Saturday, August 14, 2010

from Kyoto: the philosophy of calm

It’s noon. I haven’t had a morning coffee yet but neither of us wants the workday routine of coffee and cinnamon toast.

It’s Saturday and Ed perks at the idea of going downtown to the market. To look.

To market then...


(I don’t really think she is market bound but we can pretend.)

I find a café with, as usual, exceptional coffee (so good is it, that I do not miss nor seek out espresso shops). A green tea madeline seems fitting as an accompaniment.

At the market, we concentrate on identifying what is being sold. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious, even if you can't read the signs.


Most often it’s not. Here, I suggest we're looking at eggplant smothered in soy paste or brine, but Ed thinks the crate above has something resembling sausage. But sausage is not a Japanese item. Would that be eel? Or am I off altogether?


Sometimes there is much writing and no information (for those with no Japanese skills). Sometimes there is just a little information. Here, two words are in English.


Sometimes there are the ubiquitous (though less ubiquitous than in the past; perhaps cooks are less willing to be regimented?) plastic models to help you along.


Sometimes you think you know what you’re seeing, you just can’t quite believe it. Especially when a young boy buys one (on a stick) and walks away happy.


It is (what a surprise) a very clean market and even skittish types like me, who will not eat street food in many parts of the world, has no issue with picking up items here. We buy an egg dish. Made by these wonderful cooks who make a favorite here – rolls, like sushi, but based on egg rather than rice. I’m sure it has a name. I enjoy watching them cook with chop sticks.


Slowly, you begin to recognize recurring themes. Of pickled and brined vegetables, for example.


And here is surely a common Japanese trilogy:


We’re not buying much though. We have a day of walking before us. A bag of sugared ginger and apricot. That’s it.

And now we take the subway to northeastern Kyoto. I remember falling in love with a small temple and garden here and I am curious if it is as peaceful and calm now, on this rather populated holiday week-end.

Konchi-in. Yes, it remains an oasis of solitude and a place for contemplation.


We come across a man raking the pebbles of the Zen dry garden.


We sit on the temple steps and watch. Behind us, the golden screens with graceful cranes line the temple walls.



The temple grounds are empty. One other couple comes and goes. We stay for a long time. There is something significant and special in the movement of the wooden rake, making tracks across the pebbles. If you’re like me, always preferring the calm path over the one where disputes rage and conflict is palpable, maybe you’ll have this same reaction of utter satisfaction in merely listening to the sound of the rake across the tiny stones.

In this (and in not too many other ways), my occasional traveling companion and I are exactly alike.


We leave now, stopping only for a minute to watch the turtles chat with the fish in the pond.


After Konchi-in, any temple is likely to feel crowded. Nanzen-in is just up the next street and it in fact is relatively peaceful too. But it's not Konchi-in quiet.



You get spoiled. We find a path behind the temple that climbs into the eastern hills bordering Kyoto here. We think it surely is a short path. It’s not. It continues up toward the ridge, past trees with red bark and carpets of fern...


It's been cloudy all day, but the sun breaks through for just a minute, throwing momentarily a shadow that, too me, looks like a little bird.


We are not prepared to climb mountains today, but it is so tranquil and empty here that we continue. Up, up, until we have reached whatever summit this is. And then even beyond. We go down a bit until we come to a clearing.


Not sure of what the sign says. We sit down on a felled log and listen to the noises of the forest.  A forest calm does not require a total silence.


We turn back, if only because it is humid (as always) and we are low on water.

The walk down is slippery, but we make good time. (My shoes, however inadequate for climbing, are more suited for the hills than those of a casual temple stroller. Here's an example of the latter.)


The detour up the mountain did take a slice of the afternoon out of our hands and so the itinerary must now let go of temple walks, as most temples begin to close by now. We pause to consider our route. A monk is having a conversation with a passerby and I watch, looking to see if there is a possibility of a discreet photo (I carry no great zoom on this trip). There is.


After they finish, the passerby comes over and asks if we need help, if we are lost, if we would like ideas on where to go next. We actually do have a route, but he is so anxious to tell us all he knows that we listen with enthusiasm and thank him before proceeding further.

We are now on the Walk of Philosophy. (So named because, it is said, a famous Japanese philosopher once strolled here to inspire himself and think deeply about his work.) Here, too, it is fairly quiet now. A couple walks by, a family passes us, an occasional dog walker.


On a bench, I see surely the most comfortable pair of cats on the planet.


Ah, to be that calm always...

We try to visit one more temple – the far northerly Honen-in, but it’s no use. Closed for the day. Still, it is worth the slight detour. The entrance gate is set in a forest of maple and bamboo and as we sit on the outside steps, I again think that shutting out the clamor of the outside world often makes sense. Because then you can see the delicate shades of a maple leaf and listen to the movement of bamboo leaves.



Our hike for the day is at an end. I offer eating options and again Ed is not hungry. I suggest a noodle shop that has other offerings, thinking that he wont be able to resist a bowlful of udon noodles in warm broth.

We go to Omen, a lovely little place just near the northernmost tip of the Path of Philosophy.


Inside, a few people sit at the counter...


...but most, like us, are on tatami mats. It’s early still, and so families dominate. I watch the one just to the side, where a mother and daughters and a mother-in-law share a meal.


Family relations in Japan. That’s another chapter altogether. (One that my students do not shy away from discussing.) For now though I concentrate on the set dinners we ordered. I promised Ed I’d eat anything that would be too much for him.

It is an easy promise to keep. The food – tempura vegetables and a shrimp and then bowls of noodles and broth, to be dressed with any number of offered accompaniments – is delicious. We each polish off the tempura and slurp down every last noodle.




We are far from our subway line, in this northern corner of Kyoto. But, we’re up for the walk. We cross the river where it is still quite shallow and Sunday strollers cool off on the rocks that span the waters.


Finally, we take the subway home to our last stop. It’s still a few minutes before eight. The stores are about to close, but we have time to pick up a few supplies at the small supermarket. Peaches to split and ration for a few days. The more affordable kiwi. Nuts, orange juice and ice cream bars.

The trick is to do the walk home (typically 20 minutes) quickly enough so that the ice cream doesn’t melt.

I learn that ice cream does not mind humidity. The bars are safe. Ed'll eat them first thing in the morning.