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Nijo Castle sign
Cherry blossoms on the Nijo Castle grounds

Sunday, April, 9

Some clouds remained on our first morning in Japan, but the temperature was comfortable and the sun managed to peek through now and then. Our first day was to be quite busy, which was probably not the best idea for a couple just starting recovery from dateline-enhanced jet lag.

We both awoke at the same time, a little after 5 AM. Our internal clocks were telling us that, according to Pacific Daylight Time, we should be awake by now. I was surprised to see the first light of dawn through the hotel room curtains. daylight savings time is not practiced in Japan. The extra hours of sunlight remain mostly for the benefit of the nation's many farmers. City folk, with their fixed schedules, simply arise to brighter days as the spring and summer progress.

With some difficulty, we managed to fall back to sleep for a couple of hours before heading down to partake of the hotel's large, buffet breakfast. As I did for nearly the entire first week, I played it safe and stayed with the standard, western-style, high-cholesterol breakfast. It was something I normally avoided, but without access to my usual cereal and milk, bacon, eggs, ham, toast and fruit were the closest that I could come to what my stomach would consider to be a normal way to start the day. With all the walking we had ahead of us, I wasn't particularly worried about the calories involved. Efforts were made to provide good ventilation, but we were soon reminded of some of the sensitivities we had developed living in California, the world's largest non-smoking area. Even our hotel room had the background odor of old smoke, something that hadn't assaulted my olfactories for a long time.

After delivering our luggage to our next hotel, our first stop of the day was to be my wife's old hair salon. She was a regular customer there from her college days and they went to some incredible lengths to make our Japanese wedding something very special and most memorable. They provided our wedding kimono as well as my wife's traditional wedding makeup and wig. Along with that, we were taken to the beautiful little inn were we had the ceremony and reception in a rickshaw, stopping for pictures at the nearby Nijo Castle. We dropped off two of the fifteen gift packages of Ghiradelli chocolate that we brought along for the people we were visiting. They reciprocated by giving my wife a large jar of their latest luxury body lotion.

Nijo Castle palace
The shogun's palace in the Nijo Castle

We walked to our next stop, the Nijo Castle, where we would finally have time to tour the historic monument that was part of our beautiful wedding-day memories. Even by mid-morning Sunday, the castle's entryway was filled to capacity with tour busses and the grounds were already swarming with visitors from all over the country, drawn by both the history and brief annual appearance of the treasured cherry blossoms. A slightly hazy, but a bright sun was shining down, warming the air and adding a touch of humidity.

A steady stream of visitors walked along the route suggested by signs along the way. The castle grounds were large enough to accept the many visitors without it feeling mobbed. That experience would be waiting for us later in the day. Originally built in the early 1600's, the castle offered some interesting insights in to the lifestyles of Japanese royalty as well as some interesting parallels to how modern societies keep their leaders secure.

The wide hallway around the royal greeting rooms and living quarters contained the famous "nightingale floor" technology. Even the softest footfall of the most stealthy ninja would produce a distinctive "chirp" as the floorboard wobbled slightly in its specially-designed brace. In each room where the Shogun would meet with visitors contained a wide doorway marked with a bright red sash. Always waiting just out of sight behind the doors were his special guards. The presence of the sash alone would probably discourage any visitors with untowardly ideas.

Thanks to the exquisite artwork of Naonobu Kano (whose name came to define one of Japan's best-known styles of traditional artwork), the inside of the castle matched the beauty of the surrounding gardens. Even though the inside of the castle is kept fairly dark behind drawn shooji (rice paper-covered doors) to protect the priceless paintings, the opulence of the palace rooms easily shined through.

Near the rear of the palace grounds was a long stone stairway to an older castle that burned down in the eighteenth century. The landing at the top provided a breathtaking view of the castle grounds as well as much of downtown Kyoto. It must have been a grand sight to see in its time.

Shooting cherry blossoms
Cherry blossoms as media event on the grounds of the Nijo Castle.

In the gardens, the blossoming cherry trees were surrounded by amateur photographers. They clustered like paparazzi around the most beautiful trees. When I was growing up, trees blossoming in spring brought very little special notice, so the reverence of the Japanese for this special time of year was a little surprising to me. This was an event rich with symbolism and historical tradition. It took a while, but later on our journey, I finally started to understand a little of what they felt.. This would not be the day that it happened, however.

We had time for lunch in a shopping mall that shared the underground space with one of the major subway stations. There were nearly two city blocks of boutique-like shops and restaurants as well as a large underground parking garage. This was the newest of these centers in Kyoto city, so it was the first opportunity my wife had to explore it as well. We lingered over an okynomiaki lunch and had to rush a little to meet up with the guided tour we had planned for the afternoon.

The tour was given in English, but was distinctively Japanese in style and format. We were given little cloth badges to identify us as part of the group and our guide would normally carry a brightly-colored flag high overhead for us to follow. On this particular tour, our guide was making do with a slightly faded orange umbrella, but it served the same purpose. The pace of one of these tours can easily be described as "fast." With the start of ours being delayed by twenty minutes to wait for a busload of ticket-holders being delayed by Sunday afternoon cherry-blossom gridlock on the slender, downtown streets and, once we were under way, being slowed down further by the same problem, the pace of our tour was closer to "frantic." On top of that, our biological chronometers were beginning to tell us that it is getting close to bedtime. Nonetheless, a remarkable afternoon was about to unfold.

Next: The package tour - a game of follow-the-leader played at warp speed




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