Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Post # 400 - Tororo Soba at Koke-no-Chaya

Four hundred posts!  I can't believe that what started as a "digital" experiment has lasted this long (six years and counting).  Thank you to friends and relatives who read this blog (yes, all seven of you).  Blogging is the perfect way to remember places I have been to,  food I have enjoyed and experiences that have moved me.
This 400th post may be a bit ironic.  There is no pig or pork at all -- this is about an almost vegetarian noodle dish that I enjoyed during my recent trip to Kyoto.

Koke-no-chaya is a soba restaurant that has long been a familiar feature on the road going to the  Saiho-ji Temple, more popularly known as Koke-dera.  
Koke means moss and chaya is a resting place or a tea house where travellers could relax and take a snack or a meal.
From the looks of this black and white photo,  Koke-no-chaya has been around for quite a number of years. 

I love that the restaurant still looks very much like the the original in the photo above.  The wooden sign on top of the doorway is the very same one in the photo.  One notable change perhaps would be the giant ice cream cone that stands on one corner.  Koke-no-chaya must 
sell a lot of soft serve matcha (green tea) ice cream  during the hot summer months.

A menu board in front of the restaurant shows the various soba dishes available, interspersed with photos of its famous neighbours, the temples Saiho-ji, or Koke-dera, Jizo-in and Kegon-ji.

Right outside the restaurant are some low tables where diners can eat while viewing the 
rather unruly but utterly charming pocket garden.  Since it's winter time there are no takers, 
not in this chilly 5C weather.

The interiors are appealing and homey, fusing both old and new.  Photos and notes from famous personalities are framed on the walls, old baskets hang from the aged wooden rafters and a cast iron tea kettle is suspended over an electric fire.  
Portable heaters provide much needed warmth and there are several photo albums filled with magazine and newspaper articles about Koke-no-chaya. 

Here's a multi tasking heater that also serves as a warmer for the teapot.

We are served hot mugicha or roasted barley tea, poured into squat round bowls.  Each sip warms me all the way down to my toes.

Koke-no-chaya is a soba restaurant -- the buckwheat noodles are handmade right in the restaurant's kitchen.   You can have plain soba, hot or cold and a few other simple dishes.  
The cheerfully bustling okamisan (lady owner) who waits on all the tables encourages us to order their specialty, tororo soba and naturally, we are happy to oblige.

As we wait for our orders, I peek into the kitchen at the back.  Koke-no-chaya is not exactly a small restaurant,  I would peg it at a 30 seater so I am quite impressed when I see that 
aside from the okamisan (who is already of a "certain age") there are only two other people helping her run the entire place.  
There is the white-haired chef (who I presume is her husband) and a lady who washes the dishes.   The restaurant runs smoothly --  and the okamisan is even able to keep up a running conversation with her guests as she goes to and from the kitchen carrying everyone's orders.

And this is Koke-no-chaya's pi├Ęce de resistance, its tokubetsu-na ippin or house special.  
Tororo soba is a traditional way to eat buckwheat noodles.  Tororo is grated, almost pureed sticky mountain yam that is placed on top of a bowl of hot or cold soba noodles.   
My steaming hot bowl of soba comes with a raw egg placed right in the middle of the grated yam.   A sprinkling of dried seaweed flakes completes Koke-no-chaya's tororo soba.
The okamisan told us that the dark green seaweed is evocative of Koke-dera's moss garden that 
we would soon visit after our lunch.

NB This dish is also known as tsukimi tororo soba or moon watching soba, an aptly descriptive name.  

After mixing everything together -- tororo, raw egg,  dashi broth and soba, we enjoy our 
quick, delicious and filling lunch.

Bowls of soba finished, we head off for our 1:00 p.m. appointment to view the moss garden at Koke-dera.    Koke-no-chaya certainly lived up to its name as a place where travellers can take their ease, relax and have a good meal.
The okamisan accompanies us out the door and stands by the side of the road waving good bye. 
My tummy is warm with the tororo soba but my heart is even warmer with her kind and gracious farewell. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

My UNESCO World Heritage Sites Bucket List #16 Saiho-ji aka Kokedera, the Moss Temple

Japanese gardens are amazing, lovely places.  There are certain features that are traditionally present like stones and rocks, water, plants and trees, gravel and sand.  Put together under the gardener's expert mastery,  these elements become ponds, mountains, hills, forests... entire landscapes.  
A Japanese garden is a microcosm of nature.

After our morning in Kozan-ji in the Takao mountain area, we drove to the foothills of Arashiyama where we had a 1:00 p.m. appointment at Saiho-ji Temple.  This is the road leading to the entrance.  
A very clean and clear creek runs alongside it, serving as a natural moat that separates the temple from the road. 

The entrance to Saiho-ji is marked by this sign.  It is the only one of the 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto that requires prior reservations.  
Since visitors are limited to 100 a day, it is best to reserve a few weeks in advance and to state alternate dates just in case the temple is full on your desired date.  
I had asked Chieko san to secure the reservations for us more than a month prior to our trip. 
But because it is late December and close to the New Year,  there are less than 100 guests on the day we visit although  I imagine that reservations would be harder to come by during peak seasons such as spring or autumn.

This is the main hall or the Hondo.  Before touring the gardens, everyone is asked to take part in 
the  kito or sutra chanting led by the temple's priests.  Again, this is different from other UNESCO World Heritage sites where the practice is not de rigueur for visitors
Putting on slippers and leaving our shoes outside, we entered and took our places on the floor. 
I find it very difficult to sit lotus style and had to shift my weight several times during the fifteen minute sutra chanting,  silently willing my bones not to creak.  
Thank goodness we were not asked to do shakyo or sutra copying as that would have meant a longer time sitting on the floor.  But we were all  given small wooden plaques to write prayer requests on.  
These wooden plaques would be burned later on during the goma or fire ritual.   Our collective prayers and petitions would float up in smoke to heaven.

After the kito is performed, we return our slippers, retrieve our shoes and head out for the garden.   See how neat the Japanese are.  Everyone has lined up the slippers in an orderly way in front of the hall, ready for tomorrow's guests.

Saiho-ji's main draw is its fabulous moss garden, perhaps the most famous moss garden in Japan.  
It is also popularly called Koke-dera,  which literally means "moss temple".  But even before I 
have set foot in the moss garden, this beautifully landscaped area in front of the main hall holds 
my attention.

February or late winter is when plum trees blossom in Kyoto.  This one fine specimen seemed to be sprouting buds in late December.  Standing alone amidst evergreen perennials,  it must be a show stopper when the flowers are in full bloom.

Moss covered earth lines the entry to the moss garden, which lies just beyond the hedges. 
Saiho-ji was established  in the 700s and later restored by the famous Zen monk and noted garden designer,  Muso Soseki in the 1300s.   While he was responsible for other temple gardens like the one in Tenryu-ji  (another UNESCO World Heritage site) it is Koke-dera that is acknowledged as his masterpiece.

The garden is beautifully laid out over several hectares, most of it around a still pond. 
Moss grows everywhere -- between the stones on the path,  on the ground,  between the trees and 
on the trees.  
I can understand why the temple allows only one hundred visitors a day and why 
they charge such a high entrance fee. (3,000 yen compared to 500 yen other temples normally charge).    
Hundreds of visitors mindlessly tramping about (and yes, taking selfies)  would definitely cause damage to the garden.  

Soseki san has masterfully fused all  elements -- creating an ever changing vista. 
I may be restricted to walking along on just the narrow pathway,  but I can fully appreciate the expansiveness of his design.

A small tea house with a simple wooden balcony is strategically placed by the centre of the garden.  Built in the 1500s I can imagine the temple's esteemed guests sitting here, sipping their tea and quietly enjoying their privileged view of Soseki san's moss garden.

And if you happened to be sitting on the tea house, this would be your view.  Today everything is monochromatic, in various shades of green but during fall, the maple and other deciduous trees 
would be in their full red, yellow and orange regalia.

A small island in the middle of the pond can be reached by a wood and stone bridge almost completely overrun by moss.  An island is an integral part of most Japanese ponds and are used to add meaning and symbolism to the garden.

The moss garden has so many facets.  Small things are hidden from view which when revealed 
added another meaning or layer to what I felt the garden was trying to say to me.
As I walked around,  I remembered another favourite Zen garden, the kare-sansui or dry garden 
of Ryoanji.  I realised that both are ideal places for contemplation.  The main difference is,  in 
Ryoan-ji,  you sit in one spot and meditate while in Saiho-ji,  you can meander, walk and stroll in solitary reflection.

While Saiho-ji is most renowned for its moss, Soseki san had planned a traditional garden using 
the main elements of water, stones, rocks and plants.  Through the centuries, because of the wet 
and humid weather, over one hundred varieties of moss slowly flourished and grew all over the garden.  In my mind, Soseki-san may have designed Koke-dera's garden  but Mother Nature,  
ichiban Gardener,  made it what it is today.

Even Soseki-san's carefully chosen rocks and stones are covered with different kinds of moss.  Chieko san mentioned that some gardeners have actually proposed removing the moss from 
Koke-dera so that the true art and beauty of Soseki-san's garden could be exposed.  
They believe that the garden would be even more magnificent if they could see Soseki san's 
original concept and design. However, Chieko san did say she believed nothing would come out 
of that proposal.  

I would definitely not support that idea.  I love how the moss creeps along, creating different textures and shapes on the ground.  Little globes of green velvet are strewn about and while you may think that moss grows anywhere and everywhere, they are quite hard to cultivate and "tame".

A small wooden gate marks the end of the moss garden.  Pass through this and your sins will be forgiven.

Stone and wood steps lead the visitor to the upper garden of Saiho-ji.

More moss covers the ground between ancient trees, their trunks coloured green by moss.

The upper garden is a dry garden or kare-sansui where large rocks have been purposefully placed 
so as to evoke certain scenes.

This part of Saiho-ji has a different ambience.  Rocks and stones are placed on varying levels and 
seem to go all the way up to the woods until I cannot determine where the forest begins or where 
the garden ends.   I could sit amidst these rocks for hours.

I wish I had that kind of time to spend in Saiho-ji.  We arrived just before 1 p.m. and before I knew it, it was  4 p.m. and the last few guests are being politely ushered out through the gates. 
As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Saiho-ji or Koke-dera is unique and remarkable.   
I am thankful for this rare opportunity to visit the temple and experience its calm and tranquil heart.  
My time spent here was truly another gift of grace from Buddha.

NB Thank you to my husband Jay and son Gani for photos 2 and 3.  
To secure reservations for Saiho-ji, please note the instructions stated on photo 2.

Monday, February 1, 2016

My Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Sites Bucket List #15 Kozan-ji ... of tea plants, manga and St Francis of Assisi

I go to Osaka for my stomach but I go to Kyoto for my soul. In Osaka I kui-daore or eat until
I am ruined.
If I tweak that word, and play fast and loose with the Japanese language, can I say that in Kyoto, I like to ji-daore, maybe tera-daore and yes also definitely,  jingu-daore.
Loosely translated (in my mind at least) it means that I go to temples or shrines until I am ruined. 
Kyoto has over 2,000 temples and shrines and 17 of those are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Since I first visited Kyoto, I have seen 14 of those world heritage sites and now, I have just 3 more to go.

On this visit, I resolved to finally visit all three.  Kozan-ji, Saiho-ji and Ujigami-jinja were the last world heritage sites remaining on my list.
So, on a cloudy and cold day last December,  we set off for the first two temples, along with favourite Tours by Locals guide and friend, Chieko san.  She recommended we hire a van for the day as buses going to Kozan-ji and Saiho-ji are few and far between.

Our first stop was Kozan-ji,  located an hour from Kyoto centre.  Along with two other temples, it's 
situated in the valleys around  Takao Mountain.  The temple grounds are spread out over foothills, surrounded by centuries old trees. 

Originally established in the 8th century, the temple was restored by the monk Myoe in the 13th century and belongs to the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Myoe san was one of the great monks  during the Kamakura period.  He lived a devout and uncomplicated life,  dedicated to upholding the precepts of Shingon Buddhism.
Kozan-ji (and Myoe san) would give me some interesting discoveries today.

Chieko san led us to the start of what would be a steep climb up to the entrance of Kozan-ji.  This is directly beside a parking lot so it is convenient for those who take private transport to the temple. 

We climb up and up and thank goodness for the bamboo handrails -- I have something to pull myself up with.

Midway through the climb, there is a small hut where you can stop and catch your breath.  

The stone steps lead us first to the doorway of the scripture hall or the Sekisui-in.  This simple wooden building is the only surviving original structure from the 1200s when Myoe san restored Kozan-ji.   The Sekusui-in is a designated National Treasure. While the rest of the temple grounds are free to walk around in, there is a 600 yen charge to enter the Sekusui-in.

Photographs of the Sekusui-in are not allowed but after removing your shoes and leaving them outside, you can walk on the ancient and unvarnished wooden floors.  A very peaceful moss garden can be viewed on one side of the building.  I sat down on the steps of the wrap around balcony,  keeping in mind that I was probably viewing a scene that Myoe san may have also enjoyed. 

The balcony which extends all around the wooden hall looks out on a marvellous view of trees and mountains.  I can imagine how glorious this must be during autumn since Takao is a prime koyo viewing destination in Kyoto.  But I rather like the stark and leaf-less view.  Anything more vivid would be a distraction to quiet contemplation.

Kozan-ji is most famous for one of its National Treasures -- four scrolls said to be the first ever manga drawn in Japan.  These scrolls called the Choju Jinbutsu Giga  show satirical drawings of animals engaged in human activity.  While it is forbidden to take photos of the replicas in the Sekusui-in  (the originals are in the National Museum in Tokyo),  here's a sample of a drawing taken from the scrolls which I found near the entrance to the temple grounds. You can see that even many centuries later, the drawings are of universal themes which one can still relate to.

From the Sekusui-in we climbed more steps to reach the other parts of the temple.
Chieko san showed us another reason why this temple is a designated world heritage site --
near these stone steps is the first and oldest tea plantation in Japan.

A stone marker is placed near the entrance to the small field where the monk Myoe planted tea seeds from China that would eventually become the first tea plants in Japan.

It is wonderful to see these tea plants, perhaps descended from those very first seeds that Myoe san planted.  This is the oldest tea field in the country and some say that the Japanese tea culture started here in Kozan-ji.

Uphill from the tea field, reachable by a flight of stone steps is the Gobyo, Myoe san's simple and unadorned grave.
The monk Myoe san was a nature lover as can be seen by the unspoilt and uncultivated beauty of his temple, Kozan-ji.
A brochure of Kozan-ji states that Myoe san could even "communicate" with animals and because of this,  he has been likened to St. Francis of Assisi.  It is probably not a coincidence that both these saints, albeit of different religions, lived during the same era.
I am astonished to learn that  Kozan-ji is recognized as a "sister" temple of  the Basilica of
St. Francis in Assisi.   Now who would have thought that I would find St. Francis' kindred
spirit here, on a Buddhist temple in Kyoto?

NB Like Kozan-ji, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are many places for "walking meditation" along Kozan-ji.  The ascetic atmosphere is a natural aid for reflection.

Enshrined in a small hut is the Bussoku-seki, carved footprints of the Buddha.  

Towards the top of the temple grounds,  at the highest level is the Kondo or the main hall.  Dating back to the 1600s, this is newer than the Sekusui-in and replaced an original structure which had burned down.

I look up and wonder what kind of animal is carved on the entrance to the Kondo.  Is it a lion,  a dragon or is it a wild boar?  

From the Kondo,  steep stone steps lead  down to the exit of Kozan-ji.   Massive trees line
every step of the way.  The air is chilly and scented with the fresh smells of the forest -- of
pine needles, cedar trees and yes even the damp sweetish smell of decaying leaves.

Kozan-ji's natural and rugged setting makes it one of my favourites.  Its quiet and enduring appeal lies in its vastness and tranquility.  I  half expect to come upon the monk Myoe, walking about -- tending to his tea plants and doing mountain meditation.

NB Thank you to my husband Jay and son Gani for some of the photos used in this post.