Continuing on from my last post in which I returned to Japan courtesy of clearing out my cupboards and sticking in photos from a 2009 trip, I’m now up to my second day in Kyoto.
Before travelling to Japan, I had booked a day with a Goodwill Guide through the Japanese National Tourism Organization (JNTO). It was (sadly there is no longer any mention of it on the JNTO website) an excellent scheme that offered a much more personal insight into Japan than you would get from an official tourist guide. Like many of the Goodwill Guides, Kazuko, married with two grown-up sons, was to keen to share her city and surrounds as well as to practise her English. All I had to do was cover her travel costs, museum entry fees and any meals and refreshments we had together. And best of all I didn’t have to work anything out – no maps, guidebooks, directions, ticket machines, Japanese lettering or indecipherable menus. Bliss!
We started by taking the train to the nearby town of Uji, home of green tea and of the oldest tea shop in Japan. After whirling round the Byodoin Temple, a UNESCO site famous for its Phoenix Hall, so-called because the building resembles a phoenix with outstretched wings, we went to a tea ceremony at the Municipal Tea House. Kazuko explained that the tea ceremony (sado) combines the ideals of Zen Buddhism with the uniquely Japanese concept of wabi (simple beauty). It’s certainly a highly ritualised and choreographed performance, one that makes sticking a tea bag in a cup, boiling the kettle and wolfing down a biscuit seem very basic.
I watched how the hostess performed each task with great precision: the boiling of the water; the folding of the napkin; the whisking of the Matcha (a very strong powdered green tea); the clockwise rotating of the bowl; and the bowing before serving the tea. Performed with grace and elegance in a simply furnished room – the flower arrangement and painted scroll change according to the season – we drank cherry blossom drop tea out of cups painted with a blossom motif and ate a sweetmeat called cherry blossom cloud.
From Uji, it was a short train ride to Kyoto’s Fushimi district, where we switched our attention from tea to something a little more fortifying at the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. Highlights included western-influenced poster adverts from around 1900, the miniature ceremonial vessels produced for the Coronation of Emperor Hirohito in November 1928, and my first experience of a Japanese toilet with a heated seat. Still feeling the effects of jet-lag (readers of my last post will remember that Mrs Uemura at the guesthouse hauled me out of a deep, time zone-challenged sleep for breakfast at 8am on the dot), I took the opportunity to indulge in a micro moment of mindfulness atop the heated loo seat. It was pleasantly soothing to sit down and rest in the warmth.
Lunch – excellent terikyaki chicken – afforded another rest and, suitably refreshed, we then walked through the Fushimi Passage, a bustling arcade selling everything from bicycles, tea, pickled vegetables and second-hand clothes to Yuinou, symbolic gifts exchanged between the families of betrothed couples.
Our last stop was the Fushimi-Inari shrine. Dedicated to the gods of rice in the eighth century, a mass of orange-red Torii, pillared gateways, each bearing the inscription of a donor, snake up the mountain and through the woods. Considered as messengers of inari, the god of rice and cereal crops, stone foxes with red votive bibs carrying the key to the granary are dotted throughout the shrine grounds. Even the votive tablets are fox-shaped.
On my last day in Kyoto, I ran around seeing more temples and shrines: Kiyomizu-Dera (lots of tourist buses and giggling school girls buying lucky charms and trinkets; Chion-In (home to the largest bell in Japan – it needs 17 monks to ring it at New Year); and Nanzen-ji with its magnificent sliding door paintings in gold leaf.
By lunchtime it was a relief to sit down in a cafe. I ordered the speciality of boiled tofu, which arrived in a bain-marie style dish. The waiter was highly amused that I didn’t understand about waiting for it to come to the boil and, instead, tried to eat it cold.
Never mind, I got the hang of it in the end and concluded my visit with another heated loo seat sojourn. This loo was even more sophisticated with options including washing, deodorising and noise muffling – the latter excellent for anyone who has ever suffered shy bladder syndrome. Could I import one back to Australia I wondered?
Then it was time to get a taxi back to the ryokan, grab my luggage and squeeze on to a rush-hour bus to the train station. I just managed to get my big case on board before the doors hissed shut. Never have I been so squashed (and I travelled regularly on the London Underground for nine years) or so very unpopular. Where otherwise I had found the Japanese unfailing polite, here the passengers frowned, stuck their elbows out, tsked and tut-tutted their annoyance. People work crazily long hours in Japan – so much so there’s even a word, karoshi, for working yourself to death. So I can imagine how infuriating it must have been when a foreign traveller with lots of luggage clogged up the aisle of the bus…
On arrival at the station, I practically fell out of the crowded bus but, this time at least, avoided ending up in an electronics store. Armed with snacks for the journey (the boiled tofu really didn’t quite hit the spot, I collapsed on the Shinkansen, destination Tokyo, just after 5pm.