Wednesday, February 28, 2007


So back on February 4th I went to Nara for the day and completely forgot to blog about it! I remembered just now after pointing people to Nara for lanterns and wood buildings in my sight seeing guide.

Nara has a lot of deer.
They are everywhere and are free to go where they please. Very tame and kind of mangy. I went for the lantern festival at Kasuga Shrine, but got there early so I could explore a bit. I went by Kofuku Temple to see the pagoda and Todai-ji in the park for the giant Buddha. They're not lying, it's big, and it's housed in the largest wooden structure on earth. The temple is now only one third of its original size due to fire damage in the 12th and 16th centuries. Deeper into the park I followed a crowd of people to a shrine where a priest was giving a sermon from a second story balcony. With the strike of a bell the priest started throwing colored balls at the crowd below. Odd. I got to Kasuga early so I wandered back towards towards town. there were so many lanterns, it was nice to see them all before it got dark. At dusk I headed back to the shrine.

It was majestic to see all the lanterns glowing, over 3000, but it was crowded. There was an amazing lack of street vendors at this festival, so I was hungry. On the way back to the station I went by Kofuku again and caught a surprise demon show. Neat.

Matthew's Sight Seeing Guide to Kyoto

Miyaka Messe ☆☆☆☆☆
Kyoto Folk Craft Museum
This place is a must see if you are at all interested in traditional Japanese crafts. Exhibits include: textiles, furniture, sake, kimonos, dolls, fans, and ceramics. The work is all top quality and each different craft has a TV playing a looped video that shows a craftsman at work. There is also a nice shop where you can buy things similar to those on display. They even have a library with books on crafts, unfortunately all the books are in Japanese.
No Photography Allowed.

Path of Philosophy ☆☆☆☆☆
A great way to get lost in your thoughts. A couple temples, shrines, shops, and cafes along the way too. Following the gentle brook also serves as a great way to avoid traffic when traveling North or South along Eastern Kyoto.

Nijo Castle ☆☆☆☆
Nijo castle has some great architecture and gardens. The nightingale floors are interesting, too.

Imperial Palace ☆☆☆
Reservation Required
The imperial palace is nice, but you can only see it as part of a tour. As such, you can not enter any of the buildings, a bit disappointing since none of them are in use anymore. You can see some nice screen painting from the outside, though.

Steam locomotive Museum ☆☆☆
The museum itself is rather small and has some mediocre model tables set up. But just outside they have a significant collection of real antique steam engines. So if you like trains, go for, but don't expect a whole lot.

Kyoto City Botanical Garden ☆☆
A nice park, but not so nice in winter. Good collection of Bonsai tree, though, if you're interested in that.

Kyoto Handicraft Center ☆☆
A place to buy really expensive Japanese crafts. you can see a few artisans at work, too.

Maruyama Koen ☆☆
We only stopped into the park briefly, but I would have liked to spent longer here. It is also probably nicer when the weather gets warmer and the leaves come out.

Nishjin Textile Center
Kimono Fashion Show
Similar to the Kyoto Handicraft center, but the textile center has daily Kimono runway shows. Neat!

Notes: WH = UNESCO World Heritage Site. Prices may fluctuate with time.

Matthew's Sight Seeing Guide to Kyoto Shrines

All shinto shrines have the great benefit of being free and open 24 hours a day.

Fushimi-Inari ☆☆☆☆☆
WH Festival
This place is magnificent, my favorite shrine by far, and I would guess Christo and Jean-Claude's as well. The gated paths twist up a mountainside offering great views of the surrounding area. One path is lined not with gates but hundreds of smaller shrines where people leave candles and incense burning. Very peaceful and a good place for a walk.

Kitano ☆☆☆☆☆
Kitano shrine holds many stone lanterns, but again, if you really want to see lanterns, go to Nara. The market here held on every 25th is great. It is not as crowded as Toji's, but there are many of the same venders. A bit smaller though. The shrine grounds are nice, too. There are many plum trees, and you may even see a maiko.

Heian Shrine ☆☆☆
This colorful shrine is worth a look if you're in the museum district. Great roofs.

Kamigamo ☆☆☆
another peaceful mountain side shrine. The shrines are nice because it seems like they get more use by local people than the temples. Everyone is welcome here.

Nyakuoji ☆☆☆
I found this little shrine while wandering down the Path of philosophy. Cute statues. It's nice to go to the smaller shrines and temples because they are not so crowded and you can often get the whole place to yourself.

Yasaka ☆☆☆
We visited Yasaka Jinja for hatsumode as our first shrine of the year. It was a nice introduction to the culture, but we didn't understand a bit of it.

Yoshida ☆☆☆
We only saw this place at night for a Setsuban Festival, it was packed! We couldn't really see what was going on, but there were demons.

Shimogamo ☆☆☆
We often bicycled by this place to and from down town. Peaceful and a nice detour, but nothing spectacular.

Notes: WH = UNESCO World Heritage Site. Prices may fluctuate with time.

Matthew's Sight Seeing Guide to Kyoto Temples

Ginkaku-ji Temple ☆☆☆☆☆
¥500 WH
Ginkakuji, the silver pavilion, was by far my favorite temple. It has a nice mix of rock gardens, moss gardens, and architecture. I particularly liked one building that has a mixed Chinese and Japanese style.

Ninna-ji Temple ☆☆☆☆☆
¥500 WH
I really liked Ninna-ji. The main attraction is an old palace that was relocated here. The palace has some great screen paintings and an elevated walkway through a beautiful garden. But the palace is just one of several buildings in the temple complex. There are meditational halls, giant gates, a pagoda, and many other smaller buildings, a great survey or Japanese temple architecture.

Chion-in Temple ☆☆☆☆
Chion-in is nice to visit because it still has active monks, or monks that are active even while tourists are there anyway! We caught them spinning a big prayer wheel. The fountains and incense burners are particularly nice.

Kiyomizudera ☆☆☆☆
¥300 WH
A lot of buildings here, many of which are painted in bright vermillion and can be seen for free. As you hike up the hill there are some great panoramic views of the city. There are so many tourists, though, this place is very crowded, and has many stairs and hills. I got off the beaten track a bit and found this beautiful run down pagoda. There is also a bigger freshly painted pagoda on the premise. If you don't have a lot of time in Kyoto it may be worth going here as there are so many different types of buildings and many bronze statues, too.

Sanjusangen-do ☆☆☆☆
While there is sonly one building here it holds over 1000 human sized wooden Buddha and guardian statues. There are also detailed descriptions of each guardian in English and Japanese. It is a spectacular sight; 1000 is a big number.
No Photography Allowed.

Tanukidaniyama Fudo-in ☆☆☆☆
Aside from having a great osake festival, this place is quietly pulled back from Kyoto's busy streets and high in the mountains. Nice for walking, thinking... and drinking.

Honen-in Temple ☆☆☆
This little temple resides along the Path of Philosophy. It has a quaint peaceful atmosphere, and you can see a few locals coming to pray.

Kinkaku-ji Temple ☆☆☆
¥400 WH
Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion, is similar to Ginkakuji in layout, only there are no rock gardens and less moss gardens. What it does have is a gold plated building, but it's not as impressive as it sounds.

Ryoanji Temple ☆☆☆
¥400 WH
In terms of zen rock gardens, this temple has THE rock garden. Built in the 1500's, the small zen garden here is the basis for all other rock gardens world-wide. Besides the garden, there is not much else to see.

Nishi Hongan-ji ☆☆
This temple is very near Kyoto station making it a tourist hotspot. Unfortunately it's main building will be under construction through 2010. It boasts a very large wooden building, but if you want to see a truly colossal wooden structure go to Nara.

To-ji Temple ☆☆
¥500 WH Market (☆☆☆☆)
We went for the market on the 21st of each month, and if you like markets this one is great. You can get anything at any price, from antiques, to wood tools, to lacquer ware, to kimonos, to food - you name it, but it is very crowded. The temple itself did not seem that impressive. There is a tall pagoda, but due to the temples downtown location it is hard to get a good view of it.
Too crowded to get my camera out!

Higashi Hongan-ji ☆
This temple is very near Kyoto station making it a tourist hotspot. The temple was built to compete with Nishi Hogan-ji. It doesn't.

Tofuku-ji Temple ☆
I wandered around here for a while trying to find the entrance to the temple but am not sure I ever did. Looked good from the outside, but similar to many other Kyoto temples.

Notes: WH = UNESCO World Heritage Site. Prices may fluctuate with time.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tempura is best when hot, The Amazing Day Part 3

For dinner Monday night we went to a tempura restaurant called Oozawa (おおざわ) in Gion with Oya-san courtesy of my parents. I was great because we got to have a real good Japanese meal, and otherwise we would not have had the opportunity. To start, we had tea and beer and a small daikon and carrot salad. The tempura came next served three pieces at a time including: shrimp cake*, quail egg*, ginkgo nut*, squid in a parrilla leaf*, butterbur scape*, shitake mushroom with shrimp, lightning bug squid*, lotus root*, shrimp*, fish, corn, and asparagus. All of the *ed items were firsts for me, I felt very adventuresome. It was all delicious. The lightning bug squid were the hardest to swallow, though, since they were whole two inch squid and Oya-san told me they were called lightning bug because they are phosphorescent. At least they were battered and fried so I couldn't really see what was going on! The best one was the butterbur scape; it had a nice spring fresh flavor. The tempura was followed by tendon, a mixed tempura over rice in a small bowl. After that came a bowl of miso soup and a dish of Japanese pickles. It took a very long time to eat as they would bring out one dish every 7 - 10 minute, so while we arrived at 7:00PM we did not leave until they closed at 10:00PM. For dessert we got tempura green tea ice cream, not quite as crispy as Mexican fried ice cream, but still delicious. It was all so nice.

Oya-san showed us his urushi brushes, told us how to take care of them, and gave us more information about getting into the Kyoto City University of Art's urushi program as research students. Unfortunately they will not be accepting foreign students for at least two years since one of their four urushi professors was promoted to school minister.

We talked about the Kami, spirit, in everything, even a tea cup. Kami are the basis of Shinto, the old religion of Japan, something I still want to learn more about. Oya-san said Buddhism was still very new in Japan, only 1000 years old! And how Buddha, even Jesus, were considered just more Kami.

We also talked about individuality and cleanliness. Oya-san said Japanese people like things to be clean. They sweep the streets in front of their shops and homes because it makes them happy, and maybe it will make passers-by happy, too. We said in America we pay taxes so someone else should sweep the streets, it is city property after all, not private property. This is also why in America some people can have immaculate lawns, but still throw trash on the side walks; it is not their space, they don't care. It also has to do with the communal vs. individual ideology.
As an example, in chess, a Western game, the king is the most important piece. If you lose the king you lose the game, so I'd always rather have a king than any other piece. After the king all the pieces have a rank making some more valuable than others. This puts a lot of emphasis on the individual pieces, as does the fact that they are all unique and move in different ways. In igo, an Eastern game, no piece is better than any other. They are all the same, I wouldn't rather have one over another. Alone, each piece is weak, but in groups they become powerful and can claim territory. This puts a focus on community and shared labor.

Saying goodbye to Oya-san was very hard, and our experiences with him and Saori-san made us want to return to Japan even sooner. I don't even want to leave, you can get stuck here. I have so many ideas now, I wish I had a residency lined up for when I got back so I could spend time working on them with out focusing too much on staying alive.

Tonight was our last Klexon meeting and again we had to say goodbye to many of our new friends. It was so sad. Hopefully we will be able to keep in touch via email and skype until we return again for some urushi goodness.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Amazing day part 2

After she showed us the kimonos Saori offered to dress me in one of hers. My response was, Yes, I would be honored! I was not expecting to be offered such an opportunity such as this.

The process of trying on the out fit was very long. I put on th undergarment over my cloths- kind of funny because Matthew was not allowed to see me, although I had cloths on underneath. Plus I walked out into the room and realized that me wallet was in my back pocket of my jeans and would cause a bulge through the kimono. So I reached under and took it out of my back pocket- an action that seemed so normal because I still had pants on. But i heard the gasps from Saori and Sayaka. I think they wanted me to have the full experience.

After many sashed were tied around me and many things tucked in the obi I was fully dressed in the Traditional Japanese Kimono. It was a casual wool kimono. I even had the Japanese shoes on an had to walk in a straight line. We took lots od picture. Saori even had me walk out to the park and take pictures. A few of the people that walked by took a double or triple take! I'm sure I was a sight to see- or maybe I blended in more. I don't know. but I thought it was very funny!

I enjoyed it so much. It makes me so sad that we are leaving in a few days. Our experiences are getting better and better. We drank tea and coffee and chatted for a while. Then Saori was off to tutor a student and we were off to meet Oya for dinner. The ride to downtown was very nice. I was able to chatt with Sayaka about her work. She is a ceramicist. She Studied ceramics at the Kyoto City University of Arts ( the same school as Oya). She recently moved to Kyoto and works at a museum and shows her work in galleries and museums. Actually, tomorrow we will go to her show at a gallery.

They day was amazing. And it only gets better! But I have to leave something for Matthew to write about and it is almost 1:30 in the morning and we have to wake up early to go to our last Japanese class in Japan.

So goodnight, sleep tight, and don't let the bed bugs bite!

An Amazing Day!

Today was one of the most amazing days! Matthew made plans for us to visit Saori's home to see where and how she works. Her mother has her own business painting floral patterns on silk Kimono fabric for handbags. Saori said that after graduating from school, she left home to try out acting in Tokyo. After four years she missed her home, Kyoto, very much. She gained a new appreciation for the tradition and culture of Japan. So she desided to move back home and learn the craft of painting kimono fabrics (Yuzen). This Process is very difficult and time consuming, but very beautiful and special.

When we visited Saori's home, we were amazing by what we saw. There is an elborate set up for the fabric to hang on that allows easy access and movement. On one piece of fabric there are 16 bag patterns. The outline has been applied by a different worker by using a glue that acts as a resist. Saori and her mother paints the color on the fabric. But I make it sound like regular painting, but it's not. Imagine painting very small flowers with watercolor. Trying to have each leaf fade colors (from dark to light and from one hue to another) All before it dries, but keep in mind that you are working over a heater because the paint must dry with heat in order for it to become permanent. So you have to paint these tiny complicated flowers in under a minute.

Her mother also mixes all the paints from seven basic colors to make many Japanese traditional colors.

Musukashi- very difficult!

We were very impressed and took lots of pictures.

After the fabrics a finished being painted, they are sent to a worker that washed the fabrics, then to a worker that steams the fabrics and then to a person that sews the fabric, and I am sure I am missing some workers and some steps. It is a very long process in which every worker gives the most care and attention to each piece. Finally when the piece is done the bags are very expensive but each worker doesn't get paid very much. I began to understand that they continue to do the work because they believe in the purity and importance of the Japanese traditional crafts. These bags can be made in China for a lot cheaper and probably the close to the same quality. You can also buy bags that have been printed from a computer, but a Yuzen painter would be able to identify it as a computer copy. Where does this leave the Japanese Craft workers?

After this discussion Saori showed us the Kimonos that her mother designed and painted. They were so beautiful. The effort that attention that went into the fabric is very amazing. Her mother's prized Kimono is elegantly designed and painted. It is such a formal kimono, that to acquaire the appropriate obi (sash or belt) is very difficult.

Uji - Tale of Genji

On Saturday I woke up at 7:30 (very early for me) and biked for about 45mins along the river to Kyoto Station. The bike ride was very enjoyable and peaceful. I listen to music and the river and watched old men fishing in the River. I arrived at Kyoto Station and after asking many people where the JR Hachijo-hiashiguchi Entrance was, I finally found the meeting place for the Tale of Genji Tour!

By the way,

The Tale of Genji
is a Japanese book that I am ready that was written 1000 years ago.

I was a little unsure of what to expect form the tour. It was a free tour for foreign residents who want to learn more about Japanese Literature and tourism. We got on a tour bus and headed to Uji. The bus ride was about 30mins long and we were able to watch a documentary movie on the bus about Japanese culture and tradition. So far the tour was pretty good.

We arrive a little behind schedule and had to hurry along. We were handed headsets for us to hear the tour guide and started the walking tour. The main part of the book takes place in Kyoto, while the last chapters take place in the City of Uji. In comparison, Kyoto was busy and a social place, while Uji was a quiet spiritual place.

The Tour included many monuments that were in the book. Here are some pictures of the places.

The Byodoin Temple. This Temple is very beautiful. The design is intended for it to look like a bird in flight. The building included a large gold Buddha, delicately craved wooden statues and statues of birds that are on the money. We also got to go into the Temple's museum and see a lot of the work that had been restored. It was amazing to see all the detail and craftsmanships that went into each peace, especially when you would normally not see it because it is located so faraway from your view.

The Hashihime Shrine and the Uji Shrine

Uji Bridge
The view of the bridge and from the bridge was so beautiful and peaceful. I understand why that came there as a retreat.

Uji-jujo Monument. I believe it is a statue of two characters in the book. I believe it is a mistress of Genji and her mother.

I believe this is the Statue of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the book.

We also got to have a traditional Tea experience at a tea house, Taiho-an. Uji is is well know for Japanese Tea because of the perfect climate. The Tea experience was amazing and I was able to learn a lot about the process.

Finally we ate at a Japanese restaurant and had a set lunch of Tempura shrimp, soba noodles, a little tiny fish on a stick, very colorful eatable decorations and tea.

All of this for free! I have never been on a real tour before, but I think this tour was probably one of the best.

Afterwards, I stayed for a forum/panel discussion of tourism through the Tale of Genji. It seems like a very strange topic, but I have to say that it was more interesting than I thought. From listening to all the things that relate to the book and Japan, I have appreciated my trip even more. It made me stop and notice cultural differences.

This is a picture of our tour guide. A very funny lady!

I rode back home very happy.