[top Kyoto

I had a painful, sleepless night. I couldn't get comfortable with my foot and when I got up I could barely stand on it. Nonetheless, we were on a schedule and were committed to leaving Nikko and travelling to Kyoto. Fortunately, this meant that we would be sitting in trains all day so I could rest my foot, however we had no option but for me to carry the biggest of our bags and the backpack as I had done previously. When we checked out of the hotel, we were lucky enough to have the owner's husband drive us to the railway station, saving us the A$10 taxi fare. We had just missed a train and had to wait another half an hour for the next one, so I sat in the waiting room with my foot up. We had vending machine coffee for breakfast.

The day was spent on Shinkansen, from Utsunomiya to Tokyo, then Tokyo to Kyoto. We were starting to get into a routine with train travel. Jacqui would stand back (to prevent the ticket office men from trying to talk to her in Japanese) while I went forward, armed with the train timetable. I would circle the train time that we wanted to catch and the name of our destination, asking in English1 for "two tickets", holding up two fingers. Then I would say "non-smoking", which they always understood. The ticket seller would circle on the tickets the number of our carriage. It was as easy as that.

We got to Kyoto at about 4.00 in the afternoon and found the hotel without too much trouble, except for the usual railway station disorientation. I rested my foot, while Jacqui reconnoitred for the right way to go. It was only a five minute walk to the hotel, but was fairly painful carrying our usual ton of luggage on a sprained ankle. Our hotel, the Station Ryokan Seiki was very good, although both the lobby and the room were extremely pokey. The room was our first Japanese style one, with a tatami matting floor and bedding of a foam mattress, folded up during the day and stacked against the wall. However, it had an ensuite bathroom and Western style toilet.

At 6.00, Mich arrived at the hotel as arranged. We hadn't seen her since 1990 and she seemed slimmer than I remembered and had cut her hair shorter. It was lucky that we met at the hotel, because we wouldn't have recognised her in a crowd. She lives between Kyoto and Osaka, about a 40 minute train ride from Kyoto, which is apparently quite close by Japanese standards. She wasn't very familiar with Kyoto, so we suggested that we catch a train back to her area, to which she readily agreed2. When we got to her place, she drove us to a local "family" restaurant, a bit like a Japanese Sizzler. Her car was a baby Mazda and as we went along, she played us a tape of songs which she was learning in preparation for a Karaoke night she was planning with her friends. At the restaurant, she organised our meal, which consisted of sashimi, sushi and shabu shabu (a kind of Japanese steamboat). It was all very filling and tasty.

After dinner, Mich drove us to a nearby (six kilometres away) JR station for a train back to Kyoto. Mich checked at the ticket gate and there was an express at 10.15. We said our farewells and then Laurel & Hardy sat on the platform and watched the 10.15 and two other trains to Kyoto pull into and out of the station. Don't ask me why we didn't get on them; I don't know. Eventually, we caught a train at 10.32 which stopped at every station along the way. Our Laurel & Hardy act wasn't over then, though. When we finally got into Kyoto, we went around and around in circles on the same set of stairs trying to get out of the station, to the consternation and delight of a toothless old cleaner.

We got back to the hotel about 11.15. Luckily, it was still open. The hotel lobby was so tiny that half of it was taken up by the guests' shoes and we had trouble finding a space to put ours!

Our first full day in Kyoto was spent on a self-guided tour. My foot was still bound up, but I could walk on it without too much trouble. We bought a one day bus pass from the hotel for Y600 each. One of our priorities was to see the Imperial Palace. There were two tours daily, for which we needed to get prior permission from the Imperial Household Agency, so we thought this should be the first place we visited. We had a bus map of the city, but it looked more like the electronic circuit diagram for a TV set! We found the railway station's bus terminus okay, but couldn't find the bus number which took us past the Imperial Palace. For some reason, we got on one bus, but the driver convinced us to get off again by the age-old technique of not knowing what the hell we were talking about or why the hell we had got on his empty bus! As a consequence, we found ourselves back on the footpath doing our famous stunned mullets impression whilst consulting the electronic circuit diagram again. A helpful old bus inspector finally took pity on us and pointed us in the right direction. We got on a queue which looked pretty good because (1) it was fairly long and (2) it had Westerners in it so its bus must have been going somewhere interesting. As it turned out, it wasn't the bus we wanted to be on but that was okay because it took us to the Golden Temple, or Kinkaku-ji, which was one of our intended visits anyway.

The temple's main gold-painted building dates back to 1220 and together with its gardens is a beautiful sight. We paid the usual extortionate Y500 to get in, but you couldn't enter the building - that was just to file past it, along with thousands of Japanese school kids and bus tourists. Once through the place, I sat down to rest my foot while Jacqui visited the souvenir shop. A group of Japanese school boys approached me and one asked if he could have his picture taken with me. We put our arms on each other's shoulders while one of his mates took the shot, then they went off chattering happily.

Photo: Nijo Castle

We caught another couple of buses to the Nijo Castle, which we reached after a long walk from the bus stop. This was built by the first Shogun Ieyasu in 1603, its purpose being to awe the other warlords, with ornate rooms finished with paintings by famous artists of the era. The route through the castle grounds was in a long loop which, although very pretty, took a toll on my ankle.

Again we boarded the buses, and this time managed to reach the Imperial Palace and get our permission to enter. All the red tape just to go on a tour of the place was fairly amazing, considering that it is now a just a museum and isn't used by the imperial family. The tour itself was led by a woman whose English appeared to be totally self-taught, done phonetically from Japanese characters, with no conversational experience. If English was my second language, I would have stood no chance of understanding her. The tour just went around the outside of the buildings and took about half an hour, but it was free. Our group was followed around by a guard to make sure that we didn't stray.

From the Imperial Palace, it was another use of the bus pass, this time to Heian Shrine, which boasted a famous Japanese garden (for another Y500), then we walked to a handicrafts centre, contained within a six storey building. I suspect the only reason for its existence was that it was a stop for bus tours. We did more than stop there - thanks to shopoholic Jacqui we spent the next one and a half hours there! It had one floor devoted to dolls alone! We bought a very nice woodblock print for Y9,500. Buying it entitled Jacqui to enter an instant lottery and she won second prize - a Y3,000 gift voucher. The girls on the front counter got quite excited when it came up - apparently this is an extremely rare occurrence. It was 5.20 and the place closed at 5.30, but Jacqui rushed back and bought a doll she had her eyes on. It came with a glass case, but even Jacqui recognised that carrying this back herself was impossible, so the Y3,000 went towards the cost of posting it back by surface mail! The doll itself was light, but unwieldy to carry.

Photo: Himeji Castle

Up to this point, we had prided ourselves on our ability to master the Kyoto public bus system. The bus passes had cost us Y600, compared to Y10,000 for a one day conducted tour of the city. However, at the last moment of the day our pride came unstuck. At my insistence, we got off a bus at the wrong place. Then, (my fault again) we got on a bus which was run by a private company and didn't accept our bus passes, so we had to pay another Y200 each. In any event, it got us back to the same bus terminal.

That evening, we did a load of washing in the hotel. The place is so tiny that the washing facilities were in the lobby!

The next day, we went to Himeji to visit Ian and Amanda. They had been living in Japan for two years, as English teachers. Himeji is Adelaide's sister city. We would have gone there anyway, because it has arguably the best castle in Japan and one which is substantially original, unlike many which were destroyed in the war and have been rebuilt. When I told the woman who runs the hotel where we were headed that morning, she looked a bit shocked, presumably because Himeji is quite a long way from Kyoto, but by Shinkansen the trip only took 50 minutes or so, which was quite acceptable.

Ian and Max, their little son, were waiting on the platform for us. From the station it was possible to walk almost the whole distance to the castle via covered shopping streets. The castle itself (called the White Crane) was a truly impressive place and in my mind one of the highlights of our trip. It took us one and a half hours to walk through, as we climbed the approaches to it and then up the six levels to the top of the castle. We had to take our shoes off and flap around the place in slippers.3 I found this extremely difficult with my sprained ankle, particularly climbing the steep stairs, so I took mine off and walked around in my socks.

Ian met us back at the castle gate and then Amanda came with some "bento boxes" for lunch. We spread out a plastic tarpaulin on the grass near the castle and hoed into the lunch. I think we attracted quite a few stares from the passers by.

After lunch we walked through some nearby gardens called Koko-En (See a photo) , which had various examples of Japanese garden styles, all apparently designed by famous landscape gardeners. At one point, Max fell about a metre off the edge of a stone wall, landing sideways onto the rocks below. There were plenty of tears, but luckily no permanent harm was done. Further on in the gardens we reached a tea house. Amanda encouraged us to go in for a tea ceremony. Ian declared that he'd been to enough tea ceremonies to sink a battleship, so he opted to hold the bags while we went inside. The cost was Y500 each. We went into a room and kneeled on the floor (difficult with a sprained ankle). Some old ladies dressed in Kimonos came in and placed some bowls of green froth in front of us. We thanked them, bowing, and drank the froth, which was extremely astringent. The ladies took our bowls away. We thanked them, bowing again, and then we left. The whole thing was over in less than 10 minutes. The symbolism was lost on this particular water buffalo.

We walked about one kilometre to the their apartment. Amanda asked us what we would like for dinner and I replied, "a nice roast leg of lamb with roast potatoes and gravy." Amanda was perturbed about where she could get a leg of lamb in Japan. "I might be able to get some beef to roast", she suggested. We had to assure her several times that I was only joking and would eat whatever was put in front of us.

Ian took us for a drive around Himeji while Amanda prepared the dinner. At one point he stopped the car at a petrol station. No less than three driveway attendants swarmed over the car, filling the tank, washing the windows and even cleaning out the rubbish from the ashtray, all in a smart and enthusiastic manner. When we drove off, one of them risked life and limb by stepping out into the traffic to stop it while we inserted ourselves onto the road again.

Dinner comprised a delicious feast of Udon in soup, garlic bread and creme caramel with fruit, washed down with a nice bottle of Jacob's Creek Chardonnay (Y950). While we ate, Amanda told us a few things that Westerners do which Japanese regard as strange or repulsive, including:

They also confirmed a few of our suspicions about the Japanese which had been developing during our short time there. For one, there is a fair bit of over-employment. They seem prone to employing three people to do the job of one. While companies and governments in the West have spent the nineties "downsizing", they have barely started to think about it in Japan. Also, the guys we had seen at museums and temples in their suits were, in all probability, "at work", but were wagging it, as were the guys asleep in their cars at Shiba Park. Amanda also said that, surprisingly, compared to Australia their medical facilities were often substandard and even dirty.

Ian went off to a Japanese lesson. We discovered that the only Shinkansen we could catch back to Kyoto left at about 9.00, so we had to quickly get back to the train station without saying goodbye to him.

On the train back to Kyoto, a drunk came along and stood in the aisle, staring at us. Jacqui, pretending to ignore him, whispered, "There's a drunk standing there looking at us". "I know", I said, without looking up. Then he started talking to us. I said "Sorry, we don't speak Japanese". He leaned across me and started talking to Jacqui. He sat down and offered me a can of beer, which I politely declined. He offered it to Jacqui, who wasn't feeling much like a beer at the time either. Then he reached into his bag and offered us some half-eaten sandwiches.4 We also politely refused these, becoming more than a little concerned as to how to get rid of him. I told him, in Japanese, "Sorry, don't understand Japanese". He offered me his can of beer again, all the while mumbling something in Japanese. I refused his kind offer again and after a while he got up of his own accord and staggered on up the aisle.

1 Since you look even more stupid if you try to do it as a dumb mute.

2 Although she might have been thinking "What? I just spent all that time getting here!"

3 They had a box of "extra large" ones, just for Westerners.

4 Strange, isn't it. No matter where you go in the world, these are the two items which drunks always carry around with them.