Burning Down the House
Posted: Dec 17, 2003 12:50:54 PM
Kyoto is a very noisy place.
This first became apparent to me when Charlotte and I travelled from Osaka via high speed train: arriving at every stop, the sound system played cheerful disembarkation music. Okay, I thought, a little strange, but not completely unknown. At the road crossing, however, the cross-lights played a cute jingle to inform people that it was time to get moving. I begin to sense a pattern. When Charlotte informed me that the garbage trucks (all seven kinds) play cheerful uplifting garbage-truck tunes, however...
It's not just the music. Standing in the architecturally awful Kyoto Tower's observation deck we were surrounded by extremely loud and enthusiastic arcade machines. My favourites were the Godzilla ones, which let out a piercing roar every few seconds. It must be hell working in the gift shop directly beside that. We have contributed our own noises via arcade machines, beating Taiko drums to a set tune (it's kinda like Karaoke, which I will be trying some time in the next few days). It was fun, and we gathered quite a large audience.
Some of the noises have a purpose. One of my favourites was at the Kyoto Imperial Palace: in order to disguise any potentially embarrassing sounds, the female toilets have buttons that, when pressed, trigger a recording of cascading water. How did I witness this? I was smuggled in. At the nearby Nijo-jo castle, the sounds of choice are the Nightingale Floors: specially designed floorboards creak noticeably whenever someone steps on them, in order to alert the castle's paranoid owner (Tokugawa Ieyasu) to the approach of any assassins. Very cool, but they must also be hell for the security guards that have to put up with tourists walking on them all day long.
You would expect noise in traffic, but perhaps not of the kind that you find in Japan. Here, police cars have loudspeakers attached, presumably so that the officers inside can chastise miscreants without bothering to get out of their vehicles. Vans drive past advertising internet access deals the same way. But the worst noise to hear when you are walking down the street is the ringing of bells, because it means that there is a cyclist behind you who wants to get past.
Oh yes, for those of you who have complained about the cyclists of Copenhagen or Amsterdam, Kyoto is much much worse. Because here, the cycles are all on the pavement, weaving in and out of the pedestrians, usually while talking on a cell-phone. Charlotte and I became so tired of this that eventually we decided to do the only thing we could: join them.
Many of the important sites in Kyoto for pilgrims and tourists both are the temples (Buddhist) and the shrines (Shinto), which offer considerable historical interest as well as strong aesthetic appeal. But they are relatively well spread out, so Charlotte and I rented cycles and spent the day bouncing from temple to shrine to temple. It was most fun, aside from those damn pedestrians...
Luckily, the cycle came with a bell.
The first stop was Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, mainly because the top two stories are plated in gold. Yes, it is a real gold house. We also visited Ginkaku-ji, which translates as the Silver Pavilion, but there was not a single sliver of silver in evidence. We visited the Heian-jingu shrine, which has an enormous red entrance gate (called a torii) but is otherwise most prosaic. At Kiyomizu-dera I tasted some sacred waters, and (as Charlotte has alluded to) ran into a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls who repeatedly chanted "You are very handsome!" until I let them take our picture and they went away.
The temples and shrines of Japan are made of wood and paper, and so they are rather susceptible to deliberate or accidental fire. Fortunately the tradition when this occurs is to rebuild the buildings, exactly copying the originals. Kinkaku-ju was burnt down by an obsessed monk in 1950. The current version of Kiyomizu-dera dates back to 1633. Nijo-jo castle was struck by lightning in 1858. You would think they would learn and build these structures out of stronger materials, but no.
Kyoto Imperial Palace was originally a temporary residence for the emperor when his normal palace was burnt to the ground (an event that apparently happened very frequently). But of course they eventually got tired of this and didn't rebuild the normal palace. Which must have seemed like a huge mistake when the replacement palace ... burnt down.
All the temples, shrines, castles, and palaces have some very impressive and meticulously constructed gardens, but for me the most tranquil was the Shosei-en garden, which had a fantastic pond full of tame carp (tame because they followed us around the bank hoping for a snack). The Shosei-en garden has been around for a while, but is actually rather new seeing as at some point in the past it, you guessed it, burnt down.
How does a garden - with a large ornamental pond - actually burn down anyway?
In fact, one of the only large buildings in the Kyoto area to survive the centuries unscathed by burning is the Hoo-do of Byodo-in temple. Although every other building in the complex has at some point been razed to the ground, Hoo-do remains completely intact in its original form.
Hoo-do translates as 'Phoenix Hall'.
Anyway, we are having a great time here in Kyoto, and this is mainly thanks to the wonderful organisational, orientational, and linguistic abilities of my guide Charlotte, who can find us when we get lost, apologize when I say or do something wrong near (or to) the locals, and generally keep the trip cheerful and effervescent almost constantly. She's just great. I hope she doesn't burn down.
Tomorrow we are going to take a day-trip to Nara to see some very famous temples:
Todai-ji, which houses a very big bronze and gold Buddha in the largest wooden building in the world. The building dates from 1709, but the Buddha was originally cast in 746. Why originally? Well, I presume that it had to be recast after the hall that contains it burnt down. Which it did.
And Horyu-ji, which is the oldest temple in Japan, dating back to 607. It is the oldest not because of aesthetic appeal or historical significance, but due to the fact that it has never actually burnt down!
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