Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 7 in Kyoto

Our second fantastic day in Kyoto started just out of the city, at Fushimi Inari and would end in the western suburb of Arashiyama, with our dinner reservation at Nishiki Restaurant.

In the morning, we trained out to Fushimi Inari, where those rows upon rows of orange torii gates are found (Brian posted a picture in an earlier post). It is romantic to think, wow, those tens of thousands of gates have been standing there for hundreds of years, guarding an important religious pilgrimage. But the truth of the matter is that they are basically for sale to whoever can afford them, which buys both advertisement (most are purchased by companies, whose names are painted on one side), and blessings. They are renewed every 10 years - no lifetime blessings bought here! Though they are packed in quite tightly, we saw some empty post holes, presumably where a company let their blessing subscription 'lapse'. Still, they are a beautiful and iconic sight.

Torii avenue at Fushimi Inari

From Fushimi Inari, we headed back on to Kyoto on the train, stopping first at Tofuku-ji temple. Here we got our first glimpse at a zen rock garden, where the gravelly sand is carefully raked into forms around the carefully placed stones. You are supposed to sit and meditate on these gardens, drawing your own meaning from their usually abstract form. However, our schedule didn't really allow for such lengthy contemplation! Really though, I've never really tried to meditate, and I'm not sure I would be very good at it - too much noise always filling my brain!

Ripples in a gravel pond at Tofuku-ji

There was also a lovely moss garden at Tofuku-ji.

Back in the city, we took the bus to Tetsugaku-no-michi, Philosopher's Walk. We walked along the canal path heading north. A few weeks earlier, it would have been framed by delicate, overhanging cherry blossom trees, but when we were there it was peaceful and green. The path was quiet, with very few other people, so it was quite jarring to me when we reached the end and emerged at the entrance to Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion), with its tourist shops and cream-puff stand. Along the way, we had stopped for lunch at a tiny restaurant that basically looked like a woman's home kitchen. We had our first taste of okonomiyaki, a sort of pancake made with cabbage and thin slices of pork in batter. This would be a very different version than what we would later have in Hiroshima, which is known for their okonomiyaki.

Philospher's path, which runs between Nanzen-ji temple at the south end,
and Ginkaku-ji at the North end.

Okonomiyaki, what is often, I think erroneously, called Japanese pizza.

At Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion was not, as you might have thought, leafed in silver (though it was supposed to have been, they just never got around to it). It was actually under restoration while we there, and years of wear made it rather unsightly. Around it were some zen rock garden formations, most strikingly a meticulously raked gravel 'sea' that flowed around a stone cone representing Mt. Fuji. The cone is permanent, but the sea around it is apparently reshaped every day.

We got a glimpse of Mt Fuji after all, just on a much smaller scale...

After the Silver Pavilion we felt the need to upgrade metals, so we took the bus West to the Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion. Originally built in 1397 as a private estate, it was later turned into a Buddhist temple. Each of its three levels was constructed in a different architectural style,, but only the top 2 storeys of the pavilion and the phoenix that crowns it are, true to its name, covered in gold leaf. It is stunning and gaudy at the same time, especially since I prefer white metals to yellow ones, heh... Platinum Pavilion, anyone? It is probably really beautiful at night (if lit well), and in the fall when the maples around it are lush and turning red and orange.

Kinkaku-ji, reflected in the Mirror Pond. It's much shinier in person.

We were a little worried about time (dinner was at 6:30pm and it was about 4), but to Brian's consternation I decided that we would run up to Ryoan-ji, another temple complex that was pretty far NW. Otherwise, it was unlikely that we would make a special trip out to it the next day, and we didn't want to miss it. So we bussed out there, to see Japan's most famous zen garden. On the approach, you walk alongside what seems to be a lantern depot, with stone lanterns of all shapes and sizes, which was pretty fun. The zen garden has 15 stones placed so that no matter where you stand (within the viewing area), you can never see all of them at once. This garden was very abstract, definitely needed more time than we could give it to truly appreciate it, I think.

Found in the lantern depot, one cute statue

Rock garden at Ryoan-ji (the picture does it little justice;
this is just a small part of the large garden).

We rushed back to the hotel (the biggest difference between the bus and the metro is of course that the bus is dependent on traffic, so it took longer than we wanted) and changed for dinner. We decided to take a cab - our first and only cab ride in Japan - for fear of being late. We had a bit of a mixup which involved the non-English speaking driver heading in the wrong direction, a lot of one-word broken English and Japanese, and a call to the restaurant (the driver put ME on the phone - what good was that?!?!) In the end, though, the driver figured it out, we relaxed, and arrived at the restaurant early. Whew!

Nishiki Restaurant specializes in kaiseki, the Kyoto cuisine which uses very fresh, seasonal ingredients. Two geishas met us at the door and led us into our private tatami room, with a view of the Hozu-gawa river. They didn't speak English, but we were soon joined by one who did. She was our server the whole evening, but unfortunately, we didn't get her name - she was really sweet and took care to explain each of our dishes to us. Soon after we sat down (cross legged on the floor), the courses started to arrive. Since it was a 10 course meal, I won't post photos of all of it, just some of the standouts. (You can see the complete set of pics on the Picasa site.)

Because of the complaints that we aren't in any pictures... here we are,
happy to be have made it and to be eating such beautiful food in a lovely setting.

Crispy tofu - the outside of this was so delicate, it almost shattered when I broke into it.

A bunch of different small portions served in a beautiful lacquerware box.
The unassuming broad beans in the middle of the top compartment were
wonderfully tasty, sweet and creamy. The bottom compartment was
actually a drawer that pulled out of the box.

Our server explaining all the little dishes in the box.

Brian's favorite course, a grilled mackerel-type fish topped with grated daikon in a light broth.

A whole deep-fried mini-eggplant, stuffed with a thick, sweet ginger-miso sauce.
Delicious and rich - I actually opted not to finish the whole thing
since this was only course number 6!

As you can guess, we were stuffed and very pleased at the end of the meal. Everything was quite flavorful, fresh, and lovingly presented. We were quite glad that we had chosen it as one of our few splash out meals, as it was another experience - like the previous night's cooking class at Emi's - that gave us a very unique and personal experience. Nishiki is one of the more affordable kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto, and it was perfect for us.

A short after dinner stroll (ok, we got a little lost finding the bus stop), a bus ride back to the hotel, and we quickly fell into a deep, satisfied food coma.

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