by Daniel George
Editor’s note: previous Yamatour travelogues have usually been one-week affairs with addendums to cover events in proximity. This one’s a little different. Cosmo DNA admin Daniel George decided to make a bigger deal of it and spend two weeks in Japan with a very ambitious itinerary that culminated with the premiere of Yamato 2199 Chapter 7. He recorded everything in extensive detail, so enjoy the adventure!
Day Zero: August 14, 2013
Getting up at 4:30am was never more eagerly embraced in my lifetime. There was one very good reason. Today my first trip to Japan and Yamatour 2013 started!
Your intrepid reporter, heading out for the first day in Kyoto
How did I find myself getting up at such an hour to go on a trip to Japan in the first place? It traces itself back to around the time Chapter 6 of Space Battleship Yamato 2199 premiered, when I mentioned in passing that I may just buy a cheap flight to and from Tokyo to see it (due to the outrageously good exchange rate the Australian dollar had against the yen at the time). Then, Tim Eldred suggested in the CosmoDNA Facebook community that it would be better to go to Chapter 7, which immediately made sense. Thus was born Yamatour 2013, and the realisation of a seven-year-long ambition to visit Japan.
On this journey I had the company of my friend and Yamato fan Terry Broadbent, for whom this adventure meant leaving the shores of our homeland for the first time. Originally this started as a trip to see Chapter 7 and spend a week in Tokyo, but then I thought, “why limit it to that?” So I added a week in Kyoto to the mix. It was a place high on my priority list to visit, so this was like killing two birds with one stone.
Meanwhile, in the course of my own research and reviewing articles on this website, I learned of the Yamato Museum in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture (the city where the Yamato was built) and then came up with a whole heap of other things to see in the area. End result was that one week in Kyoto wasn’t enough to do everything we wanted, but it had the added bonus of the Daimonji bonfires as this was slap-bang in the middle of Obon, one of the three busiest holiday weeks in Japan.
Terry Broadbent, a Yamato fan crazy enough to accompany
me on this trip, in the VF-1 cockpit at the Macross: The Museum
exhibit at the Osamu Tezuka Museum.
Gold Coast Airport is about 90 minutes’ drive from where I live, which is line of sight to Brisbane Airport. Why trek this far? Direct flights! Flying from Brisbane involved additional cost and a four-hour layover. Flying to Kansai Airport near Osaka direct at 10am means getting to Osaka around 6:30pm the same day. To put things in perspective, I live on the east coast of Australia, which is GMT+10, whereas Japan is one hour earlier, so I miss out on the time dilation and jet lag experienced by Americans or Europeans visiting Japan, and the flight takes only 9.5 hours.
The trip was off to a bad start, with the plane being 40 minutes late into the air. Fortunately we were flying business class (more like an upmarket Premium Economy) but it meant more leg room and a more comfortable seat (glad I didn’t fly coach). The food was pretty decent and we got iPads full of games and movies for entertainment. Anyway, just under 9 hours later at 6:30pm Japan time we landed at Kansai Airport, and a little over 3/4 of an hour later we’d cleared customs and were waiting for the bus to Kyoto.
They are incredibly efficient at Japanese airports; a shuttle train takes you from the gate through to the terminals, where you get your passport stamped and your fingerprints and photo taken before heading to baggage claim and customs. Didn’t have to wait long for my luggage and then it was through customs and outside looking at the most incredible vending machine I have ever seen. They can be used in English (button in the top right corner) and they accept and provide change for all denominations of Japanese bills. I put in a ￥5,000 note for a fare half that and got two ￥1,000 notes and five ￥100 coins for my trouble. The bus loaded really quickly when it arrived, and five minutes later left on time.
The JR Ticket Office near the way we entered the hotel on the first day. This is NOT the one you get Japan Rail passes from!
The traditional-style bathroom in our
hotel room in Kyoto.
The trip to Kyoto took about 90 minutes. I was expecting it to take maybe half an hour to leave the built-up urban sprawl of Osaka, and then spend half an hour or so in countryside before entering the urban areas of Kyoto. But there was no end to the urban sprawl; it just didn’t stop. We arrived at the Kyoto dropoff point just after 9pm, just across from the huge JR Kyoto complex. When I say huge, it is unbelievably massive! It’s nearly half a kilometer long and has 15 floors. Our hotel, the Granvia Kyoto, is the largest single tenant of the complex by area.
We found an information desk near the southern entrance to the Shinkansen platforms and got directions to Hotel Granvia. What we thought was the main entrance to the Hotel Granvia, up some escalators to JR Kyoto Station and a JR Ticket Office. In the end, we went through a very long and somewhat winding corridor, found some lifts, and thanks to some other foreign tourists, realised we were on the wrong floor and had to go down a level.
We finally got to the lobby, checked in and headed up to our room (which is also quite a hike from the elevators). Quite nice and not too shabby at all. Fridge items are considerably cheaper here than in Australia, unless you’re talking booze, then it’s on par. The bathroom was large and had the traditional Japanese layout of shower area being separate from the bath tub, so one could follow the Japanese tradition of showering and washing first, then climbing into the tub – something I would do more than once over the next week.
After we unpacked what we needed to, hooked up to the world courtesy of the hotel’s free wifi, and let everyone know we got there in one piece before calling it a night. It was nearly midnight Brisbane time, and we had a big first day ahead of us.
Day One, August 15: Arashiyama
First morning in Japan! The view from our hotel room.
First things first. Waking up around 6am, I found our hotel room window looked to the north as we saw the first rays of sunlight peeking over the mountaintops to our right. A quick shower, and then it was off to scout for breakfast, and to find the ticket office where we could swap the Exchange Orders we bought back home for the Japan Rail Passes that we would rely on so heavily during the next sixteen days.
We saw a Cafe du Monde alongside a Mister Donut as we exited the hotel lobby. Since it was only 7:00 and Cafe du Monde didn’t open until 7:30, we decided to walk around what was already a busy railway station. Our first goal was to retrace our steps to the JR ticket office we walked past the previous night, thinking it was where we’d get our JR Passes. We got there and looked around for the forms. Nothing. Then I saw a sign that indicated this was not the office that handled JR passes; that was back adjacent to the northern ticket gates.
Since it was coming up on 7:30, we wandered back around the corner to Cafe du Monde, which was now open and serving what was already a queue of about twelve. Damn, you’ve got to be quick! While Cafe du Monde is far from a traditional Japanese breakfast, it’s also not McDonald’s, which for me was to be avoided at all costs for the entire trip. The food was good and relatively cheap – less than ￥900 for breakfast. As we were sitting down to eat, we saw our quarry, and found that the view from there offered a great perspective for anyone visiting Kyoto.
Kyoto Station northern entrance concourse.
In the picture above, you see several important points of interest when visiting Kyoto. To the left is the northern entryway (also known as the Karasuma entry), and just outside that are the bus ticket office and the main Kyoto bus station, your launching point for all the sights of Kyoto, as well as entryways to the Porta underground mall. The Hotel Granvia foyer and one of its many restaurants are straight ahead in the picture, with the all-important main JR ticket office (where you get your JR Passes and book Shinkansen tickets) directly underneath it where the green sign is. To the right is the northern ticket gate to Kyoto Station. This is the quickest way to get to the Shinkansen platforms from this entrance. It’s up an escalator just inside the gates and then across to the platform and down another escalator to the Shinkansen ticket gates.
Just to the left of the JR Ticket Office are some coin lockers, and the red carpet you see up the hall between them leads to a cinema. Down the escalators is part of “The Cube,” the other of the two shopping malls underneath JR Kyoto (which also includes the restaurant complex on floors 10 and 11). The two levels below are filled with multiple restaurants, a large maze of clothing stores, and access to the Isetan department store. Another path on the bottom floor leads to the subway station, which has convenience stores adjacent.
The plan today was to cover both the Arashiyama [“Storm Mountain”] district – famous for the Togetsukyo Bridge and several temples and shrines – and the northern district, which includes Kinkaku-ji (the famed Golden Pavillion). Alas, I underestimated the time required we and only got through Arashiyama. This is a truly beautiful area, about a half hour or so west of Kyoto by bus. Once breakfast was taken care of, the next step was to load up with supplies. We were going into unfamiliar territory and had no idea at the time just how abundant vending machines are in Japan. We found a convenience store near the subway entrance and grabbed water and Pocari Sweat (Japan’s most abundant electrolyte replacement drink), before heading up to the surface to buy 2-day Kyoto Free Passes. We then lined up for the next bus to begin the trek.
Matsuo Grand Shrine
2nd Tori gate heading to the entrance of Matsuo Grand Shrine.
Matsuo Grand Shrine was the first stop. After seeing it on the tourist map, we looked up some info; it’s the predominant Shinto shrine in the western precincts of Kyoto, famous for its turtle statues, and is frequented by people seeking good health (the spring water here is said to have great health benefits). It’s just past the outskirts of Kyoto proper, and the first stop past the Kyoto Free Pass area, which means you have to pay a supplemental fare.
We spent an hour here, photographing the shrine’s buildings and looking around the general area. Some of the highlights, aside from the main shrine itself, are the shelves of giant sake barrels, the waterfall flowing from Matsuo-yama at the rear of the shrine (including a face in the rock if you look at it just right), the miniature shrines, and a magnificent garden with the koi-filled pond as its centerpiece (a common theme at a lot of shrines).
Matsuo Grand Shrine enshrines the deity of water, hence the barrels of sake, made as offerings to the shrine over the years by many a sake brewer seeking the water deity’s blessing. In spite of the fact that it was nearly 40 degrees Celsius and humid, you felt somewhat cool and peaceful here. As it is a busy shrine, they appear to keep all activity stalls erect rather than put them up and take them down every weekend, as the photo of the main shrine (below right) shows.
The main shrine. Note the covered activity booth to the left.
The pond garden, with plenty of Koi and, yes, there is a live turtle here. Not as animated as turtles we’d encounter later in our travels.
The Togetsukyo Bridge, with Sagano on the far side. Technically, Arashiyama is only the mountains on the opposite side of the Hozu River to Sagano, but the name is generally used for the whole area.
Arashiyama was only a short ride further past Matsuo Shrine. The first thing you see after you get off the bus is the iconic Togetsukyo Bridge spanning the Hozu River on your left, and the Katsura river to the right. Not sure why these aren’t considered one river, other than the dam/sluice gate system on the western side of the bridge, which was the only thing distinguishing the two that I saw.
When we arrived in Arashiyama, it was nearly 1pm, around or above 40 degrees Celsius, and as muggy as all heck. We very quickly finished off what water we had left, and after taking photos of both Togetsukyo Bridge and the boats on the Hozu River, we set off for some food, or at the very least, some shade. Since it was Obon week, the likelihood of getting into the multitude of restaurants along the front of Sagano was next to zero, so we settled for finding a shady spot alongside the Hozu River where we could sit and rest before sun and humidity overwhelmed us.
From here we watched the boats going along the river. There were a couple of boat hires in front of us, renting from ￥1,000 per hour.
The riverside Sagano precinct of Arashiyama.
While we were resting, a middle-aged lady led her father to sit down nearby on a low stone wall, and started talking to us in fluent English. When we told her we were from Australia, specifically Brisbane, she mentioned that she had spent substantial time on the Gold Coast and had also been to Cairns, a city in the far north which is an extremely popular travel destination for Japanese people. We talked about our plans for travel, that we were in fact planning to head to Nara and Iga-Ueno in the coming days, as well as to Hiroshima and Kure before going onto Tokyo the following week.
We were ready to move on, but she asked if we could please wait because her young niece had never met Australians before. She then introduced us to her niece, who was extremely shy, but we did our best “konnichiwa” to her nonetheless. Then we were introduced to the rest of the family, who had just stepped off a hire boat. We bade them farewell, thanking the lady for the conversation, and proceeded towards our next stop. Looking back, it’s these kinds of interactions with local people that made for highlights of the trip.
Tenryuu-ji (Temple of the Heavenly Dragon) was about a five-to-ten minute walk away from where we had stopped alongside the river, and the first thing you see, Dharma Hall (right), is a most impressive greeting to this World Heritage site, the most important temple in Arashiyama and considered the most important Zen temple in all of Kyoto.
Unfortunately, the main hall of this magnificent complex is currently under partial renovation, and the entryway to the main hall was obscured by scaffolding. However, the remainder of the main hall was visible, so once we had paid our admission to see everything in the complex, we went through the garden entrance and began to look at the body of the main hall.
Tenryuu-ji’s Sogen Garden, considered the most popular part of the Tenryuu-ji Temple.
The thing most people come to see, however, is the Sogen Garden, which even in the midst of Summertime is a sight to behold (but must be breathtaking come Autumn). This is definitely on a return-trip itinerary to see in the late part of November, where the luscious greens are replaced by vibrant reds, golds, and oranges.
We wandered around the grounds, taking in the sights past the main garden itself, before eventually finding ourselves at the northern exit to the temple, which brought us to the Bamboo Grove, another iconic sight of Arashiyama, and a very welcome reprieve from the sun.
Walking along, we found ourselves at the Torroko Arashiyama Railway Station, which is a boarding point for the Arashiyama Scenic Railway. Most other times of the year, we would have jumped at the opportunity, but signage at the JR Ticket Office at Kyoto Station suggested even booking tickets on this train would be next to impossible this week. Judging by the number of people inside the station house, this looked to be the case. However, there was a canteen there, so Terry and I both enjoyed a cold treat (I never could work up the courage to try matcha flavoured soft-serve ice cream the whole trip, as I’m not particularly good with bitter flavours).
After that, we continued along the path towards Daikaku-ji, the last temple on our list. Along the way, we walked past numerous other temples that, due to their elevation, cost of entry, or both, we decided to pass. We also encountered a pond which had a turtle sunning itself on a rock. Once our cameras came out, it started hamming it up. This would prove to be a trend for all turtles we saw on this trip – turtles really are camera hams. Maybe they think they’re Kappas. This one was moving along the rock, balancing on three feet, stretching, and doing all sorts of things. After several snaps, we moved on. We eventually arrived at our next (in this case, unplanned) stop.
This one wasn’t on our to-do list, but since it was on our path toward Daikaku-ji, we decided to have a look. The terraced, pagoda-like timber gate was most impressive, as was the main temple inside.
One of the information boards inside the temple showed it has some cultural significance: Minamoto no Toru, the son of Emperor Saga, built the Seikakan Villa on this site in the 9th Century. The cultural significance? Hikaru Genji, the hero of the Genji Monogatari [Tale of Genji], one of the most oft-adapted novels of Japanese literature, is said to be modeled off Minamoto no Toru. Indeed, in one chapter of the Genji saga, Genji builds a temple at the same location as Seikakan Villa.
gateway you can see the public entrance to the Shikidai
hall which is the starting point for the tour.
The entrance hall of Shikidai at Daikaku-ji. The entrance for visitors is off to the side; this entrance is only used for special ceremonies, although the area inside may be traversed via the side entrance.
Daikaku-ji, the last stop of the day, was originally the detached palace of the above-mentioned Emperor Saga. He ordered it converted to a Shingon Buddhist Temple in 876 to express his devotion to the teachings of that branch of Buddhism. This is a large, beautiful temple complex with many buildings. The Daikakuji Temple website has English language content, and a virtual tour (Japanese text only).
It’s interesting to walk around the multiple buildings of the complex, as they all have incredibly beautiful, unique interiors. At least one of them (Shinden Hall) had “Nightingale floors,” which made a sound no matter how someone traversed them, meaning sneak attacks were almost impossible. Another thing we noticed was that all the covered walkways were low and narrow. As somewhat tall foreigners, ducking was a common practice here. The walkways were deliberately low and narrow so that swords could not be used along these paths.
of the temple buildings.
One of the many courtyard gardens. The walkways in the left of the picture are examples of the “Nightingale” floors.
Chokufu-shingyo-den Hall. This contains the sutra Hannya Shingyo transcribed by Emperor Saga and is only allowed to open once every sixty years.
By this time, it was around 5pm. We were in need of a shower, a feed (since we had barely eaten since breakfast), and an ice cold beer. We arrived back in Kyoto in the early evening, and wearily made our way back to our hotel room. After cleaning up (I could get very used to the Japanese bathing ritual), we settled on an outdoor bar directly above the entrance to the Hotel Granvia Lobby (which you can see in the top of the picture of the northern concourse above). Beer was Heineken (disappointing, as I’d have preferred an Yebisu or Sapporo), and their definition of the advertised “Ice Cold” left something to be desired. But the sausages and fries were enough to satiate one’s hunger (funnily enough, they were prepared by the Hotel Granvia kitchen and cost a fraction of what we’d have paid for the same thing in room service).
After that, we retired to our room and called it a night. The next day we would tackle inner and eastern Kyoto, and hopefully see the spectacle of the Daimonji Bonfires!