Kyoto part 2: crowds, a conveyor and a crab

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Roadwork barriers in Kyoto

Our second day in Kyoto started earlier, much much earlier.  We arrived on a Willer Express night bus, and this time it was running early, so it tipped us out into the bright morning sunshine well before 7.  But there was sunshine!  Today was the day to look at some of the big sites Kyoto is known for: temples and gardens (mostly temple gardens).

We used three Willer Express night buses while we were in Japan.  They were ridiculously comfortable.  The seats lean way back, and the bus is fully dark at night.  You even get a blanket, and a little personal seat visor which shields your face from any light that does seep in.  The buses we took were actually some of the more basic ones.  We used a bus pass, which restricts you from going on the (extra) fancy buses which have big squashy super-reclining seats with gaps between them.

The Willer Express bus pass worked really well for us.  We used a three day pass, which gives you three travel days that don’t have to be consecutive.  It cost about £50, which saved us a third on buying individual tickets.  They’ve since expanded their pass options to offer three, five or seven day passes, with weekday only options, but it seems to have got a bit more expensive.  The pass is only available if you’re in Japan on a short term visa.

The only problem we had with using this pass was not being able to sit together.  Because you can’t select your seat, and you book each ticket individually using the code for your own pass, we were always seated separately.  At first I thought this was because the buses are gender segregated: women on one side of the aisle, men on the other.  But on one of the buses another couple were sitting together, so it must be possible to do this, perhaps if you book together.  A quick web search suggests that this is possible when using a bus pass, but you’ll have to try and book by emailing rather than using the booking system on the Willer Express website.

Actually, sitting separately was a bonus on one of our trips because we got two seats each, and on one of the journeys the driver gestured that Arthur could move to the seat next to me.  The gender segregated seating did trip us up once though: we successfully booked me onto a bus, then went to book Arthur on and found we couldn’t because there were no male seats left.  Gah.  Which meant we had to cancel my seat, then find another bus by searching separately for male and female seats and compare the results.  Fun times.

The view from Kyoto station.

So, we arrived in Kyoto for the second time reasonably well rested, and with enough time to stow our luggage and cram in a quick Mister Donut breakfast, before meeting up with our friend Emma from our Tokyo hostel.  As a side note, Emma has written an excellent post about our day in Kyoto here.  I’ll do my best not to copy her too much.  She’s also written about many many other interesting places, and made it all very organised and lovely, you should have a look if you’re in the mood for some arm chair travel.

By about 8.30 we were ready for some sightseeing.  (Sorry we were late!  We lost track of time when a man started talking to us over donuts, I can’t remember for the life of me what about…)

Firstly, Emma and I headed over to a five-storey pagoda near the station, which was surprisingly difficult to find given its height.  We didn’t go into the pagoda gardens, saving our pennies for the flashier temples later, but wandered round the outer temple grounds.  Predictably, everything was beautiful.

Even the buckets.

It was also spectacularly uncrowded.  There were a couple of other tourists there, and these guys…


So we practically had the place to ourselves.  Honestly, wait ’til you see how busy the temple we visited later on was…

Arthur tried to go to an Anime museum while we were at the pagoda, but it was closed, so he went for tea instead.


Reunited, the three of us hopped on the bus, one day city bus passes in hand (£2.50), and headed across town to a couple of the TOP SIGHTS.  Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, until the late 19th century.  They lay this Kyoto Ancient Capital stuff on thick, and lo the tourists come (us included).  First stop off the bus was Ryoan-ji, a world famous rock garden.  You’ve heard of it right?  Me neither.

This place is considered one of the finest examples of a rock garden there is.  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a classified Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto.  In the book I was reading about Japan while I was there, the author questions a rock garden expert on what’s so special about this particular example.  His answer: the space between the rocks.

Here’s some.


I actually much prefer this aesthetic to the sugary style of some of the other gardens, with fiddly arched bridges and nature looking too neat.  A tidy garden makes me sad, but somehow in taking neatness to this extreme it almost becomes rough and raw again.


However, I’m not sure what the hype over this garden in particular is about.  It’s some rocks in gravel.  To be fair, I think the impact of such an understated space is its calm.  Experiencing it with a rabble of tourists and kids on school trips is unlikely to do it justice.

Outside the walls of the overcrowded rock garden were some of my favourite views of the day.  This is the kind of Japan that filled my head and my pinterest board before we came.  (This notion is totally stolen from Emma’s post by the way, I lied.)


I might even pin this photo…

The whole Kyoto experience is very photogenic, which I suppose is why it’s so popular.  We got into the spirit with a jumping photo shoot.

Jumping in the air in front of it aside, honestly, I didn’t find much of the Ancient Kyoto stuff all that compelling.  I think the appeal is a feeling of stepping back in time in these very stylised places, unchanged over the years, where you can imagine the ritualised life of the past lives on.  For me it felt more like a theme park.  However, in that there was some interest.  As a social phenomenon, watching people dress up in kimono to clip clop (and ride the bus) around the sites is intriguing.


Likewise observing (and joining) hordes of people in a just-barely-civilised scrum to get That Temple Photo at the second TOP SIGHT we saw, Kinkaku-ji.  This one is a National Special Historic Sight and a National Special Landscape and a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site.  So it was busy.


I found the crowds at the golden temple much more interesting than the temple itself.  By interesting I mean fascinatingly disturbing.  I’ve never seen such an intense feeding frenzy for a photo opportunity before.  It was worse than the Mona Lisa.

The modern always seemed to interest me more than the ancient in Japan, or perhaps rather the way that the two sit side by side.  In discussing whether to go to the Anime museum Arthur proposed that I’m not interested in culture if it’s modern (e.g. anime).  But I don’t think that’s true, I just find anything hyper-stylised and (to my mind) so far removed from reality difficult to engage with.  This disinterest covers old and new.  I can’t get on with opera either, for example, or most literature from before the 20th century.  I don’t know if I lack the imagination to find it relevant, or if relevance isn’t the point at all.

Having read the above, Arthur says relevance isn’t the point, and maintains that I’m not interested in modern culture.  Agree to disagree?  Maybe I’m just not interested in culture, since this old stuff wasn’t doing much for me either.  Arthur on the other hand claims to have found it all very interesting and evocative.  I think he thinks I’m a philistine.

The must have photo.

Shiny things tend not to be my cup of tea, and this big block of gold was no exception.  I found it a bit tacky.  I keep coming back to the idea that these places seemed too sanitised to feel historic or even meaningful for me.  In more natural settings like the Kumano Kodo I found old shrines intriguing, but not so here.  I loved the tickets though, so our entrance fee wasn’t totally wasted.


This was our last full day in Japan, so after riding an extremely cramped bus back into town, we went to tick one final thing off our to-do list: conveyor belt sushi.


I think we did it justice.


After that there was just time for a beer (phew), and then it was goodbye to Emma, goodbye to Kyoto, and very nearly goodbye to Japan.

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So long and thanks for all the fish.


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We really enjoyed Tallinn, mostly because it felt more Scandinavian than the other Baltic capitals.  The picture is of Arthur enjoying a spectacularly good cinnamon roll (from the supermarket!) and a coffee.  I think it’s my favourite city so far.  The fact that our hostel had a sauna may also have had something to do with it.

Tallinn generally had a nice feel to it though, an interesting atmosphere.  It was somehow bleak and cheerful at the same time.  We wandered through the town and the dockyards, and stumbled across all sorts of interesting things.


This is Fat Margaret.  Our hostel was named after her.


The old town was very pretty, but full of people in medieval dress and shops selling Elk soup.  Which is fine if you like that kind of thing.

By the docks we found a really cool abandoned town hall.  Sweeping concrete, with plants breaking through.  (ed. Turns out, it was actually a concert/sport venue called the V.I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport, built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.  Those crazy Soviets with their palaces!  See here, and everywhere else. Unsurprisingly, when Estonia was in the midst of campaigning for independence from the USSR, the Lenin Palace became…unpopular, and was largely abandoned by 1990).


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We watched (wistfully) the passenger boat leaving for Finland.

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A little further along the waterfront was a gallery which was much too cool for us, but we went in anyway, and enjoyed sipping espressos while we wandered through the art.IMG_5598 IMG_5603 IMG_5613

On the roof was this mesh contraption, in the shape of a garden shed.

As we walked further along the docks it began to get dark, which lent the scene a pleasingly sinister edge.

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Our destination was a docks museum, which had a submarine from Barrow in it.  Because of all the art and espresso we arrived too late to bother going in, but enjoyed wandering outside and looking at the ships in the dusk.

There was just time to dip our hands in the Baltic (which wasn’t that baltic) before heading back to the hostel.


Next morning, refreshed by the sauna and plunge pool, we were back on the road again.  There was a convenient recycling bin next to the bus station where we deposited our beer bottles from the night before.  Estonia is so nice.  Then we were off towards Russia, hoping that our visas would actually get us in…

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In Lithuania ‘thank you’ is said ‘achoo’.

We had one day in Vilnius, and this is more or less all of the Lithuanian we managed to learn.  Coming through the Baltic we’ve changed country roughly every 24 hours, so have been getting a bit confused with language. (P.S. We’ve made it to Russia!)  We decided to rush through Europe because it’s expensive, and to give us a better chance of nice weather in Russia.  It’s been pretty hectic, but I’m glad we saw all of the places we did, and since we arrived in St Petersburg it has been beautiful sunshine and not too chilly.  Fingers crossed for the next month or so.

We spent most of our time in Vilnius in the old town, but stayed with Raminta and her boyfriend Justas on the other side of the river, so we got a bit of an idea of the rest of the city.  They were wonderful hosts (thanks for the delicious lasagne and biscuits!) and we really enjoyed chatting with them about all sorts of things.  It was great to learn a bit more about Lithuania and Lithuanians, especially as we had such a short time to get a feel for the place.  My favourite thing that we learned, for sheer bizarreness, was that individual homeless people in Vilnius are famous enough to be reported on in the newspaper every now and again.  Also that in Soviet times you could get coca-cola in Moscow but not in Vilnius.  It was also interesting that we talked about some similar things to in Poland.  Firstly about how many people have left to work in the UK — Lithuania has lost a huge chunk of its population to people moving abroad to work.  Its population has decreased by more than 10% in the last ten years.  Secondly about how friendly people are and so on.  (I.e. people are more reserved, and less likely to smile.)  Now in Russia we’ve already had more or less the same conversation with our host.  I wonder if this is a former Soviet thing, or if it has older roots than that.

Today on the train out of St Petersburg everybody was looking very glum.  Possibly even more so than on a similar commuter train out of London.  The only person smiling was a little girl in a buggy.  Some of the time her mum was playing with her in an engaged way, but still not smiling.

Anyway.  We didn’t find Vilnius particularly unfriendly, and the glummest people we came across were a load of English guys.  They were dressed in matching waistcoats with nicknames on the back, and were sloping up the street drinking bottled water and looking very sorry for themselves.  We had arrived in stag-do territory.

We spent most of the day in Vilnius walking around, and eating.  (There’s a pattern here…) We’re finding that we get a better feel for a place and enjoy ourselves more if we don’t try to pack in too may tourist things (museums and so on).

We started with coffee and breakfast pastries, then wandered around town until lunch.

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My favourite bit was walking up the hills in the centre of the city and getting a great view.  I’ve really been missing getting out on the hills, so this was a nice substitute!IMG_5544 IMG_5545 IMG_5546

This castle was perched on top of one of the hills.  It’s the only remaining part of a larger palace.IMG_5552 IMG_5556

Vilnius has a lot of churches.  Like, alot.  The first thing we noticed when we entered the old town was people turning around and crossing themselves after they came through the city gate.  It’s called the gate of dawn, and has an icon of the virgin Mary in it.  I guess Lithuania is a pretty religious country (the internet says 77% Catholic).  Arthur also noticed that the mannequins in underwear shop windows were mostly wearing nighties rather than underwear.  Observant…  We wondered if this was a cultural/religious thing.


Raminta recommended a vegetarian cafe for lunch, which was great.  It was ayurvedic, so no onions or garlic, but they still managed to make a delicious vegetable broth.  We felt like we needed some vegetables after stuffing our faces with pancakes and burgers in Warsaw.  Though we then went and had cake, but never mind.


And that was pretty much it.  A day isn’t anywhere near enough to get a proper idea of a city, let alone a country, but we were glad we stopped anyway.  I feel I know a little more about Lithuania at least.