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.

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