process that it is! From Nanzenji, we wandered further up to the Philosopher’s Path. The Philosopher’s Path was very pretty in autumn, a canal through which flowed clear cool water, flanked by private (and I imagine, expensive!) homes behind stone walls on one side and greenery on the other. Stone or bamboo bridges connected both sides from time to time, leading to unseen tea houses set in tiny gardens or bamboo groves.

It was a lovely day – briskly cold but the sky a deep blue. Outlined against this, the fiery red of the maples burned beautifully. By then the kids were getting cranky and hungry. We decided to abandon the Philosopher’s Path and head down towards the main road in search of food. Away from the main tourist drag where the Path was, everything else looked shuttered and closed for the day since it was way past lunch. But persistence pays off and we eventually found a tiny mom-and-pop shop on the main road that sold (yes, again!) ramen!

It would be getting dark soon and I wanted to hit Kiyomizudera before it got dark, so we regretfully abandoned the walk back up the Philosopher’s Path to the Silver Pavilion in favour of bus number 100 to get back to the lower reaches of Higashiyama where Kiyomizudera was. In Kyoto, getting up the bus was from the back door and alighting through the front. With our passes, it was not a problem. The bus ride allowed us to get some seats and for the kids to snooze – which they all promptly did – three kids crammed in a row on a bus seat, heads lolling back! Noticed something weird – the bus driver (and we would find this so in the other bus rides we took as well) would switch off the engine everytime the bus came to a stop – at a bus-stop, at a traffic light etc. Maybe it had to do with environmental reasons – not to keep the engine from idling too long and polluting the air but KH was muttering something about it being bad for the engine to be stopped and started again and again.

It was almost evening (3.30pm!) when we got to Chawan-zaka, the steep uphill approach to Kiyomizudera. And by gosh, carrying Trin and walking up that steep hill was not my idea of fun, so I passed her to KH who made like Arnold in the Terminator and just pumped his way up hill in quick time. I on the other hand, with Owain and Cait, decided to take a leisurely walk, stopping to look in the shops along the way. Chawanzaka (Teapot Lane) was named such because of the many porcelain and ceramics shops lining the lane. It was fun walking up and checking out the ceramics for sale – they had lovely little pots, bowls, cups etc.

Up on Kiyomizudera, huff and puff, we surveyed all of Kyoto city far below us! The walk seemed to have revived some flagging spirits and we were all in pretty good moods when we went to the first shrine to try our luck at getting our ‘fortune slips’. Gillian’s fortune was very bad so she tied it to the line of other unwanted fortune slips to ‘discard’ her bad luck. KH’s fortune, while not that bad, also went that way. But the rest of us – me, Owain, Cait, Isaac and Trinity – had pretty fortunes! And of course all the kids enjoyed ringing the bells to summon the deity to make their wishes!

Clear Water temple or Kiyomizudera is known, is really a series of tiny temples and one big main hall sitting on top of a hill. The key attraction here is the main hall which was actually a stage, built on huge columns of wood jutting out of the hillsides. The place was packed with tourists. It was getting dark and to compound it, the grey skies opened up with a steady drizzle. So it was dark, cold and wet! And crowded!

We had no umbrella and the rain didn’t look like it was stopping. Thankfully Trin was asleep in the sling, so I used the tail of the sling to cover her, tucked her legs under and into the pouch of the sling. She was nice and comfy and cosy as we walked as quickly as we could in the drizzle of rain downhill, taking shelter once in a while under a small seating area. On the way down, we chanced upon the famous spring which was responsible for the name Kiyomizudera – the water could purportedly cure many ills. The area just around the gushing water has been built up. There were queues of Japanese waiting for their turn at the spring. We saw them using the ladles provided to drink from, wash their hands, faces etc. But for us, it was a case of too cold, too rainy, too tired to try.

Luckily the rain eased up as we headed down Sannen-zaka (Three-Year Lane) to the main road. It was bustling with people, like Orchard Road at Christmas! The road was lined with restaurants, souvenir shops etc. I darted in one and bought Cait a little yukata. Later on, we found cream puffs! For 300yen a piece! Having never seen cream puffs sold in Japan until now, and understanding that Beard Papa in Singapore was $2 a puff, I thought this was an okay price. So we bought about five or six to be devoured later in the hotel room.

After that it was a wet, long tramp downhill where thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long for a bus! But on the bus, it was standing room only and as I was only beginning to realise, the Japanese penchant for politeness did not extend to common courtesy to let mothers carrying heavy toddlers have their seat. So I carried Trin and stood all the way. By this time, I had been carrying Trin for hours. Can tell you my back was near breaking point and just shifting myself from foot to foot meant agonising pain in my left side.

Things got a bit better when I got off the bus and passed her to KH and Gillian. We all headed down to the Isetan basement at Kyoto station. Wow, there was such a lot of food – so many different types of rice, sushi etc! The place was chaotic as crowded as a train station at rush hour with shoppers pressed close together, steam rising from the various pots and displays and sales assistants thrusting us samples and urging: Dozo! Dozo!

The variety of food is mindboggling and everywhere we went there were samples galore. I had read that one could easily have a full meal on samples alone just moving through a Japanese food basement and they were right! The kids went wild. I was pestered left and right for “sushi, sushi, sushi, mom!” and “mom can I have the seaweed chicken please, pretty please please please!”

So we bought up a storm and got a bit carried away – ended up with sushi, yakitori, yes the seaweed chicken! And three different types of rice – yummy rice mixed in with Japanese seasoning – one had peas and gingko nuts with seaweed, another had silver fish with sweet potatoes, carrots and peas and another one with seaweed and plum shavings – very nice! And I treated myself to onigiri with mentaiko! I think we easily spent more than we would have spent had we had our dinner in a restaurant! And they had choux pastry too – cream puffs – at 180yen each – grrr!! Boy was I bummed to find out how conned I was by the shop at Sannenzaka!

We hauled our goodies back to the hotel room for a real feast. Should have seen how the kids fell upon the opened box of sushi! It was a filling dinner we had, sitting on our hotel beds, tv blaring – yes sure feels like home…

Pictures: http://picasaweb.google.com/chongbrood/Day6Kyoto

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