Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Philosophising along The Philosopher's Path in Kyoto

 Le flaneur is how I can be described in Paris -- a stroller, a leisurely walker - someone who likes to walk long and perhaps aimlessly through the streets.  
But in Japan -- how would I be described?  Unfortunately, those semesters at the Ateneo studying conversational Nihongo did not arm me with an extensive vocabulary -- but can I say that "watashi wa arukou ga jozu desu".  
Translated, I hope it means that I am skilled at walking.
On this trip to Kyoto, we walked many miles to see as much  as we could  but the walk that I enjoyed the most was the relaxed and peaceful promenade down the Philosopher's Path.
This is a 2-kilometre walk in the northern Higashiyama district of Kyoto.  It is so named because a renowned professor of philosophy used to walk this well marked trail as part of his daily meditation.

The Philosopher's Path also links some of Kyoto's most famous temples.  The path starts outside the Silver Pavilion or Ginkakuji.  This is a more simple, rustic yet equally elegant version of Kinkakuji or the Golden Pavilion.  It is quite unadorned but this is what makes it a typical example of the Japanese principle of wabi sabi or underplayed elegance.
I actually was more smitten with Ginkakuji's quiet charm than Kinkakuji's obvious extravagance.

The path starts a few hundred meters from the temple's gates.  It is a tree lined narrow stone path that follows a clean, meandering canal.  If we had arrived a few weeks before, this path would have been overrun by tourists since the trees that line it are the famous cherry blossom trees.

Our Tours by Local guide, Chieko san points out a lone remnant of sakura season -- some very late cherry blossoms are still attached to this single solitary tree.  I am happy just to have seen these few last blooms.

Signs along the path point out minor and smaller temples and shrines.   The major temples along the Philosopher's Path are Ginkakuji, where it starts and Nanzenji , where it ends.

The Philosopher's Path is not some hidden or secluded walkway, it goes through neighborhoods where you can see typical Japanese residences.

Since it is also a famous tourist spot, there are lots of distractions along the way -- such as this cute sign for a small shop...

... where you can buy all the cat or neko related items you may want.  The Japanese are such cat lovers and have turned this simple pet into an entire industry built on kawaii-ness.

This is a traditional tea shop on the other side of the canal that you can cross to should you wish for refreshment along the way.

I pause by this small jizo shrine which is typically found in many neighborhoods in Kyoto.
Jizo shrines are placed and honored for the protection of the children in that area.

The canal that flows by the Philosopher's Path is running shallow but very clear.  Can you see the fish which seems to be taking a nap on this spring afternoon?

We walk by more shops that are just too quaint and inviting.  It is only the thought that we still have many steps to take that keeps me from stopping (and shopping) at this very interesting store.

Some houses along the walkway have transformed themselves into chic little cafes and restaurants. I am told that the Philosopher's Path is not just for contemplation and meditation but is actually a trendy, hip place at night and the shops are quite high end and expensive.

But at this time -- the Philosopher's Path is my special place to breathe in the unique, serene atmosphere of Kyoto.  There are no busy or negative or worldly thoughts right here and right now -- only peace, tranquility and contentment.  I look down at the clear canal and see this duck, happily splashing in the water.

The 2-kilometer path is about to end and once again, I wish I could walk for a few miles more.  It has been an easy going, slow moving, calming ramble -- and there have been very few people we have met along the way.
It's as if the god of walkers, strollers and le flaneurs cleared the Philosopher's Path of crowds and tourists -- just for me ... to enjoy my silent, serene stroll.

The imposing and magnificent Sanmon Gate of Nanzenji Temple is a majestic sight.
It also marks the end of a wonderful walk along the Philosopher's Path  -- where I have found calmness, quietude and peace of mind.
Such is the singular gift that Kyoto has given me this day.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Kyo Ine in Saga Arashiyama - Kyoto is for Vegetarians

Because of its Buddhist  orientation, Kyoto is really very vegetarian friendly.  Monks from China brought in the culture of vegetarianism to Japan and this came to be known as shojin ryori.
Shojin ryori eschews all meat, fish and even some plants such as garlic, leeks and other root crops.  It has become a delicious and healthy part of Kyoto's culinary traditions.
There are Buddhist temples in Kyoto that offer shojin ryori meals to visitors but these can be quite expensive and reservations difficult to come by, particularly for non Japanese speaking foreigners.  
For a vegetarian like myself, a shojin ryori meal, whether from a temple or a restaurant was something that I definitely wanted to sample on this trip to Kyoto.

I got my chance when we visited Arashiyama, a lovely little district in the western part of Kyoto.  Very picturesque and decidedly a major tourist draw, Arashiyama is also famous for its yudofu or boiled tofu.  Tofu is a major part of shojin ryori and is also a food that I very much enjoy.

Arashiyama's main street is crowded with cyclists and local tourists enjoying the sunny spring day.

Right on the main street, and very near the Tenryu ji shrine is Kyo-Ine, a restaurant dedicated to tofu ryori or tofu cuisine.  It is lunch time and the tables are all full but I am determined to have my shojin ryori meal or whatever version is available so we decide to wait.

While waiting, I prep my taste buds by peering into the glass cabinet showcasing the menu offerings.
I can't read japanese and can only hope that there is an english menu inside.

To pass the time, I take a look at  Kyo-Ine's spotlessly clean, gleaming open kitchen, right in front of the restaurant.  This is where they continue to make traditional fresh tofu, fresh yuba (tofu skins) and their particular specialty, tofu made from sesame paste.

Small plastic spoons contain bite sized samples for passers by to try their freshly made products.

We're finally called to our table and take our place in this cheerful and well lit room on the ground floor.

What better way to mark this special meal than with a large bottle of Asahi beer. Beer is vegetarian -- after all, it's made from plants.

I order the set menu which comes in a large lacquer tray filled with lots of tiny dishes.  Everything is so well presented and artfully displayed.
There is a bowl of soup with dried wheat gluten, a wooden pail filled with creamy yuba, kyo yasai or Kyoto vegetables and soy milk stock. There are a variety of traditional Kyoto tsukemono or pickles and there is grilled sesame-flavored wheat gluten .  Dessert is mochi or rice cake but made with Japanese bracken starch, an Arashiyama delicacy.
A bowl of rice completes the meal.
So filling and so wholesome and purely vegetarian.
Food for the senses -- if not for the soul.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Kyoto in One Day

Just one word - why?
But if you really have just 24 hours to stay in this incredibly beautiful place, this is how I think you can best spend your day. 

I believe the best way to start your Kyoto experience is with a visit to Fushimi Inari.
Nothing quite prepares you to be impressed by the Kyoto-ness of Kyoto than this uniquely iconic  Japanese shrine.  Very easy to go to, it's just two stops away from Kyoto Station on the JR Nara line.
I suggest an early morning start, so you get there ahead of the crowds.
A giant vermillion torii greets you as you step out of the train station but this is just for openers.
Prepare to be amazed and impressed.

Fushimi Inari  Shrine is built on the wooded expanse of Mount Inari.  It is a shrine to the God of Rice and Sake and is composed of thousands of giant red torii placed closely beside each other, all the way up to the top of the mountain.

You walk up and up through these vermillion gates, sometimes the torii are low, sometimes they tower above you.  A concrete path leads you up the mountain,  lined with thousands of these seemingly unending  red structures.  Made of wood, the torii are gifts and offerings to the gods and are donated by companies, families, individuals.

If you can make it to at least two thirds up Mount Inari, you'll be rewarded by this panoramic view of Kyoto, as you peek through the lush green foliage.

 It must have taken you two hours to trek through the mountain.  Now it's time to head back down.
 As you exit the shrine, there are many small souvenir shops and eateries where you can take an early lunch.

Quail yakitori is grilled right outside the small restaurants.  You can buy a couple of sticks, sit on the outdoor benches across and relax your feet.  It is hard work after all, to huff and puff up Mount Inari.
After you've caught your breath and had some sustenance,  take the JR Nara line back to Kyoto Station and head for my  favorite place in Kyoto.

Ryoanji must be the most famous Zen temple in Japan.  It's a place of utmost serenity, tranquility and beauty and definitely a place you should not miss, specially if you have just one day in Kyoto.  
Ryoanji was originally the residence of a Japanese noble.   Converted into a Zen temple in the 1400s,  today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I dearly love this place, from the moment I first saw it -- it brought me such contentment and joy.  The grounds are just too lovely -- from the still and tree lined pond to hidden corners such as this small bridge that leads to a red torii, peeping in between the pine trees and hedges.

But what Ryoanji Temple is most known for is its dry rock garden -- perhaps the most famous rock garden in Japan.  Perfectly raked gravel is broken only by stones and some moss, that seem to be randomly set around the rectangular shaped garden.  Right by this tranquil spot is a pavilion with a wooden viewing deck, where you sit, contemplate and let the garden speak to you.

There are fifteen stones set in the garden but here is the mystery - no matter where you sit or stand to view them, you will always see only fourteen stones.  You will never be able to see all fifteen stones at once.  That is the message of Ryoanji and something that really moved me.  
On my fist visit to Ryoanji, I sat on the viewing deck for a long while, meditating on what Buddha was trying to tell me through these stones.  I listened and Buddha spoke to me.
Ryoanji brought peace and serenity to my soul, but the next destination that I recommend you go to will jolt you with its sheer powerful beauty.  Kinkakuji is a ten minute bus ride from Ryoanji but seemingly worlds away in terms of its effect on the senses.

Aptly called the Golden Pavilion because it is completely covered with gold leaf, Kinkakuji was originally an aristocrat's villa which was later converted into a Buddhist temple.  This arresting and imposing temple is a photogenic marvel.  
There it sits, surrounded by blue sky and clouds, leafy green trees, the forests of Northern Kyoto in the background -- and all these caught and reflected in the waters of the large still pond.
You shouldn't miss Kinkakuji -- it's the poster child for Kyoto. And, for photography buffs and instagram addicts -- there is no bad photo for this place. Whatever photo you take will come out postcard pretty -- and worth sharing.
Time your visit  past mid afternoon when the light is softer and is perfect for capturing the sheer gorgeousness of the Golden Pavilion.

After your eyes have gotten tired of the jaw dropping sight of Kinkakuji, wind down with another   dose of beauty and serenity.  A local bus can take you on a slow ride to Gion district where cobblestone streets and traditional wooden buildings bring you back to another era.
The extremely pure and clean Shirokawa Canal runs through the Gion area and if you're lucky, you might see a crane or an egret standing very still in the flowing water.

If you're really really lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a maiko or a geisha in training.  Gion is where most of the ochayas or tea houses are -- this is where geishas entertain their clients.  Should you see a maiko, please remember that she is a regular person, like you and me. Please be polite and respect her dignity and her privacy.  

Gion has some of the loveliest streets in Kyoto.  Dusk is the magic hour when the street lights cast a golden glow and you seem to be in another place and time.

There are many streets in the Gion District -- wander around the small alleys which are less visited by tourists.  Since it's early evening and you've had a full day of sightseeing, you will probably be tired, thirsty and a bit hungry by now.

While you can find some of Kyoto's most exclusive and expensive restaurants in Gion's streets, there are also those that are welcoming and affordable, for us ordinary mortals.

I lucked into this small soba specialty restaurant just off the crowded and touristy Hanami-koji area.
The noren or curtain hung on the door was completely in keeping with the unmistakeable atmosphere and charm of the Gion area.

And what better way to cap off your one day in Kyoto with a refreshing glass of cold beer -- not just any beer but an artisanal one, Jinya Beer is brewed and bottled in Kyoto itself.
Now,  it's time to relax, unwind and start planning for your next visit  ... and I know that next time, you'll stay more than just one day in peaceful, beautiful Kyoto.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Destination ... Kyoto Station

Train stations take you from one destination to the next. But in some cases,  train stations by virtue of their history, architectural design or available facilities become iconic.
They are destinations unto themselves.
Grand Central Station in New York comes to mind, so does Gare Lyon and Gare du Nord in Paris and
the ultra futuristic Gare Centrale in Strasbourg.
I have been guilty many times of not taking the time to explore a train station.
I walk in, go from one exit to the next, go down deeper into its subterranean depths without ever coming up to the ground.
But on this second visit to Kyoto, the hotel we were staying in was just across Kyoto Station so  I decided that I would take the time to explore and experience the place.

Opened in the late 1990s, Kyoto Station, all steel and glass beauty of it,  does not seem at all incongruous in genteel, tradition bound, elegant Kyoto.
It is an integral and vibrant part of the city -- with two hotels, hundreds of shops, a wide variety of restaurants and of course, numerous train and subway tracks and even bus and taxi terminals.
This huge open area, full of people,  is what you see when you come in from the central gate of the station.

The central space is anchored on both sides by two towers.  The east side features extremely tall escalators that quickly bring you to the top.

It may look like a roller coaster drop but it's really the top of the escalator that goes straight from the atrium on the 6th floor up to the 10th floor.   Down below is a large open-air space with cafes and restaurants surrounding it.

People with vertigo or who are scared of heights should avoid the long walkway that connects the east tower to the west side.  Wide glass windows open up to great city views.
Ten floors above the station floor, you walk alongside curvilinear steel frames and  highly polished glass and you feel you are suspended and walking on top of the building -- which in a way, you really are.

Upon reaching the other side of the walkway, you can see how really architecturally amazing Kyoto Station is, with all its graceful curves that are not just there for design but are functional features as well.
 If the east tower had a long and tall escalator that carried you up four straight floors,
the west tower has a very long stairway,  that reaches up to the top of the station.
There are still escalators on the side but the main feature is, dare I say it,  this "stairway to heaven"  which on this  mild  spring morning, has become a place for locals and tourists like me, to sit on the steps and just relax and enjoy the day.

There is a viewing deck on the top of the station that gives you a bird's eye view of Kyoto -- I wonder how many tourists and visitors to the city really take the time to come up all the way here and see this wonderful perspective.  I'm glad I didn't miss this.

Soon, I realize it's noontime and that I'm hungry.  Aside from the many eating places scattered all over the station, Kyoto Station has two floors devoted to the business of eating. 
On the 10th floor is Ramen Koji,  an all ramen noodle floor with several ramen restaurants.  
What ramen would you like?  You definitely will be able to find it here.  But be prepared to line up if you come during peak dining hours.

A short escalator ride up from Ramen Koji is another floor with more restaurants.
I spy an okonomiyaki place but there's a long line as well.

Katsukura, a tonkatsu chain that I frequent in Tokyo is originally from Kyoto and has a shop at the station.

There are more choices on the 11th floor -- from sushi and sashimi to bento sets, you won't go hungry.
I realize I could just stay inside Kyoto Station and eat for days on end!

After a full day of sightseeing, we come back to Kyoto station at night and find that the monumental staircase has transformed into a light and sound show.  I watch entranced as through the magic of hundreds of thousands of little lights, the steps have become a giant screen -- where visuals of pop designs and Japanese characters are projected in time with music.  What an impressive sight!

The performance ends with this heartwarming message -- Welcome to Kyoto!  Indeed, this alone should make you not miss a visit to Kyoto Station.  A surprising and not to be missed part of your itinerary.