Oh, Shinkasen! How I love your comfy, plush, wide seats and your smoke-free cars. All is forgiven from the last trip if not forgotten. Maybe I will forget in the spirit of the New Year, which apparently is quite the rage. Let go of the grudge and ring some temple bells, 108 times in all!
So, Kyoto was awesome. Jon and I spent 2.5 days/2 nights there. Our first day, after the less than ideal Shinkasen experience, we went to the Golden Pavilion (as mentioned in the post below). It is beautiful and even better than the temple- or at least equal to- in beauty is the lake that the temple is on.
Afterwards, we went to our hotel to check in. It was a very nice hotel. Not in a luxurious sense, but in the sense that it is a perfectly acceptable, generic Western style hotel with a large bed, nice view, high pressured shower. It was awesome. We went to a restaurant about 7 doors down. There were a couple pictures outside and we were feeling rather sparky and adventurous. We ordered some fish, chicken yakatori and yakiudon. My favorite is when I tried to put the burden of ordering on our waitress by asking in my very best Lonely Planet Nijongo what she would recommend. She looked confused and gestured to the menu she had just brought out, handwritten in sharpie marker, “All this recommend.” All this, however, was all this in Hiragana. Currently, I can read 10 out of the 63 syllables that exist, so we were a little out of luck. But after randomly saying some Japanese food words I knew, it worked out really well. Jon and I celebrated our successes with several Kirins. Then we went to FamilyMart where I bought Hagen-Daz. If they have Bitter Caramel in the States, I highly recommend it!
The next day, we had our hotel breakfast followed by Starbucks coffee (2 blocks down!). Although Mr. Donut was right next-door, Jon has something against little fried ball of dough despite the fact that he love a lot of other types of carbs. Then we went to Ryōan-ji (竜安寺), a Zen temple most famous for its 15th century, 15 stone Zen rock garden. The style is “dry landscaping,” and meant to condense the idea and forces of nature into one small, contained space to meditate upon. It’s interesting to me to think how people carefully plan out abstractions for the perfect (in their minds) representation of a concept. They work so hard, only to leave a lot to chance and the individual viewer’s interpretation. I wonder if the artist considered it an abstraction, which would be interesting since Europe was still centuries from abstraction as an artistic movement, or if the artist considered it a distillation, a paring down of an enormous entity to its most pure, essential elements?
Besides the stones, there were four islands of moss that 13/15 stones were contained in. Moss has a huge importance in gardens, helpfully demonstrated at our third stop, the Ginkakuji (銀閣寺, the Silver Pavilion), in a display of 3 groupings of moss. Each group had multiple species, categorized as “Inhabitor moss”, “moss the interrupter” or “V.I.P Moss (like very important persons.”
The Ginkakuji was beautiful as well. It was built in the style of the Golden Pavillion, although it is only two stories. It, too, sits on a beautiful lake with carefully selected and placed stones. Right next to the pavilion are two large sand sculptures, one of Mt Fuji and the other representing waves, which is enhanced by the full moon’s light. The grounds are much more incorporated into the hills, which abut the lake. At the Golden Pavillion, the “scenic mountains” were important as captured landscape, but the grounds itself were not as hilly.
We did stop at one temple prior to the Ginkakuji, but we were confused b/c there seemed to be a lot of preparations for the New Year’s. Even weirder (as bad as this sounds), there were no signs in English. And for a temple mentioned in Frommer’s, that’s just bizarre. We finally figured out we were at the Shimogamo temple. It is an important one for Japanese tourists based off the fact that it earns a little pictograph in the Kyoto tourist bus map, but there were no foreign tourists in sight. Oh, and the reason we were there? Because someone *cough, me, cough* misread Shimogamo for Sanjusangen-do, our intended target.
Finally, we went to the Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), a huge temple complex overlooking the city. It was slightly confusing getting there. The bus stop was about 0.5 km downhill from the entrance, which was reached via several side streets. Although the map indicated that a walk would be necessary, I was confused when we passed a very tall pagoda about a block and a half in. I thought that it was the Kiyomizu, but I wondered where all the tourists were. But we kept walking, stopped in a few shops, then wandered around the temple, which was really neat. We saw the main temple hall, the side temple to the God of Love and Matchmaking with the two romance stones, and the waterfall of pure water that your can have a little sip of, while avoiding the other poles of people bringing back the water they reached out for. It was kind of like avoiding someone taking a shot during a pool game.
For dinner, we walked around Gion, which I’m glad we got to see, but it seemed touristy and pricy. In the attempts to get a cheaper dinner, we went downstairs near a bar advertising a menu with lots under 1000 Yen. Jon decided to go into another restaurant and that’s where we met Hiroshi.
Hiroshi is the 70 year old something owner of Mayate grill. He has two points of pride: 1. He serves the best steaks in Japan (better than Kobe) and this seems to have a large part to do with 2. he’s been in the restaurant business for 44 years.
He charcoal cooks everything and claims to be the only restaurant in Kyoto that cooks this way. I asked why charcoal and he said that he loved charcoal and before the war, everything was cooked with charcoal. When I asked what there was during the war, he said there was no charcoal, there was really no anything. He said he tried to forget everything between 1941-1943, that things were “terrible.”
His “American” was very good, and he really seemed to enjoy practicing it. He learned from an American soldier who lived next to him after the War. He thought it was so interesting that “One day enemy, next day Friend.”
He was really interesting when he was talking about modern (post- WWII) Japan. He recommended studying modern Japanese history, how it went from a country devastated by war to include 2 atomic bombs, to a prosperous country emulated by its neighbors in just 26 years.
His take on modern Japan, good and bad, was similarly succinct. He had strong feelings about the economic disparity between the North and South in terms of wealth distribution and power. Kyoto itself is one of the most prosperous cities in the South, mainly from the tourism. In an abrupt statement, Hiroshi said, “Kyoto is a big city, gets lots of money. But who makes the money. Shrines. Temples! They do not pay taxes. F****ing monks! I hate the monks.” Jon and I didn’t know quite what to say, but Hiroshi seemed pretty happy that he was doing the talking, while we silently ate the best steaks in Japan.
Finally, on the 31st, Jon and I woke up, ate breakfast, went to Starbucks and went to the Sanjusangen temple, with the 1001 bodihsatvas carved out of cypress wood and covered in gold leaf. Jon remembered that we had seen the statues before at a photography exhibit at the Hirshorn by Surigito Hiroki. I read up on the inspiration and the photographer said the monks charged a lot of money for the pictures because they would rather have tourists come to them. In addition, the photograph was taken early in the morning when the eastern dawn rays cast a beautiful luminance onto the statues. The article had some interesting views on the nature of monks and the business of religion, which had been mentioned earlier the night before by Hiroshi.
Now, tonight, we are going to Tokyo and staying at a ridiculously nice hotel. Yay! We are also going to go to a party at the Mori Arts Center on top of Tokyo City View. I think it should be pretty awesome. Definitely an experience that can only be had in Tokyo.