Saturday, January 31, 2015

Kyoto, Japan

Arriving in Kyoto together, on time, was most likely the result of some guardian angels of traveling. I really don’t know how we walked on to our bullet train to Kyoto seconds before the train left. Meeting at large silver bell in the Central Passage of Tokyo Station was easy in theory, but my friends had my ticket, which I needed to enter the Central Passage, assuming I could find the Central Passage, which I couldn’t find. Without a way to communicate with each other we had to guess where to find each other. The bullet train to Kyoto would be a likely choice, but most of us didn’t know where to find the train, including me, even though a nice Japanese woman gave me a temporary ticket to enter the gates. Two minutes before departure time I was closer to our train but I was walking the wrong way and somehow my friends saw me, grabbed my arm, we quickly found the correct platform and the bullet train sped off seconds after we walked on, mostly because the nice Japanese man kept pushing the button to keep the door open for us. The Japanese people we encountered are truly friendly, welcoming, and helpful people, offering joyous greetings upon entering a restaurant and willingly helping the tourists who would annoy most locals in other countries. After a late-night dinner at the Family Mart konbini, we rested and started the next day with a much needed and relaxing breakfast at the Café Bibliotic, where we found carefully prepared pastries in the attached bakery. With the heat blasted we happily escaped the cold winter streets of Kyoto, and were instead surrounded by books, wood architecture, and Japanese hipsters all dressed far better than us. The Japanese certainly know how to dress, with trendy black coats and scarves, dark tailored pants, and dapper shoes. Our next stop was Kinkaku-ji Shrine, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which despite a huge crowd of tourists, still managed to convey the peace, tranquility, and beauty of the original intention. The gold temple looked like an apparition with the curving lines of the mountains in the background and the reflecting pond and gardens in the foreground. After wandering around and trying some more konbini snacks, along with vending machine hot coffee and various cold drinks, a  brilliant offering on almost every other street in Japan, we furthered our wandering around the Gion District, but unfortunately failed to see a Geisha in the dark streets. Working up a tremendous hunger we were rewarded with a warm, flavorful, and intricately prepared udon meal, along with sweet potato tempura and pork cutlet tempura, a meal I would think about for the next two days until I went back again. The next day I ventured off on my own, wandering and exploring, one of the true joys of being in a new country. Unfortunately the first half of the day was rainy, but I found several hideouts from the rain. My wandering led me to bookstores overflowing with books on the shelves and stairs, a return trip to the Café Bibliotic for the brilliantly delicious peanut butter pastry, soon followed by fresh, and fun, conveyor belt sushi at Musashi Sushi, where one of the servers gave me recommendations. I continued to hide from the rain in the covered streets of the Nishiki Market, a narrow and seemingly endless alley of colors, sounds, sights, and vendors, with fresh fish, meat, spices, and various goods for sale. I managed to find room for grilled mochi with red bean paste, matcha dorayaki cakes, and a matcha cake slice. With the rain finally stopped, I took the train to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, where as many as 10,000 torii gates are lined up one after the other in over 4 kilometers to the top of the mountain. The Fushimi Inari Shrine was definitely a highlight of Kyoto. I arrived shortly before sunset when there wasn’t a crowd of people. With less people I could more easily place myself in a peaceful retreat in the woods. The thousands of orange torri gates, slowly fading in color as the sun went down, lined up in a maze through the woods, with thousands of small shrines located off to the side, as well as numerous fox sculptures, and a large pond around one turn, made the site a mystical place, an architectural wonder, and a spiritual experience. Afterwards, although I was able to find a backstreet yakitori restaurant, a 36 Hours in Kyoto New York Times article made the location too popular for me to walk in without a reservation, so I moved along to another well-reviewed yakitori restaurant, where I sat at the bar and watched the cooks grill the chicken, quail eggs, chicken meatball with egg yolk, and heart that I ordered. The next day we had to be back on the ship, but a friend and I decided to make the most out of the time we had, visiting the Kiyomizu Dera temple in the morning. The temple is tucked alongside a mountain and surrounded by trees, except for the eastern side where there is a clear view of the city skyline, and is a perfect embodiment of Kyoto, where traditional and modern seamlessly blend together. Although the temple is popular and crowded, the feeling of a spiritual retreat remained alive, especially as the snow started to fall. I will always remember the sun shining and snow falling at the same time, as we stood on the edge of the temple’s balcony looking upon the mountains and the skyline of Kyoto, with incense burning and worshipers bowing and clapping, recognizing that we had just spent 5 nights and 6 days in Japan, quickly learning more about the culture and becoming more comfortable in a new country. We said goodbye to Kyoto with three more eating and drinking visits within a couple of hours, including a repeat visit to the udon restaurant and a new visit to an old 1950’s style basement bar famous for its coffee and donut. The owner quietly and meticulously weighed and measured the coffee during the preparation. Well-dressed Japanese men and women quietly read in the basement retreat on a busy street, yet another blend of the busy and modern aspects of Japan and the quiet and serene aspects of Japan. Our last visit was to the conveyor belt sushi restaurant I found a couple of days earlier, where I joyfully and sadly ate my last bite of fresh sushi in Japan. Hanging on to every last minute of Japan, we arrived at the ship and I suddenly found myself back in my cabin after six days of a tremendous amount of walking, a glorious amount of Japanese food, a culturally enriching comparison of Tokyo and Kyoto, and our first memories and experiences in a new country during the Spring 2015 voyage. Japan is easily a country in which I could live. What a wonderful country where you bow instead of shaking hands, you take your shoes off when entering a home, you carefully prepare fresh and delicious food with attention to detail, you are quiet on the subway, you are welcoming and respectful to others, you honor spiritual traditions, and you embrace eccentricity.

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