Monday, August 16, 2010

from Kyoto and Arashiyama: spiritually speaking

Once again I’m thinking we should spend some hours outside the city. The sun is coming out from behind hazy clouds and it is no longer just muggy and hot. It’s very muggy and very hot. My occasional traveling pal and I both tolerate the heat well, but it is far pleasanter to walk through green spaces where breezes pass through and ruffle bamboo trees than through temples where crowds jostle for shady spots.

We take the little electric train to Arashiyama, at the most western edge of Kyoto.


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At first, Ed is skeptical. Coney Island – he tells me as he watches the procession of people from one tourist shop to the next. But this is the Arashiyama by the wooden bridge that spans the Hozu-gawa river. It’s a destination for a great many people who want to escape the city. You shop, you eat and perhaps take a pleasure boat up the river. But like ants and sticky stuff, people congregate in small spaces and they follow one track, up and down. If you go off course, you have a lovely space of timbered houses and bamboo forests virtually to yourself.

But first, there is the issue of a morning coffee. True, it’s past noon, but I’m still wanting the morning ritual that, for me, welcomes another day.

The main street is hopelessly bereft of coffee shops. I settle for a mildly pickled cucumber on a stick.


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We make our way toward the hills. There are famous temples and shrines to be visited closer to town, but they are as hot and crowded as those in Kyoto. We’re looking for something altogether different. Quiet spaces, contemplative gardens, cool breezes.

With no coffee ritual behind me, I opt (after the pickle) for an ice cream cone. Mango and brown tea. Breakfast-like, no?


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And now we are in bamboo heaven. It’s not empty – too close to town for that – but slowly the people trickle away and we are left to enjoy the shade from the tiny little leaves of the tall bamboo canes.


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We take a path that leads us even further out of town. There is plenty of shade here, but not enough for the Japanese person worried about her or his skin. You must never leave your umbrella behind if there is even a chance of sunlight.


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We are not completely bypassing the many temples that are along this route. We pick one – Nison-in – that is seductively empty. A gardener is clearing the main path and fewer than a handful of people congregate by the main temple building, but otherwise, it is a peaceful place. Fitting for a meditative mood.


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We sit on the steps of the Zen garden (actually Ed reclines and dozes off for a minute until I nudge and tell him that his even muted occasional snore disturbs the peace of the spirits here).


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...Even as I am thinking that I, too, could easily settle in for a little nap.

It’s time to take seriously the search for my “morning” coffee.

It’s not hard. Just up the road there are several caf├ęs, clustered on this street of no other commerce, as if someone got the idea to open one and others followed. We sit in a cool empty space and I order a coffee and rice cake in sweet hot bean sauce. With a chestnut.


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We resume our walk. As we get closer to the hills, the scenery becomes almost pastoral.


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In a way, this is all very deceptive. It feels like we are at the very edge of town. The houses have the aura of village life. But in this part of Japan you have to think that beyond that green mountain, there is another city waiting for you. Still, in this one small corner, you can believe that there is a rural side to south central Honshu.


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Walking back to the hub of Arashiyama, there are tantalizing signs of many more temples worthy of a visit.


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But we are finding that by now, one temple per day is enough. If they are to leave any lasting impression, I must be careful not to confuse the memories.


In the heart of Arishiyama, the people mill from one shop to the next, the vendors stand at the door shouting invitations to come in, to sample. We make our way to the bridge and spend a few minutes people (and dog) watching at the river’s edge.


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It is time to return to Kyoto.

In the city, there is yet another noodle shop with a 300 year reputation for making great soba and udon noodles (Misoka-an Kawamichi-ya).


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We order a pickled herring, then bowls of steaming broth with soba for me, udon for Ed, both with pieces of chicken, egg and scallion. Hot comfort food for two people who do not especially need to warm up nor to be comforted, but who cannot resist what is basically an excellent Japanese style chicken noodle soup.


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This is the night of the Kyoto fires. I read that they burn on the surrounding mountains and hills to help move spirits in good directions. There isn’t a good place to view them and in any case, I think the path of light running up the mountain in our small residential community in northern of Kyoto is close enough to the real thing. So I leave you with a blazing trail leading to summits and noble places, where the spirits roam free.


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