A Travellerspoint blog

Elegance and Serenity

An Afternoon at Kawai Kanjiro Museum with our Kyoto Friend

overcast 50 °F

We spent a lovely afternoon yesterday with one of our Kyoto friends, whom I met at a yoga class in 2012. As my friend, Wayne, says, it's best to have a local friend because they know where the really good places are. Indeed, Mieko san did! She took us to the Kawai Kanjiro Museum in south Kyoto. Kawai was a famous ceramics artist who lived from late in the 19th Century to 1973'ish. His impressively large, by Japanese standards, house has been lovingly maintained and filled with his artwork. The home is so elegant and serene, you feel your blood pressure lowering by the minute as you go from beautiful room to beautiful room. So for those of you who aren't on Facebook, where these photos are also posted, enjoy!
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And finally, a bonus photo of Kyoto college graduates jumping for joy to celebrate their graduation!large_DSCN0885.jpg

Posted by pokano 20:11 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Further Ruminations by Dick

On Prices, Garbage, and Other Foolishnesses

This was to have been the year of Pam's and my first ever trip to Europe together. To France, specifically. Pam has never been there. I'm a low-grade Francophile (well, actually I'm a low-grade pretty much anything), who's tried to retain my once pretty good French ever since my last visit, briefly in 1983 . . . just pre-Pam.) I watch France24 on-line, force us to watch the occasional French film and, from time to time, dreamily attempt to think in French. I believe these efforts have worked, that I've retained sufficient French to function with comfortable, if modest success.

We were about to to begin planning the France trip in earnest -- more accurately, this was to have been my trip to plan, and I don't do these sorts of things in earnest, at least not in the kind of earnest that Pam applies to our planning most anything else. For me it's good enough to have flights to and fro', a few hotel reservations, know how to rent a car or grab a train, and we're off. Not quite Pam's style. [Pam: I have no idea what he's talking about.]

And then the Japanese yen began its descent. Our first Japan trip was in November of 2012 -- the yen was at about 80 to the dollar, and the trip had been pricey. Our second trip was in May of 2014, and the yen had slipped to 100 to the dollar. By late last fall the yen was flirting with 120 to the dollar, imports to Japan were becoming pricey, but Japanese exports (think Hondas, etc.) were becoming competitive with their Korean counterparts -- and hotels, rail fares, and Japanese goods were on a 1/3 off sale since our first visit. (I know the Euro has fallen a lot recently, too, but not like this.)

So, Japan it was . . . and I was off the hook for planning! And delighted for more reasons than simply that I'm lazy and shiftless. I've fallen for Japan.

Some of us are old enough to remember when American gas stations seriously advertised service and clean rest rooms. Pam remembers when clean, modern public toilets were not always the case in Japan. We've been going to an amazing supermarket (signage prohibits photography, but here's a sneak peak of their third floor rooftop garden DSCN0643.jpg) that has maybe the cleanest, most elegantly designed restrooms we've ever seen. For example, in the men's room, as you approach the urinal it briefly flushes, in order to wet down the porcelain in order to . . . ? Modern Japan is clean. Little or no litter; close to zero graffiti; almost no evidence of vandalism.

We've already posted a handful of photos of the temporary sculpture installation in the Shirakawa River, just outside the door of our little cottage. Here are a few more. DSCN0670.jpgDSCN0672.jpg Unprotected, unguarded, sad to say, I doubt such fragile, exposed installations would last a night in most American cities -- easy targets for theft or vandalism.

Smoking? Contrary to seemingly now-dated stereotypes, there's very little public smoking, partially reflected by the absence of cigarette butts on streets and sidewalks. In fact, starting in 2007, Kyoto began designating certain city streets as non-smoking areas, and have since been increasing the number of streets so designated. In a 2010 report, Kyoto Prefecture stated that the major goal of their anti-smoking policies is "to ensure that there is zero chance for people to suffer from second-hand smoke in Kyoto prefecture." The little smoking we've encountered in the many restaurants we go to seems adequately mitigated by excellent ventilation systems when there are smokers present. I don't doubt that some back alley yakitori joints are still very smoky, but many public spaces now seem to be no-smoking zones.

It's quiet. The exhaust systems in cars, buses, trucks, construction equipment and motorcycles all seem to be highly refined. There's almost no horn honking, brake screeching, vroom-vrooming or Harley rumbling. We live in a densely populated neighborhood with 12 or more living units with 25 feet of our walls, and never hear our neighbors' music -- occasionally the murmur of conversation or the purr of a motorscooter from the narrow lane outside our door, but no sharp, loud noises, ever.

It's safe. By reputation, anyway. And we've heard little to the contrary. But, in a back lane in our neighborhood, the following sign suggests all is not quite perfect in paradise -- groping and purse snatching?DSCN0624.jpg

Plastic bags and recycling. In a green city (remember the Kyoto Accords?), in a green country where everyone seems to recycle assiduously as a civic responsibility, the retail world overpackages to an extraordinary degree. Even fresh foods often come in a semi-rigid half-shell sealed inside impenetrable plastic bags, then routinely bagged in more plastic at checkout. Here's how we deconstructed the packaging when we bought fresh mochi from the neighborhood sweets shop this morning:

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Even well sealed dried foods typically include a sachet of dessicant. Few, if any, shoppers carry their own shopping bags from home. When I decline the inevitably offered extra bag for my already bagged goods, a bit of polite confusion results. Recycling protocols appear to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: In Tokyo the categories required a graduate degree in materials science -- really daunting separations, differing days of pickup for the various materials, etc. P1080479.jpgIn Kyoto it seems simpler -- burnables (energy recovery?) go into one bin, glass and plastic bottles and jars, and metal cans into another. In our more-than-a-week in Kyoto almost all of our waste has been paper, multi-layer plastic wrappings, or food residue -- burnables. But the other category, one that I've been hoarding for precisely this moment, are all the "clean" plastic shopping bags that we accumulate, despite the fact that we often decline bags when offered. The photo, representing a mere ten days of hunting and gathering, does not include the many "dirty" bags that go directly into burnable recyling bin.DSCN0758.jpg

Fruit, amongst our snacking/breakfast staples, is expensive, not very varied, and not memorably tasty. Now I'm not talking about the US$40 trophy cantaloupe or the six-pack of picture-perfect gift strawberries -- I have no idea what those taste like. I'm talking about the local supermarket or veggie vendor varieties. Approximately one pound of grapes, one to two pounds of bananas, one apple and a kiwi fruit or an orange has been running around $14. Nothing to write home about, taste-wise. In Seattle our vast apple selections, domestic and seasonal or out of cold storage, or imported, are flavorful, distinctively different from one variety to another, and mainly reasonably priced. All of the apples we've tried here have seemed flat. On the other hand, tomatoes (as served as parts of meals in restaurants), shrimp, and most other seafood all seem vastly better than most of what we get at home.

Posted by pokano 05:31 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Temples, Tomodachi (Friends), and Tori (Birds)

Kyoto Days, Continued

So sorry for the silence. Dick and I have both been under the weather and took off about a day and a half to recuperate/rejuvenate. A few days ago, we visited Toji Temple (temples are Buddhist, shrines are Shinto), a 15 minute walk south of Kyoto Station. Even though it's a UNESCO World Heritage site, it's not in our otherwise excellent Kyoto guidebook, for whatever reason, so I'm glad the tourist information center steered us its way.
The temple was founded in the 700's. We were able to go into the ground floors of the buildings, but could not take any photos, alas.

The grounds feature the tallest wooden pagoda in Japan, at 187 feet. DSCN0595.jpg The original structure was built in the 9th Century, but that building and its successors were destroyed by fire several times. The current building was constructed in 1644. None of the pagodas was ever destroyed by an earthquake because of their engineering.

The 9th Century monk, Kukai (maybe that's who the Bellevue ramen restaurant is named after) aka Kobo Daishi, used to live on the grounds in this building.DSCN0613.jpg He founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism, developed the hiragana system of writing in Japan, founded the religious community of Koyasan (where we will be going later in our travels), and established Japan's first private school.

Here are some other photos from the temple grounds:DSCN0606.jpgDSCN0610.jpg

We also saw our first cherry blossoms at the temple site.DSCN0604.jpg It has been much colder here than back home, so the blossoms will occur later.

One of our lasting pleasures of our trip to Japan is the friendships we've formed with two young people, who were our volunteer guides the first time we came to Kyoto in 2012. Many of Japan's larger cities offer English speaking volunteer guides. In Kyoto, the Good Samaritan program features college students. You can ask for a volunteer guide online; it's free, although you are expected to pay for their transport, entrance fee, any food for your trip, which seems only fair. So in 2012, we were still not familiar with the city or the transportation system, and asked for guides to take us into the suburbs:

Yuuki took us to see the gorgeous fall colors in Arashiyama B79F6380D28507E24CCDA9623FA87BE3.jpgB7A8CC20F3C6BC0218731655AD9E6CFB.jpg

Yuki took us to see the famous temples at Ohara: P1020244.jpgP1020175.jpg

Good Samaritans encourages its clients to become friends with their tour guides on Facebook, so we've kept up with Yuuki and Yuki since then. In 2014, when we returned, we looked them up directly. This time, Yuuki accompanied us to Fushimi Inari, the shrine with the 10,000 torii gates. P1070157.jpgP1070209.jpg

Yuki took us back out to Arashiyama to visit the garden and villa of a famous Japanese movie actor. P1060725.jpgP1060722.jpg

This year, Yuki is doing some kind of exchange program to Victoria, BC. So in February she took the Victoria Clipper down to see us for a weekend. DSCN0315.jpg And today we visited with Yuuki in Kyoto. DSCN0742.jpg It has been and, we hope, will continue to be our great pleasure and privilege to know these outstanding young people.

Finally, Dick went out for a walk the other day. Kyoto is a city of canals and rivers. He saw a gray heron sitting in a canal. Not a particularly unusual sight. But then the heron started looking up! Herons usually look down--that's where their food is. Not this time!

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Posted by pokano 02:30 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Food, Food, Glorious Food

snow 32 °F

It's a good thing I brought pants with drawstring or elastic waists, because one of the great pleasures of being in Japan is the food! Until very recently, most Japanese restaurants back home served pretty much the same thing: teriyaki, maybe some sushi or sukiyaki. But Japanese food is so much more varied! Here's a sampling of what we've had in the few days since we've been in Kyoto. Although I can't walk much, I can still eat!

Soba (buckwheat noodles): I had mine with fried tofu strips and scallions; Dick's came with tempura. DSCN0454.jpg We both had them hot, as a concession to the cold weather. Also available cold.
Okonomiyaki: a Japanese version of a cross between a savory pancake and crepe, developed during/after the war when food was short. Dick's was stuffed with scallions, squid, and shrimp, and topped with such yummy things as Japanese mayo (it's really delicious! You can buy it at Uwajimaya's); dried fish shavings, dried seaweed, and a variety of sweet and spicy sauces. Can easily be made at home with the recipe at http://www.lovelylanvin.com/2012/01/30/okonomiyaki-japanese-savory-pancake-osaka-style/ and ingredients from Uwajimaya.
Tsukune: grilled chicken meatballs
Ume nigiri: a warm rice ball stuffed with a pickled plum and wrapped in nori (black dried seaweed)
Char-grilled corn in butter (speaks for itself--you can do it at home in a frying pan--cook until the corn chars a bit--brings out the natural sugars)
Cold tofu with dried fish shavings, scallions, and soy sauce
Yakitori (grilled chicken and onions; this version was done over a stainless steel grill--hope to have the real thing--over charcoal--soon)
Cucumber morrokyu: cucumber sticks with barley miso--really yummy!P1090459.jpg
Daikon salad with a miso dressing
Asparagus wrapped in bacon and grilled--add a squeeze of lemon!P1090460.jpg
Sweet and sour pork--no, not the Chinese version, but a Japanese version of Western style cooking made with a balsamic vinegar reduction; the dish also included sauteed onions, zucchini, and red bell pepper. Absolutely delicious!
Avocado and shrimp salad
Chef's special salad: a green salad that included salad greens, roasted winter squash, and a variety of other cooked veggies, artistically arranged on a platter
Japanese style risotto: one of my favorite comfort foods: risotto made with Japanese dashi! Delish!
A substantial amuse bouche of some kind of bleu cheese sitting on a crouton, a scrumptious piece of fried fish served with tangy tomato sauce, and something else we can't remember
An appetizer of cooked pork, tiny octopus, and some kind of green belonging to the cabbage family
Marinated raw horse mackerel strips mixed with some kind of julienned veggie;
Yuba (tofu skin) salad with lettuce, tomatoes and other veggies
Shabu shabu where we swished pieces of raw mackerel, sea bream, and scallops, plus some mizuna for veggies and some tofu, in hot dashi and then dipped in the same broth flavored with yuzu kosho (yuzu is a type of Japanese citrus fruit; the yuzu kosho is the citrus mixed with some kind of pepper mixture)
Firefly squid served cold in a mustard sauce: my Lord, was this good! I'm not a big fan of squid, having eaten way too much in my youth (that's another story), but these tiny squids (maybe 1.5-2 inches) were amazing!
Two perfectly grilled and seasoned chicken wings
Beef cubes, mushrooms, and peppers grilled in butter garlic sauce over a tiny hibachi at one's seat and served with two different sauces
Some kind of green udon in a dashi laden with scallions (really satisfying!)
Ham & tomato pizza on a brioche
Bento boxes on the train (too many different dishes to mention)
Firefly squid grilled with raab
Grilled atka mackerel
Braised gurnard aka sea robin with lotus root, sweet potato, brassica greensDSCN0565.jpg
Fennel/mizuna salad with tiny fish, yuba, and fried tofu
Maguro (tuna) hambaaga
Grilled clams
Sesame tofuDSCN0570.jpg
Warm tofu with soy sauce
Yuba (tofu skin) with fresh wasabi and soy sauce
Panko crusted tofuDSCN0572.jpg
Soy milk (tastes like tofu, nothing like American soy milk)
Tofu/dried bean/pea salad
Bamboo shoot salad
Rice with tofu and other grains
Yakisoba
Green tea ice cream dusted with matcha powder
Frozen strawberries stuffed and coated with white chocolate
Mango ice cream coated with white chocolate
Chocolate ice cream dusted with cocoa powder
Shiso (a Japanese herb, often served with sushi or tempura) sorbet--really outstanding!
Green tea jelly
Ohagi (sweetened red bean paste wrapped around lightly pounded sweet rice; also lightly pounded sweet rice wrapped around the sweetened red bean paste and dusted with roasted soy bean flour)27B19E2DFB62FDD7FD5CBE9334068FEF.jpg
Sakura mochi (lightly pounded sweet rice with sweetened red bean paste, wrapped in a brined cherry leaf)
Yomogi daifuku (green mochi stuffed with the sweetened red bean paste)
Ginger senbei (ginger crackers)--we eat them by the handful over a fresh fruit salad Dick makes every morning
Tofu matcha mousse DSCN0581.jpg
Tofu cheesecake DSCN0583.jpg
Cinnamon mochi

Of course, the sky's the limit for restaurant meal prices here, but none of the above was anywhere close to being in that category and was served at restaurants varying from cheap to moderate by Seattle standards.

One thing Seattle does have over Japan in food is the availability of good quality reasonably priced fruit. Fruit here is more expensive than it is back home, and the choices are not nearly as varied. And that's not even considering the "gift fruit"--specially wrapped premium fruit. For example, yesterday I saw two smallish but beautiful cantaloupe in a gift box: priced at 8000 yen. That's about $67.

Posted by pokano 07:11 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Life in Kyoto--Early Days

Dick Posts His First 2015 Blog

overcast 47 °F

We have a too new camera along for this trip -- a Nikon S9700 -- intended to replace our sweet, late, lamented, little tank Lumix. The intended charm of the new camera is that it's smaller and lighter than the one it replaces, has a great lens, and is more "advanced" than the larger camera it's intended to supplement, and eventually replace as well. But Pam says most of my shots are out of focus. DSCN0387.jpg Friend Jeff thinks it's my jittery hands (ever diplomatic, he refers to it as "motion blur" and made some sort of reference to uncooperatively "fidgety temples"), but my hands are steady. I think it's the fact that it has no viewfinder for composing shots, just a damn screen requiring that I hold the camera away from my body. If God had intended for people to hold cameras away from their bodies instead of stably against their cheekbones, he'd have given us . . . oh, never mind. Still trying to sort out what the damn thing's strengths/weaknesses are. Initial photos posted on this trip are shot with the new camera.

Of much greater concern are Pam's legs . . . which are hurting her badly, almost to the point of immobilization, certainly to the point of immense shared frustration. Although this is mainly a physical thing (and not new -- i.e., it happened before in 2012, was medically diagnosed, treated for months by both modern Western and alternative practitioners) -- it's profoundly depressing/disturbing, has thrown a major crimp into our plans/dreams for this trip, and leaves us wondering about our day-to-day actvities. Yesterday, for example, our outing consisted of a two block walk to a cute little neighborhood cafe for breakfast, and maybe a four block walk home. That was pretty much it for Pam. Around noon I took off alone for a loooong walk. Here are some photos of what I saw along the way. DSCN0372.jpgDSCN0371.jpgDSCN0370.jpgDSCN0412.jpgDSCN0400.jpgDSCN0399.jpgDSCN0397.jpgDSCN0396.jpgDSCN0395.jpg

Eventually I ended up at the big tourism info office at Kyoto Station, where a very helpful matron answered my question: What do educated, culturally curious Kyoto natives do that distinguishes their activities from those of more rushed tourists hoping to optimise short visits? After this, our third multi-week visit to Kyoto, we've done many of the shrines/temples/gardens/kabuki/geisha/museums things. Where do the locals go for concerts, theater, art shows, festivals, etc.? She clearly appreciated the question, and patiently walked/talked me through the deepest, darkest cultural secrets of native Kyotonians -- much of which sailed over my head, through my ears or in and out of any available orifices prone to leakage -- and provided me with a lot of brochures, maps and handouts, many in Japanese, to document her efforts to educate me.

Back to Pam's legs: I have a friend/acquaintance/sensei in Kyoto, a Gyrotonic (https://www.gyrotonic.com/article.aspx) trainer whom I've worked with twice before, and with whom I'd already set up an appoinment for a training session. These Gyro-maniacs are part of a healing/training community -- the system originated as a rehab system for injured ballet dancers in Europe. I emailed her to ask if she knew of any good healers who could work with Pam. The simple answer was "yes" (http://rakuchuan.jp/, yes, for me too all in inpenetrable Japanese, but the photos hold promise), so on Monday I'll get worked out, Pam will get worked on, and we hope to take the lovely person/trainer Mina to dinner afterwards. Report to follow? Maybe.

But there is much much much happening including, beginning two nights ago, the kick-off of the annual (?) Kyoto Higashiyama Hanatouro 2015 neighborhood festival (www.hanatouro.jp/e/higashiyama/index.html). Yes! OUR neighborhood!, right out the door! When we read of the impending children's parade, from the nearby Shoren-in Temple, we leapt up and ran (okay, arose and limped) to see what this would entail.

Amusing and delightful, if lacking the dramatic flair of Mexican children made up as a mass convention of Poncho Villas -- we'll chalk it up to dignified Japanese restraint. Because of Pam's mobility issues, we may finally break down and do precisely the decadent thing we've previously witnessed and laughed at/about -- hire a college-student powered rickshaw to cart us to the various venues of this weeklong festival.

Friends who've followed our prior Kyoto posts may recall that our little home, a traditional machiya,P1090381.jpg is located within about 100 feet of the Shirakawa River, a charming, sylvan, urban creek boasting (in spring) fireflies, ducks and their ducklings, and fish. Thanks to this festival, dozens of sculptures have been installed in the running water, possibly to the chagrin of the fishies, firefly larvae and duckies, but decidely to the amusement of the citizenry.DSCN0491.jpgDSCN0496.jpgDSCN0494.jpg

Enough for now -- we're headed out for a short walk/bus-ride/museum visit/late lunch.

Later:

So far logistics have been a snap. Must have something to do with my mastery of Japanese. Cold, crisp,lovely in our Shirakawa neighborhood. Perhaps another day for leisurely recovery, then we'll see what we can do. Absolutely delighted to be here.

Pretty good day, today. Great short, correctly scoped and executed bus ride almost to the door of an excellent soba lunchDSCN0454.jpg, followed by an inning or two of good-spirited, if recognizably low-quality, senior baseball. DSCN0457.jpgDSCN0468.jpg En route home we stopped at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art where a new show had just opened: Called "PARASOPHIA: Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture" (www.parasophia.jp/en/), we visited only the free galleries, which featured witty, crude robotics and enchanted viewers. DSCN0481.jpgDSCN0488.jpg Then we walked (!) home along our neighborhood Shirakawa creek where the aforementioned festival's art/sculpture installations were still being set up before our very eyes. DSCN0438.jpgAlong the way we stopped at the back door of Pam' favorite traditional ohagi joint -- rain picking up, umbrella failing, home for coffee, ohagi, rest. DSCN0498.jpgDSCN0499.jpg. As of last night, in our fewer than three days in Kyoto we've managed to eat at all three of our favorite neighborhood restaurants, and discovered a great, cheap, and elegant soba restaurant. Life is tough.

Posted by pokano 20:22 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

On the Road Again

Kyoto Redux Redux

sunny

We're back in Japan again! We had an uneventful flight via LAX to Narita (although those airplane seats seem to get smaller and more uncomfortable every year!), and an overnight in a Narita hotel--a Hilton. Yes, we usually stay away from international chains, but when you've spent nearly 20 hours traveling, all you want to do is crash with no fuss, no muss, and that's what we got: free airport shuttle and a larger than usual by Japanese standards room. What does this mean? Well, we could walk from the entry door to the end of the room without running into a stationary object either belonging to the hotel or to us and the bed could be entered on either side. There's something to be said for not having to negotiate with each other or with an open suitcase every time one of us wants to move in the room.

We went back to Narita Airport at 8 am to pick up our rental cell phone. Unless you have T Mobile, your US cell phone won't work in Japan.

We arrived at our Kyoto machiya (same one as last year, Shirakawa Cottage) by 2:30 pm, after an express train to Shinagawa (one stop after Tokyo Station--the JR agent wisely suggested we do our transfer there because I'm having leg problems again and the walking is shorter there), shinkansen to Kyoto, time out in Kyoto Station for our favorite ice cream cone (green tea and roasted tea (hojicha) soft ice cream with sweetened red bean paste and tapioca balls), subway to our neighborhood. We turn right from the station to get to our machiya, but we couldn't resist turning left first to see if one of our favorite restaurants was still there. The last time we were there, I was convinced that the owners were on the verge of bankruptcy (occupational hazard of opening a new restaurant). I can still see their hang dog faces the last time we ate there--so unlike their usual friendly selves! We were pleasantly surprised to see them still there with the restaurant looking better than ever! The Black Cat takkyubin (delivery) service showed up with our large suitcase 40 minutes later (you can never guarantee there will be room for a large suitcase on the train, plus who wants to schlep one across country?).

We've now been in Kyoto in November and May. This is the coldest it has been for us by far. Last night the low in Kyoto was supposed to be 28 degrees Fahrenheit with snow, although by the time we arrived this afternoon,the streets were clear and it was sunny, albeit chilly. Today Kyoto is reportedly 12 degrees Fahrenheit colder than Tokyo even though it's farther south. (Kyoto is in the interior, surrounded on 3 sides by mountains and is reputedly hotter in the summer and colder in the winter than Tokyo). My Japanese friends tell me that Kyoto cold feels even colder than Seattle cold!

I don't know how cold our machiya is, but it's a traditional Japanese house with no central heating, and who knows what or how much insulation. We have two space heaters, plus I think the shower area has a heater and, of course, the toilet seat is heated.

About a week before we left on our trip, the same leg troubles that partially derailed our first trip here returned with a vengeance. With emergency help of Virginia Mason and the best orthotics person in Seattle, my goal is to make it through this trip without getting much worse. We'll see. It's going to curtail a lot of the walking I'd planned, I'm afraid.

We'll be in Kyoto for two weeks before heading to Hiroshima Prefecture. Comments, questions, messages are welcome!

Posted by pokano 22:55 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

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