written by Scott
Got up late (again), but found The Internet! at the Kyoto Prefectural International Center up on the 9th floor of Kyoto Station. Kyoto Station is a pre-arcology if I've seen one, with its hotel, mall, department store, transportation, offices, and immensity. Sent check-in and "missed you at New Years" emails, and now hope that the recipients were pleased to receive them.
We went shopping for food in the warrens under the station, and eventually settled on a bento, a pork cutlet, and some fruit for later. Avoided the cantaloupe-sized apples. Avoided the "pickled stuff" section, much to Ali's dismay. My hunger was making itself known in the form of grumpiness about not being 'on the road' yet, though, so we sat, ate, and decided on two walking tours for the day.
The first was the "Walking Tour of Southern Higashiyama" from Ali's LP Kyoto book which started us walking up some tiny side streets toward Kiyomizu-dera (Clear Water Temple). We first detoured through Nishi-Otani Mausoleum and down a small backstreet that felt like it must have a hundred years ago (barring the telephone poles and vending machine). That area of Kyoto was full of crafts, in particular Kiyomizu pottery (natch) and textiles. Ali loved it, looking at how everything (and I mean everything) was crafted. But this was part of what we were looking for in Kyoto-- not only the temples and cultural destinations, but the tiny old backstreets and shops that we won't find in Tokyo.
One goal with our city choices was a temporal juxtaposition (sorry erin)-- the history of Kyoto, Nara, Himeji against the modernity-defining megalopolis of Tokyo. Kyoto, and the Kansai region in general, seems to be much more in touch and comfortable with its history-- not to mention that it didn't get bombed flat and rebuilt after WWII. There are buildings in Kyoto that have remained since the 16th century. The oldest wooden building in the world is in Nara, as well as the largest. Tokyo, on the other hand, is new not only historically but culturally-- it is a thoroughly modern city, and in many ways is even defining what modern life is and will be like. Can't say much more than that until we've actually been there, of course _;; .
At the top of the hill were some fairly spectacular temples, gaudily painted as always, and we paid to get into Kiyomizu-dera itself. The temple, with its large raised deck (stage?) overhanging the valley with the eponymous spring is a symbol of Kyoto, and earns that credit. The view was tremendous esp. in the late afternoon with clouds sweeping over the Kyoto plain. We spun around the valley and then down into it to the spring itself, though the mercantilism of the monks was bothersome-- to actually drink the water or touch the fall you had to pay for a cup and the privilege of using a long-handled cup-holder to catch it. We declined the 200y fee. Further up the hill was Jishu-jinja, a collection of shinto shrines dedicated to Okuninushi-no-mikoto, a deity of love and good marriages. There are two "Love Stones" there which lovers are supposed to walk between with their eyes closed to test the strength of their union. I think it could work, if only in the sense that if one lover is more forward or one more submissive, they'll end up curving their walk and will fail. We declined to walk, even in humor, as there were so many people there after the new year that we were afraid it would turn into a Lovers' Leap off the side of the hill.
The tour then took us down Sannen-zaka (Three-year slope) and Ninnen-zaka (Two-year slope) past more shops (including a cool spice shop, mmmmm) and down into another valley with Kôdai-ji. Ryôzen Kannon was closed by three minutes, so we had to take pictures of the enormous seated buddha statue (the Kannon) through the exit gate, but we caught the end of the day for Kôdai-ji itself and practically had the quiet garden to ourselves. Highlights were the neat old teahouses at the top of the hill, the "moon-viewing house" on the pond, and the steps up the hill through a bamboo grove (which we did twice because I wanted to do it going both up and down).
It was a beautiful evening, and nice to do some of these things as the light was fading, because the crowds disappeared. We stopped into a beautiful and classic teahouse which we spied through a small window in the wall. They had award-winning carp (to please Scott) complete with trophies and an over-stocked pond, and we sat in a tatami room in the back overlooking the garden and shared a chestnut sundae. We walked through the northern end of the Higashiyama area and took the bus back to the ryokan to drop off the day's spoils: some pottery, some paper, some crafts, and my traditional letter opener.
The evening tour was a bit quicker: a turn through Gion and Pontocho (along the Takase River) which we trooped through in order to (just) make it back to the ryokan before closing. We did have time to stop in a tiny shop for yakitori and saké, and there met an American from Wakefield, MA who was hanging out with the locals waiting for a phone call. He and one of the locals helped us when our attempts to order from a menu we couldn't read proved confusing. The food was delicious! and our translator elaborated on the order to help us get a virtual sampler plate within what we wanted (chicken and scallions). The American tried to help, as well, but was a bit too drunk and too hazy on Japanese to do much more than repeat what we said, but more slowly.
The riverside walk back was quick but fun-- there was the contrasting culture again. On one side of us were the clubs, the vending machines, the trendy romanji-labeled restaurants and bars; on the other side, the backs of the houses along the river were old, homey, and opened occasionally onto a cobbled backstreet that might as well have been from the turn of the 20th century.
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