Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto

Early on the 7th, we left Mina's (goodbye, home sweet homebase!) and made our way to Tokyo Station, where we would pick up a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. We had purchased 7-day Japan Rail passes before we left Chicago - they are unlimited passes only available to tourists, so you can't buy them in Japan - but we weren't going to activate them until we were leaving Kyoto. So while we were in Tokyo, we had bought tickets for the fastest train available, the N700 Nozomi. Woohoo superfast trains! It's a shame that rail travel isn't as easy or advanced at home, because it was pretty pleasant (and so much less hassle than plane travel!)

The front of the train - different models had different 'noses,'
and it even looked like the headlights were made to look like
nostrils. Everything's so cute in Japan!

I'm thinking, "let's get this show on the road... onwards to Kyoto!"

The ride between Tokyo and Kyoto is about 2.5 hours, so we bought some food for the train. All train stations have a lot of food for purchase, but I think the Shinkansen ones in particular have a lot of bento boxes for sale - food sets that have several different small dishes, usually a rice dish, prettily prepared in a cute box. We got one that ended up being a Japanese take on Chinese food:
Beautifully packaged bento for the train

Arriving in Kyoto, we quickly stashed our bags at our hotel (a Toyoko Inn, part of a huge chain of business hotels in Japan. These are great and highly recommended wherever you go; they are small but affordable and consistent. Breakfast is always included, as is internet access) and were on the move again. We had a busy plan for our 3 days in Kyoto, so we didn't want to waste any time! Again, the rain was falling hard, and we were armed with umbrellas, but the day would prove to go by in a bit of a blur because the rain made it kind of a challenge to really enjoy seeing the sights.

Kyoto, once the capitol of Japan, has gotten quite used to its status as a tourist destination, and is pretty user-friendly for foreigners. Though there are two subway lines running through it, the extensive bus system is really easy to navigate. All major sights are easily accessible by bus, all stops are announced and signed in English, and we got a very helpful map available at the info centre in Kyoto station with every stop listed. All this, and an unlimited day pass for 500Y ($5), = smooth busing.

We took the bus to Kiyomuzu-dera, one of Kyoto's famous temples. Our plan was to make our way North through the smorgasbord of temples and shrines that flank the Eastern part of the city. On the way to Kiyomuzu-dera, we stumbled upon the cutest little ceramics shop. Foolishly, I didn't buy anything, thinking that there would be a hundred more like it along the way (there weren't - turns out this was kind of a gem in terms of actually having handmade, unique pieces, as opposed to the standard tourist crap you can find everywhere). But not to worry, we got back there and I ended up buying a couple of cute pieces.

Storefront of the cute ceramic shop on the way to Kiyomizu-dera

I'll just post a few pictures from the sights that we saw on that walk, as there isn't really a need to explain much about them. Like I said, the rain made it a bit of a blur. At some points, we weren't quite sure what we were looking at, or we would arrive at a place that we thought we had just visited... Stupid rain!
A huge statue, the Ryozen Kannon - a monument to WWII soldiers.

A pretty little path in Maryuma park

Gate to Kiyomizu-dera, through a sheet of rain

Gate and pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera
A huge San-mon (three-gate) that we actually got to go up and
inside - access is apparently only allowed for a couple of weeks during
the year, lucky us! There are a bunch of kannon statues in that top level

A "tree" at Heian-Jingu. It kind of looks like it's full of cherry
blossoms, but the blossoms are actually paper tied to the tree, on
which people have written prayers and blessing requests

We made a special effort to get to the Murin-An gardens, and were very glad when we got there. it is a meticulously cared-for little green oasis, worth a spin through.

Pretty Murin-an gardens

On the way there, we had checked out the hard-to miss giant orange torii. Can you imagine having this in the middle of the city? Right over Michigan Ave, perhaps.

Giant torii near Heian-jingu

We also stumbled upon this cute shrine dedicated to rabbits, where people go to pray for... any guesses? Anyone? Blessings of childbirth (and probably, conception). I guess Japanese rabbits are just as...prolific as American rabbits!
Rabbit sculpture at the washing area of the Okazaki shrine

As night started to fall, we made our way up to the Kyoto University of Art and Design. There, we were meeting Emi Hirayama, with whom I'd made arrangements for a private cooking class. I found her through the Rough Guide (and her own website), and had emailed with her before we arrived in Japan. Kyoto has a distinct style of cooking which is very pure and simple, involving the freshest, seasonal ingredients and simple preparations such as simmering, grilling, and steaming. Emi invites you into her home and shows you how to cook whatever you want - in this case I had asked her to show us some dishes with yuba (soy bean skin), fish, chawan mushi (egg custard), and sweets.

Emi picked us up at a bus stop and immediately I loved her. She was very sweet, and had closely read my emails before our arrival ("How do you like Chicago? You are a PhD, what do you study?") Her English was very good, but she would say a sentence in Japanese first, think for a second, and then translate it into English. It reminded me of the time that I was talking to Brian's grandfather in my laboured Mandarin at dinner, thinking hard about each sentence before I spoke aloud, and he basically announced to the table that my Chinese was... very laboured :)

Anyway, we spent 4 lovely hours in Emi's little kitchen, cutting, peeling, mixing, and, best of all, eating. Each course used similar flavors - dashi (soup stock made from kombu seaweed and dried bonito fish flakes), mirin (cooking wine) and soy sauce. We ate more than enough, and then had fun making the little mochi balls with cinnamon and green tea. Mochi with cinnamon? Brilliant!

Brian rubbing down on some veggies

Me filling the rice mold with green pea-sticky rice to make a
gourd shape. We liked this so much we bought a couple
of rice molds later on!

The banquet (clockwise, from upper left): bamboo shoots in miso,
chawan mushi with shiitake mushroom, eel, and shrimp, yuba-wrapped fuki greens,
rice with green peas and ginger bud (note the lovely gourdy shapes), grilled sawara fish

Fresh green tea and cinnamon mochi balls, ready to
be dressed with red beans and soybean powder

Emi's class is highly recommended, for a personal take on Kyoto. (Oh, and remember how the Tokyo tourism office wouldnt' make recommendations for us at a Kyoto restaurant? I had emailed Emi while we were still in Tokyo and asked her if she would make the reso for us, and she did. So nice.) At the end of the class, as we were saying goodbye at the door, I kind of leaned in for a hug - that's how awesome I thought she was... But there were no hugs, I didn't want to force myself on her because I wasn't sure of what is customary. Brian laughed at me for this, because he knew exactly what I was thinking when he saw me lean in with misty eyes...

Us and Emi

After that lovely, filling meal, we rolled ourselves back onto the bus and back to our hotel. My feet were wet and achey from the distance we covered, but it hardly mattered after such a great day!

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