Sunday, August 22, 2010

from Kyoto: the hottest climb

If Kanazawa offered the coolest museum, then I have to admit, this day offered the hottest mountain. And let me stay with the literal meaning of hot.

Sunday in Kyoto. It held the honors in any number of categories. It was the first day we finally expanded beyond the trains and subways of Kyoto and incorporated the complicated bus network into our movements around town.

It was also the day when truly, if you had a fan, you would use it. Not for any decorative purpose, but to create a welcome flow of air.


It was the muggiest, hottest day of our stay here. It was also the last full day Ed and I have before he departs (Tuesday) and I resume teaching (Monday). And so it is not a day I want to waste.

After a morning of work, we set out on a final climb. And – oh the irony – it is our steepest climb so far. Not long – maybe an hour and a half of an ascent – but steep. Straight up.

We leave our neighborhood, passing, as always, the baseball field, where, despite the heat, a game is in full progress. (There are a number of protective barriers between the players and the outside world and so picture taking is pointless.) It’s an animated world of shouts and cheers and were I to be the kind that did video clips, this would surely deserve a short fragment.


We board the bus that takes us to the gates of Kyoto’s most splendid temple – Ginkakuji.

But it’s still early afternoon. Not yet the time to see it. First, we pause for my “morning” coffee. With pumpkin cake.


Then we continue, almost to the gate. And let me give you a sense of how these entrances look in mid-afternoon, there along a block of gift shops, with streams of people – some heading in, some leaving. (Ed is more bothered by this than I am, although I admit, picking times and places that maximize tranquility is a good thing.) Such is the “lead in” to the temple:


But our goal is to take a sharp left just before the temple entrance and hike up to the summit of Daimonji-yama – the mountain that rises majestically behind the temple.

At first, it is a manageable climb. The forest offers shade, even as there is no breeze to move the sticky air around us.


But without doubt, the award for the hottest climb ever goes to the section of steep steps two-thirds of the way up the mountain. This is where space is cleared for the fire that blazes once a year to send spirits on their merry way. There is, therefore, no shade.


It’s not a long stretch. Maybe five, ten minutes. But the sun is your enemy here -- relentlessly heating the path from behind a hazy, misty sky, this after you’re already drenched from the initial part of the hike.

And here’s another first: for the first time we see that the Japanese do sweat. Their shirts are as wet as ours. The towel that wipes their faces can do nothing for the witnesses that transforms your skin into a stream of perspiration.

As we reenter the forest, the shade is again our friend and even though the ascent continues, one can hardly complain. And the path is nearly empty. Only those hell bent on confronting life's hardships (or, like us, looking for the quiet that a mountain forest can provide) head on toward the summit on a day like this.

Up we go, past a mixed forest, dense at times, changing to a mix of cedars and pines near the top...


...until we come to the tiny clearing that marks the peak. From here, all of the Kyoto valley is spread before us. It is a misty view on this day, but so very much a typical August afternoon view over the city.





The descent is child’s play. For one thing, a cloud has formed and we hear the rumble of thunder in the distance. There are places in Kyoto where it may have rained, but we’re spared. This view is from the once hot steps, no longer hellish now on the cooler, cloud-shielded descent.


Near the base, we pass a family that is finishing up its own forest walk. Yes, this to me is a proper photo of just one family using this day to head out together. The Sunday outing. With determination.


It reminds me of a photo I took maybe two years ago of a French family walking with that same determination through the gardens of Versailles. Also a Sunday outing. Like so many that my own fragmented family embarked on during my childhood. To the park, to the country, for a walk, always for a walk, to return late in the afternoon, tired, often cranky, yet hanging in there, because that’s life for you – you hang in there until you can’t hang anymore and then you go off on your own.

We are at the gate of Ginkakuji by 4:30 (it closes at 5). I can’t say that it’s empty. But it’s a lot gentler, calmer than it was just a few hours ago.

This is the temple of the beautiful Zen pebble gardens.


And of dense greenery, of ponds and moss gardens, and of course, of the “Silver Temple” (which is not really silver at all, but it allows you to distinguish it from Kyoto’s Gold Temple – that’s for another day).


Let me just leave you with this image of the most lovely (in my view) temple in the city.


And yes, we return to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant for dinner, just as I thought we would. It’s crowded as ever and here’s the irony – when you’re eating out, crowds are a welcome thing. People watching is almost as important as the food on your plate. Here, we’re all eating basically the same thing. Most every table, like ours, includes a plate of fried rice...


...and, of course, the gyoza.