Well. This has certainly taken a turn. When I strayed from my strict rules and did the yeastless Matzah who could have predicted that we would end up here? For clarity, here is a place where instead of detailing a bread endeavour for the week I will instead write about the trip I’m on in Japan. Is it orthodox? Heavens no. Is it happening anyway? Yes. With or without you. For the sake of something I will try subvert the narrative to include yeasted goods wherever possible.
Maitland and I arrived in Kyoto on Wednesday 18th April, having taken the bullet train from Narita airport. This was about the level of stress I expected – i.e. mostly fine but with brief moments of absolute conviction that either (a) we would be in a queue forever (at the Japan Rail counter at Narita) or (b) that we would miss our train connection and be left floundering with our bags in a gargantuan Tokyo train station for eternity (at Shinagawa station where we transitioned haphazardly and with a ticking clock from our Narita express train to our Kyoto-bound shinkansen.)
I’ve received a lot of advice about what to do in Kyoto.
1. When you travel between Tokyo and Kyoto, get a seat ‘Fuji-side’ on the bullet train to enjoy views of the majestic Mt Fuji while you ride. We did not.
I then took perverse pleasure in the weather remaining densely grey for the duration, meaning everyone else was also deprived of views.
2. Get a recommendation from a local and try some of the awesome chicken skin cuisine. We did not.
To be clear we did not even try and have a conversation with anyone who might have been able to help and we sort of half heartedly googled it with nil success.
3. Rent bicycles to sightsee with speed and ease! We did not.
This is 100% on me as I didn’t even really disclose this advice to Maitland. I decided cycles were not for us as I am still processing the trauma of a near cycling accident nearly derailing both my and my family’s Vancouver trip last year. Your understanding during this childish response is greatly appreciated.
Despite failing to follow almost all of that advice we are having an absolute blast. I am sure the internet and many books are full of explanations of the magic of Kyoto that are far more eloquent and informed than I will manage. In their immediate absence I will try convey some of this.
Kyoto is the ultimate juxtaposition – a study in contrasts on every possible level. Architecturally it echoes some of Europe’s finest…you wander down an unsuspecting street full of modern-enough houses and suddenly happen upon a shrine so ancient and so majestic it seems cruel to allow it to exist in such ignominy. Kyoto takes it to the next level though. For every tranquil garden and silently observed temple there is a shopfront that assaults the senses in equal measure. Lights, music, more point of sale and instructional sales recordings than you can poke a stick at. Maitland is entranced by the Kyoto-Yodobashi store around the corner from us. This purported ‘camera store’ is a staggering 7 levels and sells everything from watches to rice cookers to collectible toys to make up to fashion clothes. Which, ok, that’s a department store, but the selection and merchandising of every category is hard to fathom. Highlights include the massage chair section (complete with twenty walk-ins who are either testing or, more likely, napping on the merchandise), the iPhone case section (10 rows of cases suitable for iPhone 7 and 8 alone) and of course the mystery egg toy vending machine section.
There have been moments of satisfying efficiency and innovation. The trains run smoothly and the airport connection features an ingenious luggage security system on-board. This has been offset by an infuriating obsession with bureaucracy and paperwork. The Japan Rail Pass redemption involves forms in triplicate and schlepping a large booklet with you in addition to the specific ticket for each ride.
The food is this insane mash up again. It’s tiny places with home-cooking and delicate flavours, ancient techniques, subtle combinations. It’s a buffet breakfast at our hotel featuring an array of pickles, fresh miso, a meat hotpot cooked to order, fried mackerel and salmon, tiny dainty sweets and, of course, rice. It’s equally fluorescent dairies on every corner that are virtuoso performances in FMCG display. Every flavour of beverage, every conceivable sweet thing that can be packaged, a full array of hot and cold snacks, every possible size of sake, bready* things that leave me cold (as they too are), chicken skewers that need to commit to refrigeration or reheating but probably shouldn’t be spending their life at room temperature…I could actually spend hours in any one of these shops. As it is we have eaten all manner of highly processed foods out of packets with mixed results…we are soldiering on though – what do those rows and rows of perfectly arranged packets at Lawson Station represent if not a challenge?
Also, you can get hot cans of coffee out of vending machines that are on every corner.
Even our days here have been a study in contrasts. My preference, always, is to proceed on foot. This is partly for the exercise (over 15km a day, don’t even worry about it), but also partly to avoid deciphering transport systems until unavoidable. A strange by-product of this has been happening upon major tourist spots via non-prescribed routes. The best example was heading to must-see temple, Kiyomizudera. It looked to me like it was at the the North Eastern end of a park. So, we walked up through the park from the South Western corner. It turned out that the park was less park and more incredible and vast cemetery. As we ascended amongst the graves with only cemetery visitors present I both marvelled at the strange isolation and sobering atmosphere while wondering if I’d led us quite far astray. Suddenly we rounded a corner and were engulfed in a sea of sightseers. When we left the complex we went down the ‘correct’ road and had a totally different experience – a crowded lane lined on either side with shops selling any and everything a visitor to Kiyomizudera might want. Hungry? Try an ice cream or some noodles or a skewer or a pizza flavoured bun. Desperate to commemorate your visit? Try a magnet or some ceramics or a doll or a jewellery box or actual jewellery or a fan. Feel like you could be more authentic in your pictures? Rent a kimono. I loved weaving through the hoardes of school kids, kimono-ed Japanese getting the perfect picture and other tourists from around the world as we descended from the temple. But I also loved climbing up virtually alone in that beautiful and slightly eerie graveyard.
The beauty and scale of Kyoto’s history can’t really be understated. Like major European cities you constantly have the experience of stumbling upon something jaw-dropping and comparatively ‘unimportant’ on your way to something Worth. We have marvelled at the historic sights: Sanjusangen with its exquisite statues and vast wooden hall,
Kiyomizudera with stunning views and vibrant shrines, Fujimi Inari with its picturesque Torii gate walk swollen to bursting with tourists,
Tofukuji with its heavenly gardens comparatively deserted,
Nijo Castle with its epic grounds, stunning palace and strange ‘nightingale floors’ (the walkways in the castle creak as people walk on them due to their construction method. It’s…not an architectural feature I would request),
Arashiyama’s slightly eerie bamboo forests (would be much eerier with around 1% of the visitors) and gorgeous gardens,
Kinkakuji with its baller golden pavilion.
I have learned a few things while here. Firstly, it pays to have cash. On day one, after immediately bolting to Sanjusangen and then nearly collapsing with hunger, we ended up in a particularly unlikely restaurant in an equally unlikely neighbourhood. The restaurant barely had enough seating for the group of six already there and us two. Everyone we’d spoken to had stressed how you should eat at random places, away from tourist spots, full of Japanese…jackpot. We were definitely there at the wrong time – somewhere in between the lunch and dinner specials – and perhaps against the owner’s wishes as he went outside and turned the open sign to closed as soon as we sat down. After wolfing down our edamame and meal sets (featuring a lot of eel and a surprisingly delicious fried oyster curry situation) I finally processed a notice I had seen outside…’cash only’. We had probably ¥3000 on us ($35-$40) and glancing at the pictures of food on the wall revealed that the oyster dish alone would set us back 3500¥. (Oh, also, this meal was very overpriced). I decided the best thing to do would be to stroll down the road and quickly get some cash out. To avoid alarming/infuriating our host any further I left Maitland, my phone and everything except my bank card at the restaurant. Once on the street with nothing except my apparently dim wits to aid me I started to search. I strode down to the nearest major intersection and turned right. I am always watch-less, so without a phone I was completely uncertain how long I was taking, but I suspected it was not ‘quick’. This only added to my mounting stress as no ATMs appeared. Don’t worry, there were plenty of vending machines full of hot and cold coffee drinks. I finally wandered into a gas station and tried to ask only to get a response so vague (‘right’) that it helped only insofar as it lowered my heart rate briefly (until I realised that ‘right’ was an indefinite distance and not an answer per se). Somehow I eventually found one and raced back to save Maitland and, I hoped, the day. We settled our rather expensive bill and scuttled sheepishly out. I’ve seen ATMs everywhere everywhere since.
My second discovery is that I am not into fermented bean curd. I learned this the hard way after picking a ‘fun’ and ‘exotic’ looking plate off a train station sushi train. The 2 minutes it took me to choke all of that down were among the longest and most harrowing of my life. Only the fear of humiliation and lack of napkins kept me from spitting the mouthful out/spewing it up. Maitland can attest that there were tears in my eyes. He claims to be unsympathetic because I was using him ‘as a canary’ and letting him eat every weird mouthful first.
Thirdly I have learned that my brief foray into Japanese at high school is all but useless. I can ‘arigato’ with the best of them and offer an occasional ‘sumimasen’, but other than that I mostly just practice counting in my head and nod a lot. The only exception to this came in the middle of our most ambitious walk. We trekked from Arashiyama forest to Kinkakuji. If you haven’t seen that on Kyoto day itineraries that’s probably because it’s an hour and a half of wandering windy backstreets in Kyoto’s version of suburbia. Out of nowhere an older Japanese woman on a bike came up to us and started talked animatedly in Japanese. After a couple of minutes of looking deeply confused I finally managed to say ‘wakarimasen’ (I don’t understand). At that point she remembered some English, handed me a card written in Korean and announced ‘bible’. I felt like Ms Young (my Year 8 Japanese AND French teacher) had prepared me perfectly to respond to this devoted woman of god – ‘ii-e’ (NO).
So, all in all, Kyoto is a winner. For the sake of lists, here are a few official favourites:
– The historic sites in general, but in particular Sanjusangen and Kinkakuji
– The food in general, with specific shout outs to the okonomiyaki in Gion and the hotel buffet breakfast
– Kyoto-Yodobashi, the best ‘camera shop’ in the world
An unofficial favourite is definitely the half hour we spent at a sweet shop in Gion watching two men make boiled candy. The process of working the sugar and creating an intricate pattern that ends up smaller than your finger nails was mesmerising. Is it Kyoto specific? No. But it was awesome.
– Fermented bean curd sushi debacle
– Prowling the streets hunting for an ATM
– Suits are big here – men wear them all the time. Similarly, kids appear to be on school trips and in school uniform regardless of what day of the week…
– Stuff is open LATE, probably to accommodate how late all the suited men are working. Sometimes this means rejigging 24 hour time so you can fit it all in:
– Cleanliness standards/hygiene generally have such a cultural component…taking your shoes off before entering shrines and some restaurants is huge here, but so is leaving cooked chicken for sale at room temperature in a dairy.
Next stop: Okayama!
*denotes reference to bread, establishes relevance of this blog post to overall blog theme and purpose