Monday, December 31, 2018

Discovering the treasures of Kennin-ji

"Discover" is the appropriate word for our visit to Kennin-ji, Kyoto's oldest Zen temple.
We had passed by this place many times ... while walking around Gion, ... walking to and from Kiyomizu-dera ... but it was only until good friend, Chieko san incredulously said -- "You have
never been to Kennin-ji?  No?! You must go"  -- that we finally did. 

Kennin-ji is one of those places that is "hidden in plain sight".  Shijo is the main street where everyone walks down on the way to Gion.  At the end of Shijo is Yasaka-jinja, on the leftmost part
of this photo.   Before you get there, make a turn at Hanamikoji street to get to the temple.

Popular for the row of machiya or teahouses and the many quaint stores, Hanamikoji is also where you might catch a glimpse of a maiko, on her way to work.  At the southernmost end is the entrance to Kennin-ji.

I guess one reason we had walked past Kennin-ji so many times is that the entrance is tucked away at the end of the street.  We must have missed the five lines on the wall signifying this as a most important temple -- that should have been a giveaway to us and reason enough to venture in.

Belonging to the Rinzai branch of Zen BuddhismKennin-ji is one of the five major Zen temples in Kyoto.    The grounds are expansive and make for a pleasant walk but one should really enter the main buildings to truly appreciate what Kennin-ji has to offer.  While entrance to the compound is free, there is a 500 yen fee to enter the temple buildings. 

Unlike other popular temples in Kyoto which open very early, Kennin-ji does not allow entry to the temple buildings till 10 a.m.  We arrived just past  9 and used our time to enjoy the peace and quiet
of an early morning stroll. This is the Sanmon gate and beyond it you can see the Hatto or the Dharma Hall. 

Facing away from the Sanmon, you will see the Chokushi-mon, the oldest structure in Kennin-ji, dating back to the 13th century.  
Kennin-ji was established in 1202  and its first abbott was the famous monk Eisai who also
brought  Zen Buddhism to Japan.  In addition,  Eisai  introduced tea and tea drinking to the Japanese.    I remember him from my visit to the mountain temple  Kozan-ji where he started the
first tea plantation in the country. 

Like most of the major temples in Kyoto, many of the original structures in Kennin-ji have been destroyed due to natural calamities and wars.  The main building, the Hatto or the Dharma Hall, was rebuilt in the 18th century. 

The Hatto is immense and quite bare.  The main altar enshrines Kennin-ji's principal deity,
Shaka Nyorai.  However, the minute you enter the building,  your eyes will be drawn to the ceiling.
I am sure the Buddha will not hold this against you because right above the main altar, covering most of the entire ceiling is an amazing,  aaah-inducing painting of two gigantic dragons.  
You might be surprised to learn that this painting is relatively new, having been donated to the temple in 2002, to mark Kennin-ji's 800th anniversary. 

The painting is the size of 108 tatami mats or  about 175 square meters.  Created by the artist 
Koizumi Junsaku,  the dragons were painted on Japanese paper spread out on the floor of a gymnasium in Hokkaido.  It was then transported and assembled in Kyoto when Koizumi san finished it, in just two years.  I did not mind the sore neck muscles from staring up at it for so long --- the dragons were so  "life-like" -- they looked as if they were running after each other, all around the ceiling.  

Aside from the twin dragons,  Kennin-ji has other precious artworks that are designated as 
National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties.  
The most famous one and the symbol of the temple is this scroll of Fujin and Raijin -- 
the gods of Wind and Thunder.  The scroll dates back to the 17th century and was painted by the noted artist Tawaraya Sotatsu
A dynamic and vibrant painting,  the gods seem almost human because of the expressions on their faces -- they actually seem to be laughing and having a good time together.  
This is such a popular painting that the images are used in many souvenir items. 
This scroll exhibited in the temple is merely a very good copy as the original is in the National Museum of Kyoto. 

While most of the priceless artworks of Kennin-ji are housed in the National Museum, you can still enjoy the skilful reproductions that grace the fusuma or the wide panels that serve as dividers between the rooms.  The one above is part of the painting called "Seven Sages in the Bamboo Grove".

Meditation cushions carefully placed on tatami mats are surrounded by the painting of " The Four Elegant Pastimes", another Important Cultural Property

These dragons seem to swoop through the air in this painting called "Dragons and Clouds". This and the two other paintings were done by Kaiho Yusho and are believed to be from the 16th century. 

This  austere, large wooden building from the late 1500s is the Hojo or the Abbott's Quarters.
The structure itself is an Important Cultural Property.   All of the buildings in Kennin-ji are 
strictly no-shoes areas -- after all, you cannot just scuff the patina of these ancient wood floors. 
Slippers though are thoughtfully provided for walking between the different buildings. 

A beautiful karesansui or dry landscape garden is right between the Hojo and the Hatto.  This is the
Daio-en or Grand Garden and the painstakingly raked sand is said to depict a sea of clouds.
Contemplating the garden is inevitable.  One just has to stop and breathe and take it all in. 

As you sit and contemplate, the garden can look like anything and mean anything to you.
As I gazed on it, I was reminded of waves, driven by the wind, moving towards the horizon. 

Aside from the the Daio-en,  there are other pocket gardens within the grounds but two are 
specially popular.  If you do not pay attention, you may just miss this Marusankakushikaku-no-niwa
depicted as ⚪△⬚.
In Zen philosophy, this garden shows the only true shapes in space -- a circle, a triangle and a square.  If you look at the photo long enough, I am sure you will see them too. 

The △◯⬚ garden does not really invite one to sit and meditate since it is in a busy, well trodden area between the Hojo and the Honbo.  However, a little further away, just a few steps really, is this lovely moss and rock garden.  
This is Chouontei,  the Garden of Sound and Tide.  The three large stones in the middle called the San-zon-zeki are said to represent Buddha with two Zen monks.  
Zazen stones are placed around for meditation purposes and many visitors enjoy the garden from the viewing decks situated all around.   Maple trees surround the rocks and during autumn, this garden is  a favourite koyo viewing spot. 

Wooden decks and covered wooden walkways surround the Chouontei.   I found a solitary bench away from the crowds where I sat and thought of nothing at all.  In a zen state, at last. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Drinking (and eating) my way through All Star Osaka Walk's Tipsy Bar Tour

There is a popular saying in Japan that says  "go to Tokyo for money, to Kyoto for culture but go 
to Osaka for food".  It's particularly true for Osaka where the locals believe in "kuidaore" or "eating oneself to ruin".  I have certainly attempted to do so myself,  each time I visit. 

Osaka is both for the gourmet and the gourmand.  While the iconic dishes -- kushikatsu
takoyaki and okonomiyaki  are very mass based, there are over 200  Michelin starred 
restaurants which will bring you to the highest peaks of gustatory delight (and yes, expense).  
However, for a proletariat like myself, I prefer to dive deep down into the local food scene and 
enjoy what the locals regularly eat.
In Osaka, nothing can be more local or regular  than the Shinsekai area, their version of 
"shitemachi" or low city.  Shinsekai dates back to the early 1900s  and is anchored by the 
iconic Tsutentaku Tower constructed soon after the Eiffel Tower in 1912.  
It was dismantled and used for scrap during WWII but rebuilt in 1956 (the year I was born!). 

For the true Osaka foodie (hate that word!) experience, always go with and trust a local.  
Our long time go-to source for Osaka's rich and varied culture -- culinary and otherwise has 
always been Minako Ando and her All Star Osaka Walk Tour Company.  
We have traipsed through Osaka with her, on both food and non-food excursions and this time, 
we took her hugely popular Tipsy Bar Tour.
Our first stop was a small kushikatsu place called Jyo Ryu Ken, right in the heart of Shinsekai, 
which is where this Osaka specialty was born. 

It may be called the Tipsy Bar Tour but there is quite a bit of eating involved.  One cannot drink 
on an empty stomach after all. Jyo Ryu Ken's one page menu listed all the available skewers -- 
at very affordable price points too.  
The cardinal rule when eating kushikatsu is ... NO DOUBLE DIPPING!  
Containers for the mildly sweet and slightly tangy sauce are communal and shared with other diners. For hygiene's sake, please don't dip your kushikatsu after you've bitten into it.

Japan is the only place where I will agree to drink my beer from a mug and not straight from the bottle itself (a practice my gourmet friend Abe san calls "barbaric").  
In almost every izakaya and restaurant,  nama or draft beer is served, always in a brrrr-cold mug.  
Most of the time too, the house beer is Asahi Super Dry which is perhaps why it is the most 
popular  beer in Japan.

While the chef was preparing our kushikatsu, we were served a small dish of a very delicious Japanese style stew made with melt-in-your mouth beef tendons, potatoes, daikon and 
konnyaku.  So delicious!  What I would have given for some rice or even a slice of good 
crusty bread to sop up the sauce with.  
This must have been our otoshi, the compulsory appetiser that izakayas serve along with 
your first drink. 

Since we were ahem,  "bar" hopping, we did not want to eat too much at our first stop.  We  had a variety of skewers -- the meats were perfectly cooked and the vegetables still had a bit of crunch. Despite being deep fried, kushikatsu is totally non-greasy, I'd certainly like to know how they 
achieve that!

Jyo Ryu Ken has a comfy, homey air .  A wooden counter comfortably seats 12 (any more and you'd feel like you were being skewered).   The chef cum proprietor is the one on the far left and he is assisted by just one other male staff.  
Minako san told us that the chef used to work for one of the larger and more popular kushikatsu places in the area until he decided to venture out on his own.

Thank you Chef san!  This was ichiban kushikatsu and I definitely will find my way back,  if only  for the scrumptious otoshi that you served us at the start. 

We were still feeling a little light on our feet as we walked out on the deepening Osaka dusk.  The 
next stop was just a few hundred meters away, not even far enough to burn a calorie or two. 

This is Kurumaya, a restaurant tucked away in a quieter area of  Shinsekai. 
The menu board by the door was all in Japanese with photos of premium sake and shochu and what looked to be a tasting menu.  A larger photo board festooned with autumn leaves  featured seasonal small plates that one could also order. 

We were the first customers  that evening, not surprising since it was just a little past 6 p.m.  
Kurumaya's atmosphere was cool and chic.  Even my beer looked stylish in its decidedly more upmarket, unbranded glass.

Kurumaya is not an izakaya so there was no otoshi or compulsory appetiser.  Instead, we ordered 
this lovely amuse bouche of  lightly simmered renkon or lotus root,  artfully stacked and dusted 
with  sesame seeds.  Pale hued and delicate, the dish showed off the chef's deft touch.

Next up was a piquant dish of sliced squid garnished with bits of yuzu. This too was delicious 
and stirred our appetites for the next dish.

For our finale (at least from this restaurant), we had asked for omakase leaving our culinary fates 
up to the chef. 
He sent out a plate of harvests from both sea and forest.  It was almost too pretty to eat.  
A well balanced presentation of textures, tastes and colours ...  grilled gingko nuts (my absolute favourite), grilled edamame beans, soft baby potatoes, a chewy slightly sweet yam, 
dainty polka dotted snails with a fine mild flavour  and exactly four wooden teaspoons filled with deep red, fresh fish roe.  The entire dish was a delight to the senses.
The handmade plate in half brown - half green was evocative of the colours of both earth and sea.   Bravo, Chef san!

Kurumaya is a restaurant run by this young, very personable second generation chef who took over from his father.  His mother, a  spry and sprightly septuagenarian takes care of  the front of the house -- offering recommendations, taking and bringing orders and making customers feel welcome with her friendly and funny banter.  As you can see from this photo, this chef has a humorous streak as well. 

For our last stop, we took a subway to Nippombashi.  We were still walking straight as we had really been eating more than we had been drinking.

Our destination was just a few minutes away.  This is Ura Namba or literally "back of Namba",  
a warren of streets and alleys where the locals go to drink and eat.  You can find everything here 
from hip and trendy bars to old and traditional izakayas.  This very colorful and brightly lit building is Sakagami, a place that specialises in barbecued meat and the very popular horumon or beef and pork offal.  
Akie san said that each red lantern features the name of a dish from the restaurant's menu. 
Sakagami's vivid, vibrant facade totally captures the spirit of Ura Namba.

Small alleys are lined with izakayas, all buzzing with activity.  It was officially thirsty o'clock
so everyone was out drinking and in our case, also "kuidaore-ing".

Minako san waved us into this izakaya.  Kitaro Sushi was almost full, we got the last four seats at 
the  edge of the long bar.  Sapporo Beer is my ichiban daisuki so I was glad to see that it was 
the beer on tap.

Kitaro serves sushi and at quite reasonable prices too.  Minako san said she liked this place because the quality of the food was much higher than the price.  

The place was humming with conversation and laughter -- this being Japan, it was all kept at a considerate and muted level.  Various kinds of fish and shellfish were kept in glass chillers and displayed right in front of the customers -- all you had to do was point to whatever your palate desired.

First beer at Kitaro! I love all Japanese beers but lean more towards Sapporo which for me has 
a lighter, easier taste.  

Even if we had enjoyed small bites at our previous stops, we were all quite full by the time we got 
to Kitaro.  I  had already imbibed three large mugs of beer but that certainly did not stop me from ordering a final, one for the road mug of Sapporo.  It went extremely well with our plate of sushi -- omakase style or chef's recommendation once again.  
The plate had 15 generously sized sushi and I didn't think we could do it -- but yes, we finished each and every one.

KampaiAkie san was my beer buddy as Minako san and Jay had opted for cold tea throughout 
the evening. 

We passed by this lonely fellow on the way out -- I think it was a puffer fish. He was probably relieved that none of us had asked for puffer fish sashimi. Aaah, to live another day! 


We had an amazing time with Minako san and Akie san of All Star Osaka Walk.  Don't be thrown 
off by the name Tipsy Bar Tour -- I guarantee you'll have a great time, even if you don't drink!  
Ookini, Minako san and Akie sanHona mata!


Monday, December 24, 2018

A Japanese Dance Lesson with Nishikawa sensei and All Star Osaka Walk

With a lively and fun atmosphere, unrivalled  in  all of Japan, a casual and welcoming vibe, and friendly people with a great sense of humour -- Osaka has always been one of my favourite places to visit. 

When in Osaka,  we always make it a point to catch up with Minako Ando san, the energetic and creative owner of All Star Osaka Walk, a local tour company that specialises in unique, customised experiences for visitors so that they can get a true sense of what the city is really like. 

On this recent trip, Minako san had invited us to witness traditional Japanese dance as performed by one of Osaka's most distinguished dance masters.   From Shin Imamiya station where she met us, it was a short walk to this  hip and welcoming inn, appropriately called Home Hostel Osaka, located right in the old town or Shinsekai area.  

At the hostel, we met Nishikawa sensei,  a third generation dance master who does performances and also runs a school to teach very traditional classic Japanese dances.  I was surprised that he was so young and so approachable -- I suppose I must have been expecting a much older and more stern sensei

Nishikawa sensei performed two short dances for us that afternoon that he said were very old and very popular.  He spoke english well and explained the story to us before he did each dance.  However, because he danced so expressively it was not hard to understand what the dance was 
trying to convey.  The first performance was a humorous little anecdote about a drunken lord trying 
to get a rival lord's servant to drink along with him.  

The second dance was about a woman watching the moon and feeling sad about not having a lover.  Again, the movement of the hands and the expression on Nishikawa sensei's face was so eloquent, that we were  able to grasp the emotions behind the dance.  This form of traditional Japanese dance makes use of slow steps and evocative movements unlike festival dances which are exuberant and quite dynamic. 

I thought all along that we would be watching and enjoying the dances, I did not realise that audience participation was part of the afternoon's programme.  
Minako san had these lovely kimonos ready for us from the kimono rental company Twins Corporation.  Branded as Wabikae kimonos, they were gorgeous and yet so easy to get in to.   
The trade (and patented) secret is velcro which makes putting one on convenient and quick specially for foreigners like us.  

Nishikawa sensei said that he would teach us both dances.  As he has come from a long line of 
dance masters and is one of the leading lights of this dance genre  not just in Osaka but perhaps in the whole of Japan,  it was certainly an honour to have him show us the very basic movements of the dance.  Whether we would be able to even do an iota of what was required of us -- hmm, that was the question!

Thankfully, Minako san and her colleague, Akie san joined us for the lesson -- they were great for moral support!

These traditional dances have been performed through the centuries and we were certainly not going to get it in one lesson.  It was amazing to watch Nishikawa sensei perform, but I could feel that we were also amazing --- amazingly inept!   Still we tried our  very best and even if the movements were restrained and slow,  believe me ... this type of traditional Japanese dance is totemo muzukashii desu (very difficult). 

Despite (or perhaps due to) our rather clumsy attempts, the lesson went by so quickly. 
Thank you to Minako san and Akie san for another memorable and special experience.
And of course we are much indebted to kindhearted and gracious Nishikawa sensei for a brief 
yet beautiful glimpse into the elegant world of traditional Japanese dance.