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“When the mind is truly at peace,
wherever you are is pleasant,

Whether you live in a marketplace
or in a mountain hermitage.”

– Baisao, writing in 18th century Kyoto









14-19 November 2013

Kyoto is a town of a “mere” 1.5 million. It’s much more sedate and conservative than Tokyo, meaning that for a foreigner, it’s not as easy to get around. There are only about 1,000 non-Japanese living in Kyoto. In November, it’s packed with Japanese tourists visiting to witness the shift the maples trees are making from green to yellow and orange to bright crimson. The area is filled with maple trees, but they aren’t used to produce maple syrup, such a tease! We unexpectedly arrived during one of the peak travel weekends. The Japanese adore the changing of the seasons, and the cultural expression of that love has influenced art world-wide. In Japan, autumn leaf viewing is called, Momiji-gari (literally red-leaf hunting). This practice as a cultured pursuit goes back at least twelve-hundred years. Momiji-gari spread to the general population about 400 years ago, and now people travel great distances to take in the colored leaves. We were likely among the furthest traveled, and to us it was a delightful surprise.


The bed and breakfast we booked in the northeast of the city, called “Juno”, turned out to be everything we wanted in a guesthouse and more. It was in a traditional Japanese house but had style and comfort (tatami mats with thin futons, but more space than our room in Tokyo and some furniture). It was quiet but well-located and full of resources, inspiration and insight in the form of expats Ian and Sybilla and their well-curated library of books on Japan and the world. Ian was from Toronto but had lived in Japan for 25 years and spoke and read fluent Japanese. He startled Jacob by calling his name out from the street as we approached. Who would know Jacob’s name in Japan? He was eager to orient us; he spent about an hour showing us the house and explaining the ins and outs of Kyoto: transit, temples, food. He gave us 3 maps, including one with their neighborhood restaurant recommendations and, most importantly, a piece of paper to show to restaurants that explained in Japanese that I don’t eat fish or meat or soups made with fish broth (our hosts were vegetarian, too). This piece of paper would turn out to make life much, much easier (I had meant to make one for myself before leaving the US but had forgotten).














Ian and Sybilla lived in the downstairs part of the house, renting the 3 upstairs rooms, so it was like having roommates who made a nice Western breakfast for us (We miss Sharron’s waffles!). We listened to them talk about Japan: the school system (they have a 10 year old daughter, Juno, and Ian taught at the university), “right off they gently yet firmly begin to box their minds in”, the medical system, “the doctors don’t speak English or answer questions; it’s like the 1950s” (Sybilla goes to Thailand for medical care) and Fukushima (disturbing and worth a whole different post) – was so engrossing, it was almost a shame to leave the house to sight-see.



















Vegan Temple Food

There are nearly 2000 Buddhist temples in Kyoto. Tenruji Temple is one of a few that have a restaurant that serves lunch. Shojin-ryori (temple food, or “devotion cuisine”) emerged after Prince Shotoku Taishi converted to Buddhism in the 7th century and the ruling class adopted a vegetarian diet. Supposedly this has been influential on Japan’s cuisine ever since, but that’s hard to see. Far from the humble meals that sustain monks and nuns, shojin-ryori was elevated to a high art fit for the Imperial court. Since shojin-ryori uses no meat, fish or dairy, to get that crucial umami-dashi flavor, the chefs need be more creative. We had wanted to go to Ajiro (which you may have heard of since it has a Michelin star), but it was booked through December. So we went to Tenryuji and had hands-down the strangest yet most delightful meal we’ve had so far. We could not identify most of the food. Served on the floor with the option of small tables and tiny chairs with a view of the garden, we got a multi-course meal where all the courses came at once, each item presented in its own bowl or plate and all on a tray. Each dish was beautiful and mysterious, from a squishy white rectangle of soy something with wasabi on top, to rice gruel with mushrooms, to pickled lemon peel, a roll of yuba, lotus root, green mochi wrapped in a leaf and some pink vegetable. There was plain rice, a dish of cold leafy greens and mushrooms, and a dessert of a piece of persimmon with a giant grape that looked like a plum. I was unsure how or if to combine things or in what order to eat them. Served with the omnipresent warm towel and brown sour tea, the meal was light and refreshing, if also completely bemusing.



Nishiki Market

“Well-armed” declared a magazine article on this 1000 year old market “you’ll find plenty of octopus”. And we sure did, along with pickles of every Japanese vegetable, tons of tea and tea paraphernalia, tofu (yuba strips, made from the skim off the top of boiled soymilk, are a local specialty), soybeans, fish (some alive and squirming), sake, chestnuts, rice, miso, and spices. Kyoto, we learned, uniquely among Japanese cities, prides itself on its spices.


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We found cucumbers that looked like eels, covered in a brown sticky paste – turned out to be miso! – right next to pink and purple cucumbers that looked like shriveled gnarled fungus -turned out they were pickled (they had served them to me at the Park Hyatt lunch, where I tried in vain to eat them, put off by the gnarled appearance). Beyond the beautiful and mysterious displays of food and things I don’t necessarily think of as food, the 5 block long, narrow, covered market was simply a joy to walk through. The total *otherness* of everything there was a pleasant feeling, an experience unto itself. As expected, there was no cheese for sale anywhere, and no stalls showcasing meat. Instead, we bought spices and sake and considered fried yam on a stick (like a corndog!). We tried black bean tea, the first I had heard of black beans in Japan – maybe they were some kind of soybean, but nobody could speak English enough to explain. It had a delicious toasty sweet flavor. The best part of the experience was that it was a safe “otherness”: like everywhere else we had been in Japan, the bustling market was a model of orderliness and restraint. A beautiful window into Japanese food and culture and a tasty and interactive experience with a long history. Compared to markets in San Francisco, which can seem overly precious, this was a great adventure.

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Ojizosama, Bathing and Japanese culture

What stands out to me (Jacob) about Japan is the little bit of the religious or sacred that is incorporated into the everyday public scenery. In addition to the thousands of temples, every block boasts a roadside shrine, and neighborhood or doorstep altars are common, and kept clean and respected. I like Buddhism and the Japanese aesthetic, so I find this appealing. I’m sure it also helps that I have little to no early conditioning that would cause me to feel averse to a phenomenon that I would have more complicated feelings about in the US.

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Japan is considered an ethnically and religiously homogeneous country, and being much older than the US, its culture seems quite distinct. I mean distinct in the sense that the Japanese integrate the cultural institutions of family, religion, education, etc, so you see it expressed everywhere. The U.S.’s value of the separation of church and state and our history of being a “melting pot” prevents the ubiquitous and unified expression of culture and religion (except for the ‘religion’ of consumerism, maybe). I find this to be a significant difference between my general culture and much of the East, including Israel and the Middle East. Otherwise, Japan and other modern 1st-world country have the many of the same social trends and institutions we do (And, Japan does have some minority groups, such as the Koreans).

One adorable expression of this topic that is predominant in Kyoto is the O-jizo-sama. These small stone statues, found on the roadside roughly in shape of a soft-faced buddha, usually dressed in a red or white bib (and sometimes a knit hat in the winter), represent the popular divine being who protects children, especially children who died before their parents. These beings also protect firemen and travelers. I wish I had more pictures of them; here is one example:




Then there is the bath, possibly my favorite aspect of Japan, other than tea, and sake, and noodles, and… This is a country for hot springs lovers – Japan has thousands and thousands of onsen, thanks to plentiful volcanic activity. Each town in Japan has at least one, and larger cities, hundreds, of sento. They are used if one’s housing does not have a a good private bathing facility, yet mainly the function is social cohesion. Remember, we humans are apes! Sadly, the sento is in decline as more residences have private baths and Japanese urban culture adopts the Western morning shower.

In Japan, social bathing goes back over a thousand years as a cultured pursuit. It’s odd how conservative the culture can feel, yet when it comes to getting naked together, the Japanese are much more practiced than Americans. And they only started separating the genders in bath houses as Western culture became more influential.

I visited a sento in Kyoto, one I happened to hear about while having lunch, so it probably was not the nicest example. When I found the building, there entrance was marked by only a Japanese curtain and a few bikes parked outside. It was a small wooden sign in Japanese that included “3-1” that hinted to me this was the right place. The numbers on the sign were the hours I understood the sento to be open. Bathing is an evening activity here. I walked in, removed my shoes, and paid my 400 yen ($4). When asked if I needed a towel, which I did, I somehow communicated that I didn’t, and I was too embarrassed to correct the situation. I’d figure something out. The little counter also sold every type of toiletry.

Having by now learned the difference between the Japanese characters for man and woman, I made my way into the appropriate locker room. It smelled like much of Japan smells – faint stale cigarettes and old clothes. The only thing interesting about the locker room was the foot tall or so of intricately-carved wooden paneling along the top of the walls. I would have admired it in a museum, but it seemed a bit out of place here.

After passing a couple of sinks in a sort of transition washing zone between two sliding doors, I entered the main bathing area. There was a lot of water and a lot of bathing options. To my left, an individual tub whose feature was the water always pouring into it from the ceiling, a personal warm waterfall. In front, a tub that was constantly bubbling from beneath and had red water in it. I never learned what made the water red. Maybe it was a light. I like to imagine it was some kind of tea. There was an extra-hot tub, a large shallow warm tub that had a section where it was always bubbly, and two sections made to relax in with jets all around you. A dry sauna with TV and cold plunge. I saw a commercial for a cream that deadens nerves that cause night itching, at least that’s what I gathered from the animation. Anyway, there was also an outdoor area with a cedar tub next to a koi pond. And this is all for relaxing, not getting clean. You have to get clean first. There were 24 wash stations – rows of what look like showers for very short people. You sit on a stool while you shower in Japan. This was a quick rinse for me, but some men spent 20 minutes here washing and shaving thoroughly. All this towered over by tall plain white-tiled walls leading up to a ceiling holding bright fluorescent lights.

I counted 12 signs in Japanese that were probably describing the characteristics of each liquid pleasure and perhaps warning of potential dangers. One, however, was important enough to be handwritten in English. Only I didn’t notice it until I got close enough to feel it. The denkiburo, or electric bath! I’m pretty sure it was driven into me in school or somewhere growing up that electricity and water don’t mix. In my blissful curiosity and openness as a traveler and lover of the bath, I had wondered into this set-off pool and felt an odd twinge in my arm. The surprise and slight fright had me suddenly take note of the sign warning those with heart issues to avoid the electric bath. I decided to stay out for a while and observe. Over and over, older Japanese men went in and just sat, for minutes. The idea, I’ve learned, is that it can promote healthy cell activity. The young avoid it because they suspect it lowers sperm count. I decided to give it one more try. Hesitantly, I waded in. I felt the vibration in my arms again, and then in my legs. I felt it deep in my bones, and it wasn’t something I could relax with. Turning in different directions to the current, I suddenly felt it take hold me, like a magnet, and I was losing control of my hip. Yes, loss of motor control is expected while being electrocuted. That was enough for this unique cultural immersion. Back to the bubbly tea pool.

To end this post, here are a few more pics from Kyoto:

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Zen path – uneven steps better to be present for.


“Visit Kyoto’s zoo!”

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Hand-washing before entering a Shinto shrine