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kyoto trip report part 1

2005-06-03 - 12:54 p.m.

all photos � 2005 by Elaine Radford

Note: You are reading Part One of my Kyoto trip report. To read my bird list, click right here.

Monday/Tuesday May 25th

It was a long flight, and the cheap-out on the drinks was pretty damn pathetic. C'mon, you don't get an entire can of soda on a 13 hours flight? Not even one? The food was bad, too, but you know that going in. You really don't expect them to try to dehydrate you, though. I'm surprised some of the older folks didn't go into spasms.

I landed at the shiny new airport built on the newly constructed artificial island. No birds, not even a pigeon. I just found the hotel and collapsed. The sun peeped in my window about 5 A.M. and my body clock was sufficiently screwed-up that it seemed like a good time to hop out of bed. I checked the water, but still nothing except maybe a couple of terns out in the distance.

feeding pigeons at nishi hogan-ji pigeons bill and coo at arishiyama
pigeons doing what pigeons do best -- eating and flirting

Wednesday, May 26

I availed myself of the free breakfast and internet, then bought a ticket for the famous shinkansen. Along the way, I noticed my first bird of Asia. Yes, Feral Pigeon. Did you really expect anything else?

I bought my ticket and found my train/car/assigned seat with approximately one minute to spare. The ticket seller asked me the time I would prefer -- 9:17 or 9:28. I picked 9:28 to give myself time to orient myself. His body language gave me to understand that he was terribly disappointed in this choice and that I should try again. So, OK, 9:17 it was. I don't know if the later train was actually full, or if he thought I was impugning the split second timing of the rail system. (Although all I really doubted was my own ability to find the right place to catch the train.) In any case, I got where I was supposed to.

It was a smooth ride, with no real sensation of speed. So I don't really know if we actually went 268 miles an hour or whatever the claim is. I suppose so. We got there in a surprisingly short amount of time.

zen bottle garden?
zen bottle garden, i'll leave you to derive the meaning of it all from first principles
It was too early to check into the hostel, but I dropped off my bags and then strolled around to check out some nearby sites. The first temple complex I came to was Higashi Hongan-ji. Feral Pigeon and Eurasian Tree Sparrow had the run of the place, but I noticed Black Kite and Grey Heron flying overhead, and the White-Cheeked or Gray Starlings were poking around the grounds. Inside one of the structures was a huge, almost sickening, rope made out of human hair donated to the reconstruction of the temple after a huge fire in the 1800s. Apparently the sect was running low on cash as a result of the fire and couldn't buy regular rope or maybe the regular rope wasn't as strong as human hair?

At Nishi Hongan-ji I added Barn Swallow and Carrion Crow to the list as I strolled the temple grounds. There was a huge Gingko Tree there. I forgot to write down its age, but I think they said it was planted in the 1300's. Both of these temples were having some reconstructive work done on some of the buildings, but it probably kept the crowds down. A couple of times I wandered into temples only to discover that a service was in progress, so I slipped back out. I know they want visitors, but it always seems a little weird to be watching people who are trying to worship.

first fast food restaurant in japan, kentucky fried chicken hatchling red-eared turtle at toji pagoda
on the way to toji pagoda i encountered the good colonel and in front of the toji temple complex i met with many turtle hatchlings
Returning to the train station, I ascended the scary escalators that zipped 4 floors at a time in order to reach the sky garden on the roof. Upon seeing the five-story Toji Pagoda, the tallest pagoda in Kyoto, I decided to walk there from the train station, so I did, with only a minimal amount of going around in circles. There were lots of silver dollar sized baby turtles at Toji; it appeared that they'd just had a hatching. I explored the area for awhile then walked back to the train station just in time to see the sun set over the city.

view of toji pagoda from train station
view of toji pagoda (and a lot of haze) from kyoto train station
Thursday, May 27

Today I caught the bus to the Gion District and got off near the entrance to the dramatic orange and white Yasaka Shrine. A large moth, or perhaps a thick-bodied butterfly, landed on me and flashed its fluorescent flash. As I drifted behind the shrine, I heard the calls of the Crows, both Carrion and Jungle. They'd discovered a huge trash pile and could talk endlessly about this marvelous treasure. I was worried that I couldn't tell the two species apart, but the difference in the forehead shape was indeed striking, especially when the birds were so thoughtful as to pose side-by-side.

Moving into Maruyama Park, I enjoyed the water, the irises, and the continued conversation of the Crows. Sometimes these bossy birds even charged the resident Pigeons, apparently just to assert their superiority, since they had nothing else to chase. I could see the Japanese influence on Avery Island, but it makes you appreciate our much larger variety of birds. Any park like this in Louisiana would be chock-full of birds from warblers to red-tails. They did have some large red-eared turtles, but an alligator or two wouldn't have gone amiss in that scenic little pond.

maruyama park
waterfall at maruyama park
As I continued to climb the hillside, I think I left the park and I know (because they actually had some English signage) that I entered Choraku-ji with its large cemetary ascending into the mountains behind the temple complex. I sat awhile by a scenic pinky-green maple tree and then descended the hill for a second stroll through the park. In my wandering way, I found a winding street leading to Kiyomizu-dera and paused at a shrine that seemed to honor the three monkeys of "do no evil, see no evil, hear no evil." I also found Yasaka Pagoda, which proclaimed itself "the oldest temple in Kyoto."

I felt sorry for the two maikos that I watched walking up the street. They were stopped constantly and asked to pose for photographs. It must take them hours to go anywhere. But they didn't seem a bit put-out. Indeed, no matter how many times they were stopped by German tourists or Japanese schoolgirls, they always had a smile.

I enjoyed some open-air noodles and beer at one of the tents at Kiyomizu-dera. The place was simply crammed with school groups. It's a Buddhist temple but the main business of the place seems to be what we'd consider witchcraft. Going up one hill, you come to a huge love shrine selling all manner of love charms. Going down another, you find students drinking from the magic waterfall that is supposed to help them do well on their exams. The schoolgirls wear sneakers with their uniforms, which left me wondering how exactly they prepared for their future of riding a bike in pointy-toed high heels while holding a parasol.

if you can't lie with photography, you're not trying, here's a snap of kiyomizu-dera deceitfully framed to make it look quiet and above-it-all...
the real kiyomizu-dera with its herds of schoolchildren
...and here we have the real thing with a tiny fraction of its huge flocks of schoolchildren of all ages having their pictures taken, interviewing or having photos made with gaijin tourists, drinking magic water, and buying magic love charms.
As anyone who has visited the Grand Canyon knows, the Japanese are great travelers, and there was probably a thousand Japanese tourists for every foreigner. Be that as it may, I was twice interviewed by school groups seeking foreigners to interview. The high school students were pretty slick. They had the questions written down and gave me a pencil to write down my answers. The elementary school students actually struggled to ask me the questions and then to write down the notes themselves, like real reporters.

I hiked around the hills behind Kiyomizu for awhile and then headed back near the hostel, which was steps away from the river.

mystery mouse shrine
along the way, i encountered many a mysterious stone, shrine, or whatnot that i couldn't interpret, this impromptu shrine with a mouse figure on the path to the kiyomizu waterfall was certainly one of the most poignant as i assume it was a child's wish

mystery mouse

here's a blow-up of that mystery mouse, now you know about as much i as do about this shrine or altar
I took a long stroll along the river, where I got my first look at Japanese Wagtail, a life bird and a Japanese endemic. I also added "real" (flying) Mallards, Little Egret, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, and Black-Crowned Night Heron. It was this evening when I saw the vicious adult Grey Heron tear the feathers out of a younger one.

juvenile Japanese Wagtail, the adults are more dramatically marked in black 
and white rather than gray and black
juvenile japanese wagtail, the adults are black rather than gray
Oh, and in the "now I've really seen everything" category--
  • I observed a woman riding her bike, in her high heels, by the river, while running a beagle on a leash, and
  • I observed that the homeless of Kyoto build entire tent and tarp structures, pile their bicycles with bags and bags of collected cans, and collect way more crap than you could ever put in a shopping cart, because apparently it is true what they say -- no one steals stuff. You can just leave it out. I'd already noticed that people just left out valuable plants like orchids and bonsai just sitting practically on the sidewalk, but when you see the homeless under the bridge confidently stroll off without bagging and carting everything, you know the theft rate must be super, super low.

And about those famous vending machines. Yes, it's true. They do sell beer and even a dubious "vodka-based beverage" right out of a machine. I already had the one beer of the day that I'm up for when jet-lagged, so I tried a vodka and lemon concoction called Kirin Chu-hi. It's fairly vile but you could probably get used to it if you tried. Me, I did the one drink in the courtyard to say I did and then I was ready for bed.

You have just finished reading Part One of my Kyoto trip report. Stay tuned for Part Two, coming up soon.

moth at yasaka shrine
this moth or thick-bodied butterfly which perched on my leg had lopsided fluorescence in real life too, it isn't just a trick of photography, you tell me the meaning and the significance of it all
update: i won't bet money on it, but this species could be the male Freyer's Purple Emperor, Apatura metis

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