Osaka (Japan)

Osaka

Cross-posted from SmokySweet.com

The Dōtonbori district is like a theme park for food; enormous LCDs in the style of Times Square play consumer brand logos and music videos while giant 3-D animatronic signs hover over storefronts, indicating the delicacies to be had inside. Some of them seem clear enough (an enormous crab with moving arms, a squid that puffs steam, an inflatable octopus or a plastic Kobe cow) but I’m not sure what the angry chef or creepy-looking clown are trying to sell. It doesn’t seem to matter though, the place is packed and there is no minimum height to go on these “rides” – despite the late hour, parents walked around carrying small babies, teenagers leaned against takoyaki counters and the businessman army paraded through in their identical suits.

Osaka 3

Osakans love food and this is the place to get it. Both takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) were invented here so there are lots to choose from as well as other favourites; kitsune udon (udon with fried tofu), tecchiri (blowfish hot pot), kushikatsu (deep-fried skewers), sushi and crab. The city has been affectionately called, the city of “kuidaore,” meaning roughly “to ruin oneself by extravagance in food.” It comes from a proverb comparing Osaka to nearby Kyoto (the fashion centre): “Dress (in kimonos) till you drop in Kyoto, eat till you drop in Osaka.” Well, I didn’t try on any kimonos in Kyoto but I had come to Osaka ready to eat.

Osaka

I arrived in the afternoon and walked – lost, hot and sweaty, sore, tired, hungry – to the capsule hotel that I had selected online that allowed women. When I got there there was a sign on the door that said ‘No tattoos!’ which the clerk confirmed, adding that it was also men-only. WTF! In hindsight, I was way too tired to stay in a capsule but I also wasn’t super keen about wandering around Osaka with my bags either. I was still kind of in shock. I had come down off the tranquil monastery mountain of Koya-san into the city only that morning and after wandering the area around the station, I wrote in my journal:

“Osaka is not at all just like Tokyo so I’m surprised that people kept telling me that (in Canada). Guys occasionally loom sketchy, women look everything from slutty to skater-ish, people wear colours and shorts (women particularly, with suede thigh-highs). There are many blonde dye-jobs on both men and women and much more make up on women. In short, they seem much more embracing of style and originality than the monochrome salarymen uniforms of Tokyo. Also, they push. And there are bad smells. It’s like a any big city (which is obvious) but already kind of strange. The area close to the station is about the size of Yaletown, covered and just completely crazy. There are dozens of pachinko parlours, photo studios where you can be glammed / tarted up, arcades full of toys, nurse cafes, and all kinds of restaurants; Korean, Indian, tonkatsu, curry, noodles, fugu restaurants with tanks in the windows, conveyor-belt sushi and of course takoyaki. It’s a hedonistic pleasure dome.”

But that was small potatoes (or should I say octopus balls?) compared to Dōtonbori. Scanning the options lining the canal, I came up with a plan. I would start with the takoyaki shop right in front of me, circle around through the streets snacking on anything else that looked good, and end with a big okonomiyaki finish.

Takoyaki

Takoyaki literally means “fried octopus” and the snack is simple enough but requires a special grill to make. Bits of octopus, scallions, pickled ginger and batter are poured onto the grill and fried then served with mayonnaise, scallions and shaved katsuoboshi (bonito flakes). They are not the perfect street food…so much dough and mayonnaise to balance on a fork so tiny that one wrong move could be disastrous for clothing. Takoyaki has been eaten in Osaka since the 1930s and all over Dōtonbori, you see people hunched over their takoyaki, trying to minimize the gap between their mouths and the container.

I am not in the habit of regularly eating octopus, but these were amazing (much better than anything I’ve had in Vancouver or Tokyo) so I was really glad I tried them in their home region. They were also pretty filling so I passed on the giant dragon ramen and the crab and the fugu, but I did sample some gyoza and some pressed sushi before getting in line for okonomiyaki at Mizuno.

Osaka

Osaka is famous for okonomiyaki and Mizuno has been in business in Dōtonbori for 65 years, passed down through the family, and setting themselves apart by only using local ingredients. Okonomiyaki is sometimes called Japanese pizza, Japanese omelet or Japanese pancake because it is made with a batter of grated yam (nagaimo), flour, dashi broth, eggs and shredded cabbage then topped with an assortment of ingredients. Okonomi means “what you like” (and yaki of course means “grilled” or “cooked” like in yakitori) so the customer gets to choose what toppings they want – usually green onion, grilled onions, pork, seafood, shrimp, vegetables, mochi or cheese. At Mizuno, the specialty is roast pork and scallops and the most popular is octopus, scallop, squid, shrimp, and bacon. I also saw one being made with a layer of ramen noodles.

I was in line for a while so I had time to peruse the menu thoroughly, but ultimately I went with the most popular and was ushered into a tiny shop where I got a seat at the grill. In front of me, the cooks danced through the process, whisking batter, pouring it onto the grill, adding the desired toppings, moving them around to make sure that they are evenly cooked, and then adding the finishing touches (nori powder, bonito flakes, barbecue sauce and mayonnaise) and serving the guest.  I’ve been to many establishments where you cook your own okonomiyaki, but it was neat to see all of the different variations on the grill (and probably tasted better).

Okonomiyaki

My okonomiyaki was perfect – crispy bits on the outside and softly gooey inside with all kinds of different flavours coming up against each other. And it was so filling! After all I had eaten, I could barely finish my pancake and beer although I noticed some of my neighbours going back for seconds. As I wandered back out into the neon jungle, there was still quite a line-up outside but it’s easy to see how this dish has become so popular around here, especially late-night.

Koyasan (Japan)

Koya (10)

The slow train out of Kyoto chugged into the suburbs and then out into a patchwork of rice paddies and bamboo groves. That dappled green blur turned to a darker hue as farms gave way to forest and at the end of the line I traded the train car for a funicular that took me 800 metres up the side of Mount Koya in about 5 minutes. Exciting the cable car, I lurched a bit (whether from the uneven sidewalk or the sudden change in altitude) and found my way onto a bus for the next phase of my journey up a winding mountain road. The mountain, called Kōya-san in Japanese, is a sacred Buddhist site started in 805 by the monk Kobo Daishi. It has been an important pilgrimage destination for many years but now it is also a UNESCO-designated area with 120 temples, a small town, a university, the largest rock garden in Japan and Okunoin – an enormous cemetery that has been growing up around Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. After my kaiseki ryōri meal at Yuzuya Ryokan, I was interested in staying in shukubō (temple lodgings) and eating shōjin ryōri, the vegetarian food cooked for and prepared by monks so I planned to stay a few days to explore.

The road was so narrow that we had to pull off the road and come to a complete stop so that the oncoming bus could squeeze past, and even then the road jack-knifed so severely that one miscalculation would have sent a vehicle right down to the train station below. Arriving at the gates to Kōya-san, we were met by a large stone Buddha standing guard in a red robe and a promotional banner advertising the site’s 1200th anniversary next year. 1200 years! For several minutes, I was agog at the sheer age of the place but also at the determination of the early pilgrims. This was decidedly not an easy place to get to even in the modern age so their journeys would have been long and treacherous. I learned later that women were banned from the town’s temples for a significant part of history so in order to pray at Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum they had to take an even more dangerous and remote route through the mountains.

Once we were inside the gates the town lost its aura of remoteness. It was both bigger and busier than I expected and we picked up people from bus stops and passed shopkeepers closing up for the evening, dragging in shelves of prettily wrapped products. There was a large pagoda-shaped temple looming over the road and demanding attention with its red beams, blue kanji, and gold-painted wooden lanterns lining the entrance, but other temples were small, humble, and set back from the road. Most had some kind of gate with paper lanterns to welcome guests and as we drove past I tried to catch a glimpse of the gardens and temples inside. In the driveway of one, I saw a monk sweeping leaves into a circle with s straw broom – a Zen exercise.

Koya (9)

At Ekoin, the monastery I had chosen to stay at, there was an ornate wooden gate carved with swirls and accented with copper pieces. Through it, I could see a pond in the garden surrounded with stone sculptures, stubby trees, and rocky outcrops rising up to the main temple up above, as well as a row of potted lotus plants lining the driveway.  A young monk ran out to greet me and took me to my room on the first floor. As at Yuzuya Ryokan, I stored my shoes in a cubby and put on borrowed slippers to enter the room which was sparsely decorated with tatami mat flooring, a low table with a tea set, cushions, an alcove with a scroll and sadly, another television. A blue and white cotton yukata (pajama robe) was hanging in the corner for me to wear to the bath and paper screens opened onto a small patio with a wicker chair and a serene scene; fragrant cedar trees, rocks with scrub trees and mosses, and a fountain bubbling in the pond. I sighed happily. It had felt like quite a journey but I had the satisfaction of one who has reached their destination and was looking forward to dinner and a bath.

Koyasan

DINNER

Shōjin ryōri is vegetarian but the Shingon Buddhism sect also prohibits eating root vegetables – potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, etc. – and dairy is not frequently consumed in Japan so I was intrigued about what my “sumptuous feast” would entail. However, I was not in the least concerned. At this point in my journey, I was well aware of the culinary reach that was possible and had eaten all manner of delicious things I never knew existed. At the monastery, dinner is served in your room so at the appointed hour a trio of young monks arrived at my door carrying lacquer boxes that were unpacked to showcase an incredible meal – three trays each containing smaller containers and beautiful ceramic plates laden with delicacies, as well as the staples; rice, tea, soy sauce, and a special fall harvest beer. I didn’t know where to start!

On the main tray in front of me was steamed rice, pickles and clear soup with radish cakes floating in it, and some unidentified assorted vegetables which my menu suggested might consist of: Japanese radish, perilla leaf, wakame seaweed, Chinese yam, sword bean flowers, bayberry, raw konjac and vinegared miso sauce. Having eaten very few of these ingredients prior to my trip to Japan (I didn’t even know what konjac was), I was out of luck, but I enjoyed them thoroughly….a combination of a little bit salty and a slight tang from the vinegar and miso. The next dish was a simmered dish with snow peas, chestnut, young corn, shiitake mushroom and yuba (dried soy-milk skin) which I devoured, feeling grateful for all of the variety but also for the small portions. The final dish held tofu in sesame oil. This is something I eat fairly often at home but here I really relished the texture of the tofu and the nuttiness of the oil as I marvelled at all of the different types of food and methods of food preparation in front of me.

Koya (1)

I tried to pace myself but I as swapped the main tray with the second tray (allowing myself a few minutes to get out of the kneeling position to try and regain some feeling in my feet) I realized that I was already starting to feel full. Yikes! But quitting wasn’t an option – the tray in front of me now held hassun – a delicious fried dumpling with Chinese yam and candied Japanese plum, assorted tempura with sweet potato, shishitō pepper, laver seaweed, pumpkin and eggplant – and I dug in. There was another simmered dish that contained Kōya-dōfu, a local delicacy of freeze-dried and reconstituted tofu with rolled kelp, wheat gluten, and more snow peas. The next day I saw some for sale in one of the shops and was tempted to buy some but I realized I had already bought too many treats and still needed some room in my luggage for presents.

My feet had completely fallen asleep by this point in the meal and I was starting to groan under the weight of all that food but I saw that the third tray held delicate soba noodles with soba sauce in a beautiful ceramic container, a bowl of dark brown hijiki seaweed, and a couple of pieces of fruit, and I realized that of course, the order of the trays contained perfect pacing. The third tray was cool and cleansing and not that difficult to finish, especially with some tea and the last of my beer, so I swapped trays again, ate up and then laid myself out on my tatami mat, relieving my aching legs. In Japan, children are taught to sit on their knees from an early age so they are quite used to this position but after weeks in Japan, I was still only able to do about 5 minutes at a time. I could have easily had a little nap on the floor but the monks were coming back to pick up the trays and I still wanted to visit the graveyard.

Koya (6)

OKUNOIN

To call Okunoin a graveyard is the most grievous kind of understatement but that’s what I thought I was going to see when I set out in the dark after dinner. I knew that the sun had set and that the moon was still nearly full (I’d been at the full moon ceremony the night before in Kyoto) but I hadn’t really counted on it being so incredibly dark. There were some streetlights and a couple of lights on in the town but as I walked and walked and walked and wondered when I was going to get to the main gates, and then wondered if I had taken a wrong turn out of town, I couldn’t help being a little uneasy. But I eventually arrived at the gates and the ubiquitous washing station with its stone fountain and bamboo ladles.

I’d been walking for about half an hour at this point and didn’t have a map with me. I had no idea where the mausoleum was but I figured I’d walk along the path for a while and see what I could see. That turned out to be not very much… there was a promenade that seemed to be relatively new as all of the tiles were level and no weeds growing through the cracks. Along the sides were some stone lanterns typical of the but several were burned out and a few inches behind them all I could make out was shaggy undergrowth and the occasional outline of a statue in the moonlight. I kept walking but the farther I got into the cemetery, the more scared I got but I couldn’t figure out why. Because I was in a graveyard? Ridiculous. At night? No. Did I hear drums in the distance? Certainly not. The possibility of dengue fever? Maybe that one…a couple of tourists had gotten it at a temple in Tokyo a few weeks before my trip. But no. The two men who fell in behind me? Ordinarily, this would have put me on my guard, especially combined with the cemetery, remote mountain top, darkness and my incredibly poor footwear but come on, this was Japan! One of the safest countries in the world and not only that but a MONASTERY in Japan. I kept walking. Eventually, I did give up and turn around because I was an hour away from my bed and still hadn’t really seen anything.

Koya (5)

The next day I learned that I had taken the wrong fork in the road and walked almost to the far end of the Okunoin, unknowingly passing hundreds and hundreds of graves as I pressed on in the dark, and also that while it is an incredibly holy and serene place, Okunoin is still a little bit creepy in the daytime. I probably wouldn’t have come in the dark if I had seen it first but in the fresh light of morning I could hear woodpeckers hammering away and calling to each other and the smell of cedar and moss was lovely. From the main path I had walked the night before were all kinds of trails and dirt paths leading off into family complexes (marked by mossy Torii gates) and forest. Some of the cedars must have been big when the site was created because they are ancient now. I found one huge statue almost knocked on its side simply because a cedar tree bigger than I could put my arms around had kept growing beside it.

Koya (8)

The site is sacred because Kobo Daishi is believed to be in eternal meditation in the temple but throughout history, people have buried their families and loved ones close by (or set up a monument) so that when he wakes up, he will be able to revive them as well. But the oldest monument in the cemetery was constructed in the year 997 and there are hundreds more covered in moss and crumbling. This place is OLD and it feels as though the stone has in some way started to return to the earth. In places where new marble has been used its newness feels jarring…like being polished is an affront somehow.

In spite of its age, it’s evident that this is a busy place. Some of the newer monuments have been erected by corporations (a sure sign of the times) and pinwheels are stuck in the ground close to monuments for children, turning slightly in the cool air but never getting up enough movement to rid themselves of moss. Small statues of the Jizo Buddha (a protector of children, pregnant women, and travellers) are everywhere, dressed in knitted toques and aprons with offerings of coins and flowers. I had seen these Jizo Buddha at Hase-dera temple in Kamakura and a fox variation at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto but there was something unsettling about seeing hundreds of these statues at Okunoin, tucked into the nooks of trees or piled up to cover all the sides of a huge pyramid – all in various stages of decay. Later I read here that “In ancient times it was thought that children who died could not go to Heaven because they had caused great sorrow for their parents. Therefore grieving parents would wrap articles of their children’s clothing around Jizo statues and ask the Jizo to find their children and guide them to Heaven. Over the years this evolved into a tradition of wrapping a red bib around the Jizo when asking for any sort of favor.”

The Kobo Daishi Gobyo mausoleum is very serene and clearly very sacred. To get to it, I crossed a little moat (to an area where no photos are allowed). Monks in saffron robes were sweeping the ground around the Great Hall and inside several people were sitting in silent meditation. Beautiful.

Koya (3)

MORNING SERVICE & FIRE CEREMONY

When I got back to my room at night, the monks had cleared away my trays and set up my futon on the floor with a pillow stuffed with buckwheat. I’d slept on this setup a few times by this point on my trip and it was always very comfortable so I keep wondering why it needs to be more complicated than that. I’d been sleeping pretty lightly because of all the strange noises and walls made of paper, but I’d forgotten that I was at a working monastery – soft chimes called the monks to prayer at 4 AM, then again to call everyone else to morning service at 6:30 AM. In case anyone managed to sleep in, Muzak blared out the speakers all over town at 8.

The morning service was at the temple on the hill behind my room but as I’d arrived too late for afternoon meditation the day before, I hadn’t seen it yet. After exchanging my sandals for slippers at the cubby, I came around to the main hall where we were greeted by two monks in black robes and purple overlay with a pattern of circles with vertical crosses on them. We knelt in front of a shrine with candles and an incense burner and a small statue of Buddha and the monks started chanting. Behind the shrine was a deep hall with many more altars and candles and banners of red silk hanging from the ceiling.  Then the monks added gongs and cymbals to their chanting and a priest in black robes with a gold overlay came out to stand in front of the altar. He gave a short sermon in Japanese that sounded as though it was rattled off rather quickly but the only people still kneeling nodded appreciatively and we were invited to add a pinch of incense to the burner. When it was time to leave we followed the monks around the hall, bowing to the Buddha and then heading back out into the courtyard where we would attend the fire ceremony.

The Goma fire ritual also happens every morning as part of the monks’ service. In the evening guests are invited to write a prayer on a piece of wood and bring it to the office to be burned in the morning. As we filed into the smaller temple after the morning service one of the monks was seated at the shrine carefully setting up the materials for the fire. He had put on a saffron overlay for this part. While he built the fire in the brazier another monk started steadily drumming. The flames got higher and higher the drumming became faster and faster and then the prayers were added which caused the flames to lick up a bit higher but the climax was when the monk added a bit of oil to the fire and the flames reached almost to the ceiling. It’s quite close quarters in the fire temple and the drumming, chanting and flames are quite sensational. Here’s a short video clip:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/15271729481

Koya (2)

BREAKFAST

The monks brought in trays of steamed rice, pickles, tea, miso soup (made with wakame seaweed, wheat gluten and Japanese honeywort), crispy dried laver seaweed to wrap around pinches of rice, deep-fried soybean curd with vegetables, marinated vegetables, grated Chinese yam, and wheat gluten boiled in soy sauce. It was amazing.

After breakfast, I explored the town and tried to taste as many traditional Kōya-san delicacies as I could find. One specialty was a green paste filled with adzuki beans and wrapped in a banana leaf (a bit slimy and not overly sweet) but my favourite was yakimochi – a rice dumpling filled with black bean paste then fried on a griddle. I had heard that pressed sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves was a specialty of the mountains (because the persimmon leaves help preserve the fish) but I couldn’t find it at any of the shops. I was sad to leave Kōya-san because with all the ancient history, culture, religion and natural beauty that come together here it was certainly a highlight of the trip.

From Kyoto With Love

Kinkaku-ji

If visiting Tokyo feels like going to the future, then visiting Kyoto is going back in time. The train station is sleek and modern but as soon as you leave it you are in the land of temples and shrines and women wearing kimonos around town. That also means tourists and people speaking English and places that take credit cards – all things that I can appreciate while travelling but that I had gotten used to doing without in Tokyo. I wrote in my journal, “it feels so strange to be in Gion district with souvenir stores and trash cans. Today I actually saw some (extremely uncomfortable-looking) benches…and an older woman sitting on the floor! Mind blown.”

Nijo Castle

After my Kamakura temple tour, I had my work cut out for me. On the first day I went to Kinkaku-ji temple (the Golden pavilion) then Ryoan-ji (with its serene rock garden), and then Nijo Castle, but somehow I just wasn’t feeling it. Kinkaku-ji is amazingly beautiful but it seems strange to me that a Buddhist temple would be gold-plated. I couldn’t get my head wrapped around the irony of that. And the Ryoan-ji rock garden – set up in such a way that you can never see all 13 stones – felt like a good place to sit and meditate or read but it was overflowing with crowds. Nijo Castle was neat and I was grateful to be able to go inside after the fly-by visit to the Imperial Castle in Tokyo, but there is not much to see other than the building structure, the moat and the “nightingale floors” which were designed to creak musically and deter intruders. All of the furniture and original screens have been moved to another museum.

And I was getting tired by this point. It was hot and humid and my feet were killing me. I had brought my flat Toms with me to Japan, because I had prioritized having cool feet and being able to slip them on and off several times a day, but my feet weren’t standing up to the endless walking with no support. I tried to buy some insoles but I’m sure the Japanese manufacturers couldn’t even conceive of my size 10 feet and so they only came 2/3rds of the way up. By the time I got to Nijo Castle in the afternoon, I had taken to calling them my nightingale shoes because they were squeaking all kinds of different notes.

Gion

In the evening I put on a dress and went to visit the Gion and Pontocho districts, both historic “geisha” districts (although Gion is the more notable) that are laid out with red lanterns and bamboo slatted storefronts with so many beautiful shops and restaurants as well as the historic teahouses.

Geisha” actually means ‘art person’ in Japanese and includes males. In Gion, they prefer the term geiko, ‘a woman of art’. Maiko (‘dance child’) are geiko / geisha in training and are identified by higher platform heels and extra hair ornaments. Several photographers were hanging around the main teahouse, trying to get a glimpse of the women on their evening rounds but I was both bored by that exercise and feeling weirded out by the theme park level of tourism in the area so instead I wandered up and down the narrow alleyways, checking out all the things. I overheard one man saying to his wife at a cafe, “yeah, but even if we stayed here for a month you couldn’t eat at ALL of them,” and I knew exactly how she felt. Taking shortcuts and back alleys, I actually ran into both a geisha and a maiko with their entourages, trying to avoid the crowds. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo but I was pretty satisfied with that experienced and went off to find some Kyoto-style sushi.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The next morning I climbed the sacred fox mountain. I had considered visiting the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine with its ten thousand orange torii gates the previous day but changed my mind when I read in my guidebook that I should allocate 2-3 hours. Why on earth?! The shrine is a bit south of Kyoto but other than the time needed to get there I couldn’t understand why I would need so much time to get my calligraphy book signed, throw some coins, ring the bell and pay my respects – as I had done in all of the previous shrines. But when I arrived and set off (through a side door again, I am always missing the main gate), I saw people walking their dogs and doing landscape maintenance. I walked for ten minutes or so, wondering where the famous Pi-shaped gates were or even a map and then I found both – the shrine sits on Inari mountain which has four main shrines and thousands of sub-shrines, spanning about 4 kilometres. The orange torii gates cover the entire mountain in all sizes – corporations sponsor large structures that form an archway over the trails and smaller versions are sold as emas that visitors can buy and leave at the shrine. As if this weren’t enough to cover the whole mountain in orange, as I walked up the mountain I passed huge stacks of “used” emas, collected from the shrines to be burned as an offering to the gods.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The god, in this case, is Inari, the god of rice but foxes are the messengers of the gods and highly represented here. The main gates feature a pair of fox statues, one with a key to the rice storeroom in its mouth and the other with a jewel that represents the spirit of the gods. This iconography is repeated all over the mountain, with some fox statues wearing red aprons and toques and with fortunes tied around their feet – clearly recently cared for – while others were many years old, broken and eroding. Some of these were also dressed in deteriorating red aprons and toques and in addition to the statues, fox-shaped emas were also for sale so the effect was hundreds of fox eyes staring out at you which gave the mountain a vaguely creepy air. I was there early in the morning and there were a few hikers around but the udon shops weren’t open yet and I saw no crowds until I was almost all the way down again. I did pass one man who was off to the side of the trail surreptitiously brushing the long blond hair of a doll. I thought it must be for an offering but when he saw me coming he turned away and hid it in his jacket.

As I was climbing up and up, the landscape alternating between orange gates and landings full of foxes and shrines, I had plenty of time to think about my time in Japan and how this year has changed me as a person. I wouldn’t call it a meditation per se but when I arrived at the shrine at the top of the mountain, it was so anticlimactic to make it obvious that the journey was the reward (and maybe an udon soup if the shops were open – the sake for sale is to give to the foxes).

When I got back down to the main gates it was late morning and the busses had started to arrive. School children were all over the main shrine area, taking selfies while they rang the bell to wake up the gods, hanging strands of origami cranes and giving carrot offerings to the horse shrine. An older woman who had been sweeping the plaza with a wooden broom when I arrived was now sitting in the shade watching her work being recreated for her. On the way down I had been thinking that it would have been nice to bring a book and maybe spend a few more hours there but my feet were killing me. In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have come for a mountain hike in my bad shoes if I had known what I was in for in advance, but I’m glad I did because it turned out to be one of my favourite places in Japan.

Nishiki Market

Since I missed out on kitsune (fox) udon soup on the mountain, and since it was on my way back into town, I decided to stop in at Nishiki Market instead of pressing on into the countryside to visit the Suntory distillery. People kept telling me that I would like Kyoto better than Tokyo and I can see why that would be a popular sentiment. It has the tourist infrastructure, the beautiful temples and shrines, the decades of ex-pat writers coming to study, etc. All of the Americans I met on my flight from Korea were headed there, but I’m not so sure. Tokyo is far more closed to outsiders and that makes it interesting to me; I want to learn Japanese so that I can hang out in the yakitori bars with people after work and I want to learn what all the things in the depachika department stores taste like. When I was planning my trip, I chose Japan because I wanted to explore somewhere that I could lose myself, struggle, and grow. Tokyo floored me in that regard but Kyoto is different. I spent the entire time I was there making (what felt like) huge decisions – should I eat lunch or go drink whisky? Should I spend the day at the fox mountain or go to the Arashiyama bamboo forest? Should I go to a Maiko show or stay in a traditional Japanese inn? But other than getting lost on the bus, it didn’t challenge me in the same way that Tokyo did. I love that the Japanese literature books I’ve been reading (some written a very long time ago) take place in the spots I was visiting, and I could have easily spent a month there and seen everything that I wanted to (maybe even found my way into the local culture) but Kyoto felt closer to vacation than travel, as my husband likes to say.

And even though I agonized over some of my decisions, I regret nothing. Nishiki Market was lovely and has at least one of every Japanese delicacy; seafood (both dried and fresh), tea, dessert, fresh produce, snacks, all kinds of pickles, knives, and lunch. I wandered through the stalls and sampled matcha tea flavoured warabi mochi (a softer, looser version than the traditional rice cake…something like a savoury marshmallow), tai yaki (the fish-shaped cake filled with red bean paste), and kasuzuke (pickles made with fermented sake lees). After feasting my eyes, I tucked into some udon noodles with grilled mochi wrapped in nori and a beer – so satisfying after my hike! In the evening I had burnt miso ramen from Gogyo so it turned out to be a day of noodles…always a very good day.

Kyoto

The next day I spent in eastern Kyoto, visiting Kiyomizu-dera temple and the Higashiyama area around it with its ancient shops and restaurants. Some have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for hundreds of years. Kiyomizu-dera is a wooden temple (unbelievably, no nails are used in the entire building) high up on the hill so it has survived many of the fires that ruined other wooden temples from the same era. It also meant that it was a bit of a hike – my second mountain climb in as many days in my terrible shoes, but other visitors were walking up the trail in traditional kimonos and sandals so I kept my grumbling to myself. The view from the top was worth it in any case. Kiyomizu-dera is celebrated in all seasons because of the beautiful view out over the cherry and maple trees to the city below.

Kiyomizu-dera

It was extremely crowded but I spent some time wandering around the main hall, and drinking from the Otowa waterfall where you can choose from a stream for longevity, success at school, or luck in love. There is also an entire shrine dedicated to the god of love and that might have explained all the teenagers. Like all the shrines, there were charms and fortunes for sale but the main draw are two stones that you have to walk between with your eyes closed in order to find love. I laughed at the idea of this – clearly conceived in a time with far fewer tourists crowding the platform – but I didn’t stay long.

Yuzuya Ryokan

I had been on the fence about staying in a traditional ryokan inn because they are expensive and many ban tattooed people from the public bath – an important (in some cases necessary) part of the experience. But the exquisite seasonal kaiseki set menus (another important and necessary part of the experience) are planned ahead so they are unable to cater to dietary needs – meaning that I could plan to do it on some future trip, but not with Matt. I decided to book into Yuzuya Ryokan and at times it was strange – basically eating a tasting menu by myself, in a yukata (Japanese pajamas) but the food was incredible and I managed to avoid the public bath experience and offending anyone so that worked out.

I crawled into bed, full from my amazing dinner and fully prepared to go to sleep at 9 PM when I heard drums outside. I knew it was a full moon because I’d seen notices for various full moon festivals around town (the September Harvest full moon in particular is very special) but it hadn’t occurred to me that one would be happening at the Yasaka Shinto shrine right next door. I ran right over and got to watch the Taiko drummers and shrine maidens, grinning like mad at the unexpected experience – especially just a couple of days after happening upon a Shinto wedding!

In the morning, I went back to the shrine to get a stamp for my calligraphy book and then continued on to Chion-in temple next door. It has a beautiful winged Buddha but more importantly, it gives out 3 stamps – one for the temple, a poem and a Buddhist sutra – so that made my day, and then I was ready to hop on the train for Mount Koya.

Kamakura (Japan)

Kamakura

In Spain almost all of my journal entries started with “OMG, it’s so hot” or “I’m melting!” and when I think back to riding around the country on motorcycles in thick leather, the heat in Japan shouldn’t even phase me but OMG, it was so hot! I now understand why every shop sells tengui – beautiful and highly useful handkerchiefs – and why every woman in Japanese art is holding a fan. What I don’t understand is how people – especially the coiffed women –  manage to hold it together wearing stockings or suits and carefully done hair in weather that made me want to stay in my air-conditioned hotel room all day. But for all the chic people walking around Tokyo without noticing the heat, at least some of them were with me on the train to Kamakura – a beach town about an hour and a half south.

I wasn’t going to visit the beach though – in fact, I didn’t even go to it. I wanted to see the Great Buddha. When I was a kid I was obsessed with Greek culture and desperately wanted to go to Athens but my mom was afraid I would turn it into a beach vacation and just party the entire time (so she sent me on a home exchange to rural France instead). I feel like she would have been satisfied with my Kamakura itinerary though – in the 2 days that I was there, I saw 5 temples and 3 shrines and the only time I even saw the sea was from the top of the Hase-dera temple complex.

Kamakura Buddha

That was too bad but I loved the Great Buddha, beautiful and serene and sitting out in the open after a tsunami destroyed the Kōtoku-in temple in 1498. In Tokyo so much felt new and modern. Even the Asakusa temple complex was mostly rebuilt after the war. Kamakura has been a temple town since about year 700.

Hase-dera

Next, I went to the Hase-dera temple, a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon (goddess of mercy). The literature I was given says that according to legend the monk Tokudō found a camphor tree so large he thought he could carve two statues with it. One went to Nara and the other was launched into the sea, letting fate decide where it would end up. It washed ashore close to Kamakura and the temple was built to house it. The statue of Kannon was impressive but what struck me even more were the statues of tiny buddhas lined up everywhere like a little army. They are statues of the Jizo Bodhisattva who helps the souls of dead children to reach paradise, and they are everywhere, covering all the landings as you climb up and up and up, with potato chips and flowers and candles left for offerings.

Kamakura

That night I stayed in a traditional guest house with gorgeous post and beam construction, a traditional sandpit stove and teakettle, and tatami mats. At night we unrolled our soft futons in a communal female room and laid out pillows that are stuffed with adzuki beans. There was no air conditioning and I thought I was in for a sleepless night but it’s amazing what can be done with airflow in a house made of screens, and both the pillow and the bed turned out to be completely comfortable. I was amazed to see so many women travelling by themselves too. Japan is notoriously safe (one of the reasons it won out over several other destinations for me) but the only man in the guesthouse was one that worked there. The rest were solo women travellers, some who had been on the road for months at a time through many countries, others travelling in groups from relatively close by in Japan.

It was wonderful to be in such a welcoming space after the masculine no-nonsense business hotels of Tokyo and I would have loved to stay for a few days to get into the rhythm of it but there were temples to see and I don’t know if I could have lasted that much longer without A/C.

Hōkoku-ji

The next day I went to Engaku-ji, Kenchō-ji, Tōkei-ji (the “divorce temple”), Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, and Hōkoku-ji (the “bamboo temple”). Engaku-ji and Kenchō-ji are the darlings around town, huge monastery complexes rated #1 and #2 for Zen temples in the area. I was impressed by the many outbuildings and gardens but without having an opportunity to sit for a meditation session, most of it was lost on me. Instead, I preferred Tōkei-ji which got its start as a refuge for battered women and was instrumental in cementing Japan’s divorce policy because they considered women to be officially divorced after staying there for three years. Hōkoku-ji is called the “bamboo temple” because it is housed in a grove of enormous bamboo. Most of the grounds are closed off but there is a teahouse and sitting drinking a bowl of bitter matcha tea while the green light filtered through the bamboo down was serene. I felt closed off from the world and so calm…which I guess is kind of the point of a temple.

Lotus

Most of the temples I had been to so far are Buddhist but I loved the Shinto Meiji-Jingu shrine in Tokyo and Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū (also Shinto) was my favourite site in Kamakura. In Japan, Buddhist temples are noted by the -dera or -ji appended to their names, and shrines are jinja. I love the orange Torii gates and flags leading up the path, the shrine maidens in their white robes and the various activity stations. At Tsurugaoka I wrote a prayer for peace and happiness on a horse ema (a wooden plaque that is hung up with the wish on it for the gods), and I bought a fortune by shaking a cylinder with numbered chopsticks in it – the number of the one that falls out corresponds to a drawer with your fortune in it. Fortunately, my was both a good one and included an English translation, so I kept it with me. If you get a good fortune you’re supposed to save it and if not then you tie it to a fence and say a prayer. I also purchansed an amulet to ward off senility. Later I learned that each shrine and temple has its own stamp and calligrapher so I bought a calligraphy book and had it inscribed as well. I was tempted to backtrack to the temples I had already been to that day but instead, I worked on filling it up in Kyoto and Koyasan, and it is one of my most treasured souvenirs from Japan.

Calligraphy

There is some crossover in the history of Shinto and Buddhism and there are also many similarities in the way people behave at the sites. Most have a purification area near the entrance where bamboo ladles are laid out on a fountain. To purify yourself, first you pour water onto one hand then onto the other, then rinse your mouth from the water in your hand and pour the remaining water out into the drain (not back into the fountain). Inside a Shinto shrine, you swing a heavy rope pull to ring the gong get the god’s attention, then throw a coin into the (insanely loud) offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. For someone who was raised to be as quiet as possible in church, this all feels quite noisy and public and jovial and I loved all of them.

I found out later that I had effectively come in the back door, that this shrine is the darling of Kamakura and a wide tree-lined street leads up to it from the train station.

Wedding

As I came up to the main pavilion I saw a wedding! The groom was wearing a kimono and the bride was in white, wearing the traditional hat that my guidebook says is designed to hide the woman’s horns until after the wedding (!). The musicians sat on the side of the pavilion and were dressed in turquoise robes but everyone else stood outside, many dressed in beautiful kimonos – although there seemed to be as many professional photographers as guests at the wedding. Apparently part of the ceremony includes a shrine maiden dance which I missed but I did get to see the procession down to the main street where their rickshaws were waiting.

Postcard from Tokyo

Tsukiji

It’s become very fashionable for people to describe Tokyo as a hectic, crowded place absolutely teeming with people and positioned squarely in the future. A host / author / blogger / yelper goes to dinner at the fighting robot cafe and then to a pachinko parlour and then maybe eats some fugu before passing through Shibuya crossing at rush hour on the way to Kabuki-cho, the frenetic pleasure district. This kind of thing. You hardly ever see the Meiji-Jingu shrine, with its 100,000 trees, or the wide, empty streets of Ginza on a late weekday morning. It took me two entire days to get to Tokyo, during which time I passed through the rice paddies of Incheon, Korea, industrial areas around the Seoul airport, vacant lots of Narita and then along the partially closed expressway to arrive at Tokyo station. Later I would have a near panic attack at the number of people pushing through the station and the utter lack of coherency of the train schedule, but arriving by bus in the middle of the day and walking to my hotel I marvelled at the quiet emptiness. When I had settled into my hotel I sat down with a cold beer and wrote this:

“Tokyo is a big city, yes, but there are plenty of green spaces and the pace isn’t as fast as I expected. The expressways are impressive but there are homeless people sleeping under them, like in any city. And there are expensive hotels and restaurants to be sure, but there are plenty of cheap ones too. It feels a bit like Manhattan to me so I think what I’m surprised about is the lack of culture shock that I was bracing myself for.  But maybe the things that make it feel almost recognizable are the same things that are masking cultural mysteries. The department stores are like museums where you are not supposed to take photos and where you’re wasting everyone’s time if you don’t know what you want. The city is immaculate but there are no trash cans anywhere. Everything is in Japanese, except for some English words that catch my eye then end up being entirely random. The city is not built on a grid, the address scheme is almost incomprehensive, and street signs are rare. If you do find what you’re looking for, there is another level of impenetrability inherent in the manners and etiquette. Every man is wearing the same outfit; white undershirt, short-sleeved dress shirt, black slacks and shoes, black laptop shoulder bag – the uniform for some kind of office-worker army”

Victoria Abbott Riccardi expresses something similar in ‘Untangling My Chopsticks’, “things seem so easy until you try to understand them. An American acquaintance now living in Tokyo said that after his first week, he felt he could write a book about the country; a year later, only a magazine article; after fifteen years, only one sentence.”

Ramen

For dinner my first evening I went back to Tokyo station for ramen at “Ramen Street” – a collection of ramen shops where you order from a machine and have the option of paying with your metro card. I had some trouble with the order of operations (as well as my first realization that things were not going to be as simple as they seemed) but the ramen was delicious and deeply comforting – and I decided to be satisfied with the success of having arrived in Japan and fed myself. At one point during my trip, a friend had emailed and said she thought I was brave for travelling in Japan by myself. I hadn’t given it much thought because back when I travelled often, it was frequently by myself and I like the freedom to spend as long as I like in a museum or occasionally eating lunch twice without forcing anyone onto my schedule. But if I had thought about it, about the fact that it was my first time in Asia or in a place where I knew only a few words of the language and none of the alphabet, my first time travelling alone in quite a while and after a hard year of set-backs that knocked big holes in my confidence, I’m not sure if I would have been so cavalier about it. I wrote in my journal, “this is hard. Other times when I’ve travelled, I leveraged beauty or money or knowledge (language, geography, etiquette) without even realizing it but now I have only the internet and the kindness of strangers.” The kindness of strangers started well before my trip, with people offering all kinds of suggestions for things to see and do and eat. Friends reached out to friends, my landlady introduced me to someone she knew in Tokyo, and people everywhere were offering to help. Part of this is the Japanese culture – the importance of being polite and a gracious host is evident everywhere – but as I sat eating my ramen that the person behind me had helped me order, it was good to be reminded that people are kind and the world is a beautiful and interesting place.

Tsukiji

The next morning I had an early morning wake up call to check out Tsukiji Market, followed by the early morning sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai. 

I wrote on my food blog (now defunct):

I thought I would cry at the fish auction. I was actually prepared for the possibility that I might have to give up eating fish, so anxious am I already at the dire strait of the oceans. The sight of so many tuna lined up on the floor didn’t unhinge me, but the understanding that this was the second series of auctions that day and this happened almost every day of the year made me feel faint. However, as much as I am passionate about ocean conservation and sustainable fisheries, it was hard to be angry here.

I hate that we are fishing tuna out of the water. I hate that Japan is still whaling, I hate that there was a mountain of Styrofoam and all this is juxtaposed against the love I have of diving and undersea life, but instead of being angry, I felt intense respect for these workers, readying their shops every day at 4 in the morning and doing their best to move food through the market in spite of the tourists who come to gawk at them. Awe at the sheer diversity (not only of fish but produce too) and beauty in the market as well as the frantic pace of bikes, pedestrians, cars, vans and scooter carts trying to get the fish delivered as quickly as possible.

In short, I thought it was pretty neat, even before I ate the best sushi of my life.

Sushi

Matthew Amster Burton writes in Pretty Good Number One that ‘Tokyo is not beautiful but is full of beautiful things’ that really resonated with me. I had no desire to climb the Skytree but every side street I looked down had a shop or restaurant that I wanted to check out…paper lanterns moving about softly in the breeze and bells tinkling invitingly, or a display of something so specialized you could hardly believe the shop could stay in business. The beauty here is in the details; a pair of hand-carved cedar chopsticks made with love and incredible attention to detail then wrapped in such beautiful packaging it looks like a treasure. Or wagashi, Japanese confectionery, handled by glove-wearing attendants in the glamorous depachika department stores that are so detailed and beautiful that they really are edible gems. Matt asked me in an email what I had seen that was beautiful and I replied that everything was beautiful – from the police motorcycles to tengui handkerchiefs, everything has been hand-crafted thoughtfully. And the attention to detail shows through in the service as well. I sat and watched a doorman at a shop changing the position of the doors at closing time to lead outwards instead of inwards and I was ashamed for every mall in America.

Asakusa

I only had a few days in Tokyo but I took my metro card and ranged far and wide. I went to the Asakusa Buddhist temple complex, wandered around and snacked on street food. I had the best sushi of my life again and I walked from the serenity of the Meiji-Jingu Shinto shrine through Harajuku down into the insanity of Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku. Kabuki-cho is the pleasure district (in another city it might be called the red light district) and there are a couple of strip bars here but there are also Maid Cafes, video arcades, pachinko parlours, photo studios where you can be digitally glammed up, and who knows what else that got missed in translation. Arriving in Kabuki-cho at rush-hour and getting caught up in the sea of commuters spilling out of Shinjuku station felt like the Tokyo postcard that I described at the start of this post. I explore for a while and then continued back up under the station where I found the warren of yakitori joints and izakayas.

Shinjuku

There must have been 30 different places, all specializing in something different and most so small that the proprietor was grilling on the windowsill facing the street then passing meat down to patrons. The smell of smoke (from the grills and from all the men off work smoking cigarettes while they drank) united the area called Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley). My guidebook warned that some entire places are reserved for locals and I thought this was just code for “not friendly to foreigners” but then I saw a reserved sign hanging across the doorway of one shop.

Some shops were specific to noodles and others were dedicated to yakitori. I also saw some mushrooms and something cut in a half-circle (zucchini?). I had fun walking down an alley and looking in the front doors and windows of the restaurants, then turning a corner and being able to see in the back. Finally, I decided on a place and ordered the set menu – which meant that I had no idea what I was eating. My best guess is pork heart, chicken skin, chicken thigh, wingtip, negi (similar to a fat green onion) and some other kind of pork. I thought how funny it is that many people are scared to eat here and don’t worry about the etiquette because they don’t know a thing about it but for me, it’s the opposite – I chewed happily on my mystery meat and didn’t really care to know more.

Drunkard Alley

Later I met up with a friend of a friend, a fellow travel-lover and a decidedly awesome person, and we went to a grill-it-yourself izakaya in the area. She ordered for us but it was easy to identify the giant scallops (as big as my hand), huge turban snails, sashimi and crab with quails eggs in them ready to be cooked. We sampled sake and shochu and chatted about all the amazing places in the world. Then suddenly it was so late and we ran to catch the last train, smelling of smoke and grease and grinning broadly. 

Snacks

In the morning, I left for Kamakura.