Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kyoto in the Spring

Justin and I recently spent a week in Kyoto and a few days in Nara (Japan's ancient capital) and were lucky enough to be there at the peak of cherry blossom season.  Japanese people are wild for cherry blossoms and never seem to tire of taking closeups of them on their cell phones or using the most intense lenses I have ever seen. I fell in love with cherry blossoms as well. I never knew how moving a two hundred year-old weeping willow cherry tree in full bloom was before, and now I can partly understand the cherry blossom mania.

Kyoto was exactly how I had pictured Japan would be before I came - traditional buildings everywhere, a spotlight on traditional art and crafts, a mix of international and traditional cuisine - ha, basically everything that I have tried and failed to find in Kagoshima.We spent most of our time in Kyoto visiting temples (there are SO many!) and riding our bikes around the city. Kyoto is in a big valley and the temples were often in the hillsides and had trails you could hike to smaller temples tucked away in misty canyons. Picture above, someone else's wedding at the Sanjusangen-do Temple. This temple houses 1000 guilded status of the Buddha in a huge, dark, freezing but very impressively austere wooden hall. The famous Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. Inari is the god of business, and so companies purchase these gates called tori to place at the shrine as an offering to bring them good fortune. So many tori have been and continue to be put at the shrine that you can take a 2 hour hike into the hills and walk under the tori the entire way.

The entire time we were in Kyoto the weather alternated between sunny and beautifully misty which was the perfect weather to spent time in hillside shrines.
We walked through the hills and through the sub shrines of this massive temple, stopping at a tea stand for boiled eggs and tea.
These are called ema, and are decorated pieces of wood that you write your wishes on to communicate them to the gods. Each temple personalizes their ema and you purchase them, write your wishes on them and hang them at the temple. I especially liked these because they were blank fox faces (the fox is the messenger of the god Inari) that you could turn into any kind of face you wanted.
A view of Kyoto from the top of Fushimi Inari-taisha.
Genius bike racks.
Kyoto was had a thriving cafe culture (something I really miss in Kagoshima and seems to be a telltale sign of Westernization in any country) and tons of cute local restaurants.
Ah, Gion. The first hostel we stayed in was in a converted machiya, or traditional wooden townhouse, on the edge of Gion, which is Kyoto's entertainment district where geisha still entertain guests at restaurants. Most restaurants in this area are exclusive and therefore off-limits to us, but it was enough to catch glimpse of geisha walking to their appointments as we rode through these beautifully lit streets.

Cherry blossoms at night. Despite the freezing weather (it snowed once while we were there) everyone was out at night to check out the illuminated cherry blossom trees.

We decided to take advantage of the vibrant local craft scene and get some experts to teach us some tricks of their trade.
We wove bamboo baskets with a man whose family had been bamboo workers for ten generations and had us write down English phrases he could use to teach foreigners.
Kyoto terroir is especially prized and famous for producing delicious things, but I can't find any justification for $18 strawberries!
Kyoto pickles...mmmm! We had some of the most delicious food in Kyoto - foreign and Japanese. My favorite dish was sashimi cut and folded to look like a flower.
Nishiki Market is a covered market that has everything from tourist trinkets to local produce, pickles and small restaurants. Justin and I were drawn to what looked like popsicles, but really were bright cubes of maguro sashimi on a stick.

Shibori is the Japanese take on tie die, and leave it to the Japanese to take something like tie die and turn it into a laborious, intricate art. First you tie tiny tiny knots in the cloth and then die it. For a kimono died in this style, something like ten people will work for two years just tying the knots!
Ah, cherry blossoms and cell phones...

Here we are at Kinkaku-ji, called the golden temple because it literally is covered in gold. There were so many tourist here though that it was impossible to really enjoy it - it's so hard to get into temple space when you are crowed by all kinds of loud tourists. It was different in India where people visiting mosques and temples had a religious reverence for the space, but despite the fact that these places are religious spaces, people don't seem to treat them in quite the same awed silence that I would expect. This and the fact that I am honestly not impressed by buildings covered in gold meant that the real stars for me were this heron and this amazing old woman pulling weeds with the temple as her backdrop.

One of the most beautiful temples (and most thronged with people) we visited was Kiyomizudera. No nails were used in building the temple!
Justin purifies himself before entering the temple.
The main hall of the temple.
Winding down from Kiyomizudera and over to another set of temples was a quaint road of the most delicious tourist treats (freshly grilled rice crackers, sween bean deserts, etc.).

This is one of my favorite snacks - grilled marinated bamboo and konyaku which is a food impossible to describe but is basically a chewy savory jello made out of a plant called devil's tongue.
Our last couple nights in Kyoto we stayed in an old woman's house and she made us amazing breakfasts in the morning and drew our baths when we came home at night (and gave us an amazig pajama set to wear).
We visited Riyoan-ji, the temple where the first zen sand garden was created. Ah, the mother of that awful sand garden kit that someone always thinks will be a good present... At the time this garden was built it was quite revolutionary - can you imagine being a 15 century garden designer trying to sell your proposed garden plan: "ok, there aren't going to be any plants, just rocks and small pebbles, maybe some moss." We were of the first people to enter the temple and so we got to see Karesansui (the sand garden) in relative peace. The walls around the garden were built with clay that had been boiled in oil so that over time their colors changed as their absorped moisture and dirt. I am continually impressed by Japanese attention to natural detail and to the rusticness that the palaces and temples we visited had to them. I found the gardens and architecture much more beautiful than a drafty European castle...
I was impressed by this guy selling takoyaki (a grilled bal of dough with octopus in the middle) out of his truck in a back road of one of the temples.
The mist, the blossoms, the color! Ah, everyone must go to Kyoto! I know I'll be back and I'd love to live there someday.
At the end of the trip we went to Nara, which was a more peaceful, park-like version of Kyoto. Nara's temples are all in a huge hillside park that is overrun with tame deer who beg for you to feed them like pigeons. Nara is another place to fall in love (in and) with and we spent our days wandering in the massive park watching cherry blossom petals fall and the deer harass people.
I wanted the deer to work for their food.

The deer eat "deer senbe." Senbe are a kind of rice cracker that are delicious and can come with anything on them or in them (you've had them in any "Asian rice cracker mix" you've tried), and the deer's senbe (which I tasted) were sort of like the whole wheat unsalted version of what we eat. Too much cute!
There were vendors everywhere selling deer treats and the funny thing was that the deer had a sense of etiquette about being fed - their crackers would be in plain sight sitting in stacks on the vendor's table and the deer wouldn't try to go for them. But once someone bought them and had them in their hand, mobs of dear would crowd around waiting for handouts. Basically anything small and flat in your hand was up for grabs - I saw a deer grab a folded map out of a Frenchman's hand and chew and swallow it (I tried to pull it out of the deer's mouth but that sucker would not let go).
Todai-ji Temple is the largest wooden building in the world (it's hard to tell how big it is by this picture, but yeah, pretty big) and houses a massive Buddha statue.
Ah, on a stone in the sun in a park in the afternoon, deer strolling by, blossoms falling.
We stopped for tea in a garden tea house.
I could't resist feeding them over and over!
With Todai-ji in the background.
Nigatsu-do, another beautiful temple on a hill with a great view of Nara.

You can see the ema from many temples in the area.
Beautiful buildings and a sweet shiba that made me miss Kobe...
A deer sneaks up on some buyers in hopes of a snack.
Outdoor tea drinking.

Afternoon sun, beautiful temple in the woods.
Wishes from temple goers are stacked up waiting to be ceremonially burnt and offered to the gods.

The stretch to give and receive!
During cherry blossom season Japanese people go for hanami 花見, or cherry blossom viewing. This is usually a daytime or evening barbeque and lots of drinking and its fun to walk around and get invited for drinks by groups of drunk cherry blossom appreciators. In the background you can see a couple taking wedding photos...
Some extra cheese on this one, but what a better partner could I ask for?
Hanami by the river.
Waiting in the Osaka airport for our flight home with a full belly and heart.