Sunday, April 14, 2013

#2. Kyoto

2. Kyoto, November

I've been to Kyoto a couple of times before. Despite its undeniably impressive abundance of historical and cultural treasures, I must say I've never really taken to the place. One reason, I suppose, is that I'm more interested in the future than the past. Another is that the whole city is a huge tourist trap, and the contrarian hipster in me hates the feeling of being one of the crowd of suckers. Also, the place is a nightmare to get around: all the temples and shrines are around the periphery, and the centre is the standard congested concrete mess of most Japanese cities. But I think there's something more than that. Kyoto reminds me of the prettiest girl in school, who know that people would lavish attention on her without her having to make any effort to be nice to them. So, what's it doing here at the dizzy heights of number two? Well, I think I've finally cracked the secret of a good day out in Kyoto: monkeys.

On a long weekend in November, Amber and I took a little tour through central Japan, mopping up a couple of prefectures that had eluded her on her quest to bag all 47. Kyoto was our final destination, and I'll start the story on the morning of our only full day in the city. In a surprising stroke of luck (for Amber anyway) we'd noticed people setting up a vegetarian festival in a park not five minutes' walk from our ryokan the previous night. So, we started the day with a breakfast of falafel pittas and chick pea curry. I didn't actually mind the absence of meat (and the presence of hippies) too much; the sun was shining, Amber was happy, and any exotic food is a welcome change from rice and soy beans.

Next up was the bamboo grove at Arashiyama. This place was mobbed, and I started to get a little stressed out. If there's something I've learned about myself in recent years, it's that I really hate being in large crowds. Shuffling along at half walking pace, frustratingly unable to get where you want to go, yet also unable to stop for fear of becoming an obstacle... I can't stand it. When it's something like a concert I can accept the crowds as a necessary evil, but when you're at a temple or garden, and the essence of the enjoyment is presumably the tranquility and beauty of the setting, then the crowd defeats the whole purpose of being there, as far as I'm concerned. I'm sure the bamboo would have looked very fetching on another day, but all I can remember is my fury at people who thought that possession of a camera gave them the right to declare 40° wedges of busy thoroughfare no-go zones for several tens of seconds. Amber was one of those people.

Eschewing the temple, we headed into a park where the crowds were substantially thinner and we could enjoy the stunning autumnal colours at our leisure. Noticing that Iwatayama Monkey Park was just across the river, we decided to check it out. I'm so glad we did.

I'm by no means an animal lover, but I find primates endlessly fascinating because of their close evolutionary proximity to Homo sapiens. (Sorry Danny, I feel like I'm encroaching on your territory here.) One of the many things I love about Japan is that they have macaques just roaming around wild, whereas my home country only has boring animals like deer and grouse. These particular macaques were semi-wild, meaning that they were free to come and go as they pleased, but they stuck around because the humans fed them. The place built up the anticipation nicely: once you paid your money you had to walk uphill through a forest, past lots of signs giving you fun monkey facts and reminding you of the rules: not to feed them, make eye contact with them (in case they perceive it as a threat) and not to crouch down near them (I remain unsure as the rationale of this one). As the woods thinned and we came to the top of the hill, we caught our first glimpse of one perched atop a tall tree stump. Soon we were in the thick of the troop, surrounded by literally more simians than you could shake a stick at.

There was a shack selling food to give to the monkeys. The rule was that you could only feed them while you were inside the hut, passing the food out through the barred windows. This led to an amusing role reversal, with crowds of monkeys surrounding a cage of humans. I opted for chestnuts, and I could have have happily handed them to monkeys all day. You weren't supposed to touch the animals, but I did linger with my grip on the nut a few times, like I was flirting with them.

We wandered among the primates, snapping many many photos. I was particularly pleased to get one of a monkey on a scooter. It was mating season, so every once a while a scuffle would break out between males, with much screeching and chasing. We discussed how one would defend oneself in the event of a a macaque attack; we reckoned you could fend one or two off pretty easily, but if five or more ganged up on you you'd be in serious trouble. Eventually we'd had our fill of monkey business and descended back to the riverside.

It was late in the afternoon and getting a little chilly, so we stopped for a warm amasake (a sweet rice drink made from sake but virtually alcohol free), and then bagged a quick cache as the sun went down. Interestingly, the trackable that I gave Amber for Christmas and we deposited in Edinburgh with the instruction to get to Japan is, at the time of writing, in that very cache. Apologies to those unfamiliar with geocaching, to whom the last sentence will have made very little sense.

Then it was back into central Kyoto for an Italian dinner, and out the other side (like I said, all the attractions are on the periphery of the city) to Kiyomizudera, one of Kyoto's most iconic temples. This was the venue of a special raito appu ("light up", i.e. illuminations) event for the autumn foliage. Inevitably, this was also packed to the Sally gunwales, but I didn't object quite so much this time around. I felt that the crowds added a certain buzz to the spectacular surroundings, although this mellowing of my mood may have had something to do with the red wine with dinner and the jar of sake I was now sipping from.

Just one to go! Although, at the rate I'm putting these out, it'll be time for the next countdown pretty soon.