Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More Kyoto

I've been very remiss about getting the last of my photos and site seeing up, but I got back and dove straight into la vie quotidienne. So naturally, everything about my trip now feels very far away. Still, my last day in Kyoto was definitely worth reporting on.

After a very nice night at Ryokan Sakura, where I stayed in a wonderfully peaceful traditional hotel room (with a shockingly high tech toilet), my coworker Arye and I set out to rent bikes and see more of the city. We foraged for breakfast at a grocery store, since by this point in the trip neither of us wanted to face what's generally on a Japanese restaurant breakfast menu. (In case you're wondering, that's omelet with potato salad, hot dogs, or croque monsieur, all with mayo in places you'd never expect, or want, to find it.) The we rented bikes near Kyoto station and pedaled off towards southern Higashiyama, on the southeastern edge of the city, under the first drops of rain.

Despite the threatening skies, the rain held off most of the day, although I'm not sure that was a blessing, since the humidity was unbearable. It made the adventure of trying to get to any of the temples in the area rather daunting, since they were all built to take advantage of the inspiring vistas you see from the hill top. Also, I do not recommend trying to follow one of the Lonely Planet walking tours on a bicycle. Your sense of scale will be off, and you will constantly be overshooting the place where you were supposed to turn, or the temple you wanted to see, leading you, in the heat and humidity, to decide that perhaps you really didn't want to see that temple so much after all. Also, there will be very few places to park your bike. I'm just saying.

We started at Kiyomizu-dera, a large temple complex located up a steep street called Teapot Lane. Many of the buildings at Kiyomizu were covered in scaffolding and brown tarps, but the ones not under construction were brightly painted and looked almost Tibetan. I was impressed with the grandeur of the main temple building, with the large tour group of elderly (Taiwanese?) tourists that settled in on the veranda and began chanting.

I was also amazed at the variety of options you had for praying / wishing / ridding yourself of bad luck. You could buy a charm. You could buy a wood slip, write on it and hang it on a shrine. You could write your bad luck on a piece of special paper and drop it in a fountain to dissolve. You could pray. (The routine seemed to be: approach, toss money into the box, bow, clap, clap, bow & pray, ring the bell. But I might be slightly off there.) You could also, we discovered, wait in a very long line to wash your hands and drink the water that pours in three thin streams off the mountainside. I'm sure the waters have great powers to cure and restore, but I skipped it, as the presence of that many people renders it all very, well, crowded!

After Kiyomizu, we made our way (with several false turns, as discussed above) up Ninen-zaka, a beautiful street lined with old buildings. Then we pedaled further north along the edge of the hills, overshooting the famous Chion-in temple and landing finally at Shoren-in. I'm not sure what I missed, but I really liked Shoren-in. The temple had several buildings - some newer, some more secluded and older feeling. The gardens were very peaceful, which perhaps is what I needed by that point, as I discovered when sorting my photos later that I'd photographed the same bridge and koi fish 5 times over without realizing it.

Leaving Shoren-in, Arye and I started meandering through Gion, the old geisha district. Eventually, we found a cute little canal, which we were following back towards the river when I hit the brakes and declared we were stopping for lunch right now. We had stumbled on Pooh's Cafe, an adorable little light and airy cafe with a view of the canal. I would love to know who started this business, since it seemed to me a spot that would belong equally in San Francisco, Paris, or Kyoto. I had an amazing yuzu and lemon soda (not too sweet), and a yummy egg salad sandwich (oh that baguette!) with an honest to goodness salad on the side. I have no idea how to tell you to find it if you ever go to Kyoto, other than to find the canal that winds through Gion and head east. But I definitely recommend you try! [I'm not the only one: scroll down to Feb 12 here for better pictures of the cafe, and the soda.]

Suitably refreshed, Arye and I rode back to Kyoto Station to return our bikes, and catch a commuter rail two stops south to Fushimi-Inari Taisha. By this point Arye and I were both ready to trade the mysteries of Buddhism for a bit of Shinto, and I'd been much impressed with this spot when I saw it in Memoirs of a Geisha. We arrived right at sundown, and had the chance to wander up the hill filled with thousands of bright orange torii gates, past many sculptures of the mischievous foxes that guard the granary, and through the cemeteries, where the graves are piled high with miniature torii. Of all the spots I saw on my trip, this one most closely matched what I'd hoped to find in Japan - tons of history, aesthetically beautiful, and profoundly foreign.

That night, I was exhausted. But it was our last night in Kyoto, so after dragging Arye to a gyoza restaurant I'd read about, which was much further away than we'd thought, now that we'd returned to pedestrian speed, I followed him to a fun little bar he'd discovered previously. Buried in the back of a building off Pontocho (an alley of restuarants and bars near the river), you'd expect to find an accounting office of some sort, but instead someone has stuccoed over the inside of the room and added a lot of carpets, creating an oddly appealing little cave. The place was empty, seeing as how it was a Monday, but we still managed to have way too many drinks with the Nepali bartender.

Which made it all the more wonderful when I jolted awake suddenly after passing out on my first flight from Osaka to Tokyo the next morning. I glanced out the window and spotted Mount Fuji jutting above the clouds directly off the wing of the airplane. I took it as a reminder that this is a country with so much more for me to come back and discover. Definitely an auspicious end to a wonderful trip.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Finally, Kyoto

The first five days of my trip here were all pretty completely taken up with work. I was able to squeeze in some wandering here and there, and a dinner at a pretty spot looking over the river, but I never managed to shake free in time to see the major sights. But all that changed on Saturday evening, when the conference wrapped up, and I became a full time tourist. Which is perhaps why, two days later, I have a horrible case of museum feet and I feel like I've seen more than enough temples to last me a good long while. Here's what I saw:

Saturday, September 11.
After breaking down the trade show booth and schlepping our materials back to the hotel, we went to the area near Kyoto Station in search of dinner. We, meaning my coworkers David, Arye, and I wound up having Ramen at the food court on the 10th floor of the Isetan department store. The ramen was indifferent, but the Grand Staircase we climbed to get there was pretty cool, as was the view, and the fish cake with the restaurant's logo in it that was floating in my ramen.

Later, the boys wanted to celebrate the end of a successful show, so we wandered around for a bit looking for a bar. We wound up drinking in a restaurant that serve my favorite, okonomiyake. (Le sigh.)

Sunday, September 12.
After a quick breakfast with our CEO to debrief about the show, we checked out of our rooms at the Hotel Monterey Kyoto (a very nice, Western-style hotel, along the lines of a Kimpton property, except all the rooms smelled of cigarettes.) Then we set out to see the sights for real.

1) First up was Kinkaku-ji, with it's iconic Golden Pavillion, which is on the cover of pretty much every brochure about Kyoto. Although sometimes it may look like this or this, it more frequently looks like this (covered in tourists). It was beautiful, and I'm glad I had the chance to wander around the gardens, but I also found myself wishing it weren't quite so hellishly hot! As I mentioned previously, the weather had turned disgusting - 99 degrees and 98% humidity.

2) We walked over from Kinkaku-ji to Ryoan-ji Temple, a sprawling complex with a famous raked rock garden. Again, it was all very beautiful, but since I don't understand the important history these temples represent, nor the Buddhist symbolism (call me silly, but there's no way those rocks look like a tiger and her baby crossing a stream, as advertised), I felt very removed from it all.

3) We took a cab over to an area called Arashiyama, which is famed for it's bamboo groves. It was a cool place to visit, a little ways outside Kyoto proper, and a spot it seems like a lot of Japanese tourists visit. I enjoyed watching the young couples and families, dressed in traditional dress (a couple steps down from full kimono, I think they were in their Sunday yukatas, but still impressive considering the heat.) Also impressive were the very fit dudes wearing black loin cloths who were offering to pull these families in large-wheeled buggies. Definitely an interesting way to see the countryside.

We wandered through the bamboo forest (on our own two feet) and saw a shrine with lots of forms of prayers - papers tied on rope fences, calligraphed wooden slips of various shapes and sizes, strings and strings of tiny paper cranes... It made me wish I knew more about what I was seeing, and all the nuances of this place.

Coming out of the bamboo forest, I stopped for a soft serve ice cream cone. Unfortunately, I wasn't wise enough to spot the black sesame honey, which I only learned about after the fact, but the plain vanilla was a wonderful nostalgic trip back to summers by Lac Bromont in rural Quebec.

Before heading back to the city we walked through the gardens at Tenryu-ji,
which were very quiet and restful. Again, I'm sure the nuance of the place were lost on me, but I very much enjoyed sitting for a moment and watching the sun, now low in the sky, peak out from under the moody clouds and turn everything golden. (This contemplation made me a wonderfully easy target for the mosquitoes, but I didn't learn that until later.)

Upon returning to Kyoto proper, my coworker David split off to to catch the bullet train to Tokyo, leaving Arye and I to check into our new hotel. In an effort to experience a bit of the more traditional side of Japanese hospitality we had booked ourselves into Ryokan Sakura. Although that particular Ryokan didn't offer the most traditional set up - no dinner in the room, no curfew - I did get to stay in a beautiful room with tatami mats, on a futon that I set up every night. It was a great experience, and a beautiful room, and I'd highly recommend that spot to anyone. More about this later...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The good, the bad, and the strange

- Everyone is so friendly and unbelievably helpful here. The cliches about Japanese hospitality and service are well deserved. For example, signs here say "please refrain from continuing past this point" rather than "do not enter."
- Little details of refinement, like the fact that they put paving stones under the water of certain rivers and streams, so that the water dances and sparkles just so as it flows over them.
- Graveyards. I know, weird subject. But in my wanderings, I stumbled across a couple of them, and they're extremely beautiful and special. Made up of stone markers, perhaps to house ashes, they have thin wooden boards with writing propped against them, and holders for incense.
When the breeze moves through the space, the boards rattle gently, and leftover incense wafts by, and I can really believe that the departed ones are still somehow with us.

- Ramen. Mmmm, ramen. I want it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

- Humidity. After two days of simply being hot and rather humid, the weather has turned to complete steam bath. Seriously. Picture the last time you were in the steam room at a spa. Now imagine me wandering around in there, towing my luggage.
- Mosquitoes. My coworker Arye and I were wandering and stumbled across a beautiful temple.

We looked at one another and both said "and this is a temple that's not on the map! Unfortunately, the prolific use of water that results in the gorgeous moss covering the grounds also breeds mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds.

Arye didn't get a single bite, but I'm covered in welts that still itch three days later! (I'd rather think it was the hummingbirds, I mean mosquitoes, than the possibility that I've picked up bedbugs. Our hotel for this first part of the stay is extremely clean and nice, but I live in fear...)

- Cat cafe. You can sit and have a waffle while also getting some feline therapy. Picture a room full of (young) people, not just girls, eating, smoking, drinking, and petting the cats that the restaurant supplies. Maybe there's a lot of apartments that are too small for even a cat? Maybe everyone just works too much to have a full time pet?
- Okonomiyaki. We went out for dinner the other night, and wandered into a place because it was filled with locals. Turns out this is a specialty of Osaka. Basically a pancake made of shredded cabbage, with a very gently warmed egg in the center, it is then buried under a sauce of thickened Worcestershire and mayonnaise. A lot of other folks liked it, but I thought it was one of the most disgusting things I've ever eater. Of course, since then, finding food has become more of a challenge because it turns out Okonomiyaki is one of the main treats people come to Kyoto to enjoy!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Logistical Difficulties

The reason I came to Japan this week (as opposed to at a later, hopefully more well-funded time in my life) is because my company is exhibiting at a trade show. Which is pretty cool, since as far as convention towns go, Kyoto is definitely one of the more interesting and exotic.

However, I have now discovered exactly how much of a pain in the ass it is to try and pull off a tradeshow exhibit 1/3 of the way around the world. Almost every single thing that could have gone wrong, did. I did make my flight. However a significant portion of our exhibition materials did not. So I spent my first 24 hours here running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to find a workable substitute.

Turns out, despite the fact that every single restaurant, and nearly every business here has a sign out front propped up on an easel, I couldn't find a single person who knows where to print a sign or buy an easel. I did get to wander around for several hours in the rain with my coworker though, looking for obscure objects like a 3-prong to 2-prong plug converter, or a large glass bowl.

And during that process, I actually had a wonderful time! There was the moment when we wandered into a Starbucks in desperation, needing something to ward off the caffeine headache, and then wandered out the other side the atrium of the swanky modern mall into a large temple compound, utterly serene, where water comes pouring out of the base of the building.

There was the "citron" shaved ice I grabbed in the food market, because I was completely parched, and that was the only one I could make myself understood well enough to order. It was a wonderfully flavorful combination of lemon juice and lemon rind. Exactly what I always hope lemonade is going to be, and never is.

There was the bowl of ramen I ordered by pointing to a picture on a menu when I was so jetlagged I couldn't remember my own name. So rich and restorative, and the team working in the restaurant was unbelievably cheerful, which made me smile too. (Of course, they might have been shouting insults at one another and all the customers, but I choose to believe they weren't.)

And last night, there was the restaurant we wandered into when we finally gave up on finding the restaurant we'd read about in my Lonely Planet guide. A tiny restaurant, with posters of Bob Marley playing soccer, and Sean Conery as Bond on the wall, where we smiled at the waiter/bartender/chef a lot and he smiled back a lot and we all nodded our heads a lot, and somehow that combination resulted in us getting served food. Quite yummy food at that!

Japan had somehow never been particularly high on my list of places to visit. Outcompeted by Chile, Iceland, and Bora Bora, even by the Gobi desert, I had placed it firmly in the "for some day" category. But my experience so far is rapidly changing that. This is one of the few places I've ever traveled where it's both totally foreign, and yet so comfortable I feel brave enough to chuck the guidebook and just see where my nose takes me. It's invariably going to be someplace interesting.

Now, can someone please explain the adorable little racoon statues I see at the entrance to people's yards? They're cute, but why do they have both breasts and large testicles?