Friday, March 30, 2007

Kyoto, Day 2: The Imperial Palace and Nijo Castle

On the second day of our visit in Kyoto, GPG and I visited the Imperial Palace grounds and Nijo Castle. Unfortunately, as I looked back over the photos I took, I realized that I didn't take very good documentary pictures to show what we actually looked at. I think this is primarily because GPG was quite the shutterbug, and I unconsciously took fewer pictures because I knew he was taking so many. But I did try to take some interesting pictures, even if they don't really give you an idea of what we actually saw . . .

Kyoto used to be the seat of government for Japan for a long time. (I will paint Japanese history in only very rough strokes, because I am definitely no Japanese historian. GPG says the government moved to Kyoto in the 8th century.) Although the government got moved to Tokyo (I think in 1868?), there are still a number of Imperial properties in and around Kyoto that are preserved, at the government's expense, for historical and cultural reasons.

Fortunately for Kyoto residents and all visitors, this means that all Imperial properties are free of charge for entry. This is key when most other tourist attractions usually charge a fee ranging from 400 to 800 yen, or about $4-8 USD. However, in order to gain access to any of these properties, you have to apply at the Imperial Household Agency for a particular entrance time.

Since we weren't sure how far in advance you had to apply for entrance, we decided to go to the Imperial Palace early on in the trip. It turns out that you can enter the same day you apply, so we got a mid-morning tour of the Imperial Palace that same day--and in English, no less!

This is the gate through which nobility entered in order to visit the Emperor:

The tourist guide told us that the Emperor was so important that all visitors had to arrive on foot, except for a few select visitors who were allowed to arrive in ox-drawn carts.

Among various official state buildings on the Imperial Grounds, there was a very large Throne Hall, where the Emperor historically was crowned. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to get anywhere near it. We could only stand at an internal gate and peer at the building across an great expanse of white gravel. (The rest of the palace grounds, as well as the grounds of pretty much every other historical property we visited, were covered in black gravel. The guide told us that the large walled area in front of the Throne Hall got to have white gravel because of the significance of the Hall. The white gravel was supposed to reflect light better and literally increase/figuratively reflect the luminscence of the Hall and the Emperor.)

The Throne Hall and the wall surrounding it were painted in bright vermillion, which, as I mentioned before, was to ward off evil spirits:

I liked the geometry of the columns and the roofs, which is why I took this picture from this particular angle. If you moved left from my vantage point when taking this picture, eventually you would see the entrance of the gate that led to the Throne Hall (the high roof in the picture covers that gate). Then you could look through the gate over the white gravel and squint at the Throne inside its Hall, which was about the size of my index finger across the distance.

In addition to the "public" buildings, the Imperial Palace also held "private" residential buildings for the Emperor and his family. We didn't get to see the insides of any of these buildings, but we did get a drive-by viewing. Through this gate you can see one of the residential buildings, which were less ornate than the public buildings.

In retrospect, I should have taken more pictures of the buildings to document what we saw, but instead, I mostly took pictures of the Imperial Gardens, which were very beautiful. As GPG and I would learn in later days, many gardens used small ponds and pebbled shores to represent the ocean.

The Imperial grounds clearly demanded a lot of careful horticultural attention. While our tour was walking through, we saw some gardeners tending to an area of Imperial moss under some Imperial trees. (I have some pictures to show later--moss is VERY important in Japan. I had no idea there were so many varieties of moss. Seriously--there are hundreds.) The gardeners were wearing special footie bootlets to avoid damaging the moss, and they were very carefully tearing off pieces of sod and moss by hand and assembling a new mossy lawn. It was very similar to how landscapers here in the U.S. will use pre-grown sod and grass to give someone a new lawn really quickly, except that in the U.S. we just slap those squares of grass down, and we don't really care if you can see the original squares of sod because the grass will grow and cover up the lines between the squares eventually. In contrast, the Japanese gardeners were being very careful about making sure that the new mossy lawn they were making looked organic and natural.

There were also a lot of bridges across many parts of the various ponds we saw. I've seen many so-called Japanese gardens in the U.S. that feature crooked or zig-zaggy bridges that run in right angles, the idea being that evil spirits can't cross those kinds of bridges because they can only travel in straight lines. However, all the bridges I saw in Japan except for one wooden footbridge were perfectly straight.

The Imperial Palace was the only place where we got an English-speaking tour. I suspect that our entire time in Japan was probably somewhat culturally stunted because there was no way we could have learned all the really interesting and cool information about all the places we saw. (Although most historical sites had English-language brochures, those don't really substitute for a detailed tour by a docent who knows what he or she is talking about.) So I appreciated that we did get to learn some interesting tidbits on the Imperial tour, such as how traditional Japanese roofs are constructed:

If you look closely, you can see the hundreds of individual pieces of Japanese cedar wood that form the first, lighter-colored layer of roof just above the gold-embossed support beams. Above that is a layer probably about half a foot thick. That layer is made of millions of strips of cedar about the thickness of . . . maybe two credit cards held together. I.e., if you laid two credit cards together on top of a table, the distance from the top of the stack to the table is about how thick those strips are. I can't imagine how much work it took to make a roof like that. The guide told us that these roofs have very good insulating properties, but they eventually decay, so they have to be redone every five years or so. Incredible!

(And, as a funny side note: The English-language tours are for non-Japanese visitors only. You have to show your passport at the Imperial Household Agency to prove that you're not Japanese. While we were at the Agency to apply for entrance to the Imperial Palace, I wondered aloud to GPG why the English tours were only for non-Japanese. When we were actually on the tour, we found out the reason: we were surpassed by a Japanese-language tour probably five times the size of our English-language tour! The Japanese-language tour guide was using a megaphone to explain everything to the Japanese tourists! Apparently, you have to prove that you're non-Japanese so that you can avoid the cattle-call Japanese-language tour and get the much smaller English-language tour.)

Outside of the Imperial Palace proper, there is a large park still within the walls of the Imperial Grounds. This is one of the few public recreational areas in central Kyoto; we saw lots of people there walking their dogs or jogging or cycling.

We also saw some plum blossoms:

Although we missed the cherry blossom season (we were there too early), we did get to see plum blossoms, which were quite beautiful. I never knew there were so many colors of plum blossoms:

Are you worn out yet? We still went to see Nijo!

Nijo is a fortress that was actually built with strategic considerations in mind. The local shogun lived there, although I don't think that Nijo was actually ever used as a defensive position. Nijo's main curiosity is that the hallways of its buildings have "nightingale" floors that were designed and built to squeak when you trod on them. Beneath the floorboards there were metal fixtures that would rub against the underside of the floorboards and make a squeaky noise when floorboards bore any weight. They were designed to alert the people inside the rooms to the presence of, presumably, assassins.

Even military structures like Nijo were still beautiful! This is the corner of the grounds, where presumably a guard post of some type stood at the juncture of the walls.

My pictures got all disorganized, so this was the only Nijo picture I could dig up where you can actually see why it was a defensive position. The stone walls were immensely thick, and all of the entrances had enormous iron gates:

I'm sorry the pictures aren't so great. I'll try to find some better ones later and maybe post them as Eye Candy Friday pictures.

Like the Imperial Palace, Nijo also had beautiful gardens:

Note the straight bridge!

It was amazing how everything was so carefully cultivated and organized. Even the trees were deliberately shaped, just like bonsai trees. It was very rare that we ever saw trees at a site of historical importance growing without any human-imposed direction.

On an unrelated and final note, perhaps the largest demographic group of Japanese tourists besides uniformed schoolkids were geisha wannabes. Apparently, there are places in Gion, the geisha district, where you can fork over a whole lot of money and get dressed up like a geisha for a day. Of course, there are some people who dress in kimonos and other traditional clothing simply because they like to--they own kimonos like they own regular clothes and they go to work and other public places in them. But we did see lots and lots of women at all the tourist attractions who were playing geisha-for-a-day.

I took this picture at Nijo because I thought it was especially funny to capture a geisha (or at least a pretend geisha) in a very un-geisha-like pose:

The one in orange is posing while the one in pink takes a picture of her. It was amusing to watch--these particular women were clearly tourists, and they stood in very affected poses when taking photos of each other (you can see how the one in orange has her hand up to her face). I gathered that they were recreating some kind of ideal geisha image in their pictures.

That's about all I've got in me to post for today. Next up will be Choen-in, Heian-Jingu, and Ginkaku-ji (a.k.a. the Silver Pavilion)!

Have a good weekend!


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