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September 16th, 2007


Every trip has a dip--every long trip, anyway, or maybe it's just any trip we take. We hit our dip in Kyoto. We're not

There are hundreds of temples, shrines, museums, and National Cultural sites in Kyoto. We saw six: the Silver Pavilion and garden; the Philosopher's Path; a small shrine off the path; the Nijo castle, Pantocho Street, and the Gion pleasure district. We also went to Rosh Hashana services in a synagogue in Kobe, and the wonderfully international street it was on. We had dinner with Hicaru, in town for a few days in Kyoto with some lovely Canadian fans at the end of their post-WorldCon trip through Japan, and with Charlotte's cousin Reggie and his girlfriend. And we washed two weeks' worth of dirty laundry in the hotel sink and took a considerable hike in the grounds of our hotel to watch the sun set from the top of the nature trail. So we weren't complete layabouts. We just don't feel we really made a dent in the richness that is Kyoto.

Reggie, who has lived there several years, likens it to Boston. There are lots of universities and colleges and schools, which has created a lively arts scene. We certainly saw plenty of young people--in school groups and singly, with cameras and notebooks, looking carefully at the beautiful paintings and sacred artifacts they'd been taken to see--or giggling over instant messages on their phones with their friends. It is also full of tourists. A lot of Kyoto is utterly tourist-oriented: tour buses galore, souvenir shops full of tourist tat (Court Poetess Kitty, anyone? Word. I have her dangling from a pocket on my purse even as I type), snack stands selling Polcari Sweat and candy, signs telling you how far to this shrine or that temple. The oldest parts are cramped and low-built, with winding, narrow streets that look pretty much as they did any time these last several hundred years, and is right next to a network of shopping arcades full of 100 Yen shops and convenience stores and shoe-repair joints and cheap beauty product outlets.

We spent a certain amount of time running around those arcades on Tuesday night, looking for a place to eat with Hicaru and the Canadian fans he was shepherding around Kyoto. Poor pets. It was their last night, and it had been a long day of sightseeing, and they needed to catch an early train in the morning to start the long process of going home. And we just couldn't find a place that met everybody's needs. Eventually, we parted company, promising to see each other at WFC. Then Hicaru and Ellen and I shared two servings of sukiyaki, Kyoto-style, which is to say, sprinkled with sugar (yes, sugar), seared on an iron dish until the sugar caramelizes, then simmered in just a spoonful of mirin and soy sauce until done. Then you dip in it beaten-up raw egg and eat it. The beef was glorious, the onions sweet, the leeks divine, the sake we drank lovely and soft, the conversation about British traditional music, a passion Hicaru and Ellen both share. When the last pickle was gone, it was still raining (have I said it was raining all this time?), so we got a taxi to the hotel.

OK, I can't just write about food, can I? Eventually, I have to get to the sights.

I have to admit that in the general way, I like Shinto shrines better than I like Buddist temples. They're quieter, they're tucked away into hillsides, they have torii and lanterns. They are pretty and peaceful and unobtrusive. Buddist temples are generally more formal, grander, with wide, windy courtyards and a minimum of strictly-disciplined greenery. But there are several Buddist temples in Kyoto that were repurposed from warlords' retirement homes way back in the day, and those, I like a lot, possibly because they feel kind of like shrines. The Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, is a dear little pagoda-like structure set in a beautiful moss garden beside an artfully artless pond with a couple of natural-looking artificial islands in it. We wandered along the mossy paths, admiring the twisting intricacies of the tree roots heaving through a tapestry of mosses and ferns, occasionally stopping to take a picture of a gardener sweeping away stray leaves and twigs or a waterfall or a sand garden.

It was very beautiful. But not as beautiful as the second small temple we went to, the temple that's off the Philosopher's Path and not all that easy to find, the temple that's built around the thatched hut of a Buddist saint. Its name and history are buried, I'm afraid, at the bottom of some bag or other, but I will supply it if someone wants it and reminds me. It was very peaceful in that temple, very green, with a long path leading up to it through the trees. The trees were natural-lookling, the moss was unswept, and the few visitors sat quietly here and there, just taking in the green peace. We joined the, leaving just as the gates were closed, and made our way down the rest of the path in meditative silence. At the end of the path, we walked back to the hotel by way of what was obviously the high-rent district. All the houses we passed were walled, with gardens, some of them with landscaper's trucks parked outside them and gardeners hard at work, pruning and wiring the trees into submission. No lawnmowers in the backs of those trucks: just pruning shears and triangular pruning ladders and brooms--for the moss, of course.

The Philosopher's Path was one end the Cultural Property spectrum. The other was Nijo Castle, which the Tokagawa shoguns built simply to rub the Emperor's nose in how much more money and power they had than he did. They never lived in it, though they did visit ever 100 years or so. We went with Charlotte, on a day of breathless heat and humidity. The shoguns wanted the place to impress and over-awe, and it does. You walk through a gigantic gate into a gigantic forecourt bounded by gigantic white and featureless walls, then turn a couple of corners to be confronted by yet another (gigantic) gate, through which you can see a truly ginormous building stretching off in all directions. You take off your shoes, labor up some extraordinarily steep steps (and this is a modern and fairly tall Westerner speaking here), and then things get really impressive.

You gotta hand it to the Tokagawas. They really knew how to put on the dog. Every door and ceiling is either carved, gilded, painted, or lacquered, and sometimes all four. The doors and inner walls are painted with tigers, pine trees, peonies, cranes, hawks, clouds. The ceilings are coffered, with floral and/or geometric designs in each square that William Morris might have designed. Over the open walls to each room are panels painted with remarkably modern-looking semi-abstract shapes reminiscent of clouds and mountains. Plus, there are nightingale floors.

I wasn't exactly aware that each of my steps made the floor squeak. There didn't seem to be much connection between my walking (or bouncing) and the sound I heard. But there was squeaking. Can't say I thought it sounded like nightingales to me, though. It sounded more like a convention of mice commenting excitedly on where everyone was. Mice, nightingales, it hardly matters. Nobody was going to creep up on anybody quietly there.

By the time we got through the endless rooms and put on our shoes again, it was truly hot and close, and all we really wanted out of life was a cool drink and some shade to sit in. We wandered through the gardens, in search of same, and were just about to fall right over when we came to a rest house with some vending machines, where we learned about iced green tea with milk, which tastes a lot better than it sounds. It also packs quite a caffeine punch, enabling us to get through the rest of the gardens and to the souvenir shop (where Court Poetess Kitty came into my life) before closing time. After which we all piled onto the subway, went back to the hotel, and sat about in our room eating sweet sesame wafers and drinking green tea until it was time to meet Reggie and Sasumi for dinner.

Bless her heart, she'd cooked dinner for us: cabbage rolls with chopped beef and onions in tomato sauce and potato salad made with Japanese squash and raw tuna and avocado and green salad, with ice cream for dessert. It was very good, if somewhat strange to be eating the above-described menu with chopsticks while seated on cushions on the floor. We talked about Reggie's students (he teaches comparative cultures to foreign students, most of them non-Western, at a local university, and obviously loves it) and Sasumi's studies (she's learning to be a social worker), and our respective travels and had a lovely time.

And that was Wednesday.

Thursday was somewhat in the nature of a pilgrimage. The only Jewish community in Japan, as far as we can tell, outside of Tokyo, is in Kobe. Luckily, Kobe is easy to get to from Kyoto--just 50 minutes by direct train. And the synagogue is about a 15 minute walk from the station. It's a Sephardic congregation, with the women separated from the men by walls and lace curtains. The men did all the praying and singing. The women (at least one of whom was Japanese) davened, quietly kept up with the children (of whom there were many, several of them part-Asian), and put out the luncheon. Aliyahs were auctioned off for respectable amounts of yen, proceeds to go to Israel. The entire service was in Hebrew, and all announcements were in Hebrew and English. At the break for cake and wine right before the Torah readings, it became clear that most of the regular congregation is Israeli, with a sprinkling of homesick young American women teaching English in small rural towns and away from their families for the holidays. The exceptions were the Japanese woman, an old Japan hand who has been living and working in Kyoto since Nixon was re-elected, and a woman and her husband who have moved their three children (7, 6, and 3) from Brookline, MA (where they belong to a Reform temple) so they can teach English to kindergardeners and first graders in an international school, I think in Osaka. Ellen gave a copy of The Golden Dreydel to her daughter to read, on the understanding that she'd return it to the congregation when she'd finished it.

When the service was over, we all sat down and ate hummus and baba ganoush and challah and chatted, and then Ellen and I had to make a run (literally) for the train back to Kyoto, skidding onto the platform just as the train was pulling into the station.

That evening, just before sunset, we walked up the nature trail behind our hotel and watched the sun set. It was beautiful, if somewhat strenuous, being straight up a considerable number of steepish wooden steps. Birds sang all around us (it was a bird sanctuary, after all), but all we saw was Japanese cypress and holly and pine and juniper, moss and tiny, fragile ferns growing in the rocks at the side of the path. We passed a dear little shrine with a miniature torii in front of it, and then headed up to the observation platform, coming down before actual sunset because we were nervous about walking the path in the dark.

As it happened, we needn't have worried. The downhill path wandered and looped down a gentler incline. We felt kind of like two travelers in a pre-industrial landscape, racing night and a threatening rainstorm to the next village down a well-worn but not particularly easy path. Very atmospheric. We kept up the general theme of time-travel by going down to the old pleasure-district of Kyoto for dinner.

Pontocho street is narrow, lined with wooden houses and the red lanterns that indicated the presence of a restaurant or bar. We wandered down the street, inquiring about what they served and whether they could seat us. Mostly, they couldn't, but finally we fetched up at a fairly modest little sushi restaurant that was just what the doctor ordered. After a lovely fish dinner, we wandered (in the rain, by now) to Gion, which used to be (and still is) the geisha district.

It really does look pretty much the way it always did: street after narrow street of two-story wooden houses with lamps glowing golden behind bamboo blinds and paper windows. Gentleman revelers ducking under the doorcloths of discreet establishments or supporting each other to taxis. Probably even the tourists, although in the old days, they wouldn't have been wearing shorts and t-shirts and the ubiquitous bucket-shaped sunhats (yes, even after dark). But there would certainly have been a geisha clip-clopping her way to a party, bright kimono gathered around her, white-painted nape gleaming, eyes lowered, scarlet mouth pursed, looking like no individual woman on earth, but a dream of a woman, a living ideal, a walking statue, a doll. And there was one Thursday night, too, like a ghost of the past, her high gaeta lifting her a good 6 inches above the rainy street, moving among the gaping tourists as if we weren't there.

After that, we went back to the hotel. Anything else would have been an anti-climax.

And that was Kyoto.



OK, I've had it with falling ever further behind. So I skipping Nara. For the time being. I wouldn't skip Nara entirely, because it's just too enchanting and we had too good a time--despite weather designed to discourage walking very far, very fast, or very uphill. We were there a little over 24 hours, and stayed in a lovely ryokan with tiny private guest houses, each with its own entrance and lantern and view of the Nara Koen, the park where the sacred deer roam free and mug tourists for deer biscuits.

I'll tell you all about it, I promise. Maybe tomorrow night. Today, I need to write about Tokyo and the Kabuki.

I love Tokyo.Collapse )

So we've moved hotels now, and are at the Keio Plaza in Shinjuku, where it will be easier to catch a train to the airport on Wednesday. We're waiting for the Yoshikoshis to show up so we can have one last dinner together. We just got a message that they were in a fender-bender a few blocks from the hotel, and can we wait for them? I feel terrible. But I'm not surprised. It's always something. Someone gets lost or misunderstands where we're supposed to meet or gets stuck in traffic or loses a phone number, and the meeting doesn't come off, or comes off really late, when everybody's exhausted and distracted and pulling their manners up from their toes. It's a wonder they still want to see us when we come to Japan.


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