Tuesday, November 15, 2011
My おばちゃん student, previously mentioned, brought me a delicious Thanksgiving for lunch. She had cooked a proper American dinner at her cooking club. She was kind enough to bring me a care package. It included several foods but the best was definitely the stuffing and turkey. Turkey is really rare in Japan. In fact I’ve never heard of it being offered anywhere. I savored each bite of white and dark meat. It was a good first meal for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Friday, November 18
Friday night I left work in a hurry. I changed in to my street clothes and grabbed my suitcase. I met Mari at the station and we started our weekend early. We arrived in 横浜 and boarded a bus. A night bus. We were leaving 東京 for 京都. So long かんと!
I had requested off Saturday from work and Mari had taken off Monday. We had made plans to travel together to 京都, or Kyoto, for a three-day weekend. About Kyoto; Kyoto was the former capital of Japan and is often called the “storehouse” of Japanese culture. It was the only major Japanese city to be spared from bombing during the war. As such there are a lot of pre-war structures still standing. So it really is a national treasure.
京都 specifically has many shrines and temples. These buildings are places of worship for Japan’s two traditional religions; Shintoism and Buddhism. Shintoism is the native religion of Japan. It gives stress to the natural world around us. Buddhism was imported a long time ago. This religion is about ancestral respect. Japanese culture has really intertwined the two faiths. Most Japanese people practice, or belief a little bit of both. So far as I can tell, the Japanese believe Shintoism should guide you through life, and Buddhism through death. Since both religions have a long history and 京都 is an old city they go well together. Mari and I decided to visit the city not only for the changing leaves but also the holy places.
Our transportation; night bus. Night buses are a popular form of transportation in Japan. It’s a cheap alternative to planes & trains. So we packed onto the bus with the other sleepy patrons at 11 PM. Our bus was a nicer ride than your standard bus. It was marketed as being ideal for sleeping. It was called the “Relax with Toilet.” The Japanese are still learning how to market in English. But I appreciate their effort. We stowed our bags and took our seats. The chairs reclined back and footrest came up. I adjusted the headrest and pulled a blanket over my waist. Then came the real treat, the hood. I pulled the hood over my head and was allowed some darkness and a sense of privacy. A really weird sense of privacy.
Soon the bus left the station and we were on the road. The driver made 20 minutes worth of announcements. Mari and I kept snickering all the way. The bus line was called “Willer Express.” Because of Japanese pronunciation of foreign words it didn’t sound like Willer. Instead it sounded exactly like “Wheeler Express.” We continued laughing until our heads grew heavy and we fell asleep.
Sat, Nov. 19
POP. CRACK. “ すみあせん。。。”
The bus driver came over the speakers. He was announcing our arrival to 京都駅。 I returned my seat to the upright position and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Mari opened the window curtain to look outside. Rain. Lots of rain. The bus pulled into the station and we exited the bus into an overhang. The driver handed us our bags and left us. I looked around the station. It looked like Tokyo. Then I saw the first sign with “Kyoto” printed on it. We ran over and took a picture.
We were hopeful the rain would pass so we grabbed breakfast in a cafe. After breakfast and a coffee we returned outside. No luck. The rain smacked the concrete and wasn’t going to let up. So we locked up our bags and navigated the station until finding the bus terminal. After a few questions we found the right bus and got on board. It was Saturday morning and the bus was full of tourists. Despite the rain, hordes of people were still going out to see the sights. The driver turned on the big diesel engine and we were off.
After some time we came to our stop and left the bus. We referenced our map and double checked the GPS. Next stop, きよみずでら。 きよみずでら is a very famous temple. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage sight. We walked up a steep hill passing many souvenir shops. I heard all sorts of languages; Russian, Chinese, English, German, Korean and many others. Finally we reached the entrance to the temple. The mountains all around were covered in mist making the scene very mysterious. We paid the fee and entered the grounds. It was busy. We navigated the crowds pausing to take pictures and drink in the scenery.
After much wandering we finally found what we had come for; もみじがり。 Every autumn the leaves in Japan turn to beautiful shades of red and yellow. The changes happen all over the country but 京都 is a very popular place to see the leaves. However it had been warm this fall and the leaves were late to start their transformation. Of course there was the odd tree here and three that was changing on time. At the bottom of the temple was a grove of trees that had all changed. Mari saw it and ran over to take pictures. Click click click. She was happy.
A quick aside about the Japanese and もみじがり。 They love it. もみじがり is the autumn equivalent of おはなみ in the spring. If moths love a bright light then Japanese people love red leaves. They migrate, and sometimes run, to each tree to take pictures with their nice cameras. ”きれい。” They say. Over and over. “えーー きれいですね！” This fascination and documentation of each individual leaf tickled me the whole weekend.
After we finished at きょみずでら we started down the hill. We stopped into a local Japanese-Italian restaurant. I know, a weird combination. We had lunch and tried to dry off. At the door I removed my shoes to pour the water out. It was extremely uncomfortable to walk around with water in my shoes. But I wasn’t going to let that get me down! We finished our lunch and set back out into the rain. Luckily the heavy rain had lessened into a steady dribble. With our bellies full of warm food and (slightly) better weather we had renewed spirits.
Our next visits included; こだいじ, まるやまこえん、ぎんかうじ。 The first temple was very nice. The second visit, a park, smell amazingly fresh from the rain. The last temple, ぎんかくじ is national treasure. It is one of the most famed temples in all of Japan. The two-storied temple was very simple. It was the zen garden and general sense of peace through the park that made it so wonderful. We made our visit just before dusk. This meant the temple was beginning to empty out. The long shadows cast through the area made the whole visit very tranquil. This was definitely the highlight of the day.
We left ぎんかくじ before sundown and again looked at the map. There was a famous temple nearby that would make for a good visit. But first we needed dinner. We swung by a mom & pop restaurant and enjoyed a hot bowl of veggies, fish & noodles. During dinner the rain had stopped completely. With higher spirits than before we set out for the final temple; えいかんど。 During the busy season the temple had opened it’s gates for night-time viewing. This is called “light up.” And yes, that’s Japanese-English. Mari and I strolled slowly through the grounds hand in hand. Satisfied with the exploration we called it a night.
After the final temple we took a bus back to 京都 駅, grabbed our bags and took a train north. We left the station and crossed a wide river. After a 10 minute stroll in the dark & fresh night we found our destination; Casa de Natsu. Casa, Spanish for house, and Natsu, Japanese for summer, so the Summer House. The casa was actually a large house in a residential neighborhood. The owner, a sweet elderly woman named Kisaki, had turned the main level of her home into a two room guest house. We rang the doorbell and Kisaki came out to greet us. She and I had been corresponding via email. Her written English wasn’t too bad. And her spoken English was perfectly understandable. Since it was late she gave us only a brief introduction.
“Here’s your room. What time would you like breakfast? Thanks, have a goodnight.”
Just like that she left us to ourselves. Mari and I both quietly jumped up and down with excitement. The casa was great. It was a very traditional Japanese house. The first time I had physically been in such a building. Our excitement settled enough to unpack our bags. We took showers and had soon called it a night. おやすみなさい。。。
Sun, Nov. 20
The alarm pierced the quiet air in our room. I shot straight up. Six AM, time to get moving. I left Mari sleeping to take a quick shower. I dried off in the cool November morning air. The Japanese don’t do central air. I returned to our room and found Mari up and moving around. We’re both morning people. Outstanding. We tidied our room and packed our bags for the day. At seven on the dot I heard a rustling outside our rice-paper door.
“おはようございます。” It was Kisaki.
“おはようございます。” We returned.
I opened the door and found a breakfast tray waiting on a nearby table. I picked it up and carried it back inside to our breakfast nook. Four slices of toast complete with butter and jam. Two mugs and a big pot of coffee. It looked delicious, おいしいそ. I walked past Mari who bounced with excitement. I placed the tray on the table and we sat across from each other. We placed our hands together and prayed, “いただきます。” We ate our breakfast and agreed it looked like a fine day.
We brushed our teeth, put on our shoes, thanked Kisaki and left for the day. And indeed it was a fine day. The sky was bright and blue with only an occasional cloud. We locked arms and set back for the station. Along the way we stopped at the river to take some a few morning pictures. My nose tickled and I sneezed. This was nothing unusual and I grabbed for a tissue. We took the train across town and came to our first destination: あらしやま。
We arrived at あらしやま and it was immediately evident we were in the mountains. The air here was more crisp. And so too my nose tickled more. We crossed the とげつこ bridge and mixed with the throng of tourists. In all of the confusion I actually was walking next to a man with a University of Nebraska shirt on. I asked for his picture and he obliged. Random.
Our next visit was てんりゅじ. Another World Heritage Sight, てんりゅじ is a very old and popular destination. We removed our shoes and walked through the halls on the たたみ. The building was impressive but the garden was spectacular. The tree leaves were more red than the day before. The air was calm and made everything seem tranquil. But still my nose itched. It became apparent to me that it was going to be an allergy day.
I have many allergies. Most of them unknown. On occasion there is something in the air that so negatively affects my sinuses that I become a wreck. This was one of the days. I sneezed and had a runny for literally 15 hours. I used three boxes of tissues and at times was unable to communicate. Serious stuff. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s a sight to behold.
We finished our time at てんりゅじ as my allergies began to really flare. We walked through a small bamboo forest and visited the next shrine, じょじゃっこじ. Here we climbed up the mountain and had a great view of 京都。 The city is in a valley with mountains on every side. Neat. We climbed down, caught a train, had lunch and walked to the next place.
Our next visit was りょあんじ. This is a Buddhist zen temple and another national treasure. It was one of the temples that I was very excited to see. The attraction of the temple is the zen garden, and the 15 mysterious rocks in it. We stayed for a while contemplating the rocks and taking silly pictures. Near two in the afternoon and the sun dipped behind the tall trees. We had to move quickly. We left one temple for the next.
After a 30 minute walk in perfect weather we arrived at きんかくじ. This is a famous golden shrine that attracts gaggles of tourists. Mari and I navigated the crowds until we found the shrine. A big golden building sat across from us. Tourists everywhere frantically snapped pictures with the dying sunlight. A large lake in front of the building made for a nice reflection and easy photographs. We waited our turn and had our picture taken. Satisfied we walked around the temple grounds enjoying the last bit of sunlight. I left きんかくじ impressed but turned off. The golden structure was a sight to see. But too ostentatious. And the atmosphere around the temple was too much like a business. The monks made no bones about it, they were seeking a profit. I left satisfied and have no desire to ever return.
So we began the walk back to central 京都。 The sun hadn’t quite set and we had some time before “light up” started. We found a nice coffee shop and sat down for a drink and a slice of cheesecake. The speakers above our heads played out cool 50’s lounge music. Later Mari and I were surprised that we didn’t see a single starbucks in the city. And I was even more delighted that all of the shops seemed to be on a Frank Sinatra kick. As I am currently going through one myself.
Back to the coffee shop. The sun had slipped behind the mountains and the city was dark. We spread our map on the table and made a plan. We were at point A, our Casa was point B. We wanted to find a Light Up between here and there. We found one, a small Shinto shrine called きたのてんまんじゅ。 So we made the walk there. The lights were nice and with the sun down my nose seemed to calm. We toured the grounds took pictures and caught a cab back to our neighborhood. We slipped into an いざかや and had some good food.
We finally returned to the Casa just after 9. I slipped into the shower after Mari and let the hot water turn to steam. I breathed deep and felt my sinuses opening up. Shower, dry off and sleep. We were tired.
Mon, Nov. 21
“おはようござみす。” I woke to Kisaki’s voice.
I sat up slower than the day before. My body was tired from the previous day. Allergies. I took a deep breath. I was back to normal. Joy came over me and I jumped out of the futon. Mari and I repeated our routine from the day before. Clean, eat, pack. We left Kisaki just before eight. We enjoyed some small talk and left very pleased with our stay at the Casa de Natsu. I highly recommend it.
After the Casa we visited a bakery. Grabbed some bread and took various forms of transportation to the northern part of town. We spent the morning at さんぜにん & ほせにん. The former was interesting. It’s an old temple and some of the ceiling used to be the floorboards. Also some of the ceiling is stained with human blood. Around 1600 CE, 370 samurai committed せっぷく, or suicide. At one place you can see the bloodied outline of a samurai’s face as he fell face first to the ground. Very eerie.
After our time in the northern mountains we returned to central Tokyo. Lunch was at a noodle shop. We ate and then visited ふしみいなりたいしゃ, a famous Shinto shrine. This shrine is immediately recognizable for many people. Tens of thousands of とりい lined paths and walkways。 This turned out to be my favorite stop on our tour of 京都。 Maybe it was the way the sunlight struck the orange gates, or maybe it felt peaceful. I did decide after this visit that I prefer shrines to temples. I feel more comfortable in a shrine and I find them much more… accessible. I highly recommending visiting this shrine if you have the opportunity.
After the final shrine we had dinner at a restaurant near one of the rivers. This place had heated wooden floors. I had heard of such a novelty but never had experienced it. Let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint. Heated floors are on my wish list now. Dinner was followed by a local train to the station and a しんかんせん home. Our eight-hour bus ride only took 2 hours by bullet train.
We took some local trains back home and were finally forced to separate. Back at home I showered and crawled into bed. It had been a great weekend with wonderful company. But tomorrow it was back to work. Time to sleep away the vacation state of mind. Goodnight Kyoto, good morning Tokyo.
Sunday, November 27
Sunday. I woke up early. Mari and I took a train and bus into the mountains. We wanted to go hiking and see the もみじがり that we had missed in 京都。 So we got into the mountains as early as we could. Everything was going great until just after lunch. We had reached the summit and started down. From the top we took a wrong turn and spent an hour hiking down the wrong part of the mountain. A calm sense of worry began to overtake us. Luckily we were both resourceful and were able to find some kind local hikers. They pointed us the right way out of the mountain and even gave us their map. Moving quickly, to avoid 4pm dusk, we came out of the mountains and found the right bus. Disaster averted.
Back in town I took a shower and said goodbye to Mari. I put her on a train home and crossed the track to find my friends; Lauren & Elisha. The girls had made the long commute out to my neck of the woods. We had two reasons to celebrate: Thanksgiving and our anniversary. The three of us stayed on with the company for a year. Despite the March disasters we had stuck it out. That’s worth celebrating.
To mark both occasions we ate pizza. My first pizza in a year was fantastic! It cost ¥3,000 but was manageable with three people splitting the cost. Dinner was followed by drinks & karaoke. I found the drinking part funny. Upon arriving in Japan all three of us could drink. Fresh from college and ready to party. Now however a year has passed and we’ve all done some growing up. We still like to have a drink and a good time. But now our bodies can’t handle so much alcohol. And none of us want to stay up late only to pay the price the next day. So like good young adults we had our fun. And by midnight all three of us were back at my apartment and in bed.
-Much nature, one country-
I am a man of nature. I greatly enjoy leaving the conveniences of the city to get outside and live. I like how time slows down. I like to feel connected to the earth. I like the strength of my soul after time spent outdoors. Fortunately I am in a perfect outdoors country. Japan has everything. Mountains, oceans, rivers, beaches, sea and lakes; forests, jungles, caves and rocks. If you can see it and touch it, we’ve got it. Not only does Japan have everything, but it’s all close too. In less than six hours I can be in any part of the country doing whatever outdoor activity I want. And I love it!
おばちゃん (Obachan): An endearing word for elderly women
横浜 (Yokohama): Major city near my city
東京 (Tokyo): Capital of Japan
京都 (Kyoto): Former capital of Japan
かんと (Kanto): A region of Japan, including Tokyo
すみません (Sumimasen): Literally, “excuse me”
京都駅 (Kyoto Eki): Kyoto Station
きよみずでら (Kiyomizu-Dera): A Buddhist temple
もみじがり (Momijigari): Literally, “red leaf hunting”
おはなみ (Ohanami): Cheery blossom viewing
きれい (Kirei): Literally, “beautiful”
まるやまこえん (Maruyama Park): A major park in Kyoto
ぎんかうじ (Ginkaku-Ji): A zen temple
えいかんど (Eikan-do): A temple
おやすみなさい (Oyasuminasai): Literally, “goodnight”
おはようございます (Ohayó Gozaimasu): Literally, “good morning”
おいしいそ (Oishi so): Literally, “looks delicious”
いただきます (Itadakimasu): Literally, “thank you for this food”
あらしやま (Arashiyama): A district on the western outskirts of Kyoto
てんりゅじ (Tenryu-Ji): A World Heritage temple
たたみ (Tatami): A traditional Japanese floor mat
じょじゃっこじ (Jojakko-Ji): A Buddhist Temple
りょあんじ (Ryoan-Ji): A Zen Temple
きんかくじ (Kinkaku-Ji): A golden palace
きたのてんまじゅ (Kitano-Tenman Gu): A Shinto shrine
いざかや (Izakaya): A type of Japanese restaurant
さんぜにん (San-Zen-In): A nationally treasured temple
ほせにん (Ho-Sen-In): A not-so-famous temple
せっぷく (Seppuku): Classical samurai suicide
ふしみいなりたいしゃ (Fushimi Inari Taisha) , A famous Shinto shrine
とりい (Torii): A traditional Japanese gate