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.