Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Holiday to Kyoto, Shigaraki, Nara, and Horyuji

We just returned from a family holiday to some of the most historic sites in Japan, several of which are UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites. It was a lot of fun but with the kids in tow, it was also a lot of work. It will probably be our last family holiday for some time, except for the cruise. [More photos here.]

We began our trip in Kyoto on Sunday. We stayed in a hotel room that overlooked the temple of Honnoji, the same temple where the warlord Oda Nobunaga was killed in 1582. Across the street, in front of the city hall, were men, not all of them young, decked out in 1950s American "Rebel-without-a-cause" gear. Hair slicked back, leather collars turned up, they were looking very serious, assembled in a circle, dancing to Japanese translated Rockabilly tunes from the same era as their clothing. It was most ridiculous but Miyako really got a kick out of it. A group of girls in poodle dresses invited her to join in but she was too shy.

In front of a store called "Miyako" in Kyoto (which also means "Miyako")

At Nishiki tenmangu shrine

The were just so serious about the whole thing, we had a good laugh

In the Honnoji hotel.

Eating breakfast.

The next morning, we rented a car and headed for the hills. After about an hour's drive through the countryside, we arrived at Shigaraki, a pottery village that produces some of the most valuable and original fired clay works in the country. They also make, en masse, tanukis, or "raccoon dogs," that have the faces of raccoons, the bodies of a fat Buddha statue, and massive, oversized testicles. Kent wanted to do nothing but play with a small frog figurine. We had to buy it for him. Also got Amy a tanuki, because she asked for it.

In Shigaraki

From there, our very cool navigation system sent us toward Nara through even deeper countryside of the most splendid bucolic beauty. The scenery was idyllic, like something out of a Kurosawa film. Farm houses, terraced rice fields, ceder forests, bent elderly, and tea bushes of the most remarkable order, all welcomed us at every hairpin turn. The roads were barely wide enough for two cars.

Tea bushes along the road from Shigaraki to Nara

Finally arriving in Nara, Japan's imperial capital from 710-784, we checked into the Nara Hotel. The Nara Hotel is easily the finest hotel in the city and perhaps one of the most famous in the country. It's remarkable for its architecture, built in a Western-Japanese fusion style typical of the early Meiji period (1868-1912). It was spectacular, right up to the point where we had to deal with any staff. They seemed so into their image and doing things the "right" way, they paid no attention to our needs. I've had much better experiences at hotels one-tenth the price. But it was beautiful, I'll give them that.

Entrance to the Nara Hotel

In Nara, the kids enjoyed petting the ubiquitous deer, but this too ended badly. When Miyako approached one too fast, it butted her with his small horns. I almost kicked the SOB right in the nose. I was freaking out. Good thing (for the deer) she was not hurt.

The next morning, still in Nara, we visited the great temple of Todaiji, famous for being a World Heritage site but special because it is the world's largest wooden building. Most amazing is that it's only 2/3rd it's previous size, as built in the 14th century. The Buddhist icon inside is, I think, the largest bronze in the world. The kids were unimpressed but Miyako enjoyed passing through a hole in one of the pillars, said to be the same diameter as the main icon's nostril.

From Nara, we drove south to the temple of Horyuji. It's off the beaten track and not a tourist destination but Horyuji is very special. It's the oldest extant Buddhist temple in Japan AND, incidentally, it's main hall, the Kondo, is the oldest wooden building in the world!

There she is. The Horyuji kondo was built in the 7th century.

The place was magical. I've been to a lot of temples in my day but this one was different. I'm not sure why but the sensation of being in a complex built in the 7th century by Prince Shotoku, one of Japan's founding fathers, gave me a tingly feeling all over. The kids seems to like being there as well, which added to its magical quality. At one point, they began to play hide and seek amidst the wide pillars that make up the surrounding corridor. I couldn't help but be inspired by how they were enjoying themselves in such a sacred and historical place. The Buddha would have been pleased.

From there, we drove back to Kyoto on time to catch a late bullet train back to Tokyo. All in all, the trip was great but exhausting. We certainly collected a lot of memories. But in an ironic twist to our objective of collecting memories rather than things, we realized that memories can be very, very expensive.


1 comment:

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