Monday, September 29, 2008

Kyoto Day 7: Cooking and Wandering

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

As today was the Autumnal Equinox, it was a Japanese national holiday. Officially unofficially to celebrate ohigan. On both equinoxes, the Japanese care for their ancestral grave sites in accordance with Buddhist traditions. Officially the Japanese government can't recognize one religion over the others, so ohigan isn't the "legal" reason for the holiday. (Or so Mr. Hirooka explained to us on his tour.)

In other words, it was extremely busy on the buses and streets because of the holiday. Alice and I had reservations to attend a mini-lesson at the Uzuki Cookery. Held in her home, Emiko—not to be confused with the Emiko we'd been out with on Sunday night—teaches Japanese cooking classes in English.

Emiko's English is very good and she's a competent cook able to explain ingredients and procedures. Sometimes she refers to English-language books explaining Japanese food or spices to help expand. Normally classes involve four dishes to create a complete meal and take three hours, but we had a mini-lesson which only involved two basic dishes.

Kyoto-style Japanese food involves subtle flavors with particular accents. It's not a lot of strong spices or sauces like Tokyo-style food. These subtle flavors create refreshing, crisp dishes. We had a lot of fun! So if you're in Kyoto and interested in cooking, I'd recommend you contact her to arrange for a class. She's also got a blog.

Aemono salad: made of spinach, grilled mushrooms and Japanese sesame dressing.

Goma-ae salad: cooked spinach with sesame dressing.

Ohitashi salad: cucumbers with sesame paste dressing and a ginger garnish.

Dashimaki-tamago: an omlete-like roll.

The meal of three salads and dashi-maki tamago with rice.

After the cooking lesson, Alice had to go to work. I decided to visit the Kyoto International Manga Museum, as it was only a stop away from Shijou on the subway. The museum is interesting, but not as large or comprehensive as I would have liked. There's an exhibit about the origins of manga. Anime, after all, largely owes its origins to Disney and the American occupation of Japan after WWII. Manga, however, existed long before anime. Comics began in Japan during the late 1800s as political satire and evolved into narratives much the same way that American comics did. There was also an exhibit of the Japanese and Korean entries into an Asian comic contest with the prompt of "Toast."

If you're able to read and comprehend Japanese, there's a massive archive of manga in the museum that works like a library. You're welcome to pick a book off the shelve and read it, you just can't remove it from the museum. While it makes for a nice break from the temples, the museum is very small and can be gone through quickly.

I was left with the better part of the afternoon to find something to do, so I walked through Nishiki Market again then made my way to the Starbucks. With an orange-mango frapaccino in hand, I sat outside and proceeded to write my postcards. Unfortunately, Japan is a smoker's paradise and outside Starbucks smells a bit like the inside of ventilated bar. A woman sat at my table and lit up, but I didn't have the heart to ask her to move because it was the first time all day that someone Japanese had given me the impression I was approachable. I'd had an incident of culture shock the night before, so feeling approachable was more important than avoiding the smell of cigarettes.

Ake: Notice the blog is now running a week behind?
Ken: Yes, like it's in its own special time zone.
Ake: Could be why it took so long to find this artist's rendering of you.
Ken: A what now?
Ake: Helen Ewart drew it for Chandra's birthday. Here have a look.
Ken: I appear to be at the Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Ake: And?
Ken: I'd never willingly go to Fushimi. Maybe it's a picture of you?
Ake: I don't have girl hair.
Ken: I don't have girl hair.
Ake: Yeah. You totally have girl hair.
Ken: Is this leading to a suggestion that you start calling me Fox Girl?
Ake: I'm sure there are those who already do.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Kyoto Day 6.2: Uji

Monday, September 22, 2008

Uji is famous for green tea and being the town of The Tale of Genji/Genji Monogatori. Considered to be the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu in 1008 AD. This year marks the celebration of a 1000 years of Genji, so Uji has many special events planned.

We went to Uji for three reasons:

1) Since I did a drawing class project on Murasaki Shikibu, I've been interested in her life. Still haven't read The Tale of Genji, but I'm going to make it a goal once I return to Canada.

2) Uji is Kamloops' sister city.

3) There's an opportunity to do an economical tea ceremony that doesn't require complication reservations like the teahouses in Kyoto.

When you enter Uji, a gate welcomes you with an image of Genji and his famous Uji lady. (See how I cleverly avoid pointing out that I don't know what her name actually is.)

After Kyoto, most Japanese cities seem more difficult to navigate. Kyoto was built on a grid—a trait only shared with Sapporo. All other Japanese cities twist and turn. Even with a map and simple-sounding directions to the Uji City Tea Research Center, we managed to get lost. A short trip through the very residential area later, we found Byoudoin Temple—a world heritage site. We planned to go there later, as the tea ceremony place closed first. (It may or may not actually be called Uji City Tea Research Center. I seem to think it is, but I could totally be making that up.)

Along the Shirokawa or Shiro River on the way to tea ceremony.

A boat to take a cruise on the Shirokawa.

Tea ceremony is an interesting experience—well, to be fair everything is an "interesting" experience when you don't understand a great deal of Japanese. I'm not sure I really sure it's something I'd feel the need to do again, as tea to me is instinctively linked to causal conversation. And cake. We had silence and hagi/clover-flavored mochi cake instead.

The tea ceremony garden and tea house.

This gong is rung to indicate customers have arrived.

After the tea ceremony we went to Byoudoin, which is on the ten yen coin. At some point we got in the middle of a tour group of elderly Japanese travelers. (I swear I heard one of them call me Inari-chan. They must have grankids who watch Wagaya no Oinari-sama or the Japanese hive-mind is at work again.)

One side of Byoudoin Temple...

...and around the other.

Perhaps what I liked most about Uji was eating green tea ice cream along the bank of the Shirokawa. Sitting there with the river on either side of me and the mountains rising to my back, it felt like Kamloops.

The walking sign indicates a good place to view autumn leaves.

Benches to sit and enjoy the sights.

Kyoto Day 6.1: Fushimi

Monday, September 22, 2008

This day has to be broken into two entries because of all the cool photos. First up is Fushimi, home of the Fushimi Inari Taisha. This is one of my favorite places in Japan, and it holds special significance to me, too, because it's the home shrine of my own characters from TALE.

If you love foxes—and really, who doesn't?—this collection of five shrines is a place you definitely want to go. The main shrine is head to 10,000 other Inari shrines, so it's a popular place and very beautiful. All over Mt. Inari the vermilion torii gates cover paths that you can walk. If you've watched Memoirs of a Geisha, you'll be familiar with the sight.

You start by walking under a big torii gate to approach the main shrine.

Up some stairs is three smaller shrines—one for cats, one for a horse, and my favorite: the one for the myoubu (white foxes.)

It's said these foxes got their name from a court woman of the myoubu rank.

Up more stairs and through a torii tunnel, there's a place to buy fox-face prayer plaques as well as various tokens.

There are two other big shrines. One is by a little lake, and the other is on the way down the mountain. All along the way there are collections of little shrines with foxes guarding them. One fox holds a granary key in its mouth—a carry over from when Inari was a god of grains and the harvest. The other fox holds a ball.

We had tea at a place that overlooks the mountain. The tea came with a small mochi & red bean treat. (Like rice jello with red bean filling.)

The final shrine we saw had many small kimono-wearing foxes on its altar. These foxes are like the prayer plaques or torii, as they also represent donations to the shrine.

I bought a small fox charm here, and I'm hoping the woman meant "for you" when she said kimi (an affectionate way of saying 'you') as I handed it for her. Later, as we walked to the main road, we passed by a Buddhist temple. (Where a passerby mistook me for a kyuubi/nine-tailed fox. It's a reoccurring theme thanks to a currently popular animation series called Wagaya no Oinari-sama, which features a blonde blue-eyed fox girl.)

Ake: It's your favorite foxes here to tell all those who requested postcards that they are in the mail.
Ken: Some to people who didn't request them, but that's what you get for being foolish enough to give Chandra your address.
Ake: She'll be going to Gunma to visit her friend tomorrow.
Ken: She was going to be prepared and have the past days scheduled to post while she's gone, but we're not certain that will happen.
Ake: It's highly unlikely she'll have internet there, either, but she'll return with pictures of Nikko, Tochigi and Karuizawa, Nagano for us.
Ken: And you, too, but only if we allow it.
Ake: We might not.
Ken: But we probably will.
Ake: Unless you make us angry.
Ken: Then we won't.
Ake: You were supposed to say "you wouldn't like us when we're angry."
Ken: A Hulk reference is so undignified.
Ake: ...have fun living with Sarah's cats.
Ken: I will. She has Guitar Hero.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Kyoto Day 5: Tou-ji Temple

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Every month on the 21st, there's a flea market at Touji Temple. If you've seen pictures of a pagoda against the sky, you've probably seen the toji pagoda. It's a famous Kyoto sight—you can even see it from the shinkansen.

On the way to Touji, we stopped at Big Camera. Again, no mix-style headphones, but I did pick up some Ear Drops. They're almost as good as big DJ-style 'phones, because the Ear Drops slip inside your ear better than the standard iPod 'phones, so they act a little like ear plugs.

The flea market features various things, and we had fun looking around. (Despite the smothering humidity.) After chatting with a fellow from Montreal who had a table selling necklaces, we attempted to buy shoes from an elderly Japanese man who claimed he didn't know how much they cost. I think this may have been his way of getting out of selling us a pair of sandals, as it's not often a person doesn't know how much what they're selling costs.

After Tou-ji, we thought we'd try to go to the Yasaka Shrine, which is the Gion Shrine. It's at the end of Shijou Street. However, it started to rain. We kept going—got about halfway there, and it started to pour. Throwing down with lightning and thunder.

Clustered under an awning with the other shoppers trapped by the storm, we retreated into a traditional fabric crafts shop. It finally stopped raining, but the sky made it appear that another shower could come at any time. Alice suggested going to a cafe off Shijou that was close to where we were to get a cup of tea.

Tits cafe specializes in tea. (I'm not making this up. It really is called Tits.) It's a sleek little cafe with great atmosphere off the busy shopping street. I'd tell you where exactly it is, but I'm not certain I could find it again. We ordered lunch and waited for Alice's boyfriend and his Japanese friend, Emiko, to meet us.

All of us wandered through Teramachi shopping area, as Corey went on a quest for new converse and I continued to look for mix-style headphones. We found them in The Loft and determined that they were cool, yes, but they weren't very good headphones. The Heart Drops probably aren't, either, but I haven't decided whether or not to buy the hot pink DJ-style ones that Corey pointed out as being better quality. If I do, I know where to find them.

After shopping, we went to a restaurant called Paris 21e, although we'd passed it before and I'd thought it was called With You. Emiko ordered a bottle of wine, and we all got to talking.

This is the thing—it is really just illusions like language and culture that separate us. People have the same concerns and feel the same frustrations and laugh about the same things in every "modern" city. Relationships are our common language. Japan has always been able to show that to me, to present solid evidence of how class and race and geography doesn't change what fundamentally makes us people.

A wedding celebration was happening at the restaurant while we were there, and we watched the bride in her pink princess dress descend the stairs to the shopping street on the arm of her Prince Charming. Weddings used to upset me, until I realized that every one I attend or witness is proof that people find their match.

As we paid our bill, they informed us that they were doing a draw to offer more points, 5% or 10% off the meal. I was told to shake the container and a red-tipped stick fell out. This got us 10% off our meal price. Lucky! We paid and went out. The bride had left a trail of rose petals down the stairs.

A butterfly slurps nectar from flowers at the Touji Flea Market.

A boy and his mother try to catch goldfish at the flea market.

Traditional street food for sale—think a fish-shaped cake filled with red bean paste.

The crowded aisles and stalls of the flea market before the pagoda.

Beef hash omuraisu (omelet rice) from Tits Cafe.

Kyoto Day 4: Osaka

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Today we went to Osaka, which is about a 30-40 minute ride on the train. Taking the private train line instead of JR worked out in our favor, as the private line's station is only a few blocks away and cost 780 yen return. As opposed to JR, that would be more expensive and require either a subway or bus ride to the Kyoto JR Station.

The main reasons for going to Osaka were to go to the electronics store there that has duty free. I wanted to buy mix-style headphones, only I couldn't remember that they were made by mix-style. I think it may be easier to order them from when I return home, as it doesn't appear that they're still popular here. Although, there are little earbuds that look like smarties that I keep seeing in the stores.

In the same building as the electronics store is a bead store—the same chain as can be found in the LaForet mall of Harajuku. After doing a little shopping, we went to HEP FIVE's 106 m tall Ferris wheel. I'm certain this isn't the same Ferris wheel that can be seen from Kansai International Airport.

Well, contrary to the website's promise, it wasn't really "unforgettable shopping and vivid memories of your stay in Japan." It seemed like decent shopping, although it was really just a mall. But a mall in the sense that we all know them is a Big Deal in Japan, because most shopping still occurs along shopping streets or in the arcades (covered street areas.)

After Osaka, we returned to Kyoto and I suggested we go eat some cake. Alice agreed that was a fine idea, and we all went to Sweet Paradise for "desert viking." Which is all you can eat desserts. Given that we're responsible adults, or at least play ones on the internet, we eat something non-dessert first before digging into the dessert section. Which included a chocolate fountain that they felt the need to ok with us that they could turn it off. I hope they asked every table and not just ours.

I had pumpkin and cheese curry at Sweets Paradise. It was tasty, but it's interesting because we don't cook a lot with pumpkin in North America, but Japanese really likes to put it in things. (I think they had pumpkin-flavored pocky at some point.)

Then we went to various game centers, including Namco Tower. I tried to win a giant Love Bunny. Then Corey tried to win the giant Love Bunny for me. Then we gave up, and I won a little blue Love Bunny pillow from a machine near Teramachi. Which is probably better, because I don't think I have room in my suitcase for a giant Love Bunny.

Photos (Mostly from the HEP Ferris Wheel.)

Osaka Umeda Station.

Osaka Castle (a reconstruction.)

A true rooftop garden.

Namco Land Game Center.

Kitsune Udon. (I still think the noodles look like worms.)

Sweets Paradise welcomes you to Halloween. Which isn't a Japanese holiday, but creates an excuse to have sales, special menus and decorate in September. What you can't see is the inflatable jack-o-lantern with the inflatable witch's hat.

It says "Let's eat a cake, pasta, salad a lot happily together in sweets paradise." I'm aware punctuation and words must be missing from that sentence, but I'm too used to Japanese-English to tell you what those words might be. After more than a week in Japan, I run the risk of starting to speak like this sign.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ken: Ano, the travel blog appears to have stopped.
Ake: Someone must be tired.
Ken: Very tired.
Ake: Probably has sore feet, too.
Ken: Poor thing.
Ake: Oooooh, don't say that. You know she hates it when Japanese people say that.
Ken: I thought she hated it when they called her fish-girl. Or Kuugen. Or Asuka. Or Inari-chan. Or nekomata. Or kitsune. Or shirokata.
Ake: She doesn't mind when they call her Sakura.
Ken: You know, they mistake her for a boy?
Ake: I mistake you for a boy sometimes, too.
Ken: ...I hope she sends you to Karen.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Kyoto Day 3: Kiyomizu-dera, Maiko Henshin

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Today we had breakfast again at God Mountain Cafe, which has a very good name. (Even if they do serve ice cream with their pancakes.) It was Alice's first day off, and we had an appointment to do maiko henshin. We were really early getting to the Kiyomizu-michi area, so we decided to walk up to Kiyomizu-Dera.

One of Kyoto's most famous temples and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kiyomizu-dera is dedicated to juuichi-men, the 11-headed Kannon. (Hase-dera, one of my favorite places in Kamakura is also dedicated to juuichi-men.) Unfortunately it started to rain quite heavily when we arrived, but the temple remained beautiful with many impressive views of the city despite the precipitation.

Other places of interest at Kiyomizu-dera are the Otowa-no-taki waterfall, which is believed to have healing powers and the Koysau-no-tou three-story pagoda, which we did not enter, but saw from Kiyomizu-dera. We also saw the Jishu-jinja, which is a small shrine with two rocks 18 m apart from one another. The legend is that if you can walk from one stone to the other successfully with your eyes closed, your wish for love will come true. We watched three visitors try and only one of them was successful. Not an easy task, even when it isn't raining.

On the path that rounds past Koysau-no-tou on the way to the Otowa-no-taki waterfall, there's a small Inari shrine. It's like a preview for Fushimi Inari Taisha, plus the benefit of knowing that I spent my birthday at both a Kannon temple and an Inari shrine.

Walking back to Shiki Sakuraten, we entered the building a little early, but it was dry and quiet inside. A screen in the lobby played I Robot with Japanese subtitles. Sakuraten was unable to print the photos today, but they promised to mail the prints to my home.

Maiko Henshin at Shiki Sakuraten was not like Kimono Henshin at Studio Mon Katsura. That's not to say that the maiko henshin isn't an interesting thing to do, and something that I would encourage those curious about it to try. We were treated well—the staff are courteous and pleasant, but they are extremely efficient as the economical plan depends on volume of customers served. No multiple shots are taken so the best photo can be chosen. Then you're left in a small room with the instructions that you may take photos with your own camera for ten minutes. This resulted in Alice and I taking a few photos then going "er, now what?"

When I did kimono henshin, we were the only people in the studio. The kimono were luxurious, beautiful, and each one had specific obi that paired with it best. At Shiki Sakuraten, the kimono are very pretty, but there are about three different sash colors. Also, they aren't real obi—it's two pieces for ease and speed.

So having done maiko henshin, I would not do it again. Not necessarily because of the experience, but because I don't find the white make-up and wigs to be that flattering. There's a sense of mass-production and anonymity in the white face and black wig. Surrendering to a stereotype instead of appropriating it and finding a way to make it individually beautiful. Of course, this is just a Western perspective.

Lunch was delicious ommuraisu (omelet rice.) I always get an odd look when I try to explain ommuraisu to people who've never had it. So it's rice, yeah? But it's got an egg omelet over it and then various ketchup sauce, gravy or curry. This ommuraisu had bits of ham and mushrooms mixed in with the rice, too.

After a stop at the apartment to wash the white make-up out of my hair, we headed off to Kyoto Station for some shopping then met Alice's boyfriend back on Shijou Street. Dinner was at Mumokuteki cafe, which would have been a scene if it was in LA—no meat, no egg, no milk, no sugar... (Shrimp, btw, doesn't count as a meat.) It was good, just not really what I wanted—although to be fair, Alice asked what I wanted to eat and I said I'd be ok with whatever.

So, you're probably wondering why there's no mention of cake. Cake, after all, is a much-loved Japanese dessert. The truth is, I sort of forgot why Alice was asking me where I wanted to go for dinner. I had factored in two days for jet lag before my birthday, but I ended up needing three to recover. Oops. Oh well, tomorrow is Osaka!

A view of Koyasu-no-tou pagoda from Kiyomizu-dera. The goddess who ensures babies are delivered safely has a statue inside.

A view of Otowa-no-taki waterfall from Kiyomizu-dera. You can see people waiting in line to drink the water.

Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera. The tall white object is Kyoto Tower, which is only a few blocks from the JR Station.

A small Inari shrine near Kiyomizu-dera.

Maiko Henshin at Shiki Sakuraten.

$20 shoes from Porta Shopping Mall at Kyoto station.