Archive for February 2011
Friday, February 4: This morning JiYoung, the Korean bakery girl, and I rent bikes from the owner of the commune. They are sturdy old-fashioned bicycles with baskets and no gears, the kind I rode when I was a girl. Everyone seems to ride these kinds of bikes in Kyoto. Compact and well-dressed Japanese people pedal around on them, looking unhurried and day-dreamy, creating a simple Japanese-style Norman Rockwell-like ambiance that makes me feel a nostalgic fondness for the days when life was full of straightforward and uncomplicated pleasures.
Me, JiYoung and our old-fashioned bicyles
My destination is Teramachi-dori Street, a street of food markets and eclectic funky shops in downtown Kyoto. JiYoung, who hasn’t been out exploring Kyoto that much, is happy to come along with me wherever I go. We bundle up in our warm coats on this dapper day and head along streets that the owner has highlighted in yellow on our map. It’s really not too cold of a day for bicycling, but I’m happy to have my big coat on because of the breezes we encounter as we slice through the crisp air. We venture off our yellow highlighted route quite accidentally early on and come upon the vermilion-colored gate of Takeisao Shrine, where we stop and take pictures of each other in our coats and wool hats.
at Takeisao Shrine gate
We cycle down sparsely traveled back streets, which are as immaculate as any street encountered in Kyoto. It doesn’t matter whether is a street is a busy thoroughfare or a narrow alley-like street. No trash or dirt is evident anywhere. The sidewalks are neatly swept and all trash is sequestered properly in its neatly secured rubbish bin. This is one thing in Japan that I find notably different from Korea. In Korea, at least in my neighborhood near Keimyung University, trash is always tossed haphazardly about on the streets. A person seeking to throw away trash can walk for blocks carrying this rubbish because trash bins are elusive things in Korea.
so many funky and cool shops 🙂
After heading south from Bon Guesthouse, we cross west to east on the sidewalks of Imadegawa-dori Street. When we come to the northwest corner of a huge walled park, we know we have arrived at the Kyoto Imperial Park, home of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. JiYoung and I pedal along the north wall until we finally find an opening to this immense park. At this point we head toward the center where we try to go into the Kyoto Imperial Palace. However, we find it is required to reserve tours ahead of time and we are not allowed in unless we are part of a tour. Oh well. We hop on our bikes and head toward the far southeastern corner of the immense rectangular park, where we exit and ride straight down Teramachi-dori Street and then spend a great deal of time in front of Kyoto City Hall trying to figure out how to use the metered bike parking spots. Since we don’t speak any Japanese between us, and since the people we encounter on the street don’t speak English, we fumble about trying to make sense of the system. Finally we figure out that we must pick up our bikes by 5:00 or they will be locked in overnight. We also find, after unsuccessfully trying numerous times to pay BEFORE leaving our bikes, that we pay when we pick up our bikes, upon our return! Ah the challenges of being in a country when you speak not a lick of the language!
Me, the Japanese owner and JiYoung in one of our favorite shops
On Teramachi-dori Street, JiYoung and I are bowled over by the adorable shops. The import business is big in Kyoto, as each shop is bursting with cool things obviously brought from somewhere else, places like Tibet, China, India, Pakistan. Colorful and unusual items all offer themselves quite cheerily for sale. In one shop we spend quite a long time browsing, chatting with the hip Japanese owner, and buying scarves and what-nots. I always love a shopping day while traveling.
Japanese Hello Kitty (?) paintings
In one shop I see a round red hand-painted globe lamp in a window that looks like it’s from India or some other cool exotic place. I inquire as to the price within, and I find it’s only $52 US!! I don’t think that’s bad for Japan, where everything is quite pricey. I obviously don’t want to carry it around all day, so I determine I will return to buy it before picking up my bicycle at 5:00.
We poke into all kinds of shops looking at artsy books, hand painted Japanese kitty placemats and matted paintings, brightly colored change purses made of kimono fabric, giant stuffed rabbits wearing Hello Kitty t-shirts and woolens from Tibet. We dip into shrines to reverently watch people making offerings and praying for wishes to come true.
A woolen bunny dressed to kill
We turn then onto the Nishiki Food Market where we see a plethora of unusual foods I have never laid eyes on before. The food market itself is a piece of art, with every food lined up so its proportions and colors are set off to best advantage. The foods are simply all dolled up. Food items sit atop bushels or baskets or barrels filled with some grainy stuff. They’re identified with rectangular wooden signs bearing Japanese letters.
enticing dried fruits…I buy some of these:-)
Even the fish offerings are prettily displayed on hand-painted ceramic plates or trays and decorated with green garnishes. At one shop there are colorful dried fruits of every type imaginable from strawberries to pomegranates to kiwi to grapes, raspberries, bananas. We are allowed to sample all the kinds we want and I end up buying dried kiwi and strawberries. I want them all!
JiYoung and I stop at Japanese restaurant where we have tea and I have sweet red bean soup with millet cake. It’s interesting and delectable. Then I tell JiYoung I have it in my mind, on this last day in Kyoto, to go to Fushimi-inari-taisha Shrine, home of the infinite torii gates. She doesn’t want to go because she wants to continue shopping in the arcade. So we agree I will take off and we will meet again at around 4:30, so we can retrieve our bicycles before they are locked in for the night.
red bean soup
I’m a little worried about venturing to this place, because time is short and I don’t know the distances or the speed of the transportation. The commune owner warned me to please not let the bike get locked up overnight at city hall because it will be a hassle for him. I know I won’t have time in the morning to get it because I have to leave early to catch a bus to Nagoya, where my flight leaves for Korea.
JiYoung at Nishiki Market
I take another overground train driven by a conductor in a little hat and white gloves. Cute little ditties play over the loudspeaker to announce stops. I am continually amused and tickled in Japan by how cute and quirky everything is.
I approach the shrine and walk around the complex. The torii gates aren’t evident at first. Up some stairs, I finally come across the first tunnel of gates and stroll through the beams of sunlight cutting through the spaces. Fushimi-inari-taisha Shrine was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century. As agriculture’s importance declined, deities were assigned to ensure prosperity in business. This is one of Japan’s most popular shrines, with these seemingly endless arcades of vermillion torii (shrine gates). The entire complex consists of 5 shrines and stretches over the wooded slopes of Inari-san. I take the 4km pathway up the mountain and it is lined with hundreds of red torii and stone foxes. The fox is believed to be the messenger of Inari, the god of cereals. Often a fox holds a key in its mouth that represents the key to the rice granary.
the entrance to Fushimi-Inari-Taisha
I keep walking and walking, expecting to eventually come to the end of these tunnels of torii. As I have a time constraint, I cannot see it through to the end. I walk quite far up, but as I emerge from each tunnel of gates, I turn a corner only to find another tunnel stretching before me. I do this too many times to count and I keep looking at my watch to make sure I will have time to get back down the mountain and back on the train to City Hall. I go through a tunnel and think, surely this must be the end! And lo and behold, there is another. To me, it seems these torii are certainly infinite.
the beginning of the torii gates with no end
I take the train back to Teramachi-dori Street, where I return to the shop to buy the red globe lamp. As I pay and the shop owners wrap it in bubble wrap, they tell me the lamp comes from Pakistan. I think, shoot, I should have waited till I got to India. It probably would have been much cheaper there! But… of course there is no guarantee I will see a lamp like this in India.
I carry the cumbersome globe lamp, which the owners have fitted with a raffia handle contraption, to City Hall, where JiYoung is sitting there patiently waiting. I’m not really sure how long she’s been waiting there, but there is some indication she has been there a long time. I wonder why she didn’t just head back to the Bon Guesthouse without me. I think maybe she didn’t know how to get back without me to navigate, especially since I had the map.
We pay our parking fee and retrieve our bikes and ride the long ride back, retracing our route from this morning. The whole time, my knee keeps hitting the globe lamp, which I have hung over my handle bars.
Finally… REAL Japanese sushi
After getting back to the commune, I put away my lamp and walk down the shopping street to a small unmarked door which the commune owner has told me is a sushi restaurant. There, I am the only customer, and I have a halting and difficult conversation with the husband and wife owner. He is the sushi chef, that’s apparent, while she does the other stuff. They’re quite kind and friendly and I have a nice dinner in their cozy little restaurant.
After dinner, I return to the Bon Guesthouse, where I turn on my little space heater for my last night, curl up on my floor bedding, and read some more of The Lady and the Monk before I drop off to sleep, exhausted from my bicycle ride through this lovely city.
the infinite torii gates
Saturday, February 5: In the morning, I take a bus at 9 a.m. from Kyoto to Nagoya, arriving in Nagoya at 11:40. I take a long train out of the city of Nagoya to Nagoya Chubu Centrair, where I check in at 1:00 for my 3:10 flight to Busan. By the time I arrive in Busan at 5:00, catch the bus back to Daegu and the subway back to my apartment, it’s nearly 8:00. So again, an entire day of travel to get just a few hours away from home. Ah, the travails of travel….
Still. I’m incredibly happy that I went to Japan. It would have been a shame not to hop to the islands while I was right next door…. 🙂
Thursday, February 3: Today is the Lunar New Year in Japan, but I’m so clueless I don’t even realize it until the afternoon. I know the Lunar New Year is in Korea on these three days because I have a school holiday. But when I ask the owner of the guesthouse which day is the New Year in Japan, he says January 1, and he looks at me like I’m crazy for asking. So I think, how strange…. Japan must not celebrate the Lunar New Year like Korea does.
temples on the grounds of Daitukuji
I start off on foot to nearby Daitoku-ji, a complex of 24 Zen sub-temples, perfectly manicured gardens and wandering lanes that lead only to blocked paths. Daitoku-ji is the headquarters of the Rinzai Daitoku-ju school, so it’s purportedly a good insight into Zen culture. I don’t find it much of an insight into anything. Every path I follow leads to a sign that says “No Entry.” I walk down numerous walkways only to be met time and time by this sign, which makes it not a very welcoming place.
more of Daitoku-ji
The gardens I can glimpse here are perfectly arranged, with a mixture of low ground cover, variegated leaves, bushes, trees, and little gates made out of straight tree branches, lined up like the teeth of a comb. Dark wood temples with white panels blend in with nature in a surprising harmony, punctuated by bright red carpets on the verandas. Moss-covered grounds glow with sweet beckoning. Off the beaten track, I encounter a small bamboo forest where light slants down in sharp knife-like precision, casting blades of sun on the ground. While walking its paths, I encounter an impeccably dressed older couple out for a stroll. He is dressed in a long cashmere coat with a silk scarf tied neatly around his neck; the woman is also precisely and immaculately dressed and manicured. It’s as if they tucked out of a meeting of high-level diplomats to share a few romantic moments together. The man asks me many questions about my life in perfect English and wishes me a wonderful trip through Japan.
the golden pavilion at kinkaku-ji
After spending too much time at Daitoku-ji meeting dead ends, I finally make my way out and catch a bus to Kinkakuji Temple, the one to which Yeong-ung Song wanted to accompany me yesterday. Kinkakuji is a Zen Buddhist temple known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion and is one of 17 World Cultural Heritage sites in Kyoto. It is also one of the most popular buildings in Japan, second only to Mt. Fuji in the number of tourists it attracts. The Golden Pavilion is a 3-story building, the top two stories of which are covered with pure gold leaf. Originally built in 1397, the present building was reconstructed in 1955 after a mentally ill man burned the original down in 1950. The building supposedly houses Buddha relics, specifically Buddha’s ashes.
temples decked out for the lunar new year
The Golden Pavilion extends over a lovely pond that reflects it in all its gleaming gold. It’s absolutely stunning and people are standing on the edges of the pond, admiring its beauty and taking photos. I wander around admiring the picture-postcard beauty and follow the crowds further along the path until I come to a temple decked out in colorful banners of silk and paper lanterns inscribed with Japanese letters. In front of the temple is a covered pot full of sand; people are lighting sticks of incense and offering prayers as they stick them into the sand. It’s a festive atmosphere because, surprise (!), this is the Lunar New Year and people are celebrating.
This year, 2011, is the Year of the Rabbit. The rabbit largely represents tranquility and calm. Coming between the Year of the Tiger and the Year of the Dragon, which are both known for their global tumult, 2011 promises to be a year of relative calm. (This is what Chinese astrologers predict prior to the tsunami that hits Japan on Friday, March 11, 2011.) In Japan, people busily prepare for the New Year by cleaning house and buying/cooking food (osechi) to welcome the “god of new life”.
me & holly under a torii gate on a little island at kinkaku-ji
Further along the path, I stand at a table where all kinds of Japanese delicacies are offered for sale. I sample some wasabi peas beside an American woman named Holly; we strike up a conversation and then wander around the Kinkakuji gounds and the little islands and take pictures. It is so lovely here, even in winter; I can imagine how gorgeous it must be in spring with all the flowers and trees in full bloom.
the famous rock garden at roy
Later, Holly and I seek a bus together to Ryoan-ji, or Temple of the Peaceful Dragon. This is home to the famous and celebrated rock garden, the symbol of Kyoto, that draws tourists in droves to contemplate the emptiness between the rocks. It’s an oblong of meticulously raked sand with a formal collection of 15 strategically placed rocks on little beds of moss, apparently afloat in this sea of sand, and hugged by an earthen wall. The unknown creator of this garden left no explanation to its meaning, but tourists flock here to see this interesting but austere arrangement. Apparently it causes photographers fits because it is impossible to capture the entire garden with all 15 rocks in one photograph. Apparently no matter where you sit, you can see only 14 rocks at one time. There are no trees or plants, just moss and white stones and beautiful seasonally changing trees behind the surrounding wall. This temple was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1994.
in front of the famous rock garden
We sit for a while admiring the beauty and mystery of this place, then walk around the veranda of the temple admiring the lovely paintings in the tatami-matted tea rooms. While here, Holly and I strike up a conversation with a Canadian couple who teach English in Korea, near Seoul, and we compare our stories of teaching in Korea.
the cute little Randen Railway
I have it in my head to go to Arashiyama. Neither Holly nor the Canadians want to come along, so I head off on a quest to find the Randen Railway Kitano line at Ryoanji Station. It’s an electric railway that connects the center of Kyoto with the western suburb of Arashiyama, and it must be the cutest little train I’ve ever seen. It’s painted a cheery purple color and consists of only one car, driven by a pressed and uniformed driver with a little conductor hat and white gloves. It makes a clanging noise as it rumbles along the tracks and drops me eventually in the suburb, where I wander down the street, captivated by pretty little thingies in shop windows.
lunch in arashiyama
I find a cozy little lunch spot, where a Japanese mom is openly nursing her baby, and enjoy a lunch of Udon noodles and shrimp and vegetable tempura.
On a full belly, I wander down the Path of Bamboo, a quiet and beautiful oasis where groves of bamboo reach to the sky and sway in the breeze. The bamboo turns the sunlight into pale green streams that make the place seem ethereal.
the lovely path of bamboo
It’s quiet, but eventually I come to a group of little temples called Nonomiya… place of fortunes, wishes, and gratitude. It’s a small shrine located in the midst of the famous bamboo forest. It was here that women were once trained prior to becoming shrine maidens at the holiest Shinto Shrine in Japan. This is a time I wish I had a guide or that I could read Japanese, because there are small open pavilions with piles of rectangular wood pieces covered in Japanese writing, house-shaped wooden plaques with paintings and writing on them and hung with ribbon, bright red lanterns covered in Japanese letters, and people paying respects at all of these little stops. I don’t know what they’re doing, what they’re praying about or wishing for. I am clueless but I really wish I knew what was going on. This is when Japan seems like a little secret world full of lovely things that I can’t quite reach.
wishes or fortunes or something (???) at nonomiya
After leaving this little place, I go down the street a bit to Tenryuji Temple, another of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the main temple of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism in Kyoto; it’s also considered one of Kyoto’s Five Great Zen Temples. There is a big celebration going on here for the Lunar New Year, with fires burning, people carrying long branches from some kind of tree, and people dressed up as fairy tale or cartoon characters. Over a loudspeaker is blaring the song: “We are the world. We are the children,” the famous charity single recorded by USA for Africa in 1985 and written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. It’s a festive atmosphere. I find myself in the midst of a crowd gathered to listen to a bunch of robed and official-looking speakers who, after their speech, throw paper fortunes into the crowd. While I take pictures of the costumed spectators, someone thrusts a paper fortune into my hand, which of course I can’t read. But I’m happy to be included in the New Year’s good fortunes.
costumed characters celebrating the lunar new year
After wandering around Tenryuji for a while longer, into little secluded courtyards where people are making offerings of all sorts, I leave and catch the electric car back into the center of Kyoto, where I head to Kiyomizu-dera temple , an independent Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto. It’s part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
me in front of kiyomizu-dera temple
It was founded in the early Heian period and the temple dates to 798, with the present buildings constructed in 1633 during a restoration. Apparently, there is not a single nail used in the entire structure. Kiyomizu means “clear water” and takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills. The main hall has a large veranda, supported by tall pillars, that juts out over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city. On the veranda, a crowd of people has gathered to watch the sunset. Beneath the main hall is the Otowa waterfall, where three channels of water fall into a pond. Visitors are catching and drinking the water with long-handled scoops. Drinking the water of the three streams is said to confer wisdom, health, and longevity. However, some say that if you’re greedy and drink from all three, you invite misfortune on yourself.
girls in kimono drinking from a well of good fortune at kiyomizu-dera temple
I am exhausted from traipsing all over Kyoto today, so I take the bus back to Daitokuji , where I go into the Trader Joe’s-like market and buy bread and cheese and a beer and walk back down the shopping street to my little hippie commune. There, I eat my dinner in the common room and chat with some more Koreans who have come to Japan for the New Year holiday. One girl I meet, JiYoung Lee, is doing a kind of internship at a bakery in Kyoto and has been here a couple of weeks. She wakes at 3 a.m. each morning to go to work at the bakery and she hasn’t ventured out much. She asks me what I’m doing tomorrow and I tell her I’m planning to bicycle around Kyoto. She asks if she can come along and I say sure, she’s welcome to come. After dinner and checking emails, I turn on the heater in my room full blast, climb into my bedding on the floor, and continue reading my dear book, The Lady and the Monk, which continues to put a romantic spin on this place called Kyoto.
people on the veranda of kiyomizu-dera temple at sunset
Wednesday, February 2: A young Korean guy attaches himself to me first thing in the morning. He speaks fluent Japanese in addition to his native Korean, but very little English. Despite this, he tells the guesthouse owner that he wants to accompany me to Ginkaku-ji and the owner translates this for me. Yeong-ung Song is a student at university here in Japan, and he’s traveling through the country.
Yeong-ung Song on the pathway to Ginkaku-ji
Maybe Yeong-ung Song overhears me say I am going to Ginkaku-ji, which is along what is called the Path of Philosophy, or Tetsugaku-no-Michi. We think we are going to the same place. In reality, Yeong-ung Song wants to go to Kinkaku-ji. In the Korean language, the “G” sound and the “K” sound are interchangeable. There is one letter for those two sounds in the Korean alphabet. So, in Korea, if I am traveling to “Gyeongju” for example, I may find signs in the bus terminal transliterated to “Kyeongju.” These sounds are one and the same in Korea. But here in Japan, these two names mean different things and different places: Ginkaku-ji translates as Silver Pavilion; though it doesn’t really have a Silver Pavilion it has this nickname to distinguish it from Kinkaku-ji, which means Golden Pavilion.
So, Yeong-ung and I head down the “shopping street” and arrive at the Daitokuji bus stop. I know that I need to get on the eastbound bus, but Yeong-ung wants to cross the street and catch the westbound bus. We go back and forth over this, with me trying to explain that I need to be on the eastbound side of the street; he insists we need to be on the westbound side. Finally we both get out our maps, and I point to the Philosopher’s Walk, and Ginkaku-ji, on the east side of Kyoto. He points to Kinkaku-ji on the west side. I say, We’re not going to the same place! I need to cross back to the other side. He says, Okay. I understand. He stays put and I cross over. Since I didn’t eat breakfast this morning, I run into the little market, much like a Trader Joe’s in the U.S., and buy a little omelette in the deli section. I take it out to the bus stop to wait. I see Yeong-ung waiting across the street. Then he crosses the street and heads toward me.
i get a good fortune at a shrine near ginkaku-ji
I say, What are you doing? Aren’t you going to Kinkaku-ji? He says, No. I promised you I would accompany you, so I will go with you to Ginkaku-ji. It’s very beautiful there. I say, Oh, so you’ve been there? He says yes. I say, You don’t need to come with me if you’ve already been there. He says, I will come! I promised you.
This is so strange. I never expected him to accompany me and was quite surprised when he even suggested it this morning. I’ve traveled alone all over Turkey, Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea, and I’m perfectly capable of figuring out how to get from one place to another, how to visit places all by myself. I’m a big girl! Is he worried for me because I’m older and new to Kyoto and all alone? Or, and this doesn’t occur to me till later, does he not feel comfortable going it alone into a foreign city?
the tree of bad fortunes
We approach the temple after our bus ride, and Yeong-ung tells me we should go to a shrine above and to the left of the temple first. In that shrine, he shakes a cylindrical container full of long sticks until one comes out of a tiny hole in the container. The stick has a number on it, and he picks a piece of paper with a matching number. He has me do the same thing. The piece of paper has something written in Japanese. He looks at it and says, This is very good. Good luck! He gives a thumbs up. I say, What about yours? He says, it’s good but not as good as yours. Then he points to a tree nearby that has hundreds of pieces of paper tied to its branches. He says, Bad fortunes hang on tree. So, if I had gotten a bad fortune I would hang it on the tree. Yeong-ung pulls a paper from his wallet, like the one I am holding. He tells me, if you get a good fortune, like mine, you carry it around with you in your wallet all the time.
me at Ginkaku-ji
We then walk up the hill and between tall perfectly squared hedges to Ginkaku-ji, with a beautiful strolling garden and a wooden villa converted to a temple. In 1482 a shogun built the villa here as a retreat from the havoc of civil war. When the shogun died, it was converted to a temple. Walkways lead through peaceful and beautiful gardens. There is one perfectly raked white sand garden, designed to reflect the moonlight and enhance the garden’s beauty at night. Yeong-ung tells me it’s supposed to represent a lakeshore pattern, but I don’t know where he gets that information. We walk through the gardens together, and I can’t help but feel enticed by the moss-covered grounds that look like velvet blankets, beckoning sleep. There are streams and fountains burbling. The environment is incredibly serene and lovely. I run my hands along the cool and smooth bamboo handrails along the paths, feeling soothed just by their touch. The thought of thousands of hands on these rails makes me feel a sense of community with all those before who have strolled through these lovely gardens.
While I’m in these Japanese gardens, I find myself thinking, time and time again: These are stunning and it’s only winter! I can only imagine how gorgeous they must be in the spring and summer when flowers are in bloom and the trees are lush with leaves and cherry blossoms. I would love to come back to Japan in the spring or fall one year, to get the full array of colors and textures.
We spend a long time wandering. We throw coins in a pond and make wishes. We take pictures. I think of lying on the moss and taking a nap. But, I must now do the philosopher’s walk. Yeong-ung can’t understand why I want to walk when I can take a bus. He says he’s not going to walk. As if to convince me that I better rethink my plan. I say I guess then that we’ll part ways because I’m going to walk along this path. It’s a beautiful day, the air a sharp blue and the air brisk but not uncomfortable. I will enjoy the walk. He takes off toward the bus and I head along Tetsugaku-no-Michi, or the Path of Philosophy.
the philospher’s path
The Path of Philosophy is a pleasant walk along a canal, with temple stops along the way. The walk runs along the base of Higashiyama, Kyoto’s most noticeable mountain range. Though its trees are bare at this time of year, it’s still a lovely walk conducive to contemplating the meaning of life. Or to just wandering mindlessly. The name comes from a famous 20th century philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, who apparently wandered along this path absorbed in his thoughts. In spring, this path is known for its cherry blossoms, but in winter, the branches are stark and clean, of course.
I wander into a small temple called Honen-in, off the path so deep in the woods that I almost give up on finding it. This temple was founded in 1680 to honor a priest named Honen. Not as pretty as Ginkaku-ji, its attractiveness is in its seclusion.
By this time I’m getting hungry so I stop and have a lunch along the canal at Cafe Terrazza. It turns out it’s an Italian restaurant and the only thing that’s reasonably priced is spaghetti, potato soup and mango juice, so that’s what I have. It’s a lovely view over the canal though.
I continue my walk and, outside of a little boutique, I come upon colorful origami birds hanging on a bare-branched tree in a pot. I’m enticed inside this two-level shop that drips with little hanging delicacies. Little what-nots. I’m not sure what these things are meant to be, other than ornaments, but they are like balls of loosely wrapped solidified string, string cages, around air. Inside the balls are tiny origami birds. I wander into the shop mesmerized by the delicacy of these hanging objects. In addition to thousands of these balls, mobiles with origami umbrellas and with spools of quilting thread dangle from the ceiling. It’s magical, so perfectly arranged, so perfectly store-scaped. I’m mesmerized.
pretty little what-nots
Things like this little shop, the perfectly landscaped gardens, these are what makes Japan different from Korea. The buildings themselves may look generally the same, but the things inside and around the buildings are lovely and perfect. Whether nature or man-made little trinkets, they’re all beautifully and enticingly arranged. Everywhere, around every corner, you come to pink and yellow boutiques filled with delicate but useless & cheery things. Exquisite chopsticks, miniature handbags made of kimono fabric, origami earrings. And then, outside, along the philosopher’s path, the ever-humming vending machines, surprisingly pretty, offering refreshment at every turn.
At some of the shrines along the way, I come across Ema, wooden plaques on which Shinto worshipers write their prayers or wishes. The ema are then left hanging up at the shrine, where the kami (spirits or gods) receive them. Ema are sold for various wishes. Common reasons for buying a plaque are for success in work or on exams, marital bliss, to have children, and health.
Ema ~ plaques of wishes
Next stop, Eikan-do, with its interesting architecture, beautiful gardens including sand gardens, and artwork. I take off my shoes and walk in my socks on the smooth wood walkways and balconies, up and down curved staircases. I climb the steep stairs to the Taho-to pagoda and see a grand view of Kyoto. Gardeners are working in the gardens, pruning, planting, perfecting them. On one path, I come upon a little pond with a wooden bridge to a little shrine. Ducks circle in the pond and from here I can see the pagoda nestled in the mountain above.
the curving staircase at Eikan-do
The final stop on the Philosopher’s Path is Nanzen-ji, a huge temple complex with numerous sub-temples. Nanzen-ji was once a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama, but when he died in 1291, it was dedicated as a Zen temple. A 15th century civil war destroyed most of the buildings, so the present buildings date from the 17th century. I walk up to a cool brick aqueduct set in a clearing in the forest. Through the aqueduct, I find the subtemple Nanzen-in, which has a lovely garden built around a heart-shaped pond.
By now, I’m exhausted from my long walk but I also want to see Heian-jingu Shrine, built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto’s founding. I think venturing to this shrine about does me in, as my legs are aching from an entire day of walking. A massive steel torii stands about 500 meters in front of the shrine, looking a bit removed but still considered the gate to the shrine. The shrine is all painted bright orange, unlike the natural wood and white-painted clean-cut temples I have seen all day. In front, I’m accosted by three Japanese high school girls who are doing a survey for school about Kyoto’s tourists. They ask me at least 20 questions about where I’m from, how long I’m staying, where I’ve been and where I plan to go, etc. As soon as I finish the game with them, I walk a few yards and am stopped by another group asking the same questions. I tell them I already took the quiz!
Inside I wander around the fine gravel grounds and I find two Japanese girls dressed in kimono. I tell them they look beautiful and ask if I can take a picture. I’m happy to capture these young ladies in their traditional clothes in front of this famous shrine.
girls in kimono
Outside the shrine, a rickshaw driver asks if I’d like a tour of Kyoto. He says 5,000 yen for an hour, which is over $50! I say no, I can’t afford it! He offers a quarter-hour for 1,500 yen, so I take him up on that. It really isn’t much of a tour, but he promises to take me to Gion, where I’m heading anyway. There’s no way I can walk with my legs so wobbly by now. Besides, I get to wear a big fleece blanket. I have to say I look like the Queen Mother in that black rickshaw with that bright red blanket. Yikes. I feel like I should do that Queen wave, where you hold your hand up and rotate it back and forth. After the friendly driver drops me, I walk to the main street leading into Gion and come across the orange-colored Yasaka-jinja Shrine, beautiful in the waning sunlight.
the queen mother takes a brief tour of kyoto
By now, as I’ve been walking all day, I’m totally exhausted. And hungry. I run into an Indian guy trying to lure people into his restaurant, The Maharaja, and since I need to sit down now, I take him up on the offer. I’m the only one in the restaurant, just like last night (!), but Egyptian crowds running riot on the streets of Cairo keep me company on a flat-screen T.V. This news about Egyptians fighting for their freedom makes me really happy and reminds me, once again, that I am pulled back to Egypt. I would love to be in the midst of this excitement. While watching, I drink a Kingfisher beer.
prawn curry & garlic naan
By the time my dinner of prawn curry and garlic naan comes, the owners have switched the station to a Bollywood movie in Hindu with no subtitles. I watch, fascinated, as I always am by all things of the subcontinent, and dream of March 1, when I will finally get to go to the India I have read so much about.
After this delicious dinner ~ I love Indian food! ~ I take the bus back to Daitokuji, run into the Trader Joe’s look-alike market and get some breakfast foods and coffee, and walk along the dark shopping street, where people pedal past me on their shiny, old-fashioned bicycles in the silent night.
bicycles under a streetlamp on the shopping street
Tuesday, February 1: I think I have 5 days in Kyoto. But. Of course, I am mistaken. Be patient with this thought process of mine, but in my thinking, Japan is right next door to Korea. As a matter of fact, a flight from Busan to Osaka is less than 1 1/2 hours, so really, wouldn’t you think you could get there quickly and enjoy almost 5 full days?
But, because Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world, and so is Japan, and both Daegu and Kyoto are not airport towns, it’s not so easy. It’s not like I can just hop in a car and drive from the peninsula to the islands. So, once again, I leave my house at 6:00 a.m. and by the time I get to Kyoto, it’s 4 p.m. 😦 How does this happen? Why does it have to be so difficult and time-consuming? Something is seriously wrong with this story.
So. I arrive in Kyoto at 4 p.m. after many hours in planes, trains, buses, and airports. West Daegu to East Daegu to Busan to Osaka to Kyoto. On the final bus, from Kyoto Station to my guest house in northwest Kyoto, I sit astonishingly close to a guy who looks just like Pico Iyer. Pico, the author who enticed me here to Japan. I want to say something to this guy, but I can’t decide if he is Japanese or Indian. And if he is Japanese, then he’s definitely not Pico. Because Pico Iyer is Indian, raised in Great Britain, the author of The Lady and the Monk. I think I’ve actually fallen in love with Pico while reading his book and so my heart is all aflutter thinking this might be him.
the hippie japanese guesthouse owner
Since I’m afraid to say anything to him, I pull out my copy of The Lady and the Monk, and flip, too casually, through it, holding it at an awkward angle so the cover is in his face. I put the book, face up, on my lap. If this man is Pico, he will certainly say, “Hey, I see you’re reading my book!” But he doesn’t even glance at it. He’s a thin man, slightly made, with very black hair and white sideburns. Like the pictures I’ve seen of the author, minus the white sideburns. Sigh.
Alas, I think it is not him. I’m disappointed because it is he who has set my imagination afire about Kyoto. So, deciding I am utterly mistaken, I turn my attention to the city outside the window. And my heart sinks.
This place looks just like Korea.
Before I left Korea for this trip, my trusty Korean friend Kim Dong Hee said: I’ve heard Kyoto is just like Gyeongju. Now, I know Gyeongju has a lot of cool sights. It’s the second most famous place in Korea, behind Seoul, for its cultural and historical “assets.” Kyoto is also known for its cultural legacies. But I shrugged off Kim’s comment when she said it. No, I don’t think so, Kim. I don’t think it will be anything like Korea.
so many similarities ~ i see socks like these on the streets of korea
But she was right. To a degree. On the exterior, it looks eerily similar to Korea, even to Gyeongju. Yet. Something seems different. It’s not so garishly bright. I don’t see so many primary colors. Japanese letters are more calligraphic and not so juvenile and cartoonish. It’s spotless. I don’t see big crates of empty soda bottles stacked everywhere. I don’t see filthy store windows with stacks of cardboard and other debris stuffed behind them. I don’t see litter skittering across the street. Everything looks orderly, pristine even. And in the chatter of the Japanese…. where are the “imnidas” and the “aseyos” and the “ne, ne, ne” and the whining sounds so prevalent in the Korean language?
I get dropped off at a bus stop where I run into an unshaven white guy wearing a knit cap and riding a bicycle. He sees me studying my map with a baffled look on my face and asks if he can help. He helps. I tell him I came from Korea. I can’t believe this place looks so similar to Korea, I say, grudgingly. He says, Oh, really? You think so? That’s too bad!
the communal room in the “bon” guesthouse
I go on my merry way. Straight, right, left, right. In Korean: chick-chin, ornjok, wenjok, ornjok. Chogi, Yogi. Kamsahamnida. Annyoung haseyo. These few words are nearly the sum of my vocabulary after one year of living in Korea. Sad.
I arrive at the place where I’ve arranged to stay, the “bon” guesthouse. A tall, thin, disheveled-looking Japanese guy in a khaki safari-type vest answers the door and takes me in to give me the lay of the land. By the time he finishes showing me around, I’ve decided I’m staying in a hippie commune. This is quite a shock to me as I’m paying the same price, $42/night, that I paid for my lush, tropical paradise rooms in Cambodia. This highlights the difference between the cheap prices in Cambodia and expensive Japan!
My room on the top-level is simply that, a room. No furnishings but a small oval table and a gas heater. Down some very steep creaky stairs and to the left is a communal room with a big rectangular table and two computers in two little cubbyholes, a bunch of maps and Lonely Planet guidebooks and another large gas heater. A map of the Kyoto neighborhood is drawn on the wall in black Magic Marker.
a neigborhood map drawn on the wall
On the other side of the stairs is a kitchen where guests can cook their own dinner. All kinds of instructions are written, again with a trusty Magic Marker, on the cabinets and walls in the kitchen: “Hand towel–>” and “Dish-drying towel–>” and “The water takes a while to warm up. Please wait 3 minutes!” and “Please wash your dishes!”
Outdoors in the back is a kind of covered patio with two showers, a Japanese-style squat toilet in a tiny closet, and a Western-style toilet in another closet. That toilet has, much to my surprise, a heated seat and a bunch of other fancy gadgetry such as bidets spraying out icy cold water to your undersides. Two sinks for washing and brushing teeth are built into an L-shaped shelf. All of these outdoor toilets, showers and sinks are shivery-cold. Little space heaters are set up by the sinks and in each shower stall, with Magic Marker instructions to “Please turn off when you finish!!”
my room in the hippie commune
The owner tells me he will make up my bed when I go out. This consists of two mattress pads on the floor and with a sheet over them and two thick heavy comforters. All over the gas heater in the room are written instructions in Magic Marker: “Heat goes off after 3 hours. Push here to restart –>.”
The owner is friendly and speaks good English and takes time to patiently explain to me the bus system in Kyoto, which is highly user-friendly. Kyoto is laid out in a grid and the city prints an excellent bus system map showing what buses stop at each bus stop and diagrams the route each bus takes. I get an English version of this map. He tells me about cheap restaurants on a nearby “shopping street” and how to get downtown and basically, the whole time I am here, he explains whatever I want to know in great and painstaking detail. He’s amazing!
I decide to immediately strike out and take the bus to downtown Kyoto for the night. I feel confident after all his explanations that I can find my way easily. And I do. I catch the bus at the Daitokuji stop at the end of the “shopping street” and get dropped after a half-hour at Shijo Karasuma. I walk down the wide street, lined with Gucci and other designer shops and bright white streetlights and low-slung buildings. Apparently, Kyoto has height restrictions on its buildings, so I don’t see the high-rises that fill other cities. In 1990, the height restrictions were raised from 200 feet to 45 meters; even so, the skyline is low. Apparently there are only three buildings that exceed this height limitation, including Kyoto Tower.
the covered arcade
I’m a little disappointed in the modern downtown, because I want to see traditional teahouses and restaurants. I walk toward Gion, the pleasure and entertainment district, but I never make it there. I take a left on a pedestrian-only street, Shinkyogoku Covered Arcade, where brilliant colors and lights make for a festive atmosphere. I wander along , checking out the shops and then walk one street over to the parallel arcade on Teramachi. Teramachi is not nearly as crowded as Shinkyogoku and is a little darker. Teramchi apparently means “temple town” and was named so because most temples were located along this street. It’s quieter and not so commercial.
On Skinkyogoku, I come across a beautiful shrine: Nishiki Temmangu Shrine. Sugawara Michizane, a statesman, scholar and poet, is worshiped here as a god of wisdom, study, good business. This is the only shrine of a local deity on this busy street. A 300-meter-deep well is here from which people can drink and make wishes. It’s an oasis of serenity on this busy street, with its floating white lanterns and dark open courtyard. All over Japan, in these little shrines, are wishing wells, trees where wishes on bits of paper are tied. Racks of little wood shingles with Japanese characters drawn on them must be used for something, but I don’t know what. I see several Japanese pull the huge rope to ring a bell and clap two times, then put their palms together to pray.
my first Japanese dinner in Kyoto
I stop into a stark and clean Japanese restaurant with white globe lamps, where I order a Kirin beer, salmon over rice and vegetables tempura. I am the only person in this restaurant, so I just eat and stare into space, thinking about Pico Iyer’s Kyoto love story. I think anyplace must take on a special aura when you’re in love, and I’m starting to realize that it’s doubtful I will have the same experience as Pico, being alone here as I am.
Later I stroll along the streets, captivated by the jewel-colored merchandise displays, exotic umbrellas and skirts, kimono, dangling what-nots, socks with cartoon faces. I pass too many vending machines to count, filled with cafe au lait, Coke, Minute Maid, Big Gulps, Fanta and Vitamin Guard, along with traditional green teas. These are stylish and enticing vending machines, persistently humming their sales pitches, offering refreshment at any time of day or night.
salmon & vegetables tempura
Back at the guesthouse, I turn on my heater, climb into my on-the-floor bedding, and read some more of Pico Iyer. I’m restless to explore his Kyoto for the next three days. I drift off and about midway through the night I hear a funny little ditty playing in my room, and realize it’s the heater, giving me warning that its 3 hours is almost up. It’s like a snooze alarm, going off every 5 minutes until suddenly the room is plunged into cold. I climb out of my warm bed and turn the heat back on, until the next 3 hour alarm. Surreal.
vending machines humming their sales pitches at all hours