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.