Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Wednesday: Kyoto

Today was our last full day in Japan. We've been running full speed this past week to pack as much in as we could, so we decided to make today a slow day by meandering on the Philosopher's Walk, a cherry tree lined walking path that follows a canal along the base of the Higashiyama (Eastern Mountains). We caught a bus to the start of the pathway at a temple called Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion). You might think that the Silver Pavilion is silver. It's not. It was intended to be silver plated at its inception in the 1300s, but a war happened at that time and the temple never received its coating. We didn't see much of the temple today, as it was covered in scaffolding for restoration work. But the main reason for our visit was to see the garden, considered a design masterpiece by many. And let me tell you, it was COOL. It had these freshly combed, perfectly perfect (yes, perfectly perfect) gravel sculptures that were just amazing. The garden also had a ton of moss that was brighter than bright due to the heavy rains here last night. All of the gardens we have seen have been so perfectly maintained. As you stroll through gardens, there are always a bunch of workers clipping, wiring branches, and get this...sweeping the moss and gravel. The moss and gravel in garden landscapes are kept clear of every fallen leaf. Workers use bamboo handled straw brooms to carefully sweep all foreign objects out of the moss and gravel. Can you imagine doing that all day every day?! The careful maintenance of gardens is an important part of Japanese culture. Even informal courtyard gardens at homes we'd pass by were meticulously maintained.

After Ginkaku-ji, we made our way down the Philosopher's Walk until we came to the sign for Honen-in, a small temple that is a slight detour from the main path. We climbed up the steep hill and passed under the thatched gate to find a lovely, relatively people-free experience. Freshly raked sand mounds representing the seasons and water (impermanence), moss, loud bullfrogs, and a slight wind that was causing these tiny little leaves to flutter down off the trees in a way that seemed like confetti falling from the sky. Totally neat-o. We sat there a bit and took in the tranquility before heading back down to the path.

Our final stop on the path was Nanzen-ji Temple. This temple has a lengthy and important history...essentially meaning it was destroyed and rebuilt a couple times as a result of war and attack. I find it interesting that so many temples were destroyed by monks...I guess I just thought of them as peaceful sutra chanters. So naive. Anyway, the temple is lovely and had a rare public western toilet. (Hey, I like western toilets. I gave these squatties my best effort and open mind, but let's be real--how much squatting can these thighs take?!)

After Nanzen-ji we hopped a bus back to Kiyomizu-dera, where we went Monday. We both loved the walk up to this temple--crazily crowded and lively--that felt much like being part of a pilgrimage. We loved it so much that we decided to experience it again. We walked up the cobbled streets amongst what seemed like a gazillion people. It was especially crowded today--not an extra inch to move. On Monday we had admired a larger ceramic Buddha at a pottery studio, but because it was so heavy, D picked out some little guys instead. Well, we both kept thinking about the bigger one and decided he was the perfect way to remember our million and a half shrine visits on this trip and well worth the backache that would surely result from lugging him around in our backpack. We stopped in again to buy him. He'll be such a great memory of our experiences here.

After loading up the Buddha in our backpack, we stopped for an afternoon snack at the little row of tea rooms I described Monday. D had buckwheat noodles and cold dipping sauce and I had the much talked about condensed milk shaved ice with sweet bean jam. Deeeeeelicious. This place is so neat because on one side of you is a steep drop into a greener than green forest and the other side is masses of people passing by. I'm sure the Buddhists would some how make this an analogy to life, but I am too brain-dead right now to be that clever. Tee hee.

We finished our climb down from the temple and decided we were tired. Really tired. Normally we pushed through our early evening tired time this week and packed more in, but today we wanted to chill out before leaving tomorrow. So we caught the bus to or hotel stop, went to the convenience store across the street for pre-packaged lattes (coffee shops here don't often do lattes...'coffee' here still means black coffee) and came back to pack and prepare for our departure tomorrow.

I can't believe how fast this trip has flown by. We have had an absolute blast here. Of all the places we've ever traveled, this one is culturally the most different from our own and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring it together. We've learned so much this past week. (Though the bowing thing still throws me a bit...) I can't believe I was ever nervous about traveling here--I'd come back in a heartbeat and I'm sure we will. I think I'm a Japan junkie.

A few photos from today: Self-portrait at
Ginkaku-ji's perfectly perfect gravel mound... Another amazing combed gravel bed at Ginkaku-ji (Can you even believe how perfectly perfect that gravel is?!)... Very Important Moss (like VIP...or is it VIM?)... Walking path at Ginkaku-ji... Moss sweeper... Now that's what I call pruning shrubs... Me being goofy at Honen-in... Serious roots at Honen-in... The Philosopher's Walk... Ornamental dragon at Nanzen-ji... Nanzen-ji... Rickshaw... Huge line for natural spring at Kiyomizu-dera (The cups get sanitized between uses by a UV light. Gotta love Japan.)... D and his buckwheat noodles... Me and my condensed milk and red bean jam shaved ice... Random roadside parasol.

Sayonara, Japan! Thanks for the memories!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tuesday: Kyoto

We started our day early this morning with a bus ride to Ryoanji Temple on Kyoto's west side. Our travel book warned to arrive early, as part of the experience of this place can be lost when the tour groups arrive later in the morning. The temple and grounds are super, but the most remarkable thing about this temple is the Zen rock garden. The space is very simple for a Japanese garden and involves only a bed of white gravel and 15 larger rocks skirted in beds of moss. There are 15 larger rocks, but only 14 are visible from any one vantage. You can try as hard as you want to see all 15 at once, but once the missing rock comes into view, another is gone from view. The number 15 is significant to Buddhists as it represents completeness. The idea behind the ever-hidden 15th rock is that in this world, our view--our understanding--can never be complete. Deep, eh? Those crazy Zen Buddhists.

Afterwards, we hopped another couple of buses to get to a more rural area of Kyoto called Arashiyama. Arashiyama is home to one of Japan's remaining large bamboo forests as well as Iwatayama Park...where the monkeys are supposed to be. By the time we got to Arashiyama, we decided we needed to pick one or the other--bamboo or monkeys--as we had a 1:00 appointment at the Koinzan Saiho-ji (a.k.a. Kokedera, or Moss Temple) and we did not want to run the risk of us being our usual 15 minutes late and missing out on the moss. Tough choice. I love bamboo. I love monkeys. Ultimately we decided that we can see monkeys at the zoo, but there is no huge bamboo forest in Milwaukee. (Besides, we've kinda given up on monkeys after they went out for an extended lunch the last time we tried to visit them.) So we walked up the main street in the center of town and took the first left according to our instructions. And there it was. Just a few steps off the main street was an enormous bamboo forest with 75-100 foot tall bamboo stalks swaying in the breeze. We spent an hour or so walking through the forest and listening to the bamboo knocking together and the leaves rustling every time the wind picked up. I read a Japanese proverb about raising children to be strong and flexible, like bamboo. I think that's a neat sentiment. The bamboo forest was amazing. (Along with a glacier, I think Milwaukee needs a bamboo forest.)

At 12:15 we started our trek to the bus stop to catch the bus to the Moss Temple for our 1:00 appointment. MOSS! Whoooo hooo!!!! Anyway, along the way to the bus stop we started walking toward a huge group of single-filed elementary school kids when one of them courageously looked at us and said, "heddo." We said "hello" back and he smiled with such pride. And then it kept going. Every kid we passed in that line said, "heddo" and we replied "Hello" every time. This went on for at least a couple minutes. The line was 100+ kids long. It was sooooo funny.

But back to the moss... The bus climbed up a hill into a more remote area and dropped us off within steps of the temple. This temple is fully walled and gated. A man met us at the gate, checked our permit, and sent us through. After paying our relatively hefty admission fee of 3000 yen ($30) each (most temples are $5 or less), we were sent through to the main hall. The hall was full of other people who apparently also had a 1:00pm appointment... Lots of other people. Like 50. Maybe more. So much for feeling all special with our appointment. Tee hee.

The hall was filled with rows and rows of low lacquered writing desks on red felt-topped tatami mats. There was an ink stick, ink stone and fine paint brush beside each desk. One of the monks quickly spotted us as needing help (mostly everyone else was Japanese) and sat us down with a barely understandable instruction to trace all of the characters on the sheet of paper we were given. We knew in advance from our research that we would be asked to trace a sutra before gaining access to the moss garden, but we had no idea just how much tracing we'd be doing. As we knelt and traced...and traced and traced, the monks chanted sutras, sounded gongs, lit incense and apparently told us all about the sutra we were tracing and the temple's history...not that I understood a single word of it. Anyway, as D and I were about two thirds through our tracing, a monk came over to us and gave us the pass. He says, "You not trace whole sutra if tired. You tired, you stop." Puh-leeeeeeease. D and J are not quitters. We finished the whole thing and wrote out our wish, our name and address as instructed and placed our "little project" at the altar. I wish I had a photo of this, but photos are strictly prohibited in the temple. We were given a take-home copy of the sutra we traced and I'll include a photo of it below so everyone understands how freakin' long the thing was.

Anyway, FINALLY, after months of anticipation, we walked through the gate into the moss garden. And what a sight to behold. 120 varieties of moss just covering the place. It was AMAZING. And very difficult to photograph in a way that does it justice, but we tried. It was so magical in that garden...all the sound was muffled and the light was filtered in such a neat way...and it was just so GREEN. Apparently the moss looks its best in May and June. Yay for us--good timing! We spent an hour or so following the paths around the heavily wooded garden. And no, I didn't steal any moss. And no, they don't sell moss plugs in a gift shop. Drat.

After a relaxing time in mossland, we hopped on another bus at 3:00 to take us to the other side of Kyoto. We had tickets to Kamogawa Odori, a famous show performed by the geisha from the Ponto-cho district of Kyoto only a few times a year. We also had tickets for the traditional tea ceremony at the theater before the show. Our tickets said we needed to be there by 3:30 for tea, with the show starting at 4:10pm. (Odd start time for a show, eh?) Ummmm...I should know how slow buses are. Buses are slow. They stop a lot. Long story short, we got to the theater at 4:00. We missed our tea time. But when we walked in, they ushered us upstairs to the tea room where a geisha prepared matcha for us and delivered it with a bean paste confection. Thankfully I had just brushed up on my matcha drinking etiquette and I performed like a champ. 90 degree turn, 3 gulps, the whole nine yards. We finished up in 5 minutes and went downstairs to take our seats for the show.

The show. Oh my gosh. What a sight. The stage was filled with white-faced geisha who performed a love story followed by a a second act about confections. At one point, the geisha opened up a huge folded screen and enormous Japanese confections popped a pop-up book. Hilarious. The whole show was an auditory and visual spectacle. I didn't understand a word...and the singing is that crazy, warbly, Chinese opera kind of singing...but I was in awe of the sight and sound of this show. Again, no pictures allowed, but I will include a picture of the show poster below to help with the visual.

After the show, with geisha on the brain and being in the geisha area of town, we went on the hunt trying to snap at least one good photo. We walked the back alleys and had a few sightings, but they move really fast and it was dusk and between managing the umbrellas and fumbling qickly for the camera, we have lots of blurry geisha shots, but I think a couple are clear enough to post. (Though I must say, seeing the geisha walking down the street does freak me out a bit...the make-up is just kind of...well, scary. Seriously. I guess I didn't really think that the geisha still existed...but they do. It's real. I saw them walking with clients. It's really something, isn't it?)

Because of the rain, we quickly decided to take shelter in the covered open-air street malls in the Gion district. We wandered around window shopping drinking iced matcha lattes. Yum. We couldn't help but notice all the t-shirts with various U.S. city themes. We laughed our butts off when we saw one that read...get this...Fish Creek, Wisc. on it. A Door County t-shirt for sale in Japan. Cracks me up.

We stopped for dinner at a hole in the wall. And I do mean hole in the wall. Had I peeked in before deciding to stop there, we probably would have kept going. It was...worn. That's a good way to describe it...really, really worn. In any event, the food was good and cheap. I had beef udon noddles and D had something unidentifiable again. Such an adventurous soul he is. And now we're back at the hotel preparing for tomorrow, our very last day in Japan. We're planning on walking the Philosopher's Walk that follows a cherry tree lined canal from one temple to another. Then we're just relaxing before trying to cram all of our purchases into our suitcases without exceeding the airline's weight limit. (Seriously, shopping in Japan is super fun.)

A few photos of Tuesday in Kyoto: Rock garden at
Ryoanji Temple... Traditionally dressed women waiting for the bus... Wooden bridge extending over the Katsura-gawa (river) in Arashiyama... D goofing around at the bamboo forest... Self-portrait at the bamboo forrest... bamboo "trunks"... Bamboo high into the sky... The sutra we traced at the Mos Temple (Yes, we traced that entireeni thing)... Me petting one of the 120 varieties of moss... Self-portrait in the moss garden... Moss garden view... Another moss garden view... And still more moss (look at how clumpy it is)... Not done yet--more moss!... The steps leading out of the moss garden... Geisha traveling by rickshaw... The poster from the geisha show we saw (Kamogawa Odori)... Street view in the Ponto-cho district... Geisha walking toward us with her client... The same pair from behind... Geisha out to an appointment... Same geisha closer up... And again (we're like the Geisha Paparazzi)... Fish Creek, Wisc. shirt for sale at the Sanjo shopping arcade...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday: Kyoto

Today was the first of 3 days we will spend in Kyoto. Kyoto is full of history--1200 years worth--and is just fascinating to roam around because it seems every other block has a beautifully maintained ancient Buddhist temple surrounded by modern infill. It isn't uncommon to see a thousand year old temple with a 7-11 within steps outside the gates. Kyoto has over a thousand Buddhist temples, a couple hundred Shinto shrines, and over 25,000 traditional houses remaining. Just today riding the bus on major city streets to a destination 10 minutes away we passed 3 temples. And when I say temples, I mean temples. They're huge.

We started our day this morning sitting down with the concierge and booking tickets for Miyako Odori (Cherry Blossom Dance) at the Gion Kaburenjo Theater for tomorrow at 3:30. The show begins with a formal tea ceremony followed by a geisha performance. We were so lucky to get these tickets, as the show only runs for the month of April and a few times in May and October. It just so happens we are here at the right time to see it! Yay!

After booking the show and getting a tutorial on Kyoto's bus system, we walked directly across the street from out hotel to Nijo Castle. This is the Castle that we have had a direct view of from our room. (Nothing makes you feel like you're really in Japan quite like waking up to a 400 year old castle gate right out your window.) We joined the hundreds of uniformed school kids in touring the castle and the grounds. It was built in 1603 by the man who founded the shogunate.
The interior of this castle is known for its opulence and has a number of interesting features including the craziest sounding squeaking "nightingale" floors to protect from the threat of sneak attacks. The floors sound so neat; it's not your average squeak when hundreds of people are touring at once! (Of course, D had to get underneath the structure once outside to examine the structural aspect of the squeak. Such an adorable dork.)

At Nijo we were again approached by a group of kids who asked if they could have their picture taken with us. It is such an interesting phenomenon. I mean, these kids are flat-out excited to have their picture taken with a couple of scrubby backpack-toting Americans. Hilarious. Afterwards they all shook our hands, bowed, and thanked us profusely as though we had actually done something for them. Just bizarre. And adorable.

After the castle, we hopped on a bus to Kiyomizu-dera, a temple sitting at the top of a steep hill. We climbed up the steep cobble stone street with hundreds upon hundreds of other people, just as people have been doing for centuries. This is a more famous temple that is among the most visited. The street up to the temple was absolutely packed with people (especially considering it was early afternoon on a Monday) and absolutely packed with craft galleries, confection makers and souvenir shops. And I mean PACKED. We stopped at a tiny little pottery studio where D bought a few little ceramic Buddhas modeled after the stone ones we have seen at so many shrines.

We finally made it through the crowds to sneak a peak. The temple and grounds are fantastic. The temple just sort of juts out over the lush green valley hundreds of feet below. I think they said 130-some huge pillars support the structure. It is a sight to behold; especially with people crawling all over every inch of it.

After snapping a hundred pictures or so (tee hee) we took the pathway through a forested area back down to our starting point. On our way, we stopped at a tea house with outdoor tatami-matted "rooms" overlooking a wooded valley where they served matcha and bean paste and rice confections. Such a neat experience.

Next we hopped on a bus to Heian Jingu, one of Kyoto's newest shrines. It was built in 1894 to celebrate the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto's founding. It is amazing how many historically significant things there are to see here within minutes of each other. The entire city is a living history book.

We headed back to our hotel at around 6:30 and decided to hit the town in search of dinner. In the world of travel, food is rumored to be very expensive here, but D and I have had great luck finding inexpensive options. Tonight we went to a REALLY local noodle joint--no one spoke a word of English. We did our pointing at the menu routine and guessed really well--our food was great and the total was a whopping 800 yen, or about $8. For both of us. If you're not afraid to venture away from the more "westernized" areas, it is possible to eat really well for pretty cheap. (And it's totally fun playing charades.)

Tomorrow we have a jam-packed day including the MOSS TEMPLE (whoooo hoooo) that I've been talking about for months now and the geisha show. And D just informed me that he thinks we can squeeze in a monkey park. Does that sound like a heavenly day or what?

A few pictures from Monday: D checking out the squeaking floor inner workings at Nijo Castle... Green tea ice cream for breakfast... Crowded street leading up to
Kiyomizu-dera... More crowds (mostly school kids)... Cleansing ritual observed by kids at the temple... Still more crowds... Shrine at Kiyomizu-dera... Now those are some nice lookin' roofs... 3-story pagoda top... Me and my matcha and bean paste treat... D found some turtles out sunning themselves... Turtleneck... Motorcycle postman... HUGE Torii outside Heian Jingu... Kids at Heian Jingu... Make a wish... D and wish trees at Heian Jingu.