Tuesday, April 6

Steve: Today's plan was to explore the west side of Kyoto, and another beautiful sunny day helped make up for the washout two days ago in Nara. We had arranged to spend the day with Chris, a Connecticut native who has made his home here in Japan and is the author for Lonely Planet's Kyoto book. Given how much we rely on Lonely Planet books, this made Chris an instant celebrity in our minds.

After a taxi ride across town (this one cost us $37!), we started walking through a quiet and very picturesque neighborhood, filled with more blossoming cherries. Since the heart of the cherry season usually lasts for less than two weeks, we feel extremely fortunate to have picked this particular time to be here. The trees are really magnificent, and we have learned that Japanese from all over the country carefully plan their vacations to match the season. In fact, insurance is sold in case the blossoms arrive at a time other than when people have booked their travel reservations!

As we have spent more time walking in Kyoto, we've realized that a big part of its charm comes from the shrines and temples that exist in all kinds of tucked-away places. Of course, the popular and very beautiful religious sites are a big draw, but we have actually preferred the small, lesser-known shrines and temples that represent an important part of Japan's culture. There are thousands of these sites across the city, and they appear hidden away in neighborhoods, on street corners, along busy downtown boulevards, in shopping malls and in parks. Everywhere we walk, we find very small shrines consecrated for specific deities, "jizos" where people come to pray for unborn children and the safety of travelers (an unusual combination), and quaint temples. At the shrines, we watch as people approach, perform the obligatory "coin toss", ring the large bell, purify their hands and mouths with water, clap their hands, bow and pray. They then abruptly leave to continue their shopping or other daily activities.

Japan's shrines are part of the country's official Shinto religion, dedicated to the reverence of all things natural. There are shrines consecrated to hundreds of deities, but the most common ones we saw were shrines for the harvest, and the "jizos." We also saw shrines where people pray for the health of their children, for success on exams, and for general happiness in life. Japan's temples are associated with Buddhism, which is not recognized as an "official" religion (as of 1868). However, Buddhist tradition and ritual does play an important part in specific aspects of life here, particularly for funerals.

The Japanese are very superstitious, and are able to purchase fortunes at the shrines. The fortunes can be one of four categories, ranging from very good to very bad. The best fortunes are taken home and savored. The worst fortunes are hung on a tree or special rack near the shrine, in the hopes that the deities will take action to remove the upcoming bad luck. We chose not to purchase any fortunes, the thought process being that if bad luck is coming, we'd rather not know (a typically practical way of thinking for us)!

Many of these small shrines and temples are extremely picturesque, and seem to blend in naturally even into settings that would normally seem very unusual. It has been fascinating for us to observe how these play a role in the daily lives of the Japanese people.

Today's walk took us through several quiet neighborhoods, and we stopped at some specific shrines and temples. We decided to cut down on the number of these stops today, especially given the large number of places we visited yesterday. However, there were a few destinations that were very special, including the Ghi-ohji temple which is set beautifully in a moss garden and surrounded by beautiful trees. On one side of the temple is a wonderful forest of bamboo trees with thick, smooth and very green trunks. The bamboo here has been culled so that the trees grow to be extremely tall (as opposed to the bush-like bamboo that we've seen elsewhere in Asia). The temple blends in beautifully, and is wonderfully peaceful. It was great to simply spend time here relaxing, speaking with Chris, and admiring the setting.

Similarly, the Nembutsu-ji temple was a very peaceful and beautiful stop for us this morning. It is surrounded by over 8,000 small stone Buddhas, some dressed with small aprons that people bring as part of their prayer rituals.

Another interesting stop was at the Tenryu-ji temple. This is a Zen Buddhist temple, and is a spot that is much more popular with Japanese tourists, largely due to its beautiful gardens and ponds. The temple also provides great views of Kyoto and the various surrounding mountains and hills. The approach to the temple is a long path that cuts through another spectacular bamboo forest. It was along here that David announced we had reached the exact halfway point of this part of our trip. Since January 9, we have traveled for exactly 88 ½ days, with another 88 ½ to go. David determined that we reached this point precisely at Noon today, and we took this family picture at the exact moment to commemorate this very important milestone!

We walked through the area of Arashiyama in Kyoto's west side. This whole area is packed with tourists, again due to the cherry blossom season. We stopped to view the Togetso-kyo Bridge, framed by picturesque hills with traditional Japanese homes and several blooming cherry trees. Chris told us that this is the most photographed spot in all of Kyoto, so we of course had to take our own pictures. In recent years, the area has become highly developed and is not as pretty as it once was, but is very nice.

For lunch we picnicked along the river, enjoying "bento boxes" which are compartmentalized meals containing fish, rice and various vegetables. It was nice to spend time relaxing in today's warm weather, and watching the various boats and activities along the waterfront. We always enjoy watching all varieties of small dogs being walked by the Japanese, usually with cute little sweaters or shirts. Dogs are very popular here, but most seem to be bred to be loyal only to their owners (I found this out when a small, cute creature almost took my hand off!).

Our final stop of the day was in downtown Kyoto where we thoroughly enjoyed a walk through the Nishiki food market. This is a long, covered market containing a huge variety of specialty foods that the Japanese use in their cooking. The food is very expensive, and people generally can afford to come here only on occasion. Most of what we saw consisted of various types of seafood, seaweed, pickled vegetables and Japanese sweets. Very interesting were the specific parts of the fish that are sold - we saw grilled eel liver, fresh egg sacks, and even "fish testicles" (brought back memories of the goat "cock and testicle" signs in China!) being sold. Chris told us that the Japanese like to make a sport of getting foreigners to eat unusual foods, and he had recently partaken in eating some of the testicles. Some of the fish is eaten live, and Chris described how the Japanese like to eat octopus tentacles that are still moving, allowing them to feel the suction cups working on the tongue. We think we'll try that tomorrow night!

One entire store (pictured on the left) is dedicated to selling raw "fugu fish" - this is what we call puffer fish, and it's eaten as sushi. This is considered a delicacy, but only certain stores and restaurants are licensed to prepare fugu fish. The fish can have a very lethal poison in its liver, and Chris told us that a few people die each year from fish that has not been properly prepared. We decided to pass…

Nishiki market is connected to the Teramachi shopping arcade, a bustling area that's popular with young people. Interestingly, there's a large shrine right in the middle of the mall, wedged between a store selling sunglasses and one selling clothes. The shrines here are somewhat commercialized, displaying the names of sponsors who contribute money toward their maintenance. Around the corner from the arcade, tucked in behind some smaller stores, we found another tiny shrine dedicated toward the child of an old imperial family. Fascinating!

Our final walk of the day took us along Teramachi Street, which contains several very interesting craft and antique stores. We plan on returning here when we have more free time.

For dinner tonight, we enjoyed "Yakitori", which is Japanese shish-kebab. We sat at a large horseshoe-shaped bar, and watched as a variety of meats, vegetables and seafood was expertly grilled and served. Our favorites were the squid and octopus. Many of Japan's restaurants are built around open cooking areas such as this, and it's fun to watch the employees all greet people with loud Japanese welcomes as they arrive (they also do the same thing to say goodbye when people leave).

Tomorrow is our last day in Kyoto, and we plan to spend a leisurely day doing some additional exploring, walking and shopping. This is a very special place, and has been a wonderful contrast to our experience in the big city of Tokyo. We feel very fortunate to have been able to see Kyoto in its greatest beauty, at the peak of cherry blossom season. Although this has also meant large crowds in some places, on balance it's been worth it.

















As a final note for today's entry, we forgot yesterday to mention a somewhat unique establishment that we saw yesterday. Apparently, there are over 25,000 "Love Hotels" in Japan, and we happened to walk through one of these areas yesterday. When we said we had never heard of such a thing, Ian took us inside one so we could see what this was all about. As its name implies, a Love Hotel is a place where couples rent rooms by the hour. The lobbies consist of electronic boards with lit pictures of rooms that are currently available. You simply survey the current selection, pick the room you want, push the appropriate button, and out pops the key. Then the light on the picture goes out to show that the room is now unavailable. In case all the rooms are "occupied", there are small private waiting areas complete with couches and private televisions. The parking lots contain special shields that people place in front of their license plates, in case a spouse or other acquaintance happens to walk by. What creativity!












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