Four nights in Kyoto (continued)
After breakfast we met our next tour guide, Nori. She is the smallest person I have ever met. My wife and I tower over her as we make introductions.
Nori is taking us on a guided tour of several important temples. While Duncan taught us about the economic and cultural infrastructure which surround and permeate these places, Nori is a practitioner. Through her we experience these places as works of spiritual art.
First we returned to Chion-in and discover that the massive gate at the main entrance is also a place of worship. We pay a small fee, remove our shoes, and climb up dizzyingly steep stairs to a walk way which wraps around the top of this gate and leads into a darkened chamber. Inside, under dim light (no photos allowed) we see the Buddha decked out in gold, surrounded by disciples - all great wooden statues. The tray ceiling is home to twisting blue dragons.
The wood beams and planks which form the space are hard as stone and so large they make me feel like a child standing in an empty theater in my sock feet.
We find our way through a historical neighborhood on a hillside, winding our way in between a throng of tourists. We are relatively tall and Nori is relatively short and we nearly lose her several times in the crowd. We emerge from the neighborhood’s twisty streets at the top of a hill and scoot past the line (it pays to pay for a tour) into another large temple.
We blur through more places of worship, taking off shoes, putting on shoes, down hallways, up stairs, down stairs and it’s all becoming a blur. It’s too much, too fast, and too unfamiliar to take in so instead I begin to watch people and think of this tour as a brisk walk.
We make our way back to the historical village and find a slightly less busy restaurant for lunch. Every place is packed with tourists and we feel lucky to find a place with only a 15 minute wait. This restaurant serves soba. I get a bowl of dark broth with smoked fish and noodles. I slurp this all down and inhale some green tea and feel refreshed. We are not done with this tour, so I steel myself for the crowds and we return to the streets.
At the bottom of the hill we return to a temple complex with a tea-room we passed earlier. We have been booked into a casual, educational version of a tea ceremony.
At the back of the building, a panel slides open to reveal a tiny room with a low ceiling. Tatami mats on the floor and a bed of hot coals smolders in a chamber in the center of the room. We are invited to remove our shoes and sit round the fire. A panel across the room slides open revealing our host. She is an elderly woman in a red kimono. She glides into the room, floats down to her knees, and begins preparing tea while our Nori interprets for us. We eat small sweets, dough enveloping sweet beans, and sip matcha tea from a bowl.
I had incorrectly categorized matcha with kombucha and other terrible hippy garbage, but I was wrong. Matcha is delicious. The tea is a green powder made from entire green tea leaves ground very fine. With hot water added, the tea is thicker and hearty with a nice creamy foam on top, like a good espresso.
I discover that it is impossible for my big dumb American body to sit cross legged. I sort of splay one leg out to the side and try to make myself small as possible. Everyone pretends not to notice, which is nice.
Our host defies her age and physics by rising straight off the floor like a ghost and disappears with our tea service.
As we leave this complex of temples and make our way back to a subway station to return to our hotel we pass a charming dried fruit vendor. We stop to shop, and he offers us free samples. He tries to give us pineapple, to which my wife is allergic. There is some confusion as he tries to offer the fruit which we try to politely decline. We explain she is allergic, Nori jumps in to interpret and saves the day. Turns out she is also allergic to pineapple. Small world.
I try a bit of dried apple. It tastes like concentrated springtime. The vendor explains that it pairs very well with whisky. I will remember this.
Back at our hotel, we clean ourselves up and head back out to find something to eat. We stroll through the shopping district nearby in hopes of finding a restaurant.
This shopping lane is a street, spanning several blocks, blocked off to vehicle traffic. Between the buildings lining the street, there is a colorful glass roof which allows in light but protects you from the elements. We make note of our street and the elephant flag floating over head to find our way home, and head to our left. We get lucky and find a quiet sushi bar. Through gestures and pointing we learn what’s available and end up with a nice assortment of nigiri and maki. I pair this with a big bottle of sake. As we eat, some locals start to flow in and get their usual. We are tired and full and ready to retire.
On the way home we stop into a 7-11 and I by a small bottle of Suntory whisky. Back at the hotel with my whisky I learn that the fruit vendor was correct. Dried apple does pair very well with whisky.
I wake early the next day and I run out to find us a 7-11 breakfast. We’re skipping hotel breakfast today so we can get to the train early. We don’t want to miss the monkeys. After a quick breakfast of robot-coffee and egg sandwiches, we head to the subway which we take to Kyoto Station and board a local train to Arashiyama station with hundreds of commuters.
Our goal is to beat the crowds, and we have succeeded. We let Siri guide us from the train station to the bamboo forest. The forest is protected and your access is limited to a well defined gravel path secured by fencing on both sides. We walk steadily uphill through the forest, stopping to take pictures of the bamboo. Each bamboo stalk is about 6” in diameter and very tall. There are no branches except at the very top. It’s like nature just decided to create telephone poles one day. Bamboo is supremely weird.
The path emerged from the bamboo forest into a clearing which gave way to a park. We followed the trails uphill to find a viewpoint where we learned we had walked up into the mountains. From the viewpoint we could look down on the river valley.
On the way back down we stopped at a small temple with gardens. We waited for the temple to open, bought a ticket, and ignored the temple so we could walk the gardens. The gardens encircled a large, placid pond. Fall colors were coming out in the leaves making every photo looked like a perfect postcard.
It was time for monkeys. We left the gardens and wound our way back to the edge of town to cross the Togetsu-kyo bridge and wind our way back up into the foothills. Along the side of the river we spied the entrance to the trail leading to the Arashiyama Monkey Park. We paid our entrance fee and passed through the gate onto a steep trail that made it’s way up the mountainside with small steps and switchbacks. I looked at the paved steps at a point in the trail and saw a small ramp built into the stairway. I thought this must be allow a groundskeeper to get a wheelbarrow up the hill. I hadn’t realized how long and how tall of a hike this would be. Many switchbacks later, about halfway up the mountain, aware of both my legs and the altitude, a park worker zipped by us on a loud little two-stroke motorcycle.
Along the hike education signs are posted in Japanese and English providing fun facts about the monkeys. Facts like “don’t make eye contact”.
The trail leveled off and we reach the park. The trail enters a fenced area, and a short hike up a hill plateaus onto the hillside giving you a view of all of Kyoto. As we make our way up the small hill we hear noise and see motion. And there they are. Snow monkeys. And they are everywhere. We reach the viewpoint which includes a small pond, a small research facility, and a feeding pen. My wife is absolutely enthralled by the monkeys. I keep my distance. I’ve seen enough Discovery Channel to know that monkeys will eat your damn face.
My wife disappeared into the feeding facility - a reverse cage with humans on the inside passing food out through the bars to the monkeys. She’s having a great time while I remain very still until the monkeys lose interest in me and go pay attention to the folks with the food.
On this hillside you can see almost all of Kyoto. I stand quietly and soak up the city. From here you can see that Kyoto is wide and flat, but still a very dense city. From here I can see the river we crossed earlier snaking off to the south and off in the distance I can make out some large landmark buildings near our hotel.
My wife comes back from the feeding pen giddy. There was a nursing momma monkey and baby monkeys. I remind her to watch out for dad, because he’ll eat your damn face. We hike back down the hill, the long hike feeling like absolutely nothing with gravity on our side. At the bottom of the trail we pause for photos and cross back over the bridge to find ice cream and wind our way back to the local train station.
We’ve done all of this before 10am and the train ride back was just as full of commuters. We misheard the upcoming train stop and got off the train one or two stops too early. We didn’t realize this until we were already out of the train station. We started to walk and investigate a bus stop only to find a Uniqlo store. Serendipity! I have been wanting to go visit Uniqlo while I was here and here we were. We went inside to shop around. I found a fantastic flat messenger bag made for commuters with laptops. To pay for my bag, I placed it into a big square bin. The computer-robot next to the bin woke and displayed text to me in Japanese. I found the “english” button on the screen and the robot revealed that it knew exactly what was in the bin, and asked how I wanted to pay. At no point did I scan anything, The robot just knew.
We catch a cab outside of the store and made our way back to the hotel. After a rest and cleaning ourselves up we left to find lunch. We intended to find something in the shopping district again, but we caught sight of a restaurant downstairs in a building. We shrugged and said why not. At the bottom of the stairs was a huge diner. Like a Japanese Denny’s. The entire bottom floor of this building was a restaurant. The menus had pictures. I found some chicken karage, My wife discovered French fries. We ordered beers to go with our lunch and talked about monkeys while we ate fries with chopsticks.
Returning to the surface and the sidewalk we wandered the shopping district again, this time turning right instead of left. We saw fish markets and souvenir shops. We find a shop selling beautiful jewel-like candies and stop to buy some as gifts.
The shopping street t-boned into another shopping street, but this one has a different glass roof - white instead of brightly colored. More somber and more expensive. We found our way into a Kimono store and spoke to an older gentleman who explained that the item we were looking at was, in fact, the sash belt which ties around a kimono robe (but it would make a very fine scarf).
Across from the kimono shop, my wife’s eagle eye spotted tables and chairs and a sign with a wine bottle in it. But this place was above a store selling pottery, plates and kitchen-ware. We went into the shop and discovered a hidden stairway at the back which led to the bar upstairs. Was the bar and the store the same business? A strange partnership? Unknown. We sit at the bar and two beautiful youngsters took care of us. A twenty-something young woman with indie-rock earrings and bright red lipstick is looking after a slightly awkward younger man - maybe 19 years old - behind the bar. They did not expect tourists. But we point at some wine on the menu and it all works out.
As we sit and chat, a glamorous older couple walk in. The man acts like he owns the place. Glasses appear for them. The woman already knows what she wants. She is dressed very well in dark colors and makeup for the evening. The older man is dressed like an eccentric millionaire. Suit jacket, rose colored button-down shirt, unbuttoned at the top. They begin talking to the kids behind the bar. They’re regulars. On the wall behind us is a lighted cabinet with several bottles of wine, each fitted with an airtight lid and tubing ending in a tap on the outside of the cabinet. The older man walks over to the magical wine dispenser on the wall and serves himself some chardonnay without asking.
The kids behind the bar are more relaxed with their regulars here to protect them from the tourists and each pour themselves a beer from the tap. The older man tells us, as best he can, that this is a secret bar, and one of the best places around. He explained that he and his wife run a shop nearby. We get another glass of wine, this time from the magic wine machine. It’s much better than the first glass. Wine in Japan is an imported delight, and the language used to describe it is usually wrong or at least not quite right. It’s charming and I suddenly feel very cultured, an emissary from one of the great wine regions of the United States of America.
Without provocation the older man tells us the young woman behind the bar is very beautiful. She blushed and stared at her shoes. The older man’s wife looked down at her wine and gave him some well-practiced side-eye. I am in heaven.
The wine ends and we’re nearly spent. We go back to the hotel to have our luggage shipped to the next place on our journey. We go to 7-11 for instant dinner and whisky highballs in a can. We eat and drink and read and sleep like the dead.
The next morning we grab our tiny backpacks stuffed with one change of clothes and take the subway to the train station and take a train to the mountains.