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Posts Tagged ‘Kyoto’

Pachinko wizard

I was alone in Kyoto part of last week getting tape for a story.  One night after doing an interview, I was looking for something to do… and I stumbled into one of the city’s gigantic pachinko parlors.  The sliding doors opened to a wall of sound — a cacophony of pop music and high-pitched cartoony explosions. Of course, I got out my recorder. (Stay tuned.)

(Suviko/flickr)

(Suviko/flickr)

After I was ordered put it away, I wasn’t quite ready to leave.  And thanks to a very patient lady attendant, I soon joined the ranks of pachinko-crazed zombies.

Here’s how it works:  about $10 gets you 250 little silver balls to start.  You turn a dial and it releases a ball up to the top of the machine — then it bounces down through a series of pegs, and if you get it in a hole, you win that ball back — plus more.  The goal is to win as many balls as possible.

The pachinko machine we had in our basement growing up was basically just a lever, balls, and pegs — but these machines had crazy lights and sound and a video that with every level won told a new chapter in a manga story.  Picture a modern pinball machine on speed.

(evhead/flickr)

(evhead/flickr)

Although my lady attendant had to correct me several times on proper pachinko form, I soon started winning back balls.  A lot of them.

After 20 minutes though, I got bored (couldn’t understand the screaming cartoons on the screen) and decided to give back my balls and leave.  My lady attendant fed them into a machine, then hurried me to the front of the parlor where I was given a candy bar and some plastic cards with numbers/credits on them.

Then things got weird: she spun around and hurried me out the back of the parlor into a creepy alley.  At this point, I was sure that my little cultural experiment was about to get me mugged.  But instead, she led me to a little booth — behind a lace curtain, a woman’s hands appeared and traded me my cards for cash.  A lot of cash.  Like nearly 10 times as much as I put in.

Shocked, I thanked her and ran away.

Now from what I hear, pachinko parlors are run by the mob — and I was supposed to act like my prize was really that candy bar and the credits to keep playing.  (In other words, the hurrying out the back door to get my pay-out part never happened.)  But you’d never guess that gambling is illegal here from how ubiquitous and mainstream these places are.  They’re the biggest, brightest, loudest businesses on the block — and certainly the most popular.

Of course, I gave all the money back.

– Jenny Lawton

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Be here now

NowBuddhist word of the day: On the overview map of Kyoto train station I noticed this funny thing, instead of saying “You are here” it simply said “Now”. I guess it comes to the same, except “Now” would be true not just for the Kyoto train station map, but for most places you go, if you think about it. A little lesson in how to never get lost.

– Pejk Malinovski

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statue of Murasaki Shikibu

statue of Murasaki Shikibu

So get this: the world’s first novel came from Japan — and it was written by a woman — and it’s all about sex.

Japanese literary buffs and commoners alike are celebrating the 1000th anniversary of The Tale of Genji. The author Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973 – c. 1014 or 1025) was a maid of honor in the imperial court during the Heian Period, a real renaissance for the arts, especially literature.

The Tale of Genji has 54 chapters and more than 400 characters, but most of the story revolves around the life of Hikaru Genji (“Shining Genji”). He’s the son of a Japanese emperor who loses his status and spends most of the rest of his life (and the book) trying to get it back. Along the way, he has tons of juicy love affairs. Genji has also been called the first example of psychological realism, the way it mines the passions and (sometimes ugly) intentions of its characters. Intrigue! Tragedy! Naughty bits! Genji has it all.

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Not surprisingly, centuries of artists have been inspired by the saga. I’ve been particularly struck by scroll series which capture each chapter in vibrant, decadent color. And Kyoto (where it was written) is Genji-crazy right now — a rock garden we visited a couple nights ago had a special Genji-themed light show. And the hotel restaurant even had (admittedly gorgeous) Genji table mats.  Still, I’ve got to thank commercialism for introducing me to a classic.

– Jenny Lawton

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Our disco-era Kyoto hotel redeemed itself when we found out they rent free bikes.  So our 24-hour visit was topped off by a delightful morning ride through the hills of the Higashiyama district.  It’s the section with the largest concentration of temples and shrines, with narrow streets lined by old shops and small wooden houses.  Our first discovery was a flea market at the Hokoku shrine, selling everything from tiny buddhas and kimonos to old junky electronics. Some of the oddities spotted there:

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The juxtaposition of the bric-a-brac against this majestic shrine was a curious one.  Even stranger to see people squeezing through the clutter for the ritual hand washing and prayer.

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We continued up and down the winding roads, passing Kyoto Women’s University, clusters of old and new houses, and a beautiful cemetery tucked away at the top of a hill.  (More photos up on Flickr.) Heading back to the train station (and relieved to be finally going downhill), we spotted this tiny coffee shop run by an old couple.  I think we were the only people there under 70.  The coffee was delicious.  Unfortunately our Japanese hasn’t gotten good enough to ask how the place got its name.

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After they pampered us with their kind service, it was back on the bullet train to Tokyo.  A perfect little side trip to gear us up for week #2 in the big city.

– Leital Molad

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Kyoto hotel: ancient 70s chic

We’re in Kyoto tonight after a wonderful interview with Pico Iyer in nearby Nara. (More on that to come.) In our 12 hours here, we got great tape, saw beautiful night-lit temples, and ate delicious sushi at a genuine local joint. Our accommodations, however, leave something to be desired. Having been spoiled by our sleek business hotel in Tokyo, we were horrified to discover this place only offers low-speed modems for rent. Modems! Remember those? So our more substantial blog posting will have to wait till tomorrow. Meanwhile, we’ll have to admire the transistor-radio-cum-nightstands, argyle carpets and white faux-leather couches.

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Other adventures to report on: Sunday’s wild otaku party, Jenny’s first try at pachinko, and more! Stay tuned.

– Leital Molad

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It’s high season in Kyoto — this weekend, the autumn colors are at their brightest and it seems like the whole country plus several others have converged on the city to take a look.  Luckily, there are dozens of temples (probably a dozen “major” ones alone) with gorgeous landscapes and plenty of leaves to go around.  Locals are so serious about this stuff that they know which temples will be in full color to the day.  On one such recommendation, I hit three temple complexes on the city’s east side (at the base of the Higashimaya mountains), and 300 photos later (my bad) I was deliciously spent.   The oranges and reds I saw today (and couldn’t adequately capture on camera) make New England’s leaves look tame — particularly because they aren’t set against the backdrop of 400-year old sculpted tile roofs and arched footbridges.  It’s as if the temple grounds were designed to highlight the beauty of the leaves’ decay.

the interior gardens are ringed by a little ledge, on which you can sit and gaze...

Nanzen-ji's interior gardens are ringed by a little ledge, on which you can sit and gaze...

The Nanzen-ji grounds are one postcard after another.

The Nanzen-ji grounds are one postcard after another.

You’re probably thinking, “it’s just leaves.”  And initially, I was too.  But I surprised myself with how moved I was by the colors, the shapes, and the way they effortlessly, asymmetrically, and somehow perfectly complimented each other.   Beautiful, intimate, and fleeting: maybe I’m finally wrapping my head around the Japanese aesthetic wabi-sabi.   To me, this felt more profound than what was going on inside the temples — something that needed to be savored and revered.

– Jenny Lawton

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Kyoto Station

Kyoto may be the 1200-year-old home of Japanese classical arts, but you wouldn’t know it when you first get here.

Kyoto Station

Kyoto Station

Built in 1997 by Hiroshi Hara, Kyoto Station is a stunning living monument to modern Japan.  A hub for multiple regional and local train lines, it’s also home to great restaurants and multiple shopping centers.  Travelers step off the bullet train, wind their way to the Central Gate, and emerge into a 60-foot atrium made of a glass and steel.  It’s remarkably quiet for a station so big, and so busy.  But kyoto-girlsthis is a space that was clearly built to keep the people passing through it breathing deeply and looking all around them — especially up: on one side of the main arrival hall, an escalator stretches up to the 15th story, a beautiful outlook over the city.

But I think my favorite part of being in Kyoto Station is the way the building becomes even grander when glass/steel reflects off of itself, creating the illusion of even more gravity-defying shapes.

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Apparently, when the station was finished, the locals were none too happy with it.  And I’ve heard that some Kyotoites suffer from a sort of second city syndrome which manifests as snootiness.  Could it be that they’re just suspicious of something so modern shifting the city’s action away from its temples?  (Because it is.)

Whatever, I say.  This place is fantastic and should be praised as Kyoto’s newest crown jewel.  I’ll be back tomorrow.

– Jenny Lawton

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