Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kyoto - Sunday through Wednesday

Sunday began with a visit to Tō-ji Temple, famed for its five-story pagoda, which, according to Wikipedia, is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. I recall the dark wood and dreamy hint of incense wafting through the air. During our ambles we stopped by a pond, dipped our fingers in the windswept water, and attracted the ravenous attention of fat orange koi. Then we spotted a marker sitting atop a stone turtle. A couple of nice ladies used gestures to demonstrate how we should touch parts of the turtle associated with our bodies to enjoy the benefits of improved health. If only I hadn’t forgotten to focus attention on my right knee, which sometimes reminds me when I’ve been hiking too far.

Later that afternoon we wandered the serene precincts of Koshoji Temple before ducking the rain drops on our way to a nap back at the hotel. That night we discovered the wisdom of lodging near Kyoto Station, surveying its wide assortment of restaurant options. We opted for sushi, the kind served on assorted plates that ride a conveyer belt. Believe it or not, this was my first experience with the real thing (not including “California Rolls” and the like). Yes, I stayed away from the really complex stuff, but I developed an appreciation for fresh salmon and tuna.

The next day we awoke much earlier than Jenny would prefer to catch the JR train to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. What a lovely way to start the morning. Before the crowds arrive, it’s possible to have the wooden green tunnel almost entirely to yourself. Even the occasional fellow traveler becomes a companion because, hey, they too journeyed here for the quiet and peaceful feeling. Mist hangs over the hills that dot the horizon, and it’s almost as if you’ve entered some “floating world” piece of art. Then we saw the sign: monkeys! We had to check that out.

So our next stop was the Kyoto Monkey Park. Getting there requires a semi-arduous climb. But, wow, is the peak worth the sweat. That’s when you find yourself among a society of macaques and learn to take quite seriously their facial cues for fear or anger. This is, after all, their mountain. We made friends after buying some bananas and unshelled peanuts, observing only a little drama when larger primates would bully the smaller ones out of their treats.

After descending the mountain, we returned to the riverside and rented a row boat, which - amid a growing crowd of other watercraft - inspired me to wish that I learned a bit more about station-keeping in the Navy. Thus it was all the more fun when a sailor would nod and smile once I figured out how to avoid ramming into the bigger vessels. On our way out of the touristy part of town, we stopped once more, this time to pet the owls and Bengal cats at a café that charges by the half-hour. By this time we were thoroughly tired. So it was back to the hotel for a nap, followed by more sushi at our new favorite place.

Tuesday began with an odd visit to a truly surreal Starbucks near Yasaka Pagoda. Built in a Machiya, this place is organized around small rooms where espresso hounds can sip and chat on tatami mats. Even Jenny - who never drinks coffee and detests early mornings - agreed that this was worth the stop. I can’t even imagine showing up after 9:30 a.m. or so, though; the crowds get pretty intense. So anyone wanting to follow the footsteps of our trip, take my advice: arrive as close to 8 a.m. as possible. You’ll thank me. Thereafter we wandered the Gion District, hunted for souvenirs, grabbed a couple seats in a cramped but perfectly tasty ramen place, and then rested up for the night’s adventures: a hike through the 10,000 (or so) Torii gates at the Fushimi Inari shrine.

Again, at a place like this, the goal is to avoid the crowds. So we grabbed another JR train and arrived just before twilight. At first the place was packed, but once we began to climb those steps, the throngs mostly cleared out. After sunset we found ourselves gazing over Kyoto’s glorious panorama, and I foolishly believed that the hard part of the journey was over. Just a few more turns around the mountain, right? Not even close. As the moon rose over the stone foxes, shrine alcoves, and glowing red gates, we encountered the truly steep part of the climb. After two hours (including a couple unexpected detours) we arrived at the summit. What a lovely view! After some rest we began our descent, past closed shops and temple cats searching for prey. A perfect evening.

Our last day in Kyoto called for a quick pilgrimage to the gravesite of Lady Murasaki, author of the Tale of Genji, which his considered to be the world’s first novel. Genji’s richness of characterization and psychological insight, along with the depiction of courtly life in Japan’s Heian-era, compelled at least a brief stop at this site.

But of course the morning was really about a return to Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen! I half expected that the place would still be closed for renovation, but we arrived to find the shop packed with tourists (and a few locals) awaiting the theater of broth, noodles, oil, and flame. At first they instructed us to wait, but when they recognized us as the pitiful folks who showed up to closed doors five days ago, they ushered us into seats and poured on the greetings. The meal was wonderful. And the performance, anchored by detailed positioning of employees and training of guests how to join the fun without getting burned, was a delightful way to wrap up our visit to Kyoto. Soon, though, we had to head back, board the bullet train, and make our way north to Tokyo (passing by Mount Fuji under blue skies). Japan, we are exhausted, charmed, and increasingly broke. A wonderful trip so far.

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