Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Japan, April 2nd - Kobe, Kyoto, and Inuyama

Our short walk from our hotel to the Shin-Kobe train station revealed several quintessential Japan-isms: cherry blossoms, cute cartoonish signs, and talking vending machines selling everything from beer to sake to hot milk coffee and corn potage. We took the shinkansen to Kyoto and stopped to visit Toji temple, with the tallest pagoda in Japan, and made reservations for some special events - the Miyako Odori spring maiko dances and a private tour of the Sento Gosho imperial retirement gardens. We couldn't help window shopping too, marvelling at the omiyage candy stores in the train stations, the plastic food displays, and the new Kyoto station complex.

Kyoto station has a huge new building with modern architecture that's supposed to evoke the atmospheric feeling of a mountain valley. David and I didn't quite get it, but the 11-story staircase in the middle was impressive, as was the 11-story-long straight-line cascade of escalators in the Isetan department store.

Our real destination for today was Inuyama, which has a festival scheduled. Huge teams of men push 4-story high floats with mechanical puppets in them down the street, and light everything up with paper lanterns at night. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Inuyama, we found the festival was cancelled due to rain. So we visited Inuyama castle, which is perched atop a cliff and has panoramic views. It's also Japan's oldest fully surviving castle. Inside, a multistoried warren of low-ceilinged rooms are connected by ladders and steep staircases, and the wood is worn by countless footsteps.

Although the festival didn't happen, the town museums were open, and we got to see some of the floats and mechanical puppets there, along with video footage of the festivities. In one museum, we met a little girl who struck up a conversation with me. She asked why David wouldn't talk, and I explained that he didn't speak Japanese, and she was incredulous, asking, "Is it *impossible* for him to speak Japanese?" Finally she tested him by saying "bye-bye" and waving at him, and when he responded, she said, "See? He does speak Japanese." I had to explain that bye-bye came from English. She then recommended that we eat some maru-maru-yaki from the street vendor stalls outside, so we left and indulged in the tasty pancake treat. We also got some castella (miniature buttery cakes) shaped like Doraemon, a blue robot cartoon character that saves the day by pulling Inspector Gadget-like tools out of his kangaroo pouch.

We took the bullet train to yet another city, Nagoya, for our hotel. We had a beautiful view of Nagoya Castle from our room.