Thursday, February 26, 2015

Day 7: Monkeying Around

By any normal standard, waking up in Kyoto, Japan, on vacation, is a good start to a day.  I get spoiled so easily, though, and now that I’ve been here the better part of a week, I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed that on this particular morning (on vacation, in Kyoto, Japan), we woke up to a steady rain. Not the most conducive to a day of sightseeing.

Given that the Biwa marathon is now just a few days away, at least I have a good excuse not to run in the rain.  Not so for Mindy:

A workout today, too! That’s dedication! Meanwhile, I wandered along the Biwa River (this would be entirely forgettable if not for my enthusiasm that it feeds into Lake Biwa)

and into yet another incredible gate and temple compound.

The real treat today involves trekking to the outskirts of the city, where mountainous (ok, “very hilly”) forests host hundreds of monkeys! Rain or not, we are onward to Arashiyama Monkey Park in Iwatayama!

Leveraging our rail passes once again, we took the train to a little “city” nestled against the river and mountains of Iwatayama. Upon arrival at the station, signs and maps direct you to Arashiyama in one direction, or a temple compound and bamboo forest in the other.  If only it weren’t raining….perhaps both?  We made our way through the town – mostly ignoring the myriad restaurants and shops along the way, to the river.  

The rain makes it feel like we’re venturing into a desolate and forbidding forest.  On the topic of forbidding, is the park even open in the rain?

As we paid admission, we were assured that the monkeys were, indeed, out in the weather (I don’t suppose they have many options where else they would go other than “out”), and so we began the climb to the top.  We climbed, and climbed, and climbed. 160 metres up from the river where we started, up rugged stone stairs and dirt paths through the forest.

Finally, we saw what we came for!

And then we saw more.  Many, many more!!

The monkeys are encouraged to congregate here through feeding, so it’s not exactly a “natural” setting, but these are WILD Japanese macaques!  On a nicer day, one might get a stunning view of the city below from up here, too.

You could use the binoculars for a close up of the monkeys…

As it rained harder, and we got colder, we retreated into the hut where a woodstove burned warmly. No monkeys are allowed in the hut, but that doesn’t mean the view is any worse

Eventually, even playful Japanese macaques can begin to be “normal”, and we got chatting with some of the other folks sharing the hut with us. Small world – Vince and his buddy are from Toronto! Vince ran the Tokyo marathon last week-end, and has been touring through Japan since. (I’m not sure what’s the smarter plan – climbing to the top of this mount a few days before a marathon and tiring one’s legs out, or facing it after a marathon, with potentially sore and swollen quads and calves…)

Sometimes, when you feel most isolated and in another world, reality comes crashing back in. Although I had no cell signal, there was wireless at the top of Iwatayama, and messages related to work started coming in.  Picture this: I’m in a hut in rural Japan feeding wild monkeys, and yet I am on the phone with a colleague back in Toronto, trying to sort through the latest issue at OntarioMD.  


Thanks to Skype, at least this won’t be cost prohibitive.  On the bright side, Mindy got more uninterrupted time with the macaques, and chatted away with our new friends.

Finally off the phone, I joined in the swapping of stories with Vince about where we had been and where we were going (thanks to Vince for the tip on Nara – another city worth seeing).  Time was wearing on, and we were aiming to get to Mike and Marcella’s before too late.

Matt: Alright Mindy, I think it’s time to get going.
Mindy: What do you mean?  I live here now. I live with the monkeys.
Matt: But…don’t you want to go see Mike and Marcella?  I’m going to Mike and Marcella’s.
Mindy: But I love the monkeys more than I love………..going to see Mike and Marcella…

Good catch, Mindy. I noticed you change what you were going to say!

With a last look around at Arashiyama Monkey Park, we began the descent. We were cold, soaked, and happy.

While being cold and sopping wet at a monkey park is still fun and exciting, being chilled to the bone and dripping wet walking to a train station quickly becomes unpleasant. I bet there’s a reason why the Japanese diet includes so many (delicious) hot soups!

A steaming bowl of miso soup does wonders for a cold body, and fresh, light tempura is a perennial treat. We were quickly refreshed and warm enough to tackle the trek back to the train station and the city of Kyoto proper.

Kyoto is a sprawling city.  Even though, by definition, Iwatayama is in Kyoto, and our hotel was in Kyoto, and Mike and Marcella’s was in Kyoto, it took a train, a subway, and another train, and a bus to get from one to the other, picking up our luggage at the hotel along the way.

Another adventure, and another example of “excessive” Japanese kindness. We missed our stop (that happens in Japan if you don’t know the train system well, as some trains only stop at certain stations), and so were the better part of an hour late to meet Mike at the train station.  He had kindly offered to guide us through the bus and the walk to their apartment.

However, we found ourselves at the wrong stop, and in trying to find our way back to meet Mike, a local Japanese fellow offered to show us the way.  We arrived – thanks to his help – where we were supposed to, with no idea whether Mike would still be there. This kind Japanese gentleman offered to call Mike on his cell phone. (I had tried reaching Mike on mine, but calling him from a Canadian cell phone in Japan wasn’t working out.  I didn’t know whether to dial the country code or even what the country code was supposed to be!) So we called Mike on a borrowed cell phone, and just as Mike and I were trying to sort out where he was and where we were, our new friend took the phone from me, told us he would find Mike, and walked away.  But he doesn’t know who Mike is.  How would he find him??!!!

A few minutes later, the Japanese guy came back and told us Mike wasn’t anywhere to be found.  Um…? We convinced him to call Mike again, and Mike (who was still at the train station) figured out where we were.  At which point the Japanese fellow left without saying a word.  Thanks…? So kind to go out of his way, yet…..weird.

Mike guided us to the right bus, and we made our way to Mike and Marcella’s.  When we arrived, exhausted, we were shown to our room, and I ducked away to log back into work and try to sort out some of those earlier issues.  Good thing I wasn’t rushing to bed – Mindy and Marcella hadn’t seen each other in months, and they had some catching up to do!

Finally, after a long and tiring day, we settled into our home away from home for the next couple of nights, and fell asleep.

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