Tuesday, August 31, 2010

from Kyoto, no – Osaka, no, not that either...

I did not want to fly the long way back, but if you want to keep costs down and you fly across one ocean, you have to fly back the same way. (Round the world tickets – touted by some as such a deal, are in fact quite complicated to purchase. I did it once and it was a major headache. You need time and flexibility. Typically I have neither.) And this time, my layover in Paris is so short that I have barely time for an evening glass of rosé and a morning espresso.

Ah well, I’m not even there yet. I am in Osaka – or at least the airport here, looking out over water and mountains and modernization – so much of what is my image of Japan.

Even as on Monday, I’m happy to shun all modernity and still lose myself in history. A history, that I have to add, is somewhat harsh. But harsh history will produce (or at least preserve) great art and Kyoto has great art.

In the morning, I have an exam to give and after that, currency to exchange. I mention this because I am so determined afterward not to waste time, that I choose to carry my computer, my documents, all exchanged cash (including travel reimbursements and what’s left of my honorarium) with me all day long. It was the day to rob me silly on the streets of Kyoto, but predictably, no one did.

I struggle to come up with a good game plan for the afternoon – my last free hours in Japan. Walking: there has to be a lot of that. A new temple maybe? A subway ride? Something that will leave a gentle imprint on my soul?

Yes, subway ride for sure. This morning, I encounter many kids heading for school. Here’s an unusual sight: it appears that both parents are professionals (I’m guessing). Maybe taking their daughter to school for her first day of classes? Maybe.


Oh, school girls. Navy and white. And did I mention pink? Such a pink world they move in!


Here they are, roaming in small groups down paths probably well known to them...


I am on my way to Sanjusangen-do – a temple in the southeast corner of the city. To the best of my recollection, I had never been there. It’s a place of many statues (1001 actually) of Kannon – a Buddhist deity. All carved out of the Japanese cypress. All lined in this building.


Beautiful, in a dusty sort of way. (Sorry, no photos allowed.)

But it’s a place I’m relieved to exit, too. It’s unsettling to be outnumbered so significantly by these ancient (12th and 13th century) figures.

Outside, it’s hot again. There isn’t the haze I had the first weeks here, but it is unquestionably humid. And the garden at this temple is small. It cannot be the last garden I visit. It’s pleasant enough in a microscopic sort of way...


...but it wont do.

Now is the time to take the hike to the temple at Tofuku-ji.

I walk through urban blocks – many of them – and I think how cities always have sections that are forgotten. Unimportant, indifferent to the tourist. Places where the ordinary person lives, shops, works. Kyoto has plenty of such places.

It is easy in Kyoto to get away from the endless sea of ordinary humanity (you know, like where you or I live), but you have to know how to proceed. And you have to be lucky.

I’ll never understand why the ever popular Tofuku-ji chose to be empty on this day, but I thank whatever spirits had a say in it for the incredible luxury – of walking through the gardens of this isolated temple (two sets of exquisite Zen landscapes, lost in a grove of Japanese maple) in solitude.


Funny how good silence can be.


Here, I do take the time to sit. Not for long, but long enough to feel satiated.



...because there is no hurry when you’re on your last day. The clock has won, you’re leaving soon, you may as well linger and watch the sunlight fade.


I suppose the only downside to going to Tofuku-ji is the walk there and back. To get to my subway stop, I must pass the urban, the bleak sections of this city. No matter. If you strive for accuracy, you must walk through all neighborhoods.

Besides, you can be sure of one thing: wherever you walk, there will always be a school child passing through that will make you smile.



It’s nearly evening and I am back in downtown Kyoto.


...and at the market. – it was, after all, the place I came first when I arrived three weeks ago.


So familiar now. And I notice how unoriginal I am in my points of initial surprise. I watch visitors stop by the little octopus display and take pictures – just as I had. We say too few things that at all original when we fly through a place ever so quickly. Maybe our best words are about the things we know back home....

Still, it is a very pleasant market stroll. I haven’t eaten yet today (if there is to be time for gardens, there cannot also be time for food) and so I pick up shrimp and leek on a stick.


And some of the most delicious candied fruit in the world – to take back home.


It is only now that I notice that I have underestimated coins needed for this day. Gardens and temples are expensive. As are candied fruits. Having exchanged my Yen back to dollars at the bank, I have very little Japanese money left for dinner.

No matter. I’ve eaten all exciting things that I had wanted to eat. I pick a lonely little place now – a mostly organic café that serves a few dishes. Let’s support the efforts at good agricultural practices!

I sit at a counter and watch the market outside the window. My food is good – some local salads, a small piece of fish, excellent miso soup and the nicest rice with pepper ever. All for 1000 yen (slightly more than $10).


The stand in front of me is closing. The vendor is packing up mystery foods, the last customer is deciding between the green and the black whatever.

It’s time to leave.


Good night mountain.


And, ever so early in the morning, when no one else is up... Oh! Not true! Make no generalizations and you shall not be wrong: an older man is up and out, trimming the bushes in the cooler hours of the dawn.

Hello, man, good morning mountain.


Goodbye Japan.


Monday, August 30, 2010

from Kyoto: the rush

Because I am traveling today, and from the very wee hours of the morning, I cannot take the time to give any meaningful glance back at my last day in Kyoto. I can hope to have some computer time at the airport and in flight later. So, a final post will appear, but I have only a vague idea as to the when and how. A time will come. It always does for me.

In the meantime, I’ll post just one photo from a very busy Monday. It’s from my morning walk to the subway. There are many kids speeding to school in the early morning hours now. These two had the energy that was positively sizzling. As was the day -- Kyoto is warming up again.

But, let's concentrate on the essentials: there are the school kids (you'll see more in my forthcoming post), and, too, there is the mountain that I have come to regard in one small way as my own.


Hello mountain.

Good bye mountain.

I’ll be back, here, on Ocean, soon enough.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

from Kyoto: full

I’m at the counter at Ganko Zushi. I hadn’t meant to eat here, but the Veggie Restaurant next door seems to have shut down for good and I did not want to meander up and down the streets in search of an alternative. The vast majority of restaurants here have no English translation at the entrance. Not the name, not the menu, nor prices. Is it meant to keep foreigners from coming in? In this congested downtown area, you would have to think so. That, or you should assume no one on the staff of these typically smaller places speaks English. In either case, it's best to eat in restaurants that are either listed in travel books or that indicate with some lettering that you'll be able to order there.

For once I am not starving. I had stopped at a market oyster counter on my walk over. It seemed so tempting to do it here, in Japan. In Paris or New York, you order a few, add maybe a glass of wine and you're set. In the very informal Kyoto place, there are maybe a half dozen stools and a counter. One man is shucking oysters, the other is grilling them (and clams).


The oysters are so big, you order one at a time. With a beer. It looked good so I had one.


Now I'm thinking that it’s my next to last dinner and I want to have had enough sushi and sashimi and tempura and miso to last me a lifetime. It’s not that Madison doesn’t have good Japanese food – we excel in that department actually. But eating sushi in Japan is like eating blueberry pancakes for breakfast in America: when they’re good, they’re great and they’re never awful. We don’t mess up pancakes and they don’t mess up sushi. Or miso or sashimi. (They can mess up tempura in the same way that we can mess up hamburgers.)

At Ganko Zushi I order a combo plate again. It’s so much easier than putting it all together yourself. You point to the picture and say – that one. Bingo. Your dinner is all set.


I look up at the two cooks behind the counter. They're a bit far, but still...


Huh. I say to the waiter: the older guy? ...he cooked for me six years ago. I remember him from the photo I took.

The cook comes out, grinning as always. Six months? No, six years. Yes. Yes. I grin right back. It’s the only way that I know to say thank you -- for the food, of course, and for the sense of time and place. You survived, I survived and here we are, meeting over food again in Kyoto. To another six years!


It was a good ending to an otherwise mixed day. I did not get out of the apartment until after three and then I felt awful that I should be looking for breakfast at four in the afternoon. Moreover, I ran out of temple steam. I considered all the temples still unseen and it seemed like they may be anticlimactic. You have to be careful with how you arrange your sights. It’s like a meal – you can’t end a great meal with an insignificant custard. (Well, the Japanese and the British can, but I think their tolerance for bland custard is unusually high.)

In the end I decide to trek out to the one sight that I have never visited – the Toji Temple. it’s completely on the “wrong side” of the railway tracks and so I have passed it by each time.

First, the subway ride to Kyoto Station. I glance over at the two families on the seats across from me. Call them the family in blue stripes and the family in black. I see black so rarely in dress here (except for work suits) that I have to wonder if the family in black is in mourning. Most likely it is an example of how parents steer kids (at least when they're still younger) toward clothes they, the parents like. As always, there is some layer of pink implicated. You rarely see young girls without pink (and usually some English reference to love or sweetness scribbled across).


Walking to the temple from Kyoto Station is a depressing affair. If ever tracks divide, it is here: one side – vibrant and pulsing, other side – moribund.

I persist. Some of the best sights in the world are in neighborhoods that are less attractive.

And indeed, the temple and the pagoda are, well... significant. The pagoda is THE largest in Japan, so now I can say I have been to both the first and the second of the top two.


I realize I have ensconced it in green, which is perhaps misleading, but I'd like to remember it that way.

And I want to remember the crane, the turtle, and the lilies. And the weeping willows.





But the garden is so insignificant compared to ones I've seen in Kyoto, that for the first time here, I have no regrets about not lingering.

After, I turn around and head north.  There isn't a lot to be said for that walk -- it's not beautiful or challenging or inspirational. It's merely a walk through the better part of downtown Kyoto and I feel somewhat noble for doing it rather that jumping onto the subway, but not hugely noble. I mean, it was rather a tame ending to a wonderful month here.

Tomorrow is my last day in Kyoto. Will it surprise me?  – I hope not. The final day should hold no surprises. Affirm the good, turn away from the difficult, and pack the suitcase so that the cup with the bird on it does not break.

I ride the subway to the last stop, get off and walk the warm, dark path home.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

from Kyoto and Nara: the big, the beautiful, the loud, the comforting

[Warning: the longest of all Japan posts to follow; forty photos is an Ocean record for one day. It had to be: it’s not the splendidness of it all, it’s the variety that caused me to be a little shutter happy. Posts will be much, much shorter henceforth.]

The mountain, with arms stretched out protectively over my neighborhood (at least that is my image), never looked clearer, more in focus.


One o’clock. Breakfast time, if you go by the hour of my first coffee. Today it’s at Pau Pau, the little coffee shop in the house just up the next block. The place that was the site of my first coffee in Kyoto. The one that closed for two weeks for a vacation the very next day.

Ayami, the delightful woman who runs it, is out washing windows. I linger for a while before letting her know I am here.


It’s such a lovely place – she has ceramics for sale and art books to glance through and there is always good jazz playing.


She sees me and waves. She comes in, brings me the carefully ground, then brewed coffee and the slice of cheesecake...


She tells me she has been working on her English and she shows me her exercise notebook. I look at the phrases that she has translated: the sooner the better; don’t be overconfident; her face burned with shame... Japanese humility on the pages of foreign language instruction.

I ask her if the shop is open tomorrow – Sunday.

No, not Sunday, not Monday.
Ah, so I wont be here again.
I’m leaving early Tuesday.
But you will be back? When will you be back?
Next year maybe. I say this not because it’s true, but because it seems gentler than “probably not for a long long time if ever.” And still she looks unnerved. As if whatever story she had in her mind about me (after only two visits) now has to be rewritten.
I miss you, she tells me. I look at the shelves with ceramics. I reach for a cup with a bird painted on it.
I will take this with me. She shows me the tag with the price. Yes, I know. It’s the price of a good dinner. But yesterday I had no dinner and so now I have a cup. She wraps it carefully. Too carefully. I think about the rosé wines that I will throw in my suitcase carelessly in Paris. They will not disturb this cup with a bird on it.

She gives a little smile for the camera and then looks on as I leave.


At the subway station, I see that every half hour, the subway continues beyond Kyoto. Indeed, it picks up the railtracks and makes its way to Nara (40 kilometers south of Kyoto). It’s a 65 minute ride from my stop (Kokusaikaikan) to Nara. But, there’s people watching. Always that.


And soon we are out from the underground, passing through the region south of Kyoto.

Nara was the first capital of Japan a mere 1300 years ago, and though it held that honor for only 74 years (compared to, say, Kyoto’s nearly 700) it has the pride of a place of historical significance.

It’s a small city. The size of Madison actually. And there is one more thing that must be noted: it is one of three historically important urban centers in Japan that escaped bombing during World War II. The other two are Kyoto and Kanazawa. Ah yes. Within a train ride of each other.

[There is much speculation still as to why these three were spared. Some say it was at the persuasive voice of an American scholar who convinced the United States that art and historical treasures need to survive war, or we all will be the worse for it. That’s one version. Another: it was a strategic choice made by the U.S. government to start reshaping the strong feelings of dislike and distrust toward Americans then. And so on.]

For whatever reason, Nara gets to keep her history and her art in tact.

But what I notice first when I get off the train is the presence of deer.


Nara is home to some 1200 deer and they, as messengers of the gods, are quite the pampered lot. Mostly, they keep to the hills and parks. But sometimes they make their way downtown.



And it is so unnerving at first to see them. In the “what does not belong” game I played with my girls when they were little, surely in this city you’d have to say – the wild animals.

Are they wild? The signs, posted for once in a language I can read, say yes.


But, the deer know who butters their bread. People purchase deer crackers (thank goodness for that, because otherwise they’d feed them what we eat and surely that wont do) and the deer are not shy about nudging you to take out your pocketbook. They say that if you bow to them when you feed them, they will bow back. Appreciatively.




But the very first place I go to in Nara is, in fact deerless. The Insuien Gardens close early in the afternoon and so I am determined to get to them first thing. Perhaps you’re worn down by my garden descriptions. I’ll be as quiet as the spaces within the walls of this one were.




Not too far from the Gardens is Nara’s big draw – the Todaji Temple – built in the years when Nara was the capital. And here I must use words that commonly are thrown about with the mention of Todaji: large. Huge. Enormous.

The Hall of the Great Buddha is the largest wooden building in the world.


Oh, one more: crowded.



The Great Buddha himself is one of the largest bronze figures ever, anywhere. So, it’s all quite overwhelming (I'm posting an image with a monk passing in front, for perspective). And of course, the lesser figures within the temple are hardly insignificant.




The only “small” thing here is a hole in one of the wooden beams. It is said to be the size of Buddha’s nostril. If you can wiggle through it, you can have great enlightenment.


I can’t imagine a less exciting way to spend a hot afternoon than being wedged tightly, indeed stuck, in that beam. I’ll stay on the side of the unenlightened.

I exit through the massive wooden gate...


...and now I am in the woodsy park again. Following the visit to the temple, everything else seems quieter, gentler, less prepossessing to some, but delightfully more subtle in my view.

Even the deer are more subtle.


I walk toward the hills that sweep down to Nara. The park is shaded and not too warm. A water fountain encourages you to splash water on your hands.


Here, you’ll find the Kasuga Taisha shrine. A place of many lanterns. Both leading up to it and throughout the shrine itself.



Oh, that pre-evening light! How many ways can it dazzle the surroundings? Who said that the waning hours are the saddest in a day? A life? 


There aren’t too many people here now (I’ll tell you why in a minute). Only the occasional determined tourist. Or this woman – matching, in her black and moss green clothes, the colors of the lanterns.


And now I am out of the park, heading toward the Nara pagoda (no, not Japan’s biggest... the second biggest!)... here -- just have this side view, in the evening sun.


...but I am distracted by the loud music coming from the Naramachi district (where much of the café restaurant life takes place).

Dance. I am in the thick of Nara’s two day Basara Dance Festival – picking up on the 900 year old Basara tradition of dancing on the streets.


There are a lot of dancing groups. The common elements are that they’re original, energetic, with some tie in to Japanese dance forms.

A sample:




The snaking troupes are refreshed by roaming festival staff people who spray the dancers with cooling mists. You can't have too much water on a day like this.


Refreshment. I realize that I have been walking without pause for too many hours. I have been refilling my water bottle, but at some point, water is not enough. An iced coffee. Fantastic. To take with me on the train home.

The platform for Kyoto is empty. Of course. Everyone is at the dance festival. The direct subway connection runs no more, but there are plenty of trains going to downtown Kyoto. I board an empty car and settle in for the comfortable ride back.

I have no expectation of great scenery along the way. Riding down to Nara, I saw how long it took to leave the urban corridor. And still, Japan has her secrets, thrust upon you suddenly, so that you recoil.

Looking out, I see that we’re nearly losing all daylight. But beyond the cherry trees, there’s a temple, no? The train moves so fast, the window has too many reflections of the light inside the car, but still, I’m sure of it – a temple.


I glance to my left, across the aisle, and there is another, this time shockingly close to the speeding train.


And then, as suddenly, they’re gone and rice paddies recede into darkness and slowly the lights are those of a city as we enter Kyoto.

The books say that if Kyoto didn’t exist, Nara would be the most visited city in Japan. Maybe. But Kyoto has more than a mere concentration of Japan’s best art and historic temples and shrines. Kyoto has a mystique: a long past and a high pitched present. Nara, for all her large temples, feels like a small burg by comparison.

I eat dinner in Kyoto. It’s late, but the restaurants on the ground floor of the downtown Museum of Kyoto remain open – including the lovely Azami, where I sit on a tatmi mat and eat boiled radish and raw octopus in wasabi...


...followed by chicken soba. A glorious big bowl of comforting chicken noodle soup.