Thursday, August 12, 2010

from Kyoto: temples and toast

It’s raining again as I set out in the morning for my cinnamon toast and coffee. Ed is scheduled to arrive this evening and I’m thinking he may experience delays.

I look around me at the coffee house: it’s a place where people (men especially) come to read the newspaper over a midmorning break. Realizing there’s a niche here, the café offers a special on cinnamon toast with coffee between 9 and 11 in the morning: 480 Yen (a little over $5). There are deals to be had in Japan if you look hard.


But for people watching, my commute on the subway tops all. The subway is lovely and clean (I know they wipe down the floors; do they also polish the tracks?) and the destinations are completely transparent (with announcements and signs indicating next stop, last stop, number of stop – all the information you could possibly need). I wonder what a Kyoto person thinks when she walks down for the first time into the bowels of the New York subway system...

As in any city, the people on the subway are an interesting slice of life, and in Kyoto that includes the well tended young women, the older men with fans and women with tired faces, the ipod set, the pink and ruffles set – all there, every ride revealing a new layer, so that by the end of the month I will have a portfolio of subway images in my mind.


By three in the afternoon, I am done with teaching for the day. If temples close at four, I have time for at least one quick visit. I catch the subway, change, cross the river and now I am in the Gion district – where you can still find the beautiful old town houses and tea shops along a quiet canal, even as the commercial streets cut in and create the typical urban chaos.



And as this is my trip of geisha spotting (or geiko, as they are called in Gion), I come across her...


...waiting for...someone.

At the Kenin-ji Temple (dating to 1202, it is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto) I see that I am needlessly rushing. I have time. (Note to Lonely Planet: it closes at 5, not 4.) It isn’t raining anymore but the air is heavy with a post rain dampness. It’s perfectly atmospheric here, in this garden of wet pine and moss.


And this time, I can peek inside...


After leaving the grounds, I realize that the cinnamon toast has lost its power to propel me much further. I need a snack. I stop Issen Yoshoku – a place where you can get only one thing: okonomiyaki (a pancake enveloping a heaping mound of ginger, scallion, pork, egg – you name it). I have an iced Darjeeling with it. The most perfect late afternoon pause, as outside, the rains start up again.



I cross the river to return to Central Kyoto...


...and make my way to arguably Kyoto’s biggest and best department store – Takashimaya. The basement food halls are again filled with the mysterious, the colorful, the seductively prepared foods (that sometimes are amazing and sometimes quite bland by western standards, causing us to reach for the soy or vinegar; the food here seduces easily by its showiness, its charming sales persons, its freshness).



I pick up a number of things, even as I am doing it with Ed in mind (avoid meat!). I’ll have a Japanese supper of sorts waiting, if and when he arrives.

And now I am on the subway again. I have to think that the long days that begin for me in the middle of the night (as I alternate between gathering materials for lectures and photos for posts) will eventually tire me out. I'll slump in my seat like my fellow passenger and not notice that the train has come to the end of the line.


But I'm not there yet. Besides, mine is the last stop.


Ed arrives so completely on schedule (after flights from Madison, Minneapolis and Seattle and trains from Osaka and subways from Kyoto) that I think – such is Japan: I can plan dinner more easily here than back home when I ask him to please be on time when I am putting on an evening meal.