Kyoto 2013-04-06

Today's first adventure was the Shinkansen (for those who don't know the term, you've probably heard of "bullet trains") from Tokyo to Kyoto. I took the "Nozomi," aka the "super-express," which makes the least stops and arrives in the shortest time. They leave Tokyo for many destinations: the run that Kyoto is on departs every ten minutes from 0700 to 2300, and the train I was on had 15 or 16 cars. That's a huge number of commuters! From Canadian trains, I'm used to rumbling out of town at 15-20 km/h, but this thing hit 50 km/h on the way out of the station. It didn't get to full speed for a few minutes, but man, that thing flies. And quietly too - the gentle whooshing is actually surprisingly soporific. I think the speed was quoted as 240 km/h? Slower than an airplane, but I bet your hotel-to-hotel time is better because it goes from city centre to city centre, and you only have to arrive five minutes before departure, none of the airport security stuff. And the departure will be precisely on time, by the way. We stopped at every station two minutes ahead of time, and departed precisely on time, it was amazingly accurate. I love watching the scenery go by, but the speed is something of a mixed blessing: you'll never get bored, but you'll never get a good look at anything either. Hey, look - it's houses! All I've seen for six days in Tokyo is apartment blocks ...

Kyoto Station is massive. Like 11-14 storeys massive, and ten or twelve tracks wide. Much of it is the ritzy Isetan department store, but there are three or four floors of restaurants, and a rooftop observation deck that would have been fun if it wasn't raining again. I parked my big bag in a locker that I correctly assumed would be hard to find later - not that it wasn't a distinctive location, but getting from one side of the station to the other is ... challenging ... when you're not familiar with it. Then I went off to visit a couple tourist sites downtown.

The first was Higashi Hongan-ji, a Buddhist temple. My odd luck was holding: it's under a huge cover for renovation. That sounds bad, but you can get in to most of the buildings even if you can't see the outside ... and guess what, the covers keep the rain off as you wander around in your socks (apparently that requirement depends on the temple: I visited a couple in Tokyo, never took my shoes off). Another positive aspect of the renovation was that they had an elevator - a proper one, not a construction one, so I guess they're there for a while! - that you could take up into the scaffolding to admire the huge roof under reconstruction. That was pretty interesting.

My next stop was Kyoto Yodobashi, the Kyoto edition of the Yodobashi electronics chain. I once again admired the Pentax Q10, a relatively new - but also available in the U.S. - digital camera. They've styled it in a manner very reminiscent of the Pentax Auto 110 Super, a wonderful little camera that I own. It used 110 film, some of you probably remember the stuff. The Auto 110 Super was the only interchangeable lens SLR ever made for 110 film. There's a reason for that: 110 is too small to produce really good photos, but the Auto 110 Super could make surprisingly decent photos on that crappy little format. The Q10 is likewise the smallest interchangeable lens digital camera (although not an SLR, it's mirrorless). Unfortunately, it has all the disadvantages of an interchangeable lens camera with few of the advantages: the biggest problem is the sensor size, which is 1/2.3", exactly the same size as the sensor in the vast majority of digital point-and-shoots, and also in my Canon Powershot SX10IS. So not a practical purchase for me. Too bad - so cute.

Kyoto Tower is right across the street from the station, so that was an easy call. Of course in the rain the views are kind of crap, but I did manage to arrange the day/night thing. No visible sunset through the rain, but I got to see the city in daylight and at night.

night shot of a surprisingly flat Kyoto

Finding my hotel was also interesting. Go to the end of the subway line, then walk for fifteen minutes. In the dark. In an area where the locals are growing cabbages in the empty lots between the small businesses (no, I'm not kidding). Weird area. And then you come on a couple of blocks of love hotels, with their blaring neon after eight blocks of no street lights. My credit cards were both rejected, despite calling the bank in advance to tell them that I'd be in Japan two weeks. They've done this to me before, but I've never been quite so desperate. In this case I have enough cash to pay for a couple days in advance and the hotel has been extraordinarily helpful about assisting my attempts at a call to the bank (unsuccessful as I write) and about allowing me to pay in a couple days ... but it's making me a bit tense. <sigh> Not particularly helping was the fact that they left the room mood music on and the remotes are all in Japanese ... that took about ten minutes of poking to fix.

Ah, one of the adventures I failed to mention: there are vending machines EVERYWHERE in Tokyo, and the significant majority of them sell drinks. Next most common is cigarettes, but my favourite alternate (which I should have taken a picture of) was the banana vending machine. I noticed a corn drink in a machine on the subway one day but didn't have the nerve to try it. It turns out to be a relatively uncommon drink and the next time I found it it was sold out. I finally encountered it again Friday, although a different brand: this one was corn and cheese (I even have a photo). So I tried it. Didn't taste much like cheese, but definitely tasted like corn - and included quite a few kernels. It's not a sweet drink. Won't rush to try it again, but it was a whole lot better than natto ... Trine says that, like fashion, taste in drinks change incredibly fast. Nothing you see in a vending machine will be around a year from now. She wasn't surprised about the corn drink though: apparently some variant on that theme is common.