We spent four sunny days interrupted by rain showers in Kyoto. We rented a house in a new area of the city (our usual 500 year old Temple stay was booked up!) and had a couple of first time experiences and lots of familiar favorites.
What makes Kyoto so special? If Kyoto were a character in a book, she’d be like a gracious Oba-chan (grandmother) wearing traditional kimono buying sweets on her way to meet friends for an evening of good conversation. The city is gracious. It’s dignified. It is traditional and mannered but very welcoming to new friends.
What other city do you know that has mochi sweet shops on every corner? How can a shop stay in business selling ceremonial charcoal (individually wrapped in block printed washi paper!)? The specialization and artistry of the shops is staggering. I am charmed when we pass by these little places and think to myself—only in Kyoto!
We were on the look out for a new teacup for Josh, one that fit well in his hand and had a good wabi-sabi (balance of rough and refined) with textured clay and lovely shape. We wandered into a nice looking shop and I quickly noticed that most tea cups were well over $200. The woman behind the counter spoke excellent English to Josh and told him all the pieces were made by her husband and son. Could you imagine a shop in San Francisco able to pay its rent selling tea cups? The respect for artistry and tradition in Kyoto is enough to support these individuals.
Since Kyoto is one of the best places on earth to experience new/old simultaneously it seemed just right to have a trip which honored both. We only had time for a mini-break in Kyoto this year and had to budget our time very wisely (Nishiki Market, one of Josh’s favorite temples Rioanji , a good cup of matcha and tea sweets at Kyoto’s oldest traditional sweet shop–Kagizen Yoshifusa, and feast of gyoza goodness at Sen Mon Ten)
We had JR rail passes so we were able to go out from the city and explore a bit more. Unfortunately given Emma’s school obligations she spent much of the trip on her futon in her tatami-mat bedroom in class. She was missed on many of our adventures!
Josh and I took Max up to Mt Hiei. Back in the day, when the feudal lords were losing power, the shogunate and the monks began to fill the leadership void. Mt Hiei became a stronghold of powerful temples with warrior monks. As we rode a cable car up up up the steep mountain slopes dotted with fall colors, I imagined battles fought and lost among the trees.
Max loved the temples here, especially because there was much for him to “do” there. First there were dragon water fountains to wash hands. Then in the heart of the temple we sat in za-zen, focusing on our breath and the seemingly endless rows of lanterns in the deep blackness of the altar. The incense smoke smelled spicy and woody, pulling us deeper into meditation on the mountain. After a brisk walk outside and steep staircase up to the top of the hill, Max was able to ring the 10 foot tall brass temple bell! He did a very enthusiastic strike and the Japanese tourists around me made impressed noises.
Saihoji is the famed Moss Temple. We had to apply weeks in advance for an appointment to view the gardens. We had planed our visit carefully, Josh figured out the bus line to take across town and we canceled Emma’s math class so she could come out with us. But then Max and I had to make an emergency trip to Osaka Station (one stop away on the Shinkan-sen) to recover his lost wallet! (What other country in the world would return a lost wallet with all the money accounted for?). By the time we made it back to our apartment we were pushed for time. And then you know how one toppled plan crashes down the next… we missed the bus, got off at the wrong stop, it started to rain, we had hard time finding taxi cab, BUT in the end we arrived at the temple only 10 minutes late for our appointment. Before we were permitted to view the gardens, we had a task to perform.
We were ushered into the main hall and settled in with the other 150 tourists to perform our respects through a dutiful task. We were writing (in Kanji) a very long sutra with a brush and ink stone while it rained hard outside. I understand why monks use sutra practice to deepen their meditation. I let myself concentrate on the forms my brush made. I tried to attend to the start and finish of my brush stroke. I listened to the rain, my breathing. After an hour (!) we were the last visitors still at our writing desks. For Emma (who knew many of the Kanji) this was a pleasurable way to spend the afternoon, but Max (struggling with focus and fine motor control) this was a monumental effort. We finished and made out way outside to the watery sunlight shining on lovely displays of green moss. With meandering paths, bridges over streams and red maples, it was a beautiful garden. I loved that we earned our way into see it.
Kyoto is one of our favorite places to visit and I love that we keep discovering new and old things every time we come.
PS I wanted to add this link to go with the hanging persimmons photograph above. The peeled persimmons were hanging everywhere on this visit, and now I know they are hoshigaki! These persimmons are hard and astringent and after weeks hanging in the sun become caramelly inside and a real treat.