Day 11: Kyoto and Sakura (cherry blossoms)

There is probably no more beautiful city than Kyoto. It’s a terribly cheesy statement. An intensely disputable one, as well, considering the multitude of other examples of cities which are serene and beautiful. But if you visit Kyoto, and especially if you live there for a bit, there is something undeniably unique about it, which sets it apart from other cities. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but after our usual pilgrimage to the city, I spent some time trying to understand what is it in Kyoto that I like so much, and I couldn’t quite: in a way, there is nothing specifically different about it (besides a myriad temples). It has the same streets as other Japanese cities. It has the same overhead power lines. It has the same mix of old and new houses (though “old” tends to dominate, and even new ones tend to respectfully follow older design guidelines). It has hordes of tourists, both foreigners and Japanese, especially during important holidays and seasons. But… after everything, there is something so deeply ingrained into its fabric that connects with you and just pulls you in that you can’t vocalise it, but it sticks forever. To complete this sentimental soliloquy, Matsuo Basho, a famous Japanese poet, once wrote, “Kyo nitemo… kyo natsukashiya.” – “Even when in Kyoto, I long for Kyoto”.  

So we went to Kyoto to see cherry blossoms. Clearly, one of the dumbest things you can do in Japan is go to any of the major locations during sakura season. Considering we pretty much only had this day to visit Kyoto, we didn’t have much flexibility in the matter, but should you ever find yourself anywhere in Japan during sakura season, go somewhere other than the major tourist spots. Heed this advice. There are so, so many people that congregate in the key spots, and yet, especially if you have access to a car, there are numbers of beautiful spots that are devoid of people (hey, Tottori turned out to be one of them!).

Before we get to Kyoto, though, here are a few general sakura shots from Kobe. Technically, they aren’t entirely relevant to this subject, but I don’t want to make a separate post just for them, so this is kind of a good place to fit them, seeing as we’re talking about sakura in general.
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But back to our sheep, or more specifically, the story of Kyoto. In this case, I specifically wanted to re-visit 哲学の道, Philosopher’s path. It is one of my favourite places in Kyoto; it goes between two well-known templates, Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji, and is completely lined with cherry blossom trees. It is one of the most enjoyable walks in Kyoto, though due to all the reasoning above, I do tend to prefer it on cold, rainy days.
Before we got there, though, we stopped by a temple where we saw a whole crown of sakura…
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… and a car covered in mattresses (?) (don’t ask. This is Japan).
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We also stopped by my favourite restaurant in Japan, which makes the best tonkatsu in the world – Katsukura, a Kyoto original store. When I used to visit Kobe, I’d make the almost two-hour train ride to Kyoto just to eat tonkatsu there. I then found out that Sannomiya, the central train station in Kobe, had a branch. Now I could get to Sannomiya, have tonkatsu, THEN make the two-hour train ride, and have it again. Life was perfect. But I digress.
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Mmm… favourite food.
Onwards with the journey. We drove to the Philosopher’s Path, and fortunately found parking in the neighbourhood. If you know anything about Japan… or even if you don’t, I challenge you to find the  foreigner’s car in this parking lot:
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Yeah, haters goin’ hate, and I didn’t care. Incidentally, the van to my right (i.e. the last one) spent SO much time parking backwards that he actually hit that wooden electric pole once. I didn’t have any of these problems. Ha.
The Philosopher’s Path was as full of people as I could have imagined it to be. Which still does not detract from its beauty.
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Came across some tulips.
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Buses, buses, buses of tourists! (Remember this picture: I will reference it later, in Burma).
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There’s really no way to take “too many” pictures of sakura. So here’s another one.
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I came across some interesting characters during the walk.
A tour guide who gave in to the fate of being abandoned by his tour group in their picture-taking craze.
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A local resident resigned to the circus around her:
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A man commanding the madness to disappear (but in his madness, he’s facing the wrong way):
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A tourist satisfied with the photographic and cultural intake of the day:
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Another grandiose cherry blossom tree:
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And a view of a nearby street lined up with sakura trees:
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After taking in as much tourist traffic as we could, we headed off to our next stop – Arashiyama. It is a location near Kyoto that has a rustic, old-school appearance – it is a mountain surrounded by parks, restaurants, and extremely expensive ryokans (Japanese-style hotels). It is also another popular tourist destination, though while it is known for its cherry blossoms, it tends to get busier in fall, when a larger percentage of the trees change colours.
Our goal this time was to take an old train that goes up the canyon on the old rail tracks. It used to be a common mode of transport, and featured a steam locomotive, but times have moved on, and it’s now a “romantic voyage” through a few tunnels and along a river. I’ve heard a lot about the views, however, and wanted to check them out.
This is what used to power the route:
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Wild anticipation of the “current” operator:
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… and here it comes!
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View while en route:
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On the way, various views of the mountains and rivers appear and fade away as you take the half-an-hour ride.
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Eventually, you reach Kameoka station, where people shuffle around the cars and take the journey back (or stay there, and … do not much, since there really isn’t a lot to do in Kameoka). Some people take a river boat cruise back, which is basically a glorified canoe, but it was far too cold for that.
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Right as you exit the station, there is a “tunnel” made of sakura trees.
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More pretty river views on the way back:
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And people doing their best to document it on 10 quadrillion cameras:
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Did I mention ultra nice hotels? Look, they even have people with iPads taking pictures of stuff. Oh, how I can’t stand those people.
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So that was about it for the ride. After all was done, we went for another bout of nostalgia – cheesecake at Papa Jon’s (not to be confused with the US pizza chain), which makes, to my taste, one of the best cheesecakes I’ve ever had – anywhere. It doesn’t help that there used to be a branch across the street from my dorm where I lived in Kyoto, but really, honestly, I’m being objective here.
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Sadly, in a complete first for me, I seem to have taken pictures of the restaurant, but not of the cheesecake itself, so I’m going to have to go do some soul-searching there, because I can’t fathom how this may have happened.
Instead, here is a picture of some drunk people standing on a staircase in a shopping mall, singing, in front of a restaurant called “Namaste Taj Mahal”. You can’t invent these things. This is Japan.
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That pretty much wraps up our Japan trip. There were other bits and pieces here and there, but the most important things for me were visiting Kyoto, and visiting a desert with camels in the middle of Japan.
And now… it is time to dive into the place that I’ve never thought I’d go to, yet one that I fought a long battle to get my tickets reinstated on, and one that I finally succeeded to visit.
Myanmar – also known as Burma.
Up next.