If you have ever wondered why Buddha looks so jolly and well fed, let me tell you why. He is absolutely rolling in cash! Staying in Kyoto a few days, the historic capital of Japan, chock full of castles, palaces and Buddhist Shinto temples, one thing is clear, Buddhism is big money. Forget any thoughts of zen and abstention, the monks at these extraordinary pagoda complexes seem to spend half their time praying, the other half selling candles, nick nacks and prayer tablets. Kerching! The best bit is that each temple is sponsored by a number of individuals and companies (Hitachi is a popular donator) and have their names advertised around the temple grounds.
And before anyone asks whether this has damaged the atmosphere of these peace loving retreats, I can assure you, these temples have been onto this trick since long before the 20th century, before cigarettes sponsored Grand prix`s, before McDonalds Olympics and the like. Buddhism seems to be the founding father of capitalism in fact, and very nicely he is doing too, dancing with a big grin on his face, fair play to him.
In fact Kyoto is quite a place, despite being a typically developed city. In many respects, the preservation of its history is quite remarkable. Wooden timber pagodas, red paper lanterns, incense, chanting monks in robes are relentlessly pursued by hoards of Japanese tourists, even in Kyoto there are few westerners here in Japan. But it doesn't take long to escape the hub-bub, and witness the real Kyoto. Walking along the cobbled streets, admiring the small wooden buildings, a kimono clad woman stepped out of her seemingly ancient home, in her traditional clothes, chatting away into her hi-tech handy phone, the old world and the new colliding.
The most famous residents of Kyoto are the Geisha. Translated, geisha Means woman of the arts, an historic tradition, geisha are highly trained individuals in the arts of music, dance and conversation, as well as tea ceremonies (no PG tea bags here!) A night will set you back a couple grand US dollars) but these are exotic creatures, in their colourful kimonos, painted white faces and hair pinned back. We spotted a few, patiently waiting for their taxis, dainty umbrellas clasped overhead in the neon lit rain. I even cheekily got my photo taken with one patient Maiko, an apprentice geisha. Well, you`ve got to be a tourist sometimes!
The highlight of Kyoto was a bit of a gem. A small seventeenth century building, the Nygo-Jyo, was formerly the home of a samurai. Built to very unusual specifications, the house is a labyrinth of secret doors, concealed rooms, and escape routes. Secret walls slid by effortlessly, tiny monkey steps led to the 2nd floor, and an entire staircase that disappeared with a few origami like folds! This place was the stuff of James Bond, and Fleming himself had once visited here, declaring the place too implausible to appear in his spy novels! Although all tours were conducted in Japanese, chance took kindly on me that day, and a volunteer tour operator called Hiro gave me a personal guided tour, and then took me around Kyoto for the rest of the day, explaining the peculiarities of the bus system and the history of some of the temples. I cannot help but be impressed by Japanese hospitality - whenever I have broken the language barrier, people are overwhelmingly helpful. The hostel `Tour Club` is run by a friendly Japanese fella and former backpacker. It has a traditional living room, with low table, seatomg on the floor, rock garden situated inside the building, a tray of sake is brought round each night, very good it is too, like a mild vodka.